September 8, 2023

Homily on the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos (St. Justin Popovich)

By St. Justin Popovich

The Lord who dwells in heaven, wanting to appear on earth and live among people, first established on it the abode of His glory, His Most Pure Mother. For it is the custom of emperors to prepare a palace for themselves in the city to which they intend to go. And just as the palaces of earthly kings are built by the most experienced craftsmen from precious materials in the most beautiful places, more beautiful and spacious than other human abodes, so the palace of glory of the Heavenly King was to be built. In the Old Testament, when God wanted to live in Jerusalem, Solomon built a temple for Him through the most experienced builder Huram, who was very skilled, wise and full of knowledge (3 Kings 7:13-40; 2 Chronicles 2:13-14.; 4:11-16). Solomon built the temple from the most expensive materials, from excellent stones, from fragrant trees: cedar and cypress from Lebanon, and from pure gold, on the highest place, on Mount Moriah. The fact that cherubs, various trees and flowers are sculpted on its walls contributes a lot to the beauty of the temple. The temple was huge in terms of space, so that many Israelites could comfortably fit in it, and the glory of the Lord descended upon it in fire and cloud. However, that temple was not enough to accommodate the uncontainable God. Solomon built a temple for Him, but the Most High does not live in temples made with hands. "Where is the home you would build me?" says the Lord. "And where is the place for my rest" (Is. 66:1; Acts 7:48).

And behold, the Lord granted that at the beginning of the grace of the New Testament, a temple not made by hands was made - the Most Pure, Most Blessed Virgin Mary. And who made that temple? Truly the wisest, the very Wisdom of God, as the Scripture says: "Wisdom has built her house" (Prov. 9:1). And everything that the Wisdom of God creates is wonderful and perfect. Since the Wisdom of God made the palace of the Word come to life, therefore a perfect temple was made for a perfect God, a most bright palace for a most bright King, a pure and undefiled garden for a pure and undefiled Bridegroom, a faultless abode for a faultless Lamb. There is a faithful witness to this in heaven who speaks to her: "You are all beautiful, my love, and there is no flaw in you" (Song of Songs 4:7). And the Holy Damascene says: "Everything is the palace of the Spirit, everything is the city of God, the sea of grace; everything is beautiful, everything close to God."

But what material would this palace be made of? Indeed, from the most precious: because He came, as from a precious stone, from the royal family, from David, who defeated Goliath with a stone from a sling, who formed the stone of Christ; and as if from fragrant cedar and cypress trees, the Virgin Theotokos was born from the high priestly lineage, which offers sweet-smelling sacrifices to God. Her father, the holy righteous Joachim, was the son of Barpathir, who traced his descent from David's son Nathan; and her mother, the holy righteous Anna, was the daughter of the priest Matan from the tribe of Aaron. Thus, the Immaculate Virgin was of royal descent by her father, and high priestly by her mother. Oh, out of such precious things - sacred tribes - a revived palace would be built for the King of glory! And just as in Solomon's temple, the stone and wooden buildings received a special value from the pure gold with which they were gilded, so also in the birth of the Most Holy Mother of God, the prosperity of the royal and high priestly origin acquired an even greater value with the chastity of her holy parents, which is incomparably more precious than gold and silver and more expensive than precious stones, and whatever precious things cannot be compared to it (Prov. 3:15). Thus the Blessed Virgin was born of all-wise parents, which is more than any prosperity. Saint John of Damascus testifies to this, addressing the holy and righteous parents like this: "O blessed and wholly undefiled couple, Joachim and Anna! You were known by the fruit of your womb just as the Lord says somewhere, 'You will know them by their fruits' (Matt 7.16). Your conduct was pleasing to God and worthy of the one who was born from you. For having conducted yourselves discreetly and piously, you offered up the precious vessel of virginity who was a virgin before giving birth, a virgin during the birth-giving, and a virgin after having given birth; she alone is virgin and ever-virgin; she alone forever remains a virgin in mind and soul and body. It was indeed necessary that virginity, having sprouted forth from discretion should produce the unique and only-begotten Light in bodily form, who begets not, but who is ever begotten, and whose only distinguishing characteristic is to be begotten, with the goodwill of the One who begot him without a body. O most chaste pair of rational turtle-doves Joachim and Anna! Having kept the law of nature, chastity, you were deemed worthy of things that surpass nature; you have given birth for the world to a Mother of God who knows no husband. Having conducted yourselves piously and blessedly in human nature, you have now given birth to a daughter who surpasses angels and has dominion over the angels. O most beautiful and sweet little daughter! O lily among thorns engendered from a most noble and regal Davidic root! Through you royalty has enriched the priesthood." - With these words, the Holy Damascene clearly shows from what parents the Mother of God was born, from what precious things the palace of the King of Heaven was built.

Where would this living palace be built? Truly at the highest, because the Church gives this testimony about her: "You are certainly higher than all, pure Virgin!" [Matins for the Reception, Canon, Irmos 9]. But highest not by place but by virtues and the height of God's gifts. Because the place where the Blessed Virgin was born was a small town in the land of Galilee, called Nazareth, dependent on the great city of Capernaum, and its inhabitants were despised, which is why it would also be said about Christ: "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" (Jn. 1:46). But the Lord, who lives on high and looks down on the humble (Ps. 112:5), pleased that His Most Pure Mother was born not in Capernaum, which in its pride was raised to heaven, but in humble Nazareth, thereby showing that "what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God" (Lk. 16:15), and what is despised by men, is high and precious to Him. In addition, the very name Nazareth shows the height of the virtues of the Immaculate Virgin. Because as with His birth in Bethlehem - and Bethlehem means "home of bread" - the Lord mysteriously foretold that He is the bread that came down from heaven (Jn. 6:54) for the purpose of quickening and strengthening people, so also with the birth of His Most Pure Mother in Nazareth, He announces high things, because the name Nazareth means a flowery, sacred, crowned and lonely place, which clearly depicts the Blessed Virgin. She is a flower that bloomed from a barren and elderly womb, a flower that renewed our withered nature, an unfading flower that always blooms in virginity, a fragrant flower that gives birth to the beloved of the Only King, a flower that bears fruit - Christ the Lord. She was sanctified by the grace of the Holy Spirit who descended on her and overshadowed her, and she is holier than all the saints since she gave birth to the "Word, holiest of all the saints."[Akathist to the Theotokos, Kontakion 13] She is separated from the sinful people of earth, because in her entire life she does not know any sin. And not only does she not commit sin, but she also turns sinners away from sinful acts, as the Church exclaims to her: "Rejoice, you who drags us from the works of mire!" [Akathist, Oikos 5] She is crowned with glory and honor: crowned with glory, because she came from royal roots; crowned with honor, because she came from the high priestly tribe. WCrowned with glory, because she came from wise and righteous parents; crowned with honor, because she is worthy of the good news and service from the Archangel. Crowned with glory, like the Mother of God; for what can be more glorious than giving birth to God? Crowned with honor, as an Ever-Virgin; because what can be more honorable than to be a Virgin even after birth? Crowned with glory, because she is more glorious than the seraphim, she loved God like a seraphim; crowned with honor, because she is more honorable than the cherubim, because she surpassed the cherubim in wisdom and knowledge of the Godhead. And "glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good," says the apostle (Rom. 2:10). But who among the people of earth would be a greater creator of good than the Immaculate Virgin? She kept all the Lord's commandments, did entirely His will, carried out all His instructions, hid all His words in her heart, showed every act of mercy to her neighbors. Therefore, she is worthily crowned, as the creator of all good. But she is also a safe haven, for she kept so vigilantly the hiding place of her virgin chastity that she would not entrust it even to the angel, for when she saw the angel, she was perplexed at his word, and thought what a greeting this could be (Luke 1:29).

That all this is in the Immaculate Virgin is evidenced by Nazareth's name. And who will not say that the palace of Christ rose very high with the virtues and gifts of God? She is higher, because she was given from heaven, even though she was born on earth from humans; - from heaven: because, as some of the God-enlightened people say, the Archangel Gabriel, who announced the birth of John to Zechariah, announced to Joachim and Anna the conception of the Holy Mother of God and brought her a most blessed name from heaven, saying to the barren mother: "Rejoice, Anna! you will give birth to a most blessed daughter and her name will be Maria." Therefore, there is no doubt that she can be called the holy city, the new Jerusalem that comes down from heaven by God (Rev. 21:2), the tabernacle of God. A tabernacle of God from on high, because having given birth to the King Christ, she is exalted above the seraphim. O height, unattainable by human thoughts!

As to what is the beauty of that noetic palace of Christ, listen to what the eloquent John of Damascus says about it: "You will lead this female to God, the Universal King, as if 'robed in golden-tasselled garments' (Ps 44[45]:14), which are the well-ordered comeliness of her virtues, and adorned in the grace of the Spirit whose glory is within. For whereas the husband who comes from outside represents the glory of every woman, the glory of the Theotokos is from within, since it is the fruit of her womb." And the Holy Damascene also says: "O Virgin full of divine grace, holy temple of God which the Spiritual Solomon, Prince of Peace, constructed and inhabited; you are not adorned with gold and lifeless stones, but in place of gold you shine with the Spirit. Instead of precious stones you have Christ, 'the pearl above price' (Matt 13:46)." Such decoration of this palace is much more beautiful than that of Solomon's temple, in which figures of cherubs, trees and flowers were depicted. But even in this living temple, in the Immaculate Virgin, the cherubic figure is clearly visible: because with her cherubic life, she not only equals the cherubs, but also surpasses them. In the Church we refer to the Saints as Cherubim, when we sing: "What shall we call you, O Saints? Cherubim, for Christ rests on you" [Octoechos, Verses for the Martyrs on Friday, Tone 8]; all the more the Virgin Mother of God is a cherub, because in her Christ rested His body, and on her pure hands God sat as on a throne: the Virgin became a cherubic throne. And she created in herself images of fruitful trees, becoming a spiritually fruitful olive tree in the house of God and a flowering palm tree (Ps. 51:10), which is why it is now called a life-bearing garden, when the Church sings: "From a barren root He has made a life‐bearing branch spring up for us, even His Mother." [Nativity of the Theotokos, Great Vespers, 1st sticheron of "Lord, I Have Cried"] All this is said about her spiritual beauty. But she was not deprived of physical beauty either, as many teachers of the Church testify, that in the whole world there was not and will never be a girl as beautiful as the Virgin Theotokos. Seeing her, Saint Dionysios the Areopagite wanted to call her God, not knowing that God was born from her. Because the divine grace that she was full of inside, shone from her very bright face. The Heavenly King prepared such a palace for Himself on earth, a palace beautiful in soul and body, "like a bride adorned for her husband" (Rev. 21:2); at the same time, the palace is spacious: "He made your womb a throne, and your body more spacious than the heavens" [Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil] and "the uncontainable Christ God" is contained in it.

Imperial palaces are usually built spacious, so that they can accommodate not only the emperor but also many of his servants, and people who come to him from all over. The spacious abode of the God the Word, the Immaculate Virgin, is spacious not only for God the Word as King, who dwells in her, but also for us servants who resort to God: because she places God in her womb, and us in her mercy. The chosen vessel of God, the holy apostle Paul, moved by love, spoke to his beloved children: "Our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted by your own affections" (2 Cor. 6:11-12). But in which of the saints can one find such an expansive mercy, as Mary's God-given mercy that accepts everyone? The wise man finds a place there, but it is not tight for the sinner either. There is a place for the one who repents, but there is a free refuge for the one who does not repent and for the one who is desperate, just as Noah's ark was a refuge not only for clean but also for unclean animals. In the mercy of the Most Holy Mother of God, there is a wide space for all the sad, the abused, the hungry, the lost, the confused, the suffering: because she who gave birth to us a good God cannot but be merciful. The palaces of the kings of the earth are guarded by many armed guards, who do not let in anyone who wants to enter, but detain and carefully examine where he is from and why he comes. And the living palace of Christ, although it is surrounded by cherubim and seraphim and innumerable choirs of angels and all the saints, still does not prevent anyone from entering the door of Her mercy: neither the guards push them away, nor the soldiers drive them away, nor do they ask why they come, but each one without hindrance enters with a request, and receives a gift according to the required request.

Therefore, let us resort to the mercy of the One born from a barren womb, sending her this greeting: Rejoice, immaculate palace of the King of all! Rejoice, abode of God the Word, who is with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and to You, Daughter of the Father, Mother of the Son, Bride of the Holy Spirit, may the honor and glory be forever from us. Amen.

Source: Lives of the Saints for September. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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