Choosing the "Better Portion."
For the Sunday:
For the Feast:
Luke 10:38-42, 11:27-28.
The Sunday before the Exaltation of the Cross; the Nativity of the Theotokos.
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6:13 PM 9/8/2013 — You'll be pleased to know that I'm not going to repeat for you my standard homily for the Sunday before the Holy Cross, which you should be able to give by heart. For those struggling to remember, that's the one where I go into the life of the great Protestant preacher John Wesley and his enormous contribution to the American religious scene with his invention of that institution that is now a staple of late night television, the revival; and we looked at that verse of Scripture, that formed part of the first Gospel lesson we heard today, John 3:16, which we called “the linchpin of Protestant theology.”
But today's commemoration coincides with the feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, so it might be advantageous to focus on that instead, especially following on our consideration of the beginning of the Church Year last Sunday. In point of fact, it is not an accident that the celebration of her birth occurs just after the beginning of the Year of Grace.
I'm sure you will have noticed—even if you've never thought of it consciously—that the liturgical cycle of the Byzantine calendar deals with three distinct cycles: in addition to the cycle of the Sundays and the cycle of the feasts that commemorate events in the life of our Lord, there is the cycle of the saints; and, it is more than appropriate that the first of these saints is the highest example of human holiness, the Mother of God.
During the Vespers ordinarily celebrated on the evening before her feast, there are several lessons from the Old Testament that are read. The first of these is the account of the night that Jacob spent at Luz in the Book of Genesis (28:10-17). While Jacob slept, with his head pillowed with stones, he had a dream in which he saw a ladder reaching up to heaven, and angels ascending and descending on it. Our Lord would later site this dream in his first meeting with Nathaniel, which we consider on the first Sunday of the Great Fast (John 1:51). During the dream, our Lord appeared to Jacob and promised him that he would bless and keep Jacob's seed. When Jacob awoke, he blessed the stone on which he had slept with oil, and named the place Beth-el, which means “house of God.” Mary, whose motherhood was the human condition necessary for the Incarnation, is herself a ladder between heaven and earth. She who carried God in her womb, is the true Beth-el, the “house of God,” and the gate of heaven.
The second Old Testament lesson of Vespers is taken from the Prophesy of Ezekiel, in which our Lord shows the prophet the future temple and declares that “This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the Lord, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut” (43:27-44:4). This became an important verse for the Fathers of the Church as they defended the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos and fought against the heresy that Mary went on to have other children after Jesus.
The third lesson from Vespers is from Proverbs which, as you know, deals with the personified concept of Divine Wisdom. This is an all-too-familiar concept for us in the Eastern Churches, as we hear these verses from Proverbs each year during the celebration of the Presanctified during the weeks of the Great Fast. We know instinctively that “Wisdom” is just another name for our Lord; and, the first church of Eastern Christendom, Hagia Sophia, which is Greek for “Holy Wisdom,” is actually the Church of the Divine Savior; and, when we hear the words, “Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars.... She hath sent forth her maidens: she crieth upon the highest places of the city” (9:1-11), both the Byzantine and Roman Churches recognized from the beginning the link between Holy Wisdom spoken of in Proverbs and Mary. She is the house built by Wisdom: she is, after Christ himself, the highest manifestation of Wisdom in this world.
The Gospel read at Matins for the morning of the feast is Luke's account of Mary's visit to Elizabeth (1:39-49), and the two verses from this passage read highlight why the Church sets aside the Theotokos from all other saints: “From henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done unto me great things”; then, Elizabeth's words in response: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” And anyone who would take us to task for recognizing that Mary should hold a special place of veneration and devotion in the heart of any Christian would gainsay Scripture itself.
Which brings us finally to the Gospel for the feast at the Divine Liturgy. It was the second Gospel we heard today, and is itself taken from two separate passages from Luke joined together (10:38-42 & 11:27-28), and is in fact read at every feast of the Mother of God: the first part includes the words spoken by our Lord on the occasion of his visit to the home of Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary. We've spoken about it many times. Martha is “anxious and upset over many things,” while Mary has “chosen the better portion.” The second part is the matter of fact declaration made by some anonymous person: “Blessed are the womb that bore thee and the breasts that nursed thee,” to which our Lord responds, “Rather blessed are they that hear the Word of God, and keep it.” Joined together, the passage is the quintessential mandate of the interior life, and testifies not only to the example of the Theotokos as the model for it, but also provides a prescient lesson for us right now.
At this very moment in history, we are “anxious and upset over many things”: the state of our country, the threat of a new war; and God only knows how we choose to regard those issues and what we may think of them. We all have our different opinions, I'm sure, which are our own business; and, it is very easy to allow ourselves to become distracted from “the better portion.” And in the midst of all this excitement, we would do well to listen to our Lord, whose human voice is all too easily drowned out by the cacophony of the secular news: “Blessed are they who hear [not the disquiet of the evening news, but] the Word of God, and keep it.”
And the example of how to do this is provided by the person whose feast we celebrate. Mary, throughout her life on earth, had every reason to be distracted: an unmarried woman carrying God-come-to-earth in her womb, taken into the home of the good and just Joseph, witnessing the passion and death of her Son, she remained silent and never took her gaze off the salvation of the human race of which she had been made a pivotal part. Like the sister of Lazarus with whom she shared a name, she also chose "the better portion” and never let go of it. And so must we.
The world around us is full of all kinds of things that can derail us from our main reason for being here: to work out our salvation.