On December 8, the Feast of our Blessed Lady's Immaculate Conception, brother priests who use the older breviary, in the form bequeathed to us by B Pius IX, will admire the 7th, 8th, and 9th Readings that morning, taken from the writings of S Germanus of Constantinople, a distinguished predecessor of His All-Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew. Those who desire a fuller account of this important Saint should summon up Pope Benedict XVI's Catechesis on him from 29 April 2009 (ah; those were the days). He was Patriarch 715-730; a defender of orthodoxy, and an enthusiastic expounder of the Immaculate and of her role as Mediatrix of All Graces. In 717/8, when the Moslems were besieging the Great City, he organised a procession of the Ikon of the Theotokos and of a Relic of the True and Life-giving Cross; the City was saved.
I rather wonder whether the following passage in Reading 9 refers to just such an Islamic onslaught ... which would give it a particular resonance for us today. S Germanus, having reached the peroration of a long address, is addressing our blessed Lady on November 21, Feast of her Presentation in the Temple (a day which often finds Byzantine preachers visiting themes which the later West associates with the celebration of the Immaculate Conception).
The unbelieving nations [kakotekhna barbara ethne] who blaspheme against You and the God who is born of You: lay them low and prostrate them beneath the feet of [orthodox emperors]. Strengthen the subject people, that according to God's command they may persevere in the duty of sweet obedience. Crown this Your City, which has You as its Tower and Foundation, with the triumphs of victory. Guard the habitation of God, girding it with strength. Ever keep the beauty of the Temple. Rescue those who praise You from every crisis [peristasis] and distress. Grant ransom to the captives. Show Yourself a comfort to exiles who lack a roof and any protection. To the whole world stretch out Your hand of assistance [antileptiken kheira], that in joy and exultation we may keep Your festivals ... in Christ Jesus, King of all [ton hapanton basilei] and our true God ...*
Thirteen centuries almost to the day since S Germanus became Patriarch: not much seems to change, does it? What a triumph the creation of Islam, as of all the heresies, is for the Evil One. The captives ... the vast throngs of refugees ... the desecrated churches ... I know, because our politicians have so often explained it, that Islam is a religion of peace; but what a lot of thoroughly atypical Moslems do seem to inhabit the pages of History as century follows century.
I wonder if you dwelt on the logic of the last two or three lines in my extract. In every previous Christian age, and in both East and West, men and women when under affliction have prayed for divine assistance so that they could worship God in "joy and exultation"; or so that "Ecclesia tua tranquilla devotione laetetur". Few of our neighbours, now, pray at all; in as far as hopes are expressed, they seem to me generally to be hopes for a return to Business as Usual; hopes that a decadent Western society may be able to continue its corrupt and sinfully hedonistic way of life without any ill-mannered and murderous interruptions or any vulgar reminders of its own decadence. I am most certainly not saying that everybody who goes out for a Friday Night On the Town in a city like Paris or London or Oxford is manifestly in a state of mortal sin ... Of course all of them aren't. But ... well, if I were to design one of those great baroque pictures abounding in allegorical figures of Virtues and Vices, I think I might portray Decadence and Atrocity in covert alliance. Perhaps we will not be free from our present woes until, as a society, we can again pray and hope for ... peace indeed, but peace-with-the-intention-that, as a community, we will be able joyously to throng our churches; so that in every part of our lives, communally and individually, we may serve Christ our King.
Her Immaculate Heart will prevail. If I could tell you when, I would.
*A crude translation of the rather erratic Latin translation in the breviary, itself lifted from Migne PG 98. I have given one or two interesting phrases from the original Greek. The breviary text omits a prayer for the Byzantine army!