THE V. Reverend Protopresbyter Dr. Stelyios S. Muksuris, Ph.D. [BA, MDiv, MLitt, PhD, ThD (post-doc.)], serves the Kimisis Tis Theotokou Greek Orthodox Church in Aliquippa, PA, and is Professor of Liturgy and Languages at SS. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. A native of Boston and a graduate of Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA, he received his postgraduate degrees and his doctorate in liturgical theology from the University of Durham in the United Kingdom. He is an active member of several academic societies (AAR, SL, SOL, BSC, OTSA), a frequent conference speaker both nationally and internationally, the author of a monograph, Economia and Eschatology: Liturgical Mystagogy in the Byzantine Prothesis Rite (Boston, 2013), and the author of an introductory chapter for a textbook on Christianity, as well as numerous papers and studies in theological journals. He is a frequent consultant on liturgical matters for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh.
As we continue our jubilant πανήγυρις during these days following this great feast of the Church, alternately called the “Summer Pascha”, we recall not only the Virgin Mary’s finiteness as a mortal human being who entered into the glory of her risen Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, but we also call to mind her own personal solidarity with the plight of humanity, exactly like her Son and Master. In the Gospel of St. John, the pericope known as the “Small Gospel” (le Pétit Évangile) reminds us quite succinctly: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). In perfect imitation of the incarnate Logos of God, Jesus Himself, Mary embraces with the same intense agape as her Son the fallen human race, of which she also is a part, in order to raise it to the heights of heaven. Through her untiring vigilance and indefatigable faith that only another mother can fully appreciate, the Theotokos extends her motherly instinct and loving favor to all of God’s children, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or religion, leaving no human being an orphan. At the Cross, in an endearing exhibition of adoption, the crucified Jesus introduces mankind to their Mother and commends His Mother to her new children (cf. John 19:26).
During this month of Panagia, as our Orthodox Christian people typically regard August, we are hymnologically bombarded and enriched by descriptive poetic epithets that laud the qualities of such a divine motherhood. The Theotokos is, literally, “she who bears God”, the one who enfleshes the eternal Word of God, so that the incarnate God can redeem and deify that which from the very beginning was good and holy and His own — the cosmic creation. In her embracing of the infinite God become finite, the One who by grace has permeated the human race, she embraces all of us, you and me. So, the Mother of Jesus Christ, who is God by nature, has become the “Mother of gods”, man and woman, who are gods by divine adoption. It is no wonder then that the most prestigious place between heaven and earth, visualized iconographically in Orthodox church apses, is given to the Theotokos, “she who is wider than the heavens” (ἡ Πλατυτέρα τῶν οὐρανῶν). In the Service of Salutations, sung on the Fridays during Lent, we praise the Mother of God as “the ladder by which God descends to earth and the bridge by which man ascends to heaven.” (Χαῖρε, κλῖμαξ ἐπουράνιε δι’ ἧς κατέβη ὁ Θεός. Χαῖρε, γέφυρα μετάγουσα τοὺς ἐκ γῆς πρὸς οὐρανόν.)
However, in this age of modern technology where connections and associations are made with faster-than-lightning speed, it seems that the wireless connection known as prayer and worship has been given a secondary and even tertiary place in our lives; in some cases, eradicated altogether. By not prioritizing our filial relationship with God as our Father, it is all the more difficult to accept the Theotokos as our Mother. Hence, God and the Holy Saints are relegated to a utilitarian status; in other words, I will call on God only when I need Him, not because I truly care to be with Him and allow Him to be with me in my own life. I submit that this is the “relational cancer” that eats up our lives today and renders us utterly dysfunctional in our day-to-day activities. Another’s value is not in his or her creation in the “divine image and likeness” (Genesis 1:26); on the contrary, it is in what he or she can offer me. And if for whatever reason they cannot give me what I want, they are not worth my time and so are dispensable from my life. And so we wonder why people today are so alone. It is precisely because they treat others as machines; when they don’t function to my liking, they need to be replaced. The hangup today, sadly, is that people spend too much time doing; when will we learn the secret of simply being … being with each other, being with our God in worship, being at peace with ourselves?
As our own Mother, the Theotokos does not discriminate among her children on the basis of what we can do for her or for one another. She is not enticed by those who quantitatively achieve great things, but fundamentally on the basis of how much love and compassion drives us to do what we do. Her intercessory power to her Son and our God on our behalf is fulfilled because of her closeness to Him and our desire to draw near and be with the Lord.
All of us these days have witnessed the horrific atrocities perpetrated against innocent Christians in the Middle East, who are being persecuted and martyred almost daily. The extremist Islamic terrorist group ISIS, intent on establishing a Muslim caliphate in the occupied regions of Syria and northern Iraq, has violently emptied out entire Christian communities. In Israel, a fearsome war between Israeli forces and Palestinian Hamas fighters has yielded a death toll of over 2,000 people in about a month, the majority of the victims being Palestinian civilians, with scores of innocent children and women. Political unrest continues in many African nations also, and the Ebola outbreak in western Africa has stunned the remainder of the civilized world rushing to provide humanitarian and medical aid to Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, as well as to Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria. The suffering of the innocent and poor is the common denominator in each of these examples, most of which is imposed upon them by the misguided free will of others and some of which is the result of the imperfect world in which we live, exacerbated certainly when we as a global community do not fulfill our responsibilities as proper stewards of God’s bountiful creation.
I cannot imagine any heart more pained at such injustices than that of the Mother of God, whose motherhood extends over the entire human race. The Theotokos is not only the Mother of Christians but the mother of Muslims and Jews and Buddhists, Theists and Atheists alike, for each of us are fellow siblings and children of the one God, to whom we raise our eyes and hands for assistance and healing and peace. As we gather in our churches for prayer during this brief period of the Summer Pascha and throughout the year, let us pray most fervently for our brothers and sisters in these war-torn regions, that their sufferings may be alleviated and that God’s hand may soften the hearts and thoughts of their persecutors. No decent parents can tolerate the quarreling of their children to the point of torture and death.
If the Theotokos could speak to our world today, I believe her words would come out as fragrant tears, reminding us of how much we have pained God by paining each other. But her tears would also serve as a visible sign of God’s omnipresence in our world and in our lives, as well as her solidarity and motherly instinct to make things better. But then again, our world is filled with such weeping icons of the Mother of God.
I wonder when we’ll get the message.
Most-Holy Theotokos, save us! Amen.
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