The Feasts of September
By Archbishop Joseph Tawil
Office of Educational Services
The Feasts of September By Archbishop Joseph Tawil
The month of September marks the return of our children to their schools and studies and, for the rest of us, the resumption of our normal routine after a vacation break. Time is God’s gift to us to experience His loving and mysterious Presence in His creation and in each one of us. ‘For if our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day,” (2 Cor. 4:16) “until we become one in faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son and form the perfect man who is Christ come to full stature.” (Eph. 4:13). “For in Him, the fullness of Deity resides in bodily form.” (Col. 2:8) The month of September also marks the beginning of the liturgical year and is illuminated by two Major Feasts: the Nativity of the Theotokos on the 8th and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on the 14th. Let us pause a moment with each of them so as to uncover their rich meaning for our daily lives.
The Nativity of the Theotokos
Mary’s figure appears in the second chapter of Genesis “crushing the head of the dragon, representing Satan (v. 15). She is the ‘‘Predestined Woman whom God has selected from all eternity to be the shining dawn introducing Christ, the Sun, into the world.” (Acathist). “For God who rests upon the spiritual thrones, has made ready for Himself a holy throne upon the earth. He who has made firm the earth in His Wisdom has prepared a living heaven in His love for man.” (Vespers). “She is the prologue of the pleasure of God and the first announcer of salvation to mankind. According to the Eastern tradition, Mary was born in Jerusalem, in the house of Joachim and Ann near the Pool of Bethsaida, the ruins of which have been unearthed, and where Our Lord healed the paralytic. St. John of Damascus, who lived in St. Saba’s Monastery in the Judean Desert which still exists, wrote in one of his homilies, “I will enter this house and I will cover with kisses the walls which are so dear to me, the walls which sheltered the Mother of God.” Since there is no distance for those who love, let us go, in turn, and enter in spirit and cover with kisses the birthplace of the Theotokos, the Queen who gave birth to the King of the Universe, and our Mother.
So, God entered our human history through a woman: “when the designated time had come, God sent forth His son horn of a woman… so that we might receive our status as adopted sons.” (Gal. 4:4). He became one of us to make us one with Him. He took what we are and gave us what He is. He took our infirmities and gave us His Divinity. All that we have received from Him was lavished upon us through the “Woman full of grace,” whom all generations shall call blessed forever. And if the Lord, who promised the sinful woman who washed His feet that “wherever the Gospel is preached, what she did for Him will be told in her memory’, ‘ (Mark 14:9), how much more will He not do for His Mother “the All-holy and Ever-Blessed Virgin.” Indeed, whoever honors the Son, honors the Mother who gave Him birth and, whoever honors the Mother, also honors the Son. They are so intimately associated in the Mystery of Redemption that they cannot be dissociated, as is shown in Byzantine iconography which always requires that the Mother be represented with the Child and never without Him. This is the eloquent picture on our iconostasis, where the Mother of Light is always associated with the Author of Life, Christ the Redeemer and Savior of mankind. This teaches us that, while our worship must be Christ-centered, we can not forget that it was the fiat of Mary which made it all possible.
The Exaltation of the Holy Cross
This feast commemorates the return of the Holy Cross to Jerusalem after it had been taken away by Chosroes, king of Persia, who invaded the Holy Land and defeated the Romans in 614. It took fifteen years for the Cross to be returned by Heraclius, the only Roman Emperor ever to visit the Holy Land, who replanted it on Calvary in the midst of the tears of joy of the inhabitants of Jerusalem (629). There is a local tradition that Calvary is located in the center of the world and which gave the name to the adjacent church. The Psalmist says, “Our God is a great God and He wrought salvation in the midst of the earth.” (Ps. 73:12). The Church has added to it the following, in speaking to Christ, “When You extended Your arms upon the Cross, uniting all the nations crying out to You, ‘Glory to you, O Lord.'”
The Mystery of the Cross is the Mystery of Mysteries. How can the Source of Life die, the Maker of all be annihilated and exclaim, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” This is the kenosis of the Son of God, who emptied Himself, took the form of a servant and became obedient unto death, even to the death of the Cross. The human mind, which is accustomed to asking why, is completely lost. The Mystery of the Cross is the Mystery of Atonement and wonder: “Let every creature remain silent and adore.” For the message of the Cross is complete absurdity for those who are heading to ruin, but to those who are experiencing salvation, it is the Power of God.” (1 Cor. 1:18). If we ask why, the only answer we receive is that of St. John, “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him may not perish, but have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:16). Up until the sixth century, Christians were forbidden to depict Christ on the Cross, because the Cross was the punishment of slaves. The first time it appeared was through some Syrian monks living in Narbonne, France, and from whence it spread.
No one is exempt from the cross; not even the Blessed Virgin, who carried her cross from Christ’s birth in Bethlehem to Golgotha, where she stood at her Son’s side, as He hung on the Cross. The closer we are to Christ, the heavier is our cross for, as St. Paul says, “Those whom He foreknew, He predestined to share the Image of His Son, so that the Son might be the first-born of many brothers.” (Rom. 8:29)
The Mystery of the Cross, itself, is not the end. Behind it lies another Mystery, a glorious Mystery of which St. Paul also speaks, “The present burden of our trial is light enough and can earn for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. We do not fix our gaze on what is seen, but on what is unseen. – What is seen is transitory; what is unseen lasts forever.” (2 Cor. 4:17-19). We have been created for life and not for death. We have been created for glory since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not come to know Him through “wisdom.” it pleased God to save those who believe through the absurdity of the preaching of the Gospel. (1 Cor. 1:21). This is why the Church proclaims, “Behold, through the Cross, joy has come into the world.” Christianity is the announcement of joy, the announcement of hope and the reason for our joy and hope is that Christ is risen and lives forever and is at work in the world, through the Holy Spirit, living in the Church and in us. “Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad with the whole universe visible and invisible, for Christ, our Eternal Joy is risen.” (Paschal Liturgy) This is what we must live and inculcate into our children. We thereby give the world the reason for out hope, for Christianity is Christ—and Christ risen—and, since Christ has risen as the Firstborn, we too shall rise in Him and share in His Glory.