Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost and the Sash of the Mother of God, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London

The celebration of installing the Sash of the Mother of God at a Church in Constantinople seems to fit well a Sunday of the Sixth Tone. For today’s Troparion hints at the Annunciation, when the Son of God becomes incarnate in His mother’s womb, as something to be revealed in the moment of His Resurrection out of death.

Just as the power of the Most High God overshadowed Mary to receive within her a Son from the Holy Spirit, so now “angelic powers were upon Your Tomb … Lord”, signifying the action of the Holy Spirit present at the raising of her Son from the dead.

Just as the Blessed Virgin asked, “How can this be?”, and was told that the Son within her was “God-with-us”, so now another Mary seeks out the Lord in His flesh, and understands that “God-with-us” is not “God-within-a-Tomb”.

Just as the Virgin’s womb contained the Creator of the Universe without confining Him, so now the Lord who “captured Hades without being overcome by it”, fills not only the Tomb but also “all the dead from that murky abyss, and bestowed Resurrection upon humanity” (today’s Kontakion). Through Mary’s womb comes the Life of the World; out of the Tomb comes the Giver of that Life.

In the Kontakion of the Feast, we went on to sing, “Your womb which received divinity was girded about by your precious sash, O Mother of God.” How has this sash anything to do with this Life of Christ; is it not simply a legend? The sash, otherwise known as a cincture or belt, is a garment made of camel hair, the largest remnant of which is preserved at the Vatopedi monastery on Mount Athos. There are other pieces in Georgia, Prato in Tuscany and at the Monastery-Shrine of St Matthias in Trier, Germany. From early times it was kept by the Christians of Jerusalem, who believed it had been entrusted to them, having belonged to the Virgin Mary. In the 400s, it was taken to Constantinople, the political capital of the Roman Christian world, where it was placed with honour in the Church of St Mary Chalkopatreia, not far from Hagia Sophia. Four centuries later, the Empress Zoe was seriously ill and received a vivid intuition that the Sash, if placed upon her, would heal her. Her husband Emperor Leo VI authorised the Patriarch to do as Zoe desired. Thus, just as the Lord told those whom He healed, “Your faith has made you whole”, so it was that the Empress was cured. During the course of a thousand years the sash was seen as a healing, protecting force in the City of Constantinople and thus the whole Christian world, a guarantee of the generosity and intercession of the Mother of God. So we have sung to her as the “protection of humans”, “might bulwark for your city”, “unconquerable force”, “generous treasury of good things”, her in whom “nature and time are made new”. For that which we celebrate today is not merely supernatural aid, or inspiration from God’s strength, but the fact that the Resurrection has changed everything, and now we live in our nature differently.

St Paul speaks of this as a treasure kept in a jar, something at work in the world yet coming from God, reflecting light from the face of Jesus Christ (II Corinthians 4.6-7). He describes how we are struck down but not destroyed, so that, while we always carry in our bodies the death that is Jesus’s too, in those same bodies what is also made visible is his life. He almost sings this, and it always sounds to me like a refrain in a hymn: “Death is at work in us, but Life in you!” The One Who raised the Lord Jesus, he informs us, will raise us into His presence too. And then we took up the theme in the Alleluia, when we called on the Lord to rise up to the place of His rest with the ark of His holiness (Psalm 131.8). This ask is the vessel who bore His divinity into the human race, Mary, who is now the human being borne out of mortal life into the presence of her Risen Son. And then, in the Gospel of the Feast we are taken into a house where another Mary is sitting at the Lord’s feet, listening to every word He says (Luke 10.38-42). St Luke notes that her name is the same as the Mother of God’s. It is deliberate, because he goes on to report the words of Jesus: that those who are blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it (Luke 11.27-28). This lady in a house in a village is being like Mary. For the Lord is saying that to praise Mary for being His Mother is to misunderstand her; she is blessed because she heard Him, the Word, speaking in the depth of her soul and answered Him in faith and complete self-giving.

So we are back at the moment of the Annunciation, when Mary hears the Word from the Angel and says, “Let it be done to me as you have said.” She has rested in His presence from that moment on, and He in hers. At that moment, it is her womb that brings forth the Life of the World; one day it will be the Tomb of death, out of which will come the Creator of its Life. From that moment, Christ has been “God with Us”. From the moment of the Resurrection, it changes round: “our earthbound souls arise” (Charles Wesley, “Hark, the herald angels sing”), and now it is to be “Us with God” - at His feet hearing every word He says, carrying in our body the death of Jesus so that it shows His life made visible, singing, “Death is at work in us, but Life in You!”

And this brings us to the most intriguing past of the story of the Sash. The reason the Christians of Jerusalem had kept it with such love was because it had been entrusted to them by St Thomas, when he left to bring the gospel to Persia and on to India. Their account was that he had been delayed from returning to Jerusalem and had missed the funeral of the Mother of Our Lord. On his way to visit her resting place, instead he saw her assumption to heaven, during which she held out her belt to him, and left it behind in the world in his care as a sign of the power of Christ risen, and raising, from the dead: “Death is at work in us, but life in you!”

This incident is not recorded in our Scriptures, but the story of a possession preserved as a tangible connection with a deeply loved figure is not only reasonable to believe, it is deeply resonant with our incarnational religion where touch and physical form are intended to connect the spiritual to us and convey us to the spiritual: the sacraments, the icons, the relics of saints and the churches too. Besides, like much of our oral tradition that runs parallel to the Scriptures, in truth we have all the elements of the Gospel story and the proclamation of the Apostles brought together. Here is the womb that bore God into His world; here is the garment that covered it, now resembling the grave-clothes left behind after His Resurrection on the Third Day; here is the urgent, convincing faith of St Thomas in the sheer physical impact of the destruction of death; here is another Empty Tomb, once again not the end to a life but the Entrance to the Kingdom; here is the God who raised the Lord Jesus, now before Thomas’ eyes raising those who belong to Christ and bringing them into His presence. This is, as St Paul would soon be saying, “so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving to the glory of God.” What begins in Christ, now takes up Mary, and will take us in turn. Thus, to St Paul, we may be a glory treasured in earthen jars, but a light now shining in our hearts reflects outwards the face of Jesus Christ himself.

When we look at the Mother of God, the Lord asks us not to praise her for being His Mother, or even for the great fame of her exaltation, though it is perhaps deliberate that this feast falls just two weeks after her Dormition and Assumption. Instead the Lord asks us to see her as St Thomas did, as the first of His beloved People in whom His promised Resurrection came to life before our eyes, “always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our … flesh. So ‘Death is at work in us, but life in you!’”

What was true for St Thomas, for Empress Zoe (whose name, incidentally, means life), for the City of Constantinople and for the Christian civilisation it spread throughout the East of Europe, is true for us. Everything has changed in us; up we are taken, and not left behind. This is how we must see ourselves if the world is to see God in Us and Us in God. When the aeroplane lands at Lviv in Ukraine and you drive into the city, everywhere you see the image of the Protection of the Mother of God, as she holds out her sash as though we too are Thomas, looking for belief and faith to be confirmed, for signs and protection to be granted, and healing and hope to be assured. So it is, because she is raised into God’s presence, that she is the Protector and Treasury of good things and the Mother that we acclaim. It is because her Son is constantly “at Resurrection” in her and now in us that our souls know that nothing is the same as it was and all has changed since through her our “nature and time are made new.”

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