Pochaiv Icon of the Mother of God

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
Radical Christian Love
Visit of the Pochaiv Icon of the Mother of God
17th Sunday after Pentecost
4 October, 2009
2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1 ; Luke 6:31-36

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

In the Gospel reading today, the Lord is once again telling us what our life is to be like, and what is its character. The primary character of our life is to love other people, and even to love unlovable people ; blessing people who hurt us, and being kind to nasty people, crabby people, argumentative people. Why ? Because this is how the Lord is to us. We are so often ungrateful, crabby, and blaming Him for everything that goes wrong. Nevertheless, He is kind to us. We seem to have such a tendency to be lazy, and we are quick to make excuses for ourselves to do less rather than more in His Kingdom. We make excuses over and over again. I have heard plenty. I, myself, have made many excuses. Even so, the Lord is kind, generous, patient, loving and nurturing towards us at all times. We do not deserve a thing, and yet, He gives us everything.

This week our diocese, and our whole Orthodox Church in Canada has been given a gift beyond comprehension : the Visit, and the Progress across the country of the Wonder-working icon of the Mother of God of Pochaiv. We could never earn this gift, and we certainly did not earn it, because Canadian Orthodox Christians seem so very often to be taking everything for granted and, in general, not working hard in the Kingdom. That does not apply to everyone, but that is how we generally are across the country. We are comfortable, and that is dangerous. The Apostle Paul is asking about what God and His way have to do with the world. He says that we should not be unequally yoked ; we should live a life that is righteous, that is characteristic of Christ, His love, His way, instead of allowing ourselves to be pulled down into the quicksand of the world. In this country with all its selfish ways and all its darkness, and sometimes (actually too often these days) its outright evil ways, it is easy to get trapped in the quicksand. Our ways, as members of Christ, have to be the ways of love, light, liberty and freedom in Christ with joy and all peace, unlike the way of our country which is so absorbed with the material and with power.

Our Orthodox Christian way has to be the way of radical love, radical forgiveness, radical kindness and radical generosity, instead of locking ourselves up and protecting ourselves. Now that we understand better that the Mother of God does love us, and that she does care for us enough to come to us in such a way as this, it is important that we follow up and do our part, too, taking the assurance of her love, the assurance of her protection, and of her Son’s protection. It is essential that we live accordingly : open-armedly, open-heartedly, open-handedly and “open-doorsedly” (if one can say that). Our way has to be this radical way of love, and this radical way of kindness.

When the Mother of God came to us, she came unexpectedly. All we did was to ask if it could be possible that this icon might be able to come to us. I almost fainted when the answer came back : “yes”. Thank God that we have such good organisers in our diocesan population so that this icon could make its Progress across the country in a dignified and appropriate manner. We almost did not get the icon several times. Air Canada and Westjet (in contrast to Ukrainian Airlines) absolutely refused to allow the icon with the metal riza on it to travel in the passenger compartment. (The riza is the decorated metallic protective covering.) They also insisted that the whole thing would have to go in the baggage compartment, and we know what that implies. The brotherhood, with the archbishop who is the abbot of the monastery, said : “No way”. Then they must have prayed about it some more, and eventually it was decided that the icon would come, as it did, on Ukrainian Airlines, all intact. Then, from Ottawa to Vancouver the icon itself was to be removed from its riza, and placed in a specially constructed cloth carrying-bag. The icon was to be carried on the chest of the Hieromonk Gabriel across the country to Vancouver. The metal riza, itself, in its carrying case went in the baggage department. This Wonder-working icon of the Mother of God could certainly not go into any baggage compartment or out of the hands or out of the sight of these monks. No-one knows, it seems, when that icon was last taken out of the riza. That riza is a few hundred years old. This copy (it is not the original) is also a few hundred years old.

We have all experienced the extraordinary presence of the love of God in this icon. Through this icon, already more than one person in this country has been healed. Probably there are more that we do not know about, because Canadians tend not to be very talkative about such things. They often and characteristically merely say : “Oh !” In addition to my being disappointed with this minimal response, it really bothers me as a bishop that Canadians very often try to analyse scientifically how this healing might have happened. Being trained mistakenly to separate science from God and His creation, we Canadians tend to try to find reasons apart from God and His intervention why an unexpected healing would occur. We sometimes even blasphemously dare to say : “Oh, what a coincidence this is”. They do this instead of giving thanks to God for these expressions of His love. However, in the cases of healing that I do know of for certain, these persons did give thanks to God directly and immediately. However, I know how these temptations work. I know how our minds work because I have seen it happen too many times. We tend not to be able to accept that the Lord loves us this much, and that He could, and would really do something so significant. Therefore, we tend to think that there must be a scientific explanation for healings. This is why it is hard to live in this society, and hard to be an Orthodox Christian in this country. We do not have the sort of underpinning that Orthodox cultures do have, so that many things which for Orthodox Christians elsewhere are instinctive are a big struggle for us.

The Mother of God is making her Progress across the country. Why am I using this word “Progress” ? It is because that is the word that is used always when royalty (kings and queens) are making their progress from place to place in the country. There are all sorts of stories, for instance, about Queen Elizabeth I or King Henry VIII (or about any other king or queen of England), and how they would make their progress from manor to manor, from dukedom to earldom and so forth, paying their visits. We have to use regal language for the Mother of God – there is no alternative. In fact, regal language is not even good enough, but it is the best we have. The Mother of God is making her Progress across this country, and she is giving us consolation and encouragement, to be sure. Mostly, she is calling us to repentance : to turn away from our selfish ways, and to turn towards her Son, to whom she always refers. She is asking us to turn towards her Son, to follow Him, and to be like Him in the way that we have just encountered in today’s Gospel reading, and in the exhortations of the Apostle Paul in the Epistle reading.

Once again I will say (and I will continue to say it many times, God willing) that in the Hierarchical Liturgy, nothing of what we are doing (in terms of dressing bishops, and all sorts of other things on which the attention is focussed on the bishop) has to do with the person, himself. It has everything to do with Christ. It reveals how we would treat Christ, Himself, if He were present. However, in the real presence of Christ, we bishops would not get this far in beginning to be vested, because we all would already be flat on the floor on our faces. Nevertheless, we try to express our love for the Lord in our liturgical worship. None of it is directed to the bishop, himself. It is all directed to Christ. This Divine Liturgy has all to do with Christ : our worship of Him ; our thanksgiving to Him for everything that we are, and for everything that we do, and everything that is in us. Everything is referred to Christ. Everything in our lives must come to be referring to Him. This is what it means to repent, to put on Christ seriously, and to allow our lives in everything to refer to Christ seriously so that other people can see His love, His joy and His peace in us.

In the context of these events of this past week, which are beyond expression, how can it be explained that, without planning, we were serving in the Temple of the Annunciation dedicated to the Mother of God, on the feast of the Protection of the Mother of God, the consecration of another bishop for Canada in the presence of a Wonder-working icon of the Mother of God ? That cannot be organised. It was not organised to be like that, but it came to be like that. We, who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to perceive, let us understand the love of the Lord for us, and the extent of the Mother of God’s tender compassion and care for us. We are continuing now to serve the Divine Liturgy, and to offer all this to the Lord out of deep, profound thanksgiving. Let us ask Him to enable our hearts to be willing to follow Him, and to imitate Him in every way, every day, all the days of our lives. Let us glorify the all-holy Trinity : the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.