15 July 2018

What Humanity is Worth: Homily for the Feast of the Placing of the Robe of the Mother of God at Blachernai, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, London, 15th July 2018

In the five years our community has been developing, the trajectory of the homilies has been how God draws humanity to ascend into Him, how He re-orients towards the Kingdom, and how its blessedness, its bliss, is what captivates our attention, then our hearts, then our vision for going onward, and then every corner of our existence, so that we live in this world as in the next, and realise that even now we live in the Kingdom of Heaven while the Kingdom of God is coming in us on earth.
This is not just a moral point or a religious conviction about ourselves. It is how we understand our universe, God’s creation, is now arranged. So we do not live our lives in some kind of run up to death; we live by the light of our resurrection that is not our plan for an after-life, but the new existence that began with the very moment of our baptism.

Today, however, the Feast of Placing the Robe of the Virgin Mother of God in the Church near the palace of Blachernai in fifth century Constantinople, means that we look at things from the other direction. Instead of charting the journey along which our humanity is created, saved and raised in ascension into the life of God Himself, we wonder at why God should come the other way and become human.

In today’s Troparion we sing, “Ever Virgin Mother of God, you gave your pure body’s robe and sash. They remained incorrupt by your giving birth without seed.” In other words, these are not sumptuous clothes, but the carefully kept personal garments of a young woman who knows she has given birth to the Messiah. There is a story of how the Virgin kept this clothing all her life and passed it on to trusted family friends. Even in this day and age, brides keep their wedding dress their whole lives; and children’s christening robes are passed down from generation. So I find no difficulty in believing that along with other memories and mementoes, as St Luke says, “Mary remembered all these things” (Luke 2.19) about the miracle of giving birth as a Virgin. The Troparion tells us - rather delicately - that the garments were not “corrupted”: the miracle means they bore no stain of blood. In other words, today’s feast puts us right into the moment when God revealed Himself as God among us, born of a woman under the law (Galatians 4.4), when Mary’s childbirth does not incur the legal exclusion of impurity for shedding her own blood. She remains (as the language we use has it) spotless, stainless, pure, the Virgin Mother: now is not the moment for the shedding of blood, and when blood is to be poured out, it will be the Lord’s. And it is for this reason that the Lord God of Hosts resolves to become human: to shed His Blood that He cannot shed as God alone, to be the ransom for the many (Mark 10.45), for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26.28).

In his second letter to the Church at Corinth, St Paul daringly says, “For our sake He Who knew no sin became sin” (or ‘He made Him to be sin’), “so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5.21). This means that our sin, our imperfection, our limitation was no bar to God – His driving aim was to become us. For only from within us would He take our sin and turn it inside out to become God’s righteousness, His perfection, His blessedness beyond the failure of us to reach it by our own efforts. He renders our sin futile in His judgement, and beside the point in His purpose: to count us not by our own devalued currency, but to forgive us by the worth of His own life and dignity now endowing humanity. St Paul tells us that this decisive, history-breaking action happened as it was always planned to – “when the fullness of time had come”, when it was not a minute before He was ready and not a minute too late for the Father of the House of Creation to adopt His unsatisfactory servants (Matthew 25.30), as any father would bring home his wandering son (Luke 15.20-24). No parents can look on their children as satisfactory or unsatisfactory: everything is from the basic unconditional outlook of love, of pride and hope. In the same way, the Lord runs out to us not because we are “sin”, but because from His angle we may not be worthy but we are worth it. He chooses humanity; and that is what gives humanity its dignity, its sacrosanct value and its obligation to rise up and “set [its] heart not on earthly things but on things above, where Christ is…, for the unworthy side to humanity is deadened, and our life now is hid with Christ in God” (cf. Colossians 3.2). Thus for ourselves and for all around us we may “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6.3).

This is the better part that Mary chose in today’s Gospel (Luke 10.38-31; 11.27-28). The humanity that hangs on the words of Christ sees the Christ who is fixed upon humanity, even to the extent of fixing Himself to the Cross. This is the Son of Man Who destined Himself to become part of humanity because He had first made it as the very image of God (Genesis 1.27) - and because He willed to be the very image of humanity created by God for God (Colossians 1.15).

This humanity that He has dignified is the human life unjustly destroyed on a Cross. This humanity is the unborn child that the Irish Prime Minister has led the people into treating as “not yet fully human” so that it can be expended. This is the humanity that the Belgian King agreed could be terminated against its will if it was that of a disabled teenager. This is the humanity that men traffic in lorries across Europe to be prostitutes on our streets, or slaves in car washes. This is the humanity that can have its homes and olive groves blown up and its water supply diverted to make way for new Israeli settlements. This is the humanity that is trampled into the earth and cast to the winds by invaders when nation refuses to speak unto nation. This is the humanity of children caged up at the American border to separate them from their parents. This is the humanity put in the pit that is prison rather than have its problem solved. This is the humanity that a child will slice away with a knife in a gang dispute. This is the humanity that misguided religion will kill, or burn, bulldoze or explode out of home and existence, whether it’s Burma’s Buddhists and its Rohingya Muslims, or ISIS in Syria and Iraq or Al Shabbab in East Africa, or a professedly Christian state exporting its repression in eastern Europe, or a generation of unCatholic nationalists newly rising to violence in Northern Ireland, rather than bless and hope for the coming of God’s reign in justice, truth, in Christ’s sheer beauty and unconditional love. This is the humanity of the homeless avoided, the trafficked before the blind eye we turn, the refugee turned away, the women disadvantaged in favour of men, the other race and nation to which we prefer our own. This is the humanity that we poison with drugs and grudges, and the paradox of selfishness and self-destruction. This is the humanity God deemed worthwhile and dignified with His own worthiness. We did not deserve this any more than Christ deserved to show Himself among us as “sin” Who had Himself known no sin:
“He made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of humanity. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the Cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him.” (Philippians 2.7-9)
But not for His own sake: for ours (II Corinthians 5.21). For if this is true of Him, how less true is it of those to whom He came?

In the old Temple, there was the inner Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies. It is renewed before us within the Holy Place of the Temple in which we now stand.  Into this sanctuary, the High Priest took humanity, to offer the incense in prayer and worship as we do we, to be close to the tablets of the covenant, the Ten Commandments, the very words that God spoke to Moses; to the Manna that fell from heaven just as today we shall receive the Bread of Life, the Rod of Aaron that bloomed as we now see the Cross did too. But most of all the High Priest took humanity with him to the Mercy-Seat covered with the shadow and protection of the cherubim. What did he take? The blood of a life sacrificed so that others may benefit.

In ancient days it was the blood of a bull and a goat. But on the Cross, it was the blood of a Man that was poured out as a ransom for the many. But what happened next is often overlooked. The High Priest went in to offer the sacrifice as a man – but then came out to dismiss our sins from God. Even more truly, when the veil of the Temple was torn in two to lay bare the inside of the Holy of Holies, the sacrifice of Christ going in as Son of Man was accepted and the same Person coming out as God tears up our sin and separation from the Father in forgiveness.

For this reason God took our humanity, so that as a human He might reconcile us to God. To what had lost its value he gave God’s value. So all human nature, not just that of those who follow Him, is to be reconciled, with nothing to stand between us. From all eternity and that moment He was born to His virgin Mother, God has come our way, all the way, that we might come all His.