Holiness – Our Goal

A sermon of His Grace the Bishop of Antania, Mr. Parthenius, Abbot of the Holy Bigorski Monastery, for the feast of the Introduction of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple, spoken at the Divine Liturgy, during the night vigil at the Monastery of the Most Pure Theotokos in Kichevo, on December 4, 2023 AD

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!

Most Reverend Holy Father Antipas,

Most Reverend Fathers Archimandrites,

Most Reverend Mothers Abbesses,

Venerable brothers – monks and sisters – nuns, honourable Fathers, beloved brothers and sisters in faith,

With love and gratitude, we celebrate the honourable feast of the Introduction of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple of the Lord. Into the Holy of Holies. As we know from the biblical history, in the time of the Old Testament, there was only one temple of the true God Creator on Earth. That temple, according to the direct commandment of God, was built by the chosen people of Judah, who were chosen by God because they were the only ones who kept the true faith in the one true God. A little while ago, however, we heard from the Apostle about what the arrangement of that temple was and learned that the holiest place in it was called the Holy of Holies, where the holiest objects from the sacred history of the Old Testament Israel were kept. Those were reliquaries related to its salvation, to the salvation of the whole humankind, to the wonderful works of God. There, therefore, were kept: the Ark of the Covenant, in which the Tablets with the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses were laid, the blossomed rod of the brother of Moses, the high priest Aaron and the pot with manna – the food with which God miraculously fed the Jews while they wandered in the wilderness for forty years.

In that holiest place of the Lord’s Holies, no one was allowed to enter, except the high priest of the temple, and even that was only once a year, at a certain time, to offer a blood sacrifice for his own and the sins of the whole people. Today, however, with our spiritual eyes we see that the Most Pure Virgin Mary, as a little, three-year-old girl, enters the Holy of Holies in a miraculous way, introduced by the high priest Zacharias, the father of Saint John the Forerunner. A truly divine revelation occurs: the priest of God does what is unthinkable and none of the other priests in the temple opposes this. It becomes clear to everyone that in some mysterious way God Himself shows Who will be She through Whom the whole world will be sanctified.

This feast shows us, in fact, what the purpose of human life is – sanctification. Man is created to communicate and unite with God and thus to be sanctified. We realize this from the first pages of the Holy Scripture, where it is said that God the Creator made man according to His image and likeness and placed him in the Garden of Eden, where He constantly communed with him. The first man, therefore, was constantly sanctified by his Creator, by seeing the unspeakable beauty of His face and feeding on His life-giving word. However, this bliss ended when the first-created recklessly broke God’s commandment of obedience and abstinence and fell headlong into the abyss of sin. Then as a consequence of sin came death, as the Divine Paul says: For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 6:23). However, another consequence of the fall is the loss of awareness in man that his goal in life, above all, is communion with God and sanctification in Him. And that is why we say that if man puts God and communion with God above all, then he gives an appropriate answer to his original purpose – to be holy, to become a likeness of God.

My dear ones, with our Most Holy Lady Theotokos, man regained the awareness of holiness. She, Who entered the Holy of Holies, became the supreme Sanctuary, the Divine Temple, in which the Son and Word of God fully dwelt and abode in Her womb for nine months as an incarnate man. Since then, from the appearance of the Most Pure Mother of God, every man is invited to become a temple of God, a sanctuary of the Most High God. Every man, through the Son of God incarnate from the Virgin Mary, becomes a temple of the Godhead. For, Christ came so that He could dwell in us and we in Him. From the very baptism we are clothed in Christ. Therefore, during the holy act of baptism, the following verses of the Holy Apostle Paul are sung: For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Gal. 3:27). Then, at the Divine Eucharist, we are completely christened; we become one with our Savior, through His Divine body and His pure and life-giving blood. And by communing with Him, we also commune with all in the Church of God, because it implies the eucharistic assembly of the faithful, who are organs of the one body of Christ.

Thus, we come to the conclusion that the Church is the holiest place in this world. It is the space, time and eternity in which we all meet and become one with our Christ. Nevertheless, the most deserving person, for the opening of those beautiful and saving church embraces is, undoubtedly, the Person who, because of Her holiness, was worthy to receive Christ in Her immaculate body. That is exactly our celebrant of today, our most beloved Most Holy Theotokos. And because God wanted to come into the world voluntarily, to be accepted by the people voluntarily, it was necessary to find a person who would voluntarily accept to bear the cross of God’s condescension to the Earth. A person who would have angelic holiness and Divine purity. The Theotokos was that Person and through Her very life She fulfilled in deed and clearly showed us the purpose of every human life. She showed and proved that holiness is our final destination, because the source of everything, including our existence, is the Holy God. And we have that commandment from Him: I am the LORD your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy (Lev. 11:44). Therefore, when our greatest concern becomes the question of how to sanctify ourselves, then we will realise that Theotokos is always here to help us.

Бог го освети светот. Како? Преку Својот Закон. Кога ќе помислиме на Законот Божји, веројатно кај повеќето од нас доаѓа претставата за Десетте Божји заповеди, за Светото Писмо и сл. Да, Законот Божји е изразен преку сето тоа, но, пред сѐ, негова основа е – љубовта. Колку го возљубив Законот Твој, Господи, по цел ден е поучение мое! – воскликнува Божествениот песнописец – Колку се слатки за грлото мое повеленијата Твои, повеќе од мед и саќе за устата моја (Пс. 118). Законот Божји, значи, е закон на љубовта. Неговиот најголем закон, закон над сите закони е Неговата љубов кон нас. Оти, Он Самиот од љубов слезе, за да го спаси човекот. Љубовно стана како еден од нас, во сѐ ист со нас, освен во гревот, за да нѐ спаси сите.

God sanctified the world. How? Through His Law. When we think of the Law of God, probably most of us come up with the notion of the Ten Commandments of God, of the Holy Scripture, etc. Yes, the Law of God is expressed through all that, but, above all, its basis is – love. O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day – exclaims the Divine Psalmist – How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth! (Ps. 119). The Law of God, therefore, is a law of love. His greatest law, the law above all laws is His love for us. For, He Himself descended out of love, to save man. Loving us, He became as one of us, in all things like us, except in sin, to save us all.

Today’s event with the Most Holy Theotokos, her Introduction into the Temple of the Lord, is not just a religious custom that existed among the Old Testament Jews, who according to the commandments of Moses, brought their children to present them to the Lord, to give them to Him. The presentation of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Holy of Holies far exceeds the customary boundaries and is something sublime, majestic, Divine. A prophecy that was foretold from ancient times by the holy prophets and which, as we said, shows us our life’s goal: to become sanctified temples of God. The practice of bringing children into the temple of God and presenting them before the Lord passed into Christianity. And among us Christians earlier, when it was customary to baptize children before completing forty days, on the fortieth day the so-called churching was performed, that is, the presentation of the child into the Temple. This beautiful ecclesiastical custom consists of the following: if the child is male, the priest brings him into the church, making the sign of the cross with him and saying three times: “The servant of God, so and so, is churched in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Then he takes him into the holy altar, bows with him on all four sides of the honourable table and touches the child to it; finally, he comes out of the altar, stands in front of the royal doors and hands him over to his mother. If the baby is female, the same thing is done, only instead of in the altar, the priest bows with the child in front of the altar icons of Christ and the Theotokos, touches her to them and again in front of the royal doors hands her over to her mother. The symbolism of this act is that the Church through the priest embraces the newly baptized, the newborn in Christ. The Church, therefore, embraces all of us in the Divine holiness. That is what churching means: entering into holiness. Only in the Church of God can man be saved and sanctified. In it, Christ embraces us and sanctifies us. The first mystery by which we enter the Divine spaces of the Church is holy baptism. Then, we commune with Christ through all the ecclesiastical holy mysteries and of course, especially through the Holy Eucharist, which is the crown of all the holy mysteries and through which everything else in the Church is sanctified. And when we are sanctified through the holy mysteries, then we gradually sanctify our environment as well.

My dear ones, we need to know that in the Church we cannot be saved alone, separately from others, i.e. individually, but rather through each other, that is, we are called to coexist with one another. That is, there is not only me, I am not an isolated individual, but I am a person who coexists with other persons, with other living icons of God and is saved, above all, through sacrificial love for the neighbor, for all in the Church. How beautifully Christ explains life in the Church, comparing it to the vine and the branches: I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing (John 15:5). That is, we are all one body, and Christ is our root, our stem. He came through the Most Holy Theotokos, who lent Him a body, for Him to become man. The Mother of God was honoured by the Pre-Eternal Counsel of the Holy Trinity with this supreme work of salvation, because with her abstinence, with her prayer, with her love and purity she rose even above the angelic minds. Although She was a human being like all of us, She never compromised with sin and sin was not found in Her. The Immaculate Virgin Mary of Nazareth perfectly fulfilled the call to dwell in the holiness of God.

My dear ones, I will say again – we are all summoned to holiness. Indeed, the time in which we live becomes more and more terrible. We constantly hear about wars, about murders, about hatred, about violence, about cruelty, about extreme immorality. The time is evil, the sins are low and vile. However, let us not be entangled with the spirit of this world, because we might lose ourselves in it, but instead let us try to remain faithful to our original call for holiness. If we sincerely strive for our own deification, the Most Holy Theotokos and all the Saints will be here at every moment to come to our aid. When the Mother sees that we love and patiently try to please Her Son, how could She not stand by us and help us?

Let us thank Her, my dear ones, for this wonderful vigil, which, behold, ends with the holiest moments of the Divine Eucharist. We have just read the Holy Gospel and now the holiest part begins – the offering and sanctification of the Holy Gifts and their transformation into the Body and Blood of Christ. We thank the Most Holy Mother for bringing here our dear and holy Elder Antipas from the Holy Mountain of Athos, a renowned spiritual father, hagiologist and sacred preacher, to celebrate this feast with us. I thank personally all of you who made the feat to attend this Eucharistic assembly tonight. May the Most Holy Lady, our Theotokos be with us all, to give us strength, so that we could remain faithful until the end of our lives and not stray from the goal of our existence – holiness.