Saint Archbishop Averky (Taushev) – Do we value the Omophorion of the Most Pure? (Sermon on the Protection of the Theotokos).
“Today the Virgin stands in the midst of the Church and with choirs of saints she invisibly prays to God for us.”
(From the kontakion on the Intercession.)
Could this really be true? Could She Herself, “Highest in the heavens and purer than the light of the Sun,” Whose every plea is fulfilled by Her Divine Son, participate in our church prayers?
Could She, the “inspired temple of the Heavenly King,” enter our meager, hand-built churches and pray here together with us, and as we sinners do?
Yes, indeed! We are persuaded of this by many events from the lives of saints and especially the remarkable event remembered on October 1 (14 new style), the day of the Intercession of the Most-Holy Mother of God.
This was a long time ago, a millennium ago. In the Blachernae Church in Constantinople, where a great relic was kept—the Veil of the Mother of God, a head-covering which extended over Her shoulders, and part of Her sash—all-night vigil was being performed. Attending the service was a great saint of the time, Blessed Andrew, Fool-for-Christ, together with his disciple, St Epiphanius. At four o’clock in the morning, they beheld a wondrous vision. The Grand Lady emerged from the Royal Doors, surrounded by a heavenly retinue. The Honorable Forerunner of the Lord John and Apostle John the Theologian supported her at either side as a multitude of saints in snow-white garments surrounded Her, singing hymns and holy songs.
When She approached, St Andrew, not believing his eyes, asked Epiphanius: “Do you see the Lady and Queen of the World?” “I do, my spiritual father,” he replied, “I see and I am terrified.” And as they watched, She knelt, prayed for a long time, tears streaming down Her Divine and Most-Pure visage. Completing Her prayer, She approached the altar table, and again prayed fervently for the people in the temple. Afterwards, She removed Her lightning-bright, great and awe-inspiring veil, and, holding it ceremoniously, spread it over all the people standing in the church.
For a long time, as long as the Most-Holy Mother of God was visible, they saw Her holding the veil above them all, which was shining brightly with Divine light…
Divine protection through the intercession of the Mother of God for Christendom, and especially for those praying in the temple was abundantly apparent.
Many other similar visions and events are known, from which we are convinced that the Most-Pure Mother of God truly our Intercessor, and She especially protects those who love to pray in church, and She will never abandon those who pray fervently to Her.
Contemplate this, brothers and sisters!
The Most-Pure Virgin and the innumerable Saints enter our churches when we celebrate divine services there, and they pray together with us, forlorn sinners.
Is it, therefore, wise to dispense with attending church and praying there?
The Queen of Heaven and Earth Herself descends to us sinners, She enters our humble churches and pours out fervent, motherly tears of prayer, joining our own prayers which then rise up to the Divine Throne. She spreads out Her miraculous Veil over us, showing us Her special intercession for all those who love to pray in church, while we are so often callous and ungrateful, so unfeeling and blind, that we do not value this great love for us sinners that the Mother of God has, we ignore prayer in church on those days and in those hours when divine services are being performed, even on Sundays and great holidays, preferring instead to go somewhere else, anywhere but the church of God.
Ponder this, beloved, ponder it deeply and with great attention, and if you have not yet lost all your faith and your conscience, be terrified at the endless casualness with which we who call ourselves Christians view prayer in church, which is the prayer that saves us. We wage war on ourselves, foolishly, capriciously, like stubborn, spoiled children, turning away from the miraculous Veil of the Most-Pure Mother of God, dismissing Her all-powerful prayers for our sake!
And after all this, should we be surprised that our lives seem to fall apart, we are met with misfortunes and failures, and we find no spiritual consolation, peace, solace and joy, which cannot be bought for any price on earth? Without prayer, especially prayer in church, we cannot be true Christians.
“A Christian without church,” says our great Russian saint and man of prayer John of Kronstadt, “is like fish out of water, he cannot live a spiritual life; the church is his element.”
Each of us carries sorrows and misfortunes, sometimes very painful and agonizing, and we lack the strength to endure. But he who truly believes in the Veil of and intercession of the Mother of God, who loves to pray to Her and hastens to Her church to be closer to Her, where She Herself invisibly awaits before the Divine altar, praying for us, cannot but sense the divine flow of Divine Grace issuing from Her omophorion, which She stretches above us. All our earthly sorrows and worries fall far away from us and an unshakeable, joyous confidence in our safety arises, surprising strength to battle our troubles arises from out of nowhere, and mainly, the astounding sense of grace, peace, consolation, and spiritual joy come to us.
“All the charms, all the allure of passions,” writes St John of Kronstadt in his fascinating journal, “disappear, it is as though I die for this earth with all its pleasures; I come to life in God and for God, for the One God, and I am suffused with Him; I become like a child consoled on the lap of his mother; my heart is then filled with the heavenly, sweet world; my soul is illuminated by heavenly light; everything is bright, everything is good, I feel friendship and love for all, even to my enemies; and eagerly forgive them. Oh, how blessed is the soul with God.”
How sorrowful for those who are distracted by useless and wicked thoughts and ignores the Veil of the Mother of God and flees Her; this is madness without equal. Those who avoid church and do not participate with all the other believers in church prayer, dies spiritually.
The enemy of mankind knows this, and will invent any excuse to keep a Christian from church. And it is especially easy for him, in our materialistic age of egotism, self-love and catering to our stomachs and degraded flesh. Divine services in church, we think, are too long — it is impossible to stand for the duration, there is no time, and it is bad for our health: or it is too hot, or too cold, or you might see someone in church whom you don’t like, or household chores leave you no time, or some extraneous matters need tending to, etc. There are a thousand excuses to keep us from church prayer, and deprive us of the saving Veil of the Most-Pure Mother of God.
This was not so in times past! Then there were true Christians, whose spirits burned, for whom the words truly apply: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38).
All-night vigil continued, as the name implies, through the night, and no one felt burdened by this, no daily affairs could keep Christians from fully dedicating the seventh day to God, in keeping with the commandment. Any mutual enmity or personal dislikes are forgotten in church. Faith was fervent, hope was indestructible, love burned and embraced everyone, giving wings and warmth was the Veil of the Most-Pure, under Whom the believing Christian had no fear, and he would joyfully accept any deprivations, even torture and death for the Name of Christ.
Dear in the Lord brothers and sisters! “Today the Virgin stands in the midst of the Church,” then and now, and always. Kneeling, She “invisibly prays to God for us,” tears streaming down Her Most-Pure Countenance which beholds God. Yet what does She weep for most of all?
Of course, She weeps for our foolishness, for our coldness, our lack of faith, our hardened hearts, which for us is the most fatal thing. She wishes to embrace us all with Her Motherly Love, stretching out Her Veil as a sign to us. Let us not be stupid, stubborn, ungrateful children: let us respond with our hearts to Her loving gaze, Her earnest prayers for us, let us pray with equal gratitude, let us always earnestly attend Her churches, and cry out to Her:
“Rejoice, our Joy, protect us from all evil with Your honorable omophorion!”
“O Theotokos, gate of heaven, open unto us the door of thy mercy.” Amen.
Originally published in Russian in: Archbishop Averky, Sovremennost’ v svete Slova Bozhia. Slova i Rechi, vol. IV, Jordanville 1975, pp. 214-219.