The Protecting Veil of the Holy Theotokos
Fr. Thomas Hopko · October 1, 2009
Whether you celebrate it on October 1 or on October 28 (traditions differ), you will enjoy Fr. Thomas' account of how the Mother of God protected a Constantinople church from an invading army, and how that inspires our own worship.
October 1 in the Orthodox Church is the festival of the Protection or the Protecting Veil of the Theotokos, of the Mother of God. This festival is very beloved by Orthodox Christians of the Slavic traditions. It’s kind of a minor festival in the churches of the East and in the Church of Byzantine tradition; in fact, it’s actually transferred to the 28th of October and is not celebrated on the first. The festival on the first of October in the Orthodox calendar generally, for the entire Church, is the feast of the very famous hymnographer, the deacon Romanos, the Meloder, the Melodious, or the Sweet-singer, depending how you translate that title of his.
But Romanos lived in the sixth or the seventh century, and he is well known because of his life and his writing of the kontakion for the feast of Christmas, the Nativity of Christ. A kontakion, which means a roll, is one of the main hymns of Orthodox liturgical worship. Romanos wrote that very famous kontakion as a young deacon, and he became a very famous hymnographer in the Church. So this was the day of Romanos, but also happened to be the day of Ananias, one of the Seventy Apostles in the early Church.
In any case, this is what the story is. It is that in the tenth century, in the church of the Blachernae in Constantinople, there was a festival service, and it was a time of invasion and so on, difficulty for the Byzantine empire. In fact, the invading people, ironically, may have been Slavs, who now celebrate this festival with great solemnity. In any case, there was this festal service on the first of October, the feast of the holy hymnographer Romanos, and in the church on that day, according to the Life of St. Andrew the Fool-for-Christ, who’s a canonized saint in the Orthodox tradition, he was in the church also with a friend of his, Epiphanios, a friend of his who’s also numbered among the saints.
And the story goes that, while they were praying and keeping vigil in the church at this particular moment of peril, Andrew had this vision of Christ’s mother, Mary, praying in the church and covering the church with her veil and protecting the people—that’s where you get the title “protection”—but with her were John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, and, in fact, all of the ranks of the prophets and apostles and bishops and saints were seen. The revelation was that the Theotokos was interceding and praying with all of the saints for the Church on earth.
In the icon of this feast, that’s what you will see. If you see an icon of the Protection of the Theotokos or the Protecting Veil, there will be this huge assembly of the saints—all of the saints: prophets, apostles, martyrs, bishops, monastics—with Mary, Christ’s mother, in the center, and they’re interceding for the Church on earth. In the icon of the Protection, because it was the day of St. Romanos the Hymnographer, he will be pictured also in the church—although it’s not historically accurate; it’s anachronistic; he lived a couple hundred years earlier—but he’s put in the middle of the church in the position of the ambon where the deacon would be praying and singing the hymns of the Church, so there’s a connection of this singing and praying within the church with the communion of all of the saints who are glorified with Christ and who were faithful to him on earth.
What the end result is, so to speak, is that this is a great festival of the fact that the heavenly Church, the assembly of all the saints, led by Christ’s mother, Mary, are constantly present, interceding for us, praying with us, connected to us, and that when we go to church and when we celebrate the liturgical offices of the Church and constitute the Church on earth, gathered by God himself and Christ himself, by the power of the Holy Spirit, then we enter into this glorification of the angels. Of course, the angels are on the icon, too, with all of the holy people. We are in communion with them, they are in communion with us, and together we constitute the Ekklesia, the great Assembly, the Church of the New Covenant.
It is a principle of Orthodox spiritual tradition. It is a kind of a norm. I would almost say it’s kind of a law, a rule, that what we experience in church, what we do when we go to church, is supposed to be actualized every moment of our life, with every breath that we take. It’s in the Church that the grace and the vision and the truth of God, the very presence of God is given to us. You might use the adverb “objectively.” You go there and God is there, because the Liturgy is where God acts, where God is showing himself as the head of the Church in his officially gathered people. Of course, for Orthodox, that means a gathering headed by a bishop or by a presbyter assigned by the bishop, where it is not simply a gathering of people or people coming to pray or a prayer service, but it’s actually the constitution of the Church of Christ on earth in space and time where the Church of God, worshiping God, glorifying God, communing with God through Christ, risen and glorified, actually experiences this communion of the age to come, together with Christ’s mother, Mary, and all of the saints.
So the rule would be, so to speak, that we should actualize the gifts given to us in church and as Church in every day, every moment of our life: every day of our life, every second of every minute of every hour of every day of our life. That means, first of all, that we assemble as Church; we gather as Church. That means that we have to always be aware, as the early Christian saying goes, that “one Christian is no Christian.” Christianity is not a matter of individuals accepting Jesus as their personal Savior. It’s not an individual matter at all; it’s a matter of community. It’s a covenanted community. It’s the New Testament. It’s the New Covenant, the New Covenant in Christ’s blood. It’s a gathering of people, the faithful people who keep the faith truly and properly, the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, and who accept the Gospel as the Gospel is actually given, which is God’s Gospel, not the gospel according to men, as St. Paul said in Galatians.
So the first thing that we remember is that we are members, one of another. We are members of Christ, constituting his body, which is the Church. We’re not alone. And we should never feel lonely. A Christian should never be lonely. If we feel lonely, it means that we forget that we’re members of the people of God, that we’re fellow citizens with the saints, as it says in the Ephesian letter in the New Testament, that we have access to God through the Son of God, Jesus, raised and glorified by the power of the Holy Spirit that is in all of the saints of all times and all places. And we’re a member—each one of us is a member of that community. We are all members of Christ’s body, so we gather as Church.
Sometimes people say, “Well, I can pray in a field. I can pray in my heart.” Well, that’s true, and Jesus said, “When you pray, go in a room, shut the door, and pray,” but the people of God also gather as Church. There’s the Qahal Yahweh, the assembly of God. Then when we come to church, we remember and pray for everyone and everything, and that’s what we should be doing all the time. When we go to church, we sing the psalms, and David—the psalm should be on our lips from morning to night every day of our life. When we go to the church, we follow the Gospel of God into the Holy Place. We hear Christ, our one Teacher, our one Master, teaching us from heaven, through the words of the holy Gospels, the holy Scripture. When we’re in church, that’s what we do.
So we should be hearing the word of God and the words of God, and following the word of God and trying to complete the word of God every moment of our life. In church we make intercessions for the world, for the sick, for the suffering, for the departed. That should be a consciousness of ours all the time. In the church we offer ourselves to God the Father, through Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest, who is himself the offering, the broken body, the spilled blood, and we should be doing that every minute of our life, offering our bodies to God as a living sacrifice which is our logikē latreia, our spiritual, reasonable worship, which is what the Divine Liturgy of the Church is.
Then we remember all of the saving acts of God, and then we invoke the Holy Spirit upon ourselves and upon our bread and wine that we offer, our sacrifice, sacrificing not just bread and wine, but our own bodies, our own blood with Christ. Then we remember the Theotokos and of all the saints at every Liturgy, and all the angels, and we pray with the angels and we image the angels. This should be a presence of our life all the time.
Then, of course, in church we have communion with God: Holy Communion. And we should be living in holy communion with the Father, through the Son, from the Spirit, every minute of our life. When we’re at the Liturgy, we’re sent back out. We’re sent out with the Great Commission: to bear witness, to evangelize, to preach the word of God, to bear witness by our deeds. And that’s what we should be doing every minute of our life.
So when we go to church, the faith is revealed to us. God’s kingdom is revealed to us. It’s given to our experience. This is, in fact, what we’re celebrating on this festival day, the first day of October, in the festival of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God. The historical origin may have been the vision of the Fool-for-Christ, Andrew, in the Blachernae palace church in Constantinople in the tenth century, but the vision that he had on that day is an abiding vision of Christians at all times. It’s the reality of the Church itself from the very beginning of the New Covenant on the day of Pentecost. This is what the Church is, and this is what we celebrate today.
Now, it’s very interesting also, very pertinent, very instructive, that the epistle reading on this particular festival is the first six verses of the ninth chapter of the letter to the Hebrews. The gospel reading is the one that we often hear on festivals of Mary, the mother of God. The gospel is about Martha and Mary: Martha who is anxious about many things and her sister, Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, and Jesus saying to Martha, “Martha, Martha, you are troubled, anxious about many things. Mary has chosen the better part; it will not be taken from her.” So we’re taught in that gospel that we are to contemplate the word of God. We are to do our activities, but the greater part is to contemplate Christ, to sit at his feet.
Then in that same gospel reading, you have the voice of the woman in the crowd that says to Jesus—she shouts to Jesus—“Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nourished you,” and Jesus answers, “Yea, rather”—more than that, so to speak, the real point is—“blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it,” because Mary heard the word of God and she kept it. She even gave birth to the Word of God in the flesh. The Logos was incarnate through Mary. So she is blessed because she hears the word of God and she keeps it. So that’s the gospel, but the epistle reading on this festival is from the letter to the Hebrews.
Now, generally speaking, the letter to the Hebrews is considered to be a Pauline letter. It’s called even the epistle of St. Paul to the Hebrews, although authorship—exact authorship—was already debated in the earliest Church. Really in the early Church already, some folks thought even that perhaps the actual person who crafted this letter, who actually wrote it by hand, was Apollos, St. Paul’s disciple, who gave the teaching of Paul in this epistle, concerning the temple, concerning how Christians relate to temple worship, because there is no more temple. The temple is destroyed, but also the Messiah has come. It’s interesting, by the way, that there was a Jewish apocalyptic tradition that said when the Messiah would come, the first act that he would do would be to destroy the temple, because you don’t need the temple when the Messiah is here; everything is now fulfilled.
Well, as a matter of fact, there was no temple. It was destroyed by the Romans. So the question also arose: The Jews who believed in Jesus believed that he was the Son of God, believed that he was the Messiah—how do they worship? How do they worship, and how do they worship vis-à-vis the temple worship? What is the priesthood? What are the sacrifices? How is it to be done? How is it to be understood, first? And then, how is it to be done? In that sense, the letter to the Hebrews is probably the most liturgical book of the New Testament writings, although the Apocalypse is definitely also a liturgical book, and it goes together. In fact, if anyone wants to have insight into ancient Christian worship, the earliest Christian worship, they have to read and study and understand the letter to the Hebrews and the book of Revelation, the Apocalypse.
But what does the letter to the Hebrews tell us? It tells us that Jesus, the Son of God, the exact Image of the Father, the Radiance of his Person, through whom God has spoken to us in these very last days, that he is the Great High Priest, and he offers himself as the Victim, once for all, to the Father, and he takes his own blood and offers it into the holy of holies, the one not made by hands, the one in the heavens, the true and real one, the sanctuary of sanctuaries, which is the very presence of God, and he enters in there on our behalf, and he takes us with him into that holy place, where he offers his body broken and his blood shed, and we have to follow him there and enter, having our bodies broken, our blood shed, together in and with him, and we offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God, which is our logikē latreia, our spiritual or reasonable worship.
That expression is used three times in the Divine Liturgy at the Eucharistic prayer: “reasonable worship” or “spiritual worship.” It comes from the first verse of the twelfth chapter of the letter to the Romans, where St. Paul says, “I appeal to you, brothers, to offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, pure and holy, acceptable, pleasing to God, which is our logikē latreia, which is our spiritual worship.”
So we have an entirely new worship in the New Covenant, one Great High Priest, Christ, offering himself on behalf of all and for all; we, offering him and ourselves in and with him to the Father; he offering us, together; the Holy Spirit coming upon us, and we celebrate this marvelous, celestial, divine Liturgy, the Liturgy that is divine. It’s godly, it’s celestial, it’s heavenly, it’s cosmic, it’s in the created order. This is what Christians do when we worship. This is what we do, especially in the Divine Liturgy, where you hear the word of God, sing the psalms, hear the word of God, intercede for the world, and offer yourself with Christ to God for holy Communion, and to receive holy Communion and Jesus as the Lamb of God. 38 times in the Apocalypse, Jesus is called the Lamb of God.
Well, the letter to the Hebrews tells us that we’re no longer offering blood of goats and lambs and bulls and so on, but we have the blood of the Son of God himself, and he offered himself on our behalf, and we offer ourselves with him. So this is why you have this reading on this particular festival of the Protecting Veil of the Theotokos, when the Church on earth celebrates the fact, the reality, that we are gathered together in the holy of holies of heaven with Christ our Lord who is risen and glorified and with his mother and the prophets and all the righteous of the Old Covenant and John the Baptist and all the angels and all the martyrs and all the bishops and all those who have departed this life—that’s what we experience when we go to church, and that has to be our abiding, perpetual experience as Christians every minute of our life, with every breath that we breathe.
So here is the reading. It begins like this, ninth chapter, letter to the Hebrews.
Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary.
I think that that sentence is interesting, because it says, “Even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary,” so what the author, St. Paul and Apollos or the Holy Spirit who inspired this letter to the Hebrews as a canonical, truly dependable holy Scripture for Christians… It says, “Even the first covenant,” which means we also have regulations for worship as Christians. We have regulations, too. We don’t just make it up as we go along. We’re not at the mercy of ministers or priests who make up services for us. The services are given by God. The worship is given by God. It’s revealed by God in the Bible. It’s not how we like to worship; that’s beside the point. It’s how God is commanding us to worship, or how we enter into the risen Christ to worship God by the Holy Spirit. That’s what’s important. Certainly, that’s what was important in ancient Christianity. In fact, it wasn’t even “important”; it was everything. They had no other concept of how worship by Christians might possibly be. They certainly didn’t think that Christian worship was entertainment or, one Russian once said, “the combination of a lecture and a concert.” Well, it’s not a concert and a lecture; it’s divine worship, inspired by God, beginning in Moses and the tabernacle and continuing in the final covenant community in the Messiah of Israel.
So the epistle begins: “Even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary.” It said:
For a tent (or in Greek it could be “tabernacle” or “skēnē,” the tent, the place where God was tenting himself was with them, there was a tent) prepared (and then it says), the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence (or the presentation of the loaves of bread); and that was called the holy place (the sanctuary). Then behind the second curtain stood another tent (another tabernacle), called the holy of holies, and in the holiest place (the holy of holies, that means the holiest), they have the golden ark of the incense, they have the ark of the covenant, covered on all sides with gold, which contained a golden urn holding the manna (that was the bread that came from heaven that the people ate in the wilderness), and Aaron’s rod that budded (that’s also connected to the exodus from Egypt, Aaron’s rod), and the tables [sic] of the covenant (the [tablets] of the law that were given to Moses that was kept in there; then it said); above it (and over this table, in this holiest place, where you had an offering of incense) there were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. (Then it says:) Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.
Then it continues:
These preparations having thus been made, the priests go continually into the outer tent (that’s the holy place) for their ritual duties; but into the second only the high priest goes, and he only once a year, not without taking blood which he offers for himself and for the errors (or the ignorances) of the people.
And that’s the ending of the reading. Now, when Christians hear this, when we Christians hear this, what are we taught? What is the letter to the Hebrews and the entire New Testament and the entire Bible? What is it teaching us? It is teaching us this, that this was the earthly sanctuary, but there is the heavenly sanctuary. There is the holy of holies which is going into the presence of God Almighty himself, the Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ. And then it is telling us that Jesus, the Great High Priest, the only Great High Priest, he enters into that holy of holies on our behalf, and he doesn’t just do it once a year. He’s done it once and for all and so now it’s perpetual. He is there continuously, offering and even, the letter to the Hebrews says, mediating and interceding on our behalf before God the Father.
But the amazing thing is, also, that the teaching of the New Testament is: Jesus, as the Great High Priest who enters into the holy of holies—the heavenly one, the divine one, not made by human hands—he takes all of his people with him in there. The high priest in the old covenant went in by himself. Even the other priests didn’t go in, and the people stood outside. But in Christ everybody enters. Everybody. As St. Paul writes to [the] Galatians, not only free Jewish males or priests or high priests, but everybody: female, Gentile, slaves, everyone who’s baptized into Christ, everyone who enters into the priesthood of Christ, the kingship of Christ, anointed with the Holy Spirit of Christ, becoming christs themselves (with a little “c”), by grace, they all enter into that holy of holies together with him. They go in there with him, into the very presence of God to offer their spiritual worship in the New Covenant, in the final covenant.
When the ancient Christians finally became free and were able to build their own church temples, that’s how they patterned it, and if you go into an Orthodox church to this day, you will see that there’s the holy place, the nave of the church, then there is the holy of holies, and the priest who is ordained to present Christ to the congregation as the head of the community, he enters in there in glory, vested with vestments, and then, behind the veil, it’s actually built and set up just like the Bible says. You have a cubic altar, you have the seven-branched candles on it, just like it was in the law of Moses, you have the images of the cherubim and seraphim over the altar table. Then you have the New Covenanted realities—the truth, as it says [in] the letter to the Hebrews. It says the Old Covenant was a shadow, a skia; the New Covenant is the reality, the final reality.
So when you go into the ancient Christian church, you go into the Orthodox church, behind that veil at that altar table, we still have the altar of incense. We still are offering the incense in there, according to the Scripture. Then we don’t have the ark of the covenant, [in] gold, with manna inside. We have in our altar table, actually, a vessel that sometimes is built like a Christian church building, and it’s called a tabernacle. It’s called the place where we keep inside not the manna, but the reserve sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. We have the consecrated Bread which is the Body of Christ intincted with the Wine, kept on the altar table. So we have not the manna; we have the Bread of Life. Jesus said, “Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness; they’re dead. I am the Bread of Life. I am the living Bread.” So we have that living Bread; a remnant of that living Bread is kept on the table within the holy of holies.
Then instead of Aaron’s rod, we have the cross of Christ, the hand cross of Christ with which the priest always carries and blesses the people. That’s not Aaron’s rod; that’s God’s weapon of victory. That’s the tree of life. So we have the hand cross, the cross with which the people are blessed, in place of Aaron’s rod that budded, because our cross really budded with everlasting life. The body and blood of Christ on the cross breaks through death, is raised from the dead. So we have the cross on the altar.
Then we don’t have the [tablets] of the Law, the [tablets] of the Old Covenant. We have the gospel book, and it’s not the Bible. It’s not even the whole New Testament. It’s the four gospels, because our Law is Christ. We follow the law of Christ. He is the incarnate Word. So on our table, we have the gospel, the cross, and the holy Communion. That’s the New Covenant altar, and we also have the candles and we have the cherubim there, painted or with frescoes and so on, just like the Bible tells us.
Then this reading says that over all of this the cherubim are in glory, and it’s overshadowed by what is called the “mercy seat” in English, “hilastērion” in Greek. Hilastērion; it’s called “mercy seat.” And if you know the Bible, the mercy seat was over the altar in the Old Testament, in the tabernacle in the temple of Jerusalem, and it was empty. There was a space there; there was nothing there, because God was invisible. And that was the place where God spoke to Moses. That is the place where Moses heard the word of God, and from there he spoke to the people of God. It’s very interesting to note again that the people didn’t go in there. Only Moses went in there, and he went by himself, and they had to stand outside. They had to wait for him to come out and tell them. They did not have access to that holy place and to that mercy seat, and they did not hear directly the word of God.
But that mercy seat in Greek is “hilastērion,” and if you look up “hilastērion” in a biblical Greek dictionary, it will define “hilastērion” as the place where mercy is given, the place where mercy is known, the place where the people of God experience the expiatory—if I said that word right—where the expiation… because “hilasmos” means “expiation” or “redemption.” That’s where they actually, you might just simply say, that’s where you fully experience the saving activity of God. The dictionary actually says “hilastērion” means “the means by which sins are forgiven” or “the place where the sins are forgiven, the place where you receive redemption, the place where expiation occurs.” That’s what that is.
Now, interestingly enough, over the altar table in the holy of holies in ancient Christian churches, from the very beginning there was always an icon or a fresco put of the mother of God, of Christ’s mother, Mary, and she’s there, seated, like a mercy seat, and on her lap is Christ himself, the incarnate Word of God. Or sometimes she’s in a position of prayer, like an orans, and inside her, in her womb, so to speak, in her stomach, is this presence of Christ himself, the Word of God.
What this tells us is that, in the Christian worship, we have our sacrifice which is the Blood of Christ, and we go into that holy of holies, and we have our gospel and our cross and our Communion there, and over it, the mercy seat is the Theotokos herself. It’s interesting that in the Akathistos hymn, the very famous Akathistos hymn to the mother of God in the Eastern Church—which may indeed have been written by this Romanos himself, the same one who wrote the kontakion—that he called one of the titles of Mary is “the living hilastērion,” the animated mercy seat, the warm—actually, the word is “warm”—“the warm one.” It’s not dead, it’s not cold: the living, the warm, the active propitiatory place is Mary herself now, because Christ comes from her. He is enthroned on her. She is the one who bears him to us and brings him to us when he is born into the world.
It’s very interesting also that on this festival of the Protection of the Mother of God—where she’s there as the mercy seat, she’s there with all the angels and saints over the sanctuary, the holy of holies—it’s very interesting that the main kontakion, the hymn of the day for this festival, actually literally patterns the kontakion of the feast of the Birth of Christ, the kontakion of Christmas, and this is how it is paralleled.
On Christmas, the faithful Christians sing in the Orthodox Church in the kontakion:
Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One.
On this festival of the Protecting Veil of the Theotokos in the heavenly Church, the first line is:
Today the Virgin stands in the middle of the Church, in the midst of the Church.
In the Nativity hymn, the second verse is:
And the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One.
The second verse on this festival is:
And with choirs of saints she (Mary) invisibly prays to God for us.
But it wasn’t so invisibly because Andrew, the Fool-for-Christ, saw her—with the eyes of the spirit, of course—but we know that she’s there all the time, praying to God for us and with us. The third verse of the Christmas hymn says:
Angels with shepherds glorify him.
The third verse of the festival of the Protection says:
Angels and bishops worship him (Christ God).
The fourth verse says:
The wise men journey with the star.
On this festival, it says:
Apostles and prophets rejoice together.
Then on Christmas this little hymn ends:
Since for our sake the eternal God was born as a little Child.
In the last verse of this festival it says:
Since for our sake she (Christ’s mother) prays to the eternal God.
And we pray to the eternal God together with her. So if we heard the Nativity hymn all together, it would go like this:
Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One. Angels with shepherds glorify him; the wise men journey with the star, since for our sake the eternal God was born as a little Child.
On this festival of the Protection of the Mother of God, what we sang was:
Today the Virgin stands in the middle of the Church, and with choirs of saints she prays to God for us. Angels and bishops worship; apostles and prophets rejoice together, since for our sake, she prays to the eternal God.
So this is why we have the ninth chapter of the letter to the Hebrews as the epistle reading for this festival.
One more thing: the letter to the Hebrews not only compares the Old Covenant worship in the temple to the divine worship of Christ in the holy of holies in the presence of God, but it even compares Moses going to Mount Sinai to get the [tablets] of the Law. It compares Moses entering into that cloud, into the presence of God on Sinai, to receive the [tablets] of the Law; it compares that to what we Christians experience when we go to church, when we enter into the spiritual reality of the communion of the Church and the holy of holies beyond this world that we already experience through the Holy Spirit in Christian liturgical worship.
So for that you’ve got to read the twelfth chapter of the letter to the Hebrews. This is what the twelfth chapter says. I’m going to read it in some detail for you. It begins:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…
And the great cloud of witness[es] that we’re surrounded by is the Theotokos, apostles, martyrs, saints, bishops, holy ones, all of those righteous holy people who are together with Christ and glorified with him—the saints. So it says if we enter into that great cloud of witnesses,
...let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely. Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the archēgon and teleotēs (the pioneer, the forerunner, and the perfecter, accomplisher) of our faith, who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despised the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Then the author encourages us not to grow weary, not to be faint-hearted. In our struggle against sin, we have not yet resisted to the point of shedding our blood, he says, and we have to endure, because God is treating us as sons, and the sons are disciplined and the sons have to suffer together with his Son, Jesus, and we’re not illegitimate children—there’s another word for that in English—but we are actually sons of God in Christ.
Then he tells us to lift up our drooping hands and strengthen our weak knees and strive for that holiness with God and make sure there’s no roots of bitterness among us, and so on. Then here’s what we want to hear, most important. He says:
For you Christians have not come to what may be touched, like Moses did, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a Voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages would be spoken to them, for they could not endure the order that was given: “If even a beast, an animal, touches the mountain, he shall die; he shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”
That’s what’s described in the Bible at Mt. Sinai, the Old Covenant. Then the letter continues:
But you have come to Mt. Zion...
Not Sinai, but Zion.
...and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem…
Not the Jerusalem that’s some point on a map. Then it continues:
...and to innumerable angels in festal gathering…
So all the angels are there with us. And then it says, in the RSV:
...and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven.
That term, “assembly,” in Greek is “ekklēsia, the Church”: You have come to the Church of the firstborn, and the firstborn of all creation is Christ, who is also the firstborn of the dead. And we are the Church of the firstborn. We are enrolled in heaven. The assembly, a great number of people; not just Jesus alone, but all those who are with him, this great assembly, the Church of Christ himself. Then it says:
...to a Judge who is God of all…
But we know that that God of all has given the power and authority to execute judgment to his Son, Jesus, who is the Judge of the heaven and earth, and he will come to judge the heaven and the earth. And then it continues:
...and to the spirits of the righteous people made perfect…
Any Eastern Orthodox knows that’s a line in the funeral service. We pray that when a person dies, they will be “with the spirits of the righteous made perfect in heaven with God.” So “the spirits of the righteous,” it means all the saints. All the saints: all those who are made righteous by faith and grace, beginning with Christ’s mother, Mary. Then it says:
...and to Jesus, the Mediator of the New Covenant, and to the sprinkled Blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.
And we might add, than the blood of any cow and lamb and goat or bull that was ever sacrificed in the Old Covenant, because that sprinkled blood is the blood of the Son of God himself. So then the letter continues:
See, therefore, that you do not refuse him who is speaking, for if they did not escape, when they refused him who warned them on earth (in the Old Covenant, through Moses), much less shall we escape if we reject him who warns us from heaven (that is, Christ himself, the risen Lord). His voice then shook the earth (in the Old Testament), but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken, as of what has been made, in order that what cannot be shaken may remain.
And what cannot be shaken is the kingdom of God. And the whole universe has become the kingdom of God. That’s why in the Orthodox Church on Saturday night, every Saturday of the year, when we enter the Lord’s day at the end of [the] Sabbath, we say:
The Lord is king. He is robed in majesty; he is girded with strength. He established the universe, his kingdom, which can never be shaken, which cannot be moved.
So we say this “yet once more” indicates the removal of what is shaken, as of what has been created, in order [that] what cannot be shaken may remain, namely, the new heaven and new earth that has been redeemed. Then it ends:
Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship...
Let us be acceptable worshipers, it says, or acceptably worshiping.
...with reverence and awe, with fear and trembling. (Then it ends:) For our God is a consuming fire.
So this is what we celebrate, [what] the Church celebrates on the festival of the Protecting Veil of the Theotokos. The [accent] in the service is on the Theotokos and her intercession, but it’s not just her. It’s the whole assembly of the righteous. It’s all of the holy ones. It’s all of the saints, in the very presence of God. And that’s what we enter into when we go to church, and that’s what the Church is. It’s the abiding experience of living in the kingdom to come, already now. In Christ, with Christ. Our life’s hidden with God in Christ, as St. Paul says. Before the throne of God himself in Jesus, on the right hand of the Father, with him and in him, with his mother, Mary, and with all of the prophets and apostles and martyrs and all of the holy people through the ages.
So this is how ancient Christians begin the month of October. The first day of October is this great celebration of the Church as the assembly, the great cloud of witnesses, the uniting of heaven and earth, of those already departed this life in the glorious presence of Christ, raised and glorified with him, already now in him, and we still on earth in the Church and as the Church, entering into that reality in the sacramental life of the Church by the power of God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit among us, being the Body of Christ on earth.
This is the Christian faith, and this is what we celebrate, and this is a marvelous, magnificent celebration, vision, and experience itself of this divine reality, the reality which is, indeed, the Christian faith, the experience of the fulfillment of the Gospel in Jesus Christ raised and glorified, and we, together with him, with his mother and all of the saints.