HOMILY: Icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, 16 December 2013
O, most holy Theotokos, save us!
St. Basil the Great teaches that the honor and veneration we give to an icon passes to its prototype. In other words, when we stand before an icon in prayer, we are standing before the one portrayed in the icon. When we kiss an icon, we kiss the one thus represented; bowing before an icon, we bow before the one depicted thereon. Metropolitan Seraphim instructs us that when we stand before the icon of the Redeemer or of the Mother of God, we are to stand as if before the Lord Jesus Himself or before the Theotokos herself, for there is a great difference between standing before Our Lord and Our Lady in their very presence, and picturing them in your imagination.” We don’t look at an icon as we do a piece of artwork, as beautiful as they are; rather, as it were, the icon looks at us; we enter into its gaze, for an icon is “a channel of Divine grace.” The icon is the place where Our Lord and His Mother, the angels and saints appear to us.
We are blessed today to welcome to our church this icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, and to stand before her to raise our prayers for the protection of unborn life and for the family. Though clouded in the mists of history like many ancient images, Christian tradition and piety traces the original icon to St. Luke the Evangelist who is said to have painted it on the table-top in the home of Our Lady as she related to him the accounts of Jesus’ conception, birth, and childhood, which he included in his Gospel. It seems that this icon of the Black Madonna, blackened by many centuries of smoke and soot, was later discovered by St. Helena in Jerusalem in the 4th century and brought to Constantinople with the relic of the true Cross, where it was enshrined by her son, Constantine, in the Church of the Theotokos for many centuries. At some point it found its way to Belz, in the Ukraine, where it was venerated for several centuries, and then in the 1382 it was brought to Czestochowa in Poland where it has been enshrined ever since in the Monastery of Jasna Gora, or the Bright or Radiant Mountain. And so, the icon of the Black Madonna has become a symbol of unity for Orthodox and Catholics as they have all venerated her and prayed before her. And today she unites Orthodox and Catholics in witnessing to the sanctity of life, for she is, as we say in the troparion of the Dormition, “the Mother of Life” who gave birth to Life Himself. Her depiction in this typically byzantine-style icon is called the ‘One who shows the way’, as the Theotokos points to Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Is it any wonder that our Mother of Life, and this icon in particular, has been involved throughout history in the struggle for life of her faithful people? Indeed, it is one of the few icons where the Theotokos bears the scars of violence and hatred inflicted upon her by the purveyors of death. The scars on her face, the result of the sword slashes of the Hussites and the Tartar’s arrow, reveal that she is no stranger to the struggles of her people. But like the Church of her Son, which throughout history has been and remains embattled and scared, She remains radiant in beauty.
Countless miracles and healings have been attributed to her intercession, not the least of which is her protection of Christians who were under assault. The Black Madonna has truly been the “never failing Protectress of Christians and their ever present intercessor before the Creator.” The Akathist Hymn we chanted today at noon and 3:00 is closely associated with the protection of the icon of the Theotokos for Constantinople during several sieges of the Holy City by the barbarian hordes and the Moslem Saracens in the 7th and 8th centuries. In the first battle, Partriarch Sergius and his clergy processed endlessly on the city walls with the icon of the Theotokos, which may likely have been this icon of Czestochowa which St. Helena had brought to Constantinople a few centuries before. When the battle seemed lost, a violent tempest blew up destroying the enemy fleet, and the Constantinopolitans rushed to the Church of the Theotokos where they prayed the Akathist all night long—akathistos, which means standing up. In the second battle, the Theotokos herself appeared accompanied by angels over the city walls and the Saracens fleet were routed on the eve of the Annunciation. It was evidently on this occasion that the hymn, “We your servants” was composed.
Similarly, in the 17th century, it was by the prayers of Our Lady of Czestochowa that a small group of monks led by their prior and a few volunteers turned back the month-long siege of the Jasna Gora Monastery during the Swedish invasion of Poland, known as the Deluge, and saved the precious icon. In the midst of the fierce battle, the Prior processed with the icon atop the walls of the monastery. The account of this battle, dear to the heart of every Pole, is described in the beloved classic trilogy of Henryk Sienkiewicz, With Fire and Sword. (He is also the author of the better known novel, Quo Vadis.)
In addition, it was on September 12, 1683, that King Jan Sobieski of Poland, at the request of Pope Innocent XI, came to the rescue of Vienna which was being besieged by the Muslim Turks for many months. On his way to Vienna to join the battle, Pan Jan took his entire army on pilgrimage to Czestochowa and entrusted his mission to the Black Madonna before whose icon he prayed. He and his army went to Mass and received Holy Communion before the battle. The Polish cavalry rode under the banner of our Lady with King Jan riding at the front of his troops wearing into the battle a breastplate on which was painted this icon. Within a few hours, against overwhelming odds, he routed the Turks at the Gates of Vienna and thus is said to have saved Europe and Western Civilization from Saracen oppression. The King sent the green Standard of the Prophet which he captured to Pope Innocent with the message: “Veni, vidi, Deus vicit!” paraphrasing Juliuis Caesar, meaning: “I came, I saw, but God conquered.” In thanksgiving for this victory, the Pope established on 12 September in the Latin Church, the feast of the Holy Name of Mary, because it was reported that as the Turks cried out, Allah, as they charged into battle, Pan Jan’s troops shouted Maria, Maria, invoking Our Lady of Czestochowa.
My brothers and sisters, today we face a battle, no less fierce or aggressive than any battle in the past, and Our Lady remains our “never-failing Protectress.” The culture of death continues to attach life in all its forms and continues to attack the Church of Christ. Just last week, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Catholic Bishops of the US alleging that Catholic hospitals are negligent in treating pregnant women because of the Catholic belief against abortion. The works of the culture of death are truly stunning: since 1973, almost 57 million innocents have been slaughtered in their mother’s wombs by abortion in the US alone, and it is estimated that well over 1 billion abortions have been committed worldwide since 1980. The forces of death also attack the natural family from every side, for the family is the source of life. They make a mockery of the family God has established and seek to pervert the meaning and purpose of the family. While they seek to silence all who disagree with their wicked agenda of death.
But this battle, as ferocious as it is, is not a political battle between republicans and democrats, though it certainly has obvious political implications; nor is it a battle between good people and bad people, for many of those who kill are themselves victims of the culture of death. Rather, it is a battle aptly described by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians: “Indeed, our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the Principalities and the Powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness on high.”
And so, just as in the past the icon of Czestochowa was processed on the battlements of Constantinople and Jasna Gora, today it is carried by the faithful in prayer in front of abortion clinics and through the streets of cities around the globe, for she is the “Mother of Life.” At the same time, this is a battle that must be fought, not only in the public square by those who witness in politics, in front of abortion clinics, and in so many public places for God’s holy truth, but it must also be fought in the homes of every Christian family and before the icon corners in every Christian home. For it is only by prayer and fasting that such demons can be driven out.
We know that the enemy we fight is a defeated and impotent enemy who has already been routed by the Lord of Life who conquered Death by His death. St. Simeon tells us that the enemy of our souls (the enemy of life), Satan, has no power of his own; he has only that which the Lord permits him. What is this power? It is the power given to him by the will of men.
And so we come tonight before the Most Holy Theotokos, the Mother of Life, and we ask her holy protection upon the unborn and upon all families. And, as she points the way to Her Son, we ask her to show to our troubled world the way to truth and life. Let us conclude by offering a prayer this prayer:
O Mary, Most Holy Lady of Czestochowa, look graciously upon your children in this troubled and sinful world. Embrace us all in your loving and motherly protection. Protect our young from godless ways; assist our dear ones grown old with age to prepare for their journey home; shield our defenseless unborn from the horrors of abortion; and be our strength against all sin. Spare your children from all hatred, discrimination, and war. Fill our hearts, our homes, and our world with that peace and love which comes only from your Son, whom you so tenderly embrace. O, Queen and Mother, be our comfort and strength; for blessed are you by all generations, and glorified is your most honorable name, now and always and forever and ever. Amen.
O, most holy Theotokos, save us!