“The Mystery from the ages is revealed today… God becomes man, so that He might make Adam a god.”
My brothers and sisters, these words from the Praises of the Forefeast express a great and holy truth. Even more, these words express the greatest truth of our lives. It truly is “the Mystery from the ages.” It is not a fairy tale. Nor is it simply a dull formula dredged out of some lifeless textbook of theology. It is reality, though a reality far beyond the wildest dreams even of St. Peter when he said to the Lord: “to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” When holy Chief of the Apostles spoke this, he did not yet have but the barest inkling of the life that the Son of God came to us to bring. As St. Paul later wrote: “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” And even more, in the words of the Apostle John the Theologian: “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.”
Really, this Mystery is too great for us. Yes, it is hidden within all of us, buried deep within our hearts as an ache, a longing, a desire sweeter and more painful by far than anything else we have ever known. But it is a desire so deep and so powerful that most of us have no idea what it is really for, or even that it is there at all. Even those of us who recognize it can scarcely comprehend its true magnitude. We imagine that the purpose of the Christian life is to stop sinning, to become a better person, to learn to love one another and even to get to heaven when we die. But St. Gregory of Nyssa says: “Man is mud whom God has commanded to become god.”
On this great and joyous Feast, on the day on which everything changed, on which history itself was reversed and the very nature of our humanity was snatched out of hell and made divine, we must ask ourselves if we really believe it. Let us ask ourselves this question seriously and honestly. I think that perhaps all of us must admit that we do not.
Bishop Tikhon of Stretensky Monastery once asked two different ascetics, Fr. John (Krestiankin) and Fr. Nicholas Gurianov: “‘What is the main illness of contemporary Church life?’ Fr. John replied at once, ‘Unbelief!’ “’How could that be?’ [he] protested. ‘And what about the priests?’ [Fr. John] again replied, ‘For the priests also—unbelief!’ Then [Bp. Tikhon] went to Fr. Nicholas Gurianov, and he gave… the very same answer, independently of Fr. John: unbelief.”
To truly believe in the Gospel is much more difficult than is generally supposed, and this is because the Gospel itself is far more awesome and terrible than is generally supposed (and today is, par excellence, the Feast of the Gospel – it is called Evangelismos in Greek). Even the resurrection from the dead, as we usually understand it, is only a shadow of the Mystery that is revealed today. Indeed, rightly does the Archangel stand in fear as he cries: “the Lord is with thee.” The Lord is with Her as He had never been with anyone before in the history of the world, not even the awesome Seraphim who stand before the Throne of God in Heaven. And yet paradoxically this greatest of all possible transformations, the transformation of mud into god, is brought about precisely through humility, lowliness, and obedience.
Often—and rightly—it is said that it was the obedience of the Most Holy Mother of God which healed the primal disobedience of Eve. Yet this disobedience had a root: Eve disobeyed because she did not believe the Lord that to eat of the fruit meant death. Because of her unbelief, on that day all mankind throughout every generation lost Paradise. But how much greater and more monumental was the belief of the Theotokos on this great day, when God declared by the mouth of the Archangel that, through Her flesh and blood, eternal and divine life would be granted to all the lost children of Adam!
But it is easy enough to see from our own lives which course we have taken. We do not obey because we do not really believe. We sin quite simply for one reason: we, like Eve and unlike Mary, do not in our heart of hearts really believe the word of the Lord. As St. Isaac the Syrian teaches: “The man who is moved by repentance has migrated through his hope to the world to come. But the mind of the man who has forgotten it dwells in this world.” And as St. Isaac constantly exhorts in his homilies, there is no man who can put to death the passions unless he sets always before his eyes the hope that is laid up for him in heaven.
My brothers and sisters, this hope is real. It is no fantasy. This Hope has entered into human history and into the womb of the Virgin on this day. This Hope has taken on flesh and blood, and is sitting even now at the right hand of God the Father. And She has become for us and for all the world the living proof of these things. We have seen just yesterday with our own eyes the heavenly myrrh streaming from Her miraculous icon. We have seen and felt, innumerable times, Her unfathomable love and protection for us poor excuses for Christians. And yet, as the Lord said to Nathanael long ago: “thou shalt see greater things than these.” Even so, as the Apostle says “we walk by faith, not by sight.” It is by faith that we are saved.
What are we to do then, we who have so little faith, no matter how much we ourselves have seen? It is ultimately in the Mother of God Herself that we can trust; in Her and through Her can be seen the immense patience, mercy, longsuffering, and love for man of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ. Because for thousands upon thousands of years before Her, and for thousands of years since, the history of the human race was and has been all but continuous apostasy, disobedience, idolatry and unbelief. No matter how many times the people of Israel saw the mighty hand of God, they turned away again and again to serve the demons. And no matter how many times we Christians receive Christ’s Body and Blood and have our sins wiped away under the stole of the priest, we turn back again and again to Sodom and to the far country from whence we but recently came. Yet just as the Lord waited patiently for thousands of years before He could find one holy and immaculate Virgin who was willing to believe His word and to obey His will, even so He will wait for us. He will wait, throughout all our lives if need be, for one moment of true and sincere repentance, for one moment of faith in His promises and of love for Him and His Kingdom. And if we can see no sign of it in ourselves, in the darkness of our own hearts, then let us remember that “hope is hope in things unseen,” and more than anything else let us refuse to abandon that hope for anything, not for all the glimmering riches and pleasures that this dying world has to offer.
If we do that, then even we poor sinners and unprofitable servants will not be deprived of that Hope, by the mercy of God and through the prayers of His Most Holy Mother. May She fill all of our hearts with faith and love as we stand, now and for the rest of our lives, “looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.” Amen.