Sermon on the Dormition
On this day of the Dormition of our Lady Theotokos I would like to speak primarily about her place in the history of salvation and just make a few minor references to this feast. The character of my words will be primarily apologetic. Why is that so? Because we, as Orthodox Christians in the Americas, find ourselves in an atmosphere in which we are challenged. The Church in America is a Church in dispersion from its roots. We are a minority among those who call themselves Christians, and engulfed by a multitude of philosophies and religious systems at odds with our Faith. Our Faith is challenged. It is unfortunate, yet not undeniable, that challenges to the Orthodox Faith are occurring not only from without but also sadly from within the Church. Why?
There are truths that we Orthodox acknowledge about Mary, the Birth-giver of God, which may appear problematic to the fallen rational mind. There are truths which some see as mythological and difficult to accept, such as her ever-virginity–that is, physically continuing a virgin before, during and after giving birth, her sinlessness, or her being the highest of all creation. Today’s feast of the Dormition also gives us other examples: the apostles were miraculously brought to Jerusalem, and on the third day it was discovered that her body was translated to heaven. These may indeed be difficult to accept when they are evaluated by the mind acting according to the human reason habitually used for the functions of life in this fallen world. As the Apostle Paul says, “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them because they are spiritually discerned” (ICor, 2:14). Yet the mind has the capability to be trained to act in another way, in a contemplative way, which leads to “direct apprehension of truth through grace” (Writings form the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, p. 37), and it is “by faith that we have access to this grace” (Rom. 5:2). When the mind functions in this capacity it is in its natural place prior to the fall, which is the heart. St. Ignatius Brianchaninov expresses this opinion: “The separation of mind and hear, and their opposition to one another, have resulted from our fall into sin”. (The Arena, p.85)
But when we thus reflect upon the Theotokos, we must consider her in the context of Christology and the history of salvation. This approach is summarized in the Anaphora prayer of St. Basil the Great. In this masterpiece of liturgical prayer, he addresses God the Father:
When Thou didst create man by taking dust from the earth, and didst honor him with Thine own image, O God, Thou dist set him in a paradise of delight, promising him eternal life and the enjoyment of everlasting blessings in the observance of Thy commandments. But when man disobeyed Thee, the true God Who had created him, and was deceived by the guild of the serpent, becoming subject to death through his own transgressions, Thou, O God, in Thy righteous judgment, didst send him forth from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Thy Christ Himself…He was God before the ages, yet he appeared on earth and lived among men, becoming incarnate of a holy Virgin; He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being likened to the body of our lowliness, that He might liken us to the image of His glory. (Service Books of the Orthodox Church, Vol. II pp.71-3)
This is the “mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations…which is Christ in you” (Col. 1:26-7). We have indeed been chosen “in Him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). Our salvation through the Incarnation of Christ has been foreordained by God even before our creation. So then, what was the will and desire of God the Father for His human instrument of the Incarnation of Christ, the most significant woman in the history of the human race? Isn’t it logical that He wanted her to be the highest of all creation, ever virgin–a virgin in conceiving, in giving birth, and after birth-giving and sinless? And that at her funeral all the Apostles should be there; and that her body would not see corruption, but be translated to the heavenly mansions on the third day? Is it possible for the almighty God Who brought all things out of non-existence into being to do this for the woman who would give birth to His Son? It is not only possible but it is logical. It is the logical phenomenon that God would effect.
Now I want to end with something of a little prayerful doxology: May our Lord Jesus Christ, “the true light Who enlightens and sanctifies every man that comes into the world” (cf. John 1:9), open the eyes of our minds to the comprehension of the truth He makes accessible to us in this world; so that acknowledging and worshiping Him as true God and true Man, we may, in an Orthodox manner, magnify her who gave birth to Him. Amen.