Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Placing of the Venerable Robe of the Most Holy Theotokos at Blachernae

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today is the Feast of the Placing of the Venerable Robe of the Most Holy Theotokos at Blachernae. During the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Leo the Great (457-474), the brothers Galbius and Candidus, associates of the emperor, set out from Constantinople to Palestine to venerate the holy places. In a small settlement near Nazareth they stayed in the home of a certain old Christian woman of Jewish descent. In her house they noticed a room where many lamps were lit, incense burned, and sick people were gathered, praying. When they asked her what the room contained, the pious woman reluctantly divulged that a very precious relic was in her possession: the Robe of the Mother of God, which had performed many miracles and healings. Before Her Dormition, Mary bequeathed her Robe to a pious Jewish maiden, an ancestor of the old woman, as a gift. Thus, the Robe of the Mother of God was preserved and handed down in this family from generation to generation.

The jeweled chest, containing the sacred Robe, was transferred to Constantinople. At Blachernae, near the seacoast, a new church in honor of the Mother of God was constructed. On June 2, 458 St. Gennadius transferred the sacred Robe into the new church with appropriate solemnity, placing it within a new reliquary.

On several occasions the Most Holy Theotokos protected the city to which she had given her Robe against invasions by foreign enemies. Then on June 18, 860 the worst attack of all came upon the city by a fleet of Russia ships numbering more that 200. Day and night they laid waste to the coastline. The Patriarch Photius called upon his flock to repent of their sins in tears and petition the Mother of God for protection. As the danger increased, the decision was made to save the holy relics within the church, and thus after serving an all-night vigil, the Robe of the Theotokos was removed and carried around the walls of the city in procession. From there it was brought to Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and placed within the cathedral. The Mother of God was pleased to protect the city, and the Russians broke off their attack and soon returned home.

On July 2nd the Robe of the Theotokos was returned to the church at Blachernae and placed within its reliquary once again. The Patriarch Photius dedicated that day as an annual Feast to the Theotokos, and this is what we celebrate today.

Feasts dedicated to the Mother of God are often the most challenging to those of us from an evangelical background. We were taught to see such things as somehow taking glory away from Christ, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. In Isaiah 42, God declared, “I am the Lord; that is My name, and My glory I will not give to another”. Yet in John 17 our Lord declared something so radically different, you would almost think that He was establishing a New Covenant! He declared, “And now, O Father, glorify Thou Me with Thine own self with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was…And the glory which Thou gavest Me I have given them [meaning, those who follow Him]; that they may be one even as We are one.”

As our Lord reveals this passage, God is now pleased to share His glory with those who follow Christ. Our Lord has done more than to simply forgive the sins of a fallen race; He has joined Himself to that race through His Incarnation in order to lift it up to spectacular, unimaginable heights. The glorified and God-filled humanity of Jesus becomes the conduit through which we receive the uncreated life of God, and become sharers in His divine glory. He does this without diminishing His own glory in any way. It is a remarkable act of humility and condescension for God to share His glory with us creatures, yet He does so joyously and without regret. Is the sun envious when it sees its own light reflected back from the moon? Neither does God become jealous when His glory shines forth from the saints and sheds His beautiful light upon the earth. This is all part of His good and perfect plan.

That God sanctifies not only the souls of His holy ones, not only their bodies, but sometimes even the garments that they wore is not only further testimony of His unimaginable power, but gives us a sneak peek into the fact that He is at work to redeem and sanctify ALL of creation, and will one day fill everything with His holiness!

This sanctification of matter itself, central to God’s plan of redemption, is often an essential element missing from contemporary Christian teaching, and the reason why so many people struggle with the idea of holy people or holy relics. Limited by a rationalistic approach to Christianity, many people write off the reports of miracle-working relics as fables, or worse, as tales designed by a cunning Church hierarchy to increase its power over the ignorant and superstitious. I think it is tragic that so many Christians today, who really should have a better understanding of the power of God, are as skeptical as any disbeliever over its many manifestations.

However, if one makes a pilgrimage to holy Mt. Athos, he is exposed to an entirely different reality than what is normally experienced in the spiritually dull environment of the world in which we live. There, expectations are raised, vision is made clearer, ceaseless prayer is offered, holiness is pursued, and the entire peninsula has become a point of intersection between heaven and earth as a result. Every monastery there is home to one or more miracle-working icons or relics of the saints. Stories of visitations by the Mother of God abound, and evidence of her presence and her all-powerful prayers is found everywhere. Diseases are cured, torments are lifted, broken people are made whole, and love reigns. The whole place just seems to burst with life to a degree that makes the world outside seem quite dead by comparison.

We may live in that outside world of lowered spiritual expectations and darker vision, but that does not mean that we must be overcome by such things ourselves. Whereas Athos provides a culture that heightens spiritual awareness, our world provides a culture that dulls that and wears it down. Yet our faith need not dissolve like a sandcastle by the shore. Feasts like today’s, which remind us of the awesome power of God—that He can make even the garment of a holy person holy itself and work His good will and salvation through such ordinary things—can raise our level of spiritual sensitivity tremendously. Let the hardened skeptics call us fools if they wish; what is that to us? We are not seeking the face of Christ in a potato chip or the Virgin Mary in a mildew stain. We are simply praising the grace and power of God where it can legitimately be found, in full accordance with our Orthodox Christian theology. If anything, we need more sensitivity toward God and less toward what others may think of us as a result.

So let us keep this Feast with joy, praising God for His divine power through which He has given unto us all things pertaining to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who has called us to glory and virtue together with all His saints.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


At 7/04/2006 9:38 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hear Hear (out of love) Father Eremitike.

whether a garment purported to have been worn by the Virgin Mother herself can heal or not is a matter of fact and faith, not skepticism.

Can a garment heal? Perhaps, it would be the Spirit of God that does the healing however.

Enjoy the feast day everyone.

At 7/06/2006 10:48 AM , Blogger E Rica said...

Fr. Mike,

This particular sermon has been my favorite for awhile. It answered most of my questions about the Theotokos. Questions it seems a "cradle" Orthodox should know how to answer. Sometimes Sunday school teachers and parents skip over those little things because they figure we should know them.


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