16 October 2018

The Protection of the Mother of God: Homily at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London on 13/14th October 2018

The feast of the Protection of the Mother of God bears witness to the power of prayer rooted in our confidence in Christ. Foremost in the Church’s confidence in the Lord’s power to save is Mary, Mother of God. Closest to him in the flesh, at His side by His Cross to the end, inseparable from Him in His resurrection, she is surest of His power in nature and grace to transform all conditions and all prospects.

The story from Constantinople in the tenth century tells of a vision in which Mary covers the Christian faithful with a veil of spiritual force, which deflects harm, and deepens trust and hope in her Son. The vision captures the hearts of the Church planted and growing in the lands of the Rus’, the Slavs of the east and north-east of Europe. Thus, when the Turks attack the monastery of Pochaiv and the ottomans threatened all Christian Europe to subject it to Islam in the seventeenth century, it is to the Mother of God’s protecting veil of intercession that the Rus’ turn. For Orthodox and Catholics alike, the intervention of deliverance from the Saviour at the insistent prayers of the faithful led by the Mother of God is a defining moment in culture, society, history and identity for Ukraine, Belarus and later Russia too.

The image of the Mother holding her veil out to protect the people is deeply loved in Ukraine. Today’s is therefore a major feast; and the icon is really an image of the Mother holding her Son our God, in an attitude of prayer and in that same absolute trust with which she said to the servants at the wedding at Cana in Galilee, “Do whatever he tells you,” so that mere water was changed into the new wine of the Kingdom. Her prayer, then, is the communion of intercession with which our Lord “ever lives to make intercession for us.” (Hebrews 7.25)

In our Gospel today (Luke 6.31-36, of the Sunday), St Luke related our Lord’s plea that we “be merciful as the Father is merciful”. Our Epistle (Hebrews 9.1-7, of the feast) recalls the service of the Temple in which the high priest is drawn into the holy of Holies, approaches the mercy seat and at the end emerges with forgiveness and reconciliation. This is much like the pattern of our Divine Liturgy, and we see how the world is thus changed and saved, because we are being transformed in this worship by the power of Christ - to save us from all that is amiss and to save us for the truer reality in our midst of the existence of heaven, in which we like Him “live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17.28) The veil of prayer, which we call the protecting veil, is the image of this unseen dimension which we actually live in as well as in our world, for God is among us (Revelation 21.3 & John 1.14, Matthew 1.23), and our life is hid with Christ in God (Collossians 3.3).

The entire direction of our liturgy this afternoon, then, is a trajectory from the world, through the world, toward heaven and into God, at the same time as Christ God’s trajectory is from heaven toward us, through heaven into the world for us, and back again with us. Our altar is not confined in a separate chamber, but in a space that dynamically and repeatedly opens up the gate of heaven and pushes back the barriers we have erected in the world, so that we constantly see in with hope, can go in for mercy and go out from with forgiveness and a new life. The tabernacle described in the epistle to the Hebrews is the symbol par excellence of not just God’s static dwelling place and judgement seat, but His vehicle that moves, and as it moves projects and conveys the coming of God. It was a tent in the wilderness, and a vibrant fiery edifice in the temple in Jerusalem. But to the Church’s understanding from very early times this tabernacle containing and bringing out our God is formed of flesh - a person, the Mother who extends the cover of the house of God - for “roof cover” is what protect means – she who extends the cover of the house of God’s own dwelling, in order to house the people of God, the community of the redeemed like her in Christ.

As we envisage with the eye of our heart the Virgin Mother covering us with a veil of imperturbable intercession, pleading insistently with her Son for our safety from sin and danger, and our salvation for living in heaven even here, let us know with assurance, that she brings us close to Him as He comes out of his temple with healing and strength, and the judgment of mercy for living faithfully and with hope for the kingdom.

Seeing we are surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12.1), covered in such powerful intercession by the Mother of God, let us go forth to meet the Saviour (Hebrews 13.13, Mark 14.42 & Matthew 25.6), saying, “Lord, Lord, open the door for us, and come in Your Kingdom!” (Matthew 25.11 & Luke 23.42).