The Greatest is Love

If there is no love, other blessings profit us nothing. Love is the mark of the Lord’s disciples, it stamps the servants of God, by it we recognize his apostles. Christ said: “This is how all will know you for my disciples.” By what? Tell me. Was it by raising the dead or by cleansing lepers or by driving out demons? No. Christ passed over all these signs and wonders when he said: “This is how all will know you for my disciples: your love for one another.

For the power to perform those other wonders is a gift which comes only through a grace from on high. This gift of love must also be achieved through man’s own earnestness and zeal. A man’s nobility does not usually stamp the gifts which are given from above in the same way as it marks the achievements which come from a man’s own efforts. Therefore, Christ said that his disciples are recognized not by miracles but by love. For when love is present, the one who possesses it lacks no portion of wisdom but has the fullness of complete and perfect virtue. In the same way, when love is not there, man is bereft of every blessing. This is why Paul exalts love and lifts it on high in what he writes. Still, for all he may say about love, he never fully explains its true worth.

(St. John Chrysostom, On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, pp. 52-53)

You Are the Body of Christ

St Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:9-17 –

For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are. 

The foundation of any parish community is laid down by the Apostles: the foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord.  We the parish members build upon that foundation.  The foundation is solid, a rock that can weather any storm.   “Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock” (Matthew 7:24-25).

Time will test what we have built, what our parish community is  – whether what we built is gold or straw as St Paul mentioned.  The testing will come and purify the gold or burn the straw, but we will be saved.   What we built is you, the Body of Christ, our parish community.   We build up one another.  You are God’s holy temple, it is not the edifice, but the people that we have been building into a living temple.   “Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4). God’s Spirit dwells in you, in us, and it is one another that we are to love, not church buildings as beautiful as they may be.  The building is a tool for the upbuilding, the edification of us, God’s people.

St Irenaeus said, “Where Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”   We build the parish community around Christ, to be the Church, to be the dwelling place of God’s Holy Spirit.

At every Liturgy, the priest says: “Christ is in our midst.”   Christ is here in the midst of the parishioners gathered together at the Liturgy.   We gather around Him, we are built up into the Church, we are edified by Christ.  We become His Body in the world doing His ministry for the world.

Jesus said, “Where 2 or 3 are gathered in my Name, there  I am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).   Christ is in our midst, and we are in Him.  We have become His Body.  It is not simply or only the consecrated bread which becomes the Body of Christ, we the members of the Church also become His Body and we pray for that at every Liturgy.  We pray that the Holy Spirit will first come upon us the parish members and then upon the offered bread so that both will be the Body of Christ.

The foundation of the parish is Jesus Christ.  We are to build upon that foundation.

St Paul never envisions the Church as a building nor as the clergy.  He always speaks in the plural:  “You (all) are the Body of Christ.

Rowing Against the Wind

In Matthew 14:22-34, we learn an important lesson about being Christ’s disciples.

Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away. And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there. But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary. Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.” And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” So He said, “Come.”

And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!” And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. Then those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, “Truly You are the Son of God.” When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret.

Did Jesus promise His followers a life free from trials and tribulations?  No .  Jesus said, “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

In today’s Gospel, we see the disciples rowing against the howling wind.  But the fact that they are going against the wind doesn’t mean they are headed in the wrong direction or that they are moving away from Christ.  In this Gospel lesson, that raging wind is necessary for their encounter with Christ and for their understanding to grow.

We sense their and our powerlessness in the world – they are too far from the shore for help.  The wind might capsize their boat and sink their mission.   Not only are they being blasted by the wind but their faith is being buffeted by the winds of disbelief.  There is more than one storm raging on that lake.

I remember once when I was in Costa Rica we were trying to get out to a boat that was in the bay.  We had to climb into very small motor boat which had landed on the beach to get to our ship.  A storm happened upon us at that very second.  The wind was blowing the waves roiling.  And this little motor boat was rickety and the crew was a couple of 20 year olds with limited English.  As I climbed into the boat with my kids, I really did think we were going to be capsized and drown.  A few people refused to get on board.  The two young crew men pleaded with them, “We don’t want to drown either” but some abandoned ship and stayed ashore.  The little boat was full of leaks and we had to bail water out of it for the entire trip to our ship, while being tossed by the storm .  It was an apostolic moment in my life.

It might be piously inspiring if in the Gospel we were to see the disciples calmly praying through the storm.  Not so in the Gospel.  They are struggling against the storm and they are panicked and terrified.   Jesus comes to them in the storm, walking on the raging sea.  He doesn’t prevent the storm from happening.  We find Him in the storm and there we are to be strengthened and comforted, calmed and guided in and through the storm.  The values of the Kingdom of Heaven are so unworldly.

The Storms of life are many – violence, stress, financial, family, death, grief, personal struggles, temptations, passions, diseases .  Christ still can be encountered in the storm.  The storms are no less violent, but we can find God if we are looking and we can hold on to God just as Peter grasped the hand of Christ.

In the Orthodox Funeral service we sing:  “Beholding the sea of life surging with the storms of temptations.  And taking refuge in your calm haven I cry to you: Raise up my life from corruption O greatly merciful one.”

We are reminded that there are so many storms we have to face in life.

Just this year Dayton has survived several storms of life – the KKK rally and counter protest, the Memorial Day tornadoes and the mass shooting.

Jesus calls to us from the midst of the storm:  “Take courage! Don’t be afraid!  It is I”   Can we hear Him despite the raging wind of the storm?  Or are we of so little faith that all we hear is the roaring storm and can only imagine human solutions to worldly disasters?

We are Christ’s presence in this stormy world.  In that storm we are to be present offering our hand to those who are drowning.   God is not hidden in heaven, God is present in the midst of the storm.  Besides, as the Scriptures show raging winds are not only threatening but can be useful:

At creation:  “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit/wind of God was moving over the face of the waters.”   (Genesis 1:2)

In the great flood:  But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided;   (Genesis 8:1)

In Exodus 15:10  after Israel crosses the Red Sea, Moses describes God’s intervention to save Israel from the Egyptian army in these terms:  You blew with Your wind, the sea covered them; they sank as lead in the mighty waters.

In Ezekiel 37:9, Ezekiel is given a vision of the resurrection and is told by God:  “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”  When the wind blew the dead came back to life.

In the book of Jonah, it is the wind which prevents Jonah from running away from the Lord, from going the wrong way:  But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. (1:4)

In the Gospel we see Jesus showing His power over nature as He walks on the storm tossed waters.  We see Peter, a disciple, being given power to imitate our Lord in the midst of the storm.  And we see how we as disciples are dependent on Christ even when empowered by Him.

Peter asked permission to walk on the water.  Christ responds not with an invitation but with a command: “Come!”  Jesus orders Peter to walk on the water!  As Peter walks on the water he and the other disciples are amazed and edified as they learn to what extent they can share in the powers of God’s Son on earth.  As soon as Peter loses sight of the fact that this miracle, that he is walking on water, is being done to edify him and the other disciples, he is sunk.  No miracle, no power of God is given to us to elevate us above anyone else.  All are given to edify us and everyone else.  Nothing is between you and Christ alone.  Everything is done in love for the benefit of all.  Sinking in the storm sea brought Peter back to his senses and he turns again to Christ.

All miracles are done to the glory of God and for the upbuilding of one another.  All miracles are done in order to increase faith and for the edification of all.  Even Peter’s failure was a lesson for all in discipleship.   Let all you do be done in love.

In Praise of the Virgin Mary

She was a person of discernment, full of the love of God, 

because our Lord does not dwell where there is no love. 

When the Great King desired to come to our place, 

He dwelt in the purest shrine of all the earth because it pleased Him.

He dwelt in a spotless womb which was adorned with virginity, 

and with thoughts which were worthy of holiness. 

…Since a woman like her had never been seen, 

an amazing work was done in her which was the greatest of all. 

A daughter of men was sought among women;

she was chosen who was the fairest of all.

The holy Father wanted to make a mother for his Son, 

but He did not allow that she be his mother because of his choice. 

Maiden, full of beauty hidden in her and around her, 

and pure of heart that she might see the mysteries which had come to pass in her.

This is beauty, when one is beautiful of one’s own accord;

glorious graces of perfection are in her will.

However great be the beauty of something from God,

it is not acclaimed if freedom is not present. 

The sun is beautiful but is not praised by spectators, 

because it is known that its will does not give it light.

Whoever is beautiful of his own accord and possesses beauty,

on this account he is truly acclaimed if he is beautiful. 

Even God loves beauty which is from the will; 

He praises a good will whenever this has pleased Him.

(Jacob of Serug, On the Mother of God, pp. 24 & 25)

Mary: The Face of the World

The Son of God comes to earth, God appears in order to redeem the world, He becomes human to incorporate man into His Divine vocation, but humanity takes part in this. If it is understood that Christ’s ‘co-nature’ with us is Christianity’s greatest joy and depth, that He is a genuine human being and not some phantom or bodiless apparition, that he is one of us and forever united to us through his humanity, then devotion to Mary also becomes understandable, for she is the one who gave Him His human nature, His flesh and blood. She is the one through whom Christ can always call Himself ‘The Son of Man.’ 

…She is the New Eve because of God’s request that she answered, ‘I am the servant of the Lord, be it done to me according to his word.’ At that moment all human ‘structures’ which originated in man’s alienation from God -freedom and authority, rights and obligations, etc. – all this was transcended. The new life entered the world as life of communion and love, not of ‘authority’ and ‘submission.’ Thus, being the ‘icon’ of the Church, Mary is the image and the personification of the world. When God looks at his creation, the ‘face’ of the world is feminine, not masculine.”

(Alexander Schmemman, Celebration of Faith: Sermons Vol. 2, p. 23 & 65)

Feast of the Dormition (2019)

The Latin word “Dormitory” is about the same as the Greek word “Cemetery” both meaning a  sleeping place or a place to lie down to rest. It is from these words that we get the title for the Feast of the Dormition (whether in Greek, Latin or English)  – the “falling asleep” of the Virgin Mary, her death.  In John 11:11, Jesus says “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.”   Jesus means Lazarus has died.

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What was Jesus’ reaction when He came to the tomb of His good friend Lazarus – Jesus wept.  Even knowing what He was going to do – raise Lazarus from the dead – even knowing that death was but a sleep, still Jesus wept at His friend’s tomb.  It was a very human reaction, as all of us, who have suffered grief when a loved one dies, know.

The Feast of Dormition of the Virgin Mary became common in Orthodoxy only in the late 5th and early 6th Centuries.  Relatively speaking it occurs late in Christian history.  That is true because it is a Feast based in theology more than history.  It is based in the highly developed theology of Christianity that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God and Mary is the Theotokos, the human through whom the incarnation, our salvation, became possible.  It is in the light of the theology that the Feast is born.

The theology led people to reflect on if Jesus wept at His friend Lazarus’ death, how did He react to His own mother’s death?  For at her death He was no longer just walking on earth but was glorified in heaven – the Pantocrator.  And at Mary’s death it is from heaven that Christ comes, no longer weeping at death, but triumphing over it.  So in the Feast, the theologically image (icon) is Jesus triumphing over death.  The death of the Virgin is recast theologically as her resurrection from the dead because Her Dormition is turned into Christ’s triumph over death.

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Jesus is glorified as Lord, God and Savior of the world, of everyone, and so His Mother is viewed as the Mother of the Savior of the world.  Not just the savior of the Church.  His Mother thus has a role in all creation and for all humanity.  In this sense she is a cosmic figure as well.  Salvation, after all, as we profess in the Divine Liturgy, is for the life of the world and for all mankind.

In the hymns of the Church, when Mary is portrayed as the earthly mother of Jesus, the focus is often on her sorrow as she stands by the cross on which her Son is crucified.  She grieves at the mystery of the death of her Son, the savior of the world.  The emphases of these hymns when they focus on the maternal nature of Mary is frequently her love for Christ as He dies for the world and because of the sins of the world.   Her sorrow is maternal, pure love.  It is a sorrow that causes her to weep for all people, that our lives, our sins, mean Her Son must die on the cross for us.  Her grief, her weeping over her Son’s death, is the end result of all of our sins.  Her grief is directly caused by our sin – the connection between the sting of death and sin is made most clear in the images of Mary weeping over her murdered son.

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But Mary who is so frequently portrayed as weeping and lamenting at the Cross is also called “The Joy of All Who Sorrow”.  The Virgin is the symbol of all who sorrow because of the world and the sin of the world is also the symbol of all of those who know the great joy of God’s promises fulfilled.

Every Sunday in the Divine Liturgy when we sing the Beatitudes in the 3rd Antiphon, we sing “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  Mary is the image of the one who mourns who now stands eternally comforted by God.

Abba Longinus from the desert fathers said:  “In the beginning, God did not make man for sorrowing, but so that he might have joy and gladness, thus glorifying him in purity and sinlessness like the angels.  But when man fell into sin, he needed tears, and so it has been ever since.  On the other hand, where there is no sin, there is no further need for tears.”

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Mary is the one in whom sin is overcome and who needs no tears for sin because she knows her son has triumphed over sin and death.  We have these images from the book of Revelation:

For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”  (7:17)

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” (21:1-5)

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In our Church, Mary, the Theotokos is a symbol of that adorned Bride coming out of heaven bringing God’s comfort to all who mourn.

In the Orthodox funeral service there is a hymn which asks, “What earthly joy is unmixed with grief?”  This hymn reflects a thought of St John Chrysostom who writes:

“The joy of this earth is necessarily mixed with sadness; you will never find it in a pure state.  The other joy of eternal life is true without deceit; it contains no threat of disappointment, no mixture with a foreign element.  That is the happiness which we must enjoy, and which we are to pursue.  Now there is no other way of obtaining it than the habit of choosing in this world what is profitable rather than what is pleasant, of accepting small hardships willingly and of bearing all the accidents of life thankfully.”

Chrysostom goes on to say that if we can remember that this world has sorrow in it ever since the first sin of Eve and Adam, and that death is now part of this world, we can learn not to get so attached to the things of this world, even the good and beautiful things, but rather we can learn to desire the things of the world to come which are not mixed with grief but are pure joy.  He said this knowledge – that this world has grief and the world to come is pure joy – should lead us to true mourning and weeping, a sorrow not over one’s death, but over the fact that the world is corrupted by sin.  The true mourning is the beginning of repentance for our own misdeeds as well as a desire for and a love of life in the Kingdom which is to come.

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As we celebrate the Dormition we see the Virgin Theotokos as the one who knows the greatest joy of God’s promise and the depths of sorrow caused by the sin of the world.

We learn the truth of a world corrupted by sin, yet saved and made whole by the love of God and the death and resurrection of Christ.  The Virgin’s death becomes for us the symbol of hope, for Christ no longer weeps at death, not even His mother’s death, but overcomes death in, through and with His heavenly Kingdom.

A Brief History of the Feast of the Dormition

The history of how the Dormition of the Theotokos became one of the Major Feasts of the Orthodox Church calendar year is an interesting one.  Historically,  fascination with and reverence for Mary as Theotokos grew as the theologians of the Church reflected on and marveled at the divinity of Christ.  The incarnation of God (which is the salvation of humanity!) is only possible through the Theotokos.  As the centuries passed, the Church emphasis on Christ’s divinity increased and His humanity was subsumed into His divinity,  Christ became revered ever more as the eternal pantocrator.    The focus on Jesus became of Him as Lord, God and Savior, a  heavenly person.  Mary too became more drawn into heaven as its queen.  As a consequence, Mary’s place in the Church grew and she became larger than life and took a unique place in the divine pantheon – More honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim.  As the Dionysian celestial hierarchy became the common cosmology, Mary’s role as beyond that celestial hierarchy grew.   The effect on piety was that  less and less could the theologians countenance that Mary’s death could have been an obscure and unrecorded event.  They assumed in later centuries the fact that there was no tomb with a body meant that something miraculous must have happened to her body.  It didn’t seem possible that such a great personage, an almost divine figure for them, could have been ignored by earlier generations.  So they were ready to accept stories of her miraculous death as being true.  The appearance of the Dionysian corpus in the 6th Century was the welcomed proof of the earliest origins of the Feast of the Dormition.

We learn a great deal about the history of the Feast of the Dormition in the book ON THE DORMITION OF MARY: EARLY PATRISTIC HOMILIES.

The story of Mary’s glorious end, which was to become common coin by the end of the 6th Century, appears in a variety of earlier forms that are difficult to date with certainty.  Most scholars agree that the oldest extant witness to the story is provided by a group of Syriac fragments … a narrative usually dated to the second half of the fifth Century.  The earliest Greek accounts… usually dated to the late fifth or early sixth century.”  (p 7)

By the second half of the sixth Century, it is clear that the story of Mary’s transition from earth to heaven had come to be accepted as part of Christian tradition in both the Chalcedonian and the non-Chalcedonian Churches of the East.”  (p 9)

The oldest known accounts of the Dormition come only from the second half of the Fifth Century (after 450AD).  This means many of the great Patristic writers of the 4th-5th Century would not have known of the story, which is why they don’t mention it.  Liturgically celebrating the stories of Mary’s death gain popularity rather late in Orthodox history becoming common in the Fifth and Sixth centuries.  The story of the Dormition seemed to be a crowning proof of the incarnation, resurrection and salvation of humanity which was understood as union with God.  There was some resistance to the rising popularity of the Dormition Feast as the Church was aware that most of the information about her death came from spurious sources that were not only non-canonical but in some cases suspected as heretical.

The Western Church did not accept the feast into its calendar until the end of the seventh century, and a Latin version of the narrative of the Mary’s Dormition had been listed among the apocrypha of heretical  origin in the Decretum Gelasianum, an official list of canonical and uncanonical  works composed either during or shortly after the time of Pope Gelasius 9 (492-496).  (p 68)

As early as Origen (d. 253AD), however, Christian scholars were aware of the mythical and often Gnostic character of many of the acts of the apostles.  (p 68)

For a conservative church that prided itself on keeping tradition, explanations had to be found for why earlier generations did not know of or keep the Feast of the Dormtion. Fourth Century Epiphanius of Salamis notes:

“one will find neither the death of Mary, nor whether she died or did not die, nor whether she was buried or was not buried … Scripture is silent, because of the exceeding greatness of the Mystery, so as not to overpower people’s minds with wonder.”  (p 5)

Epiphanius is struck by the complete lack of reliable witness to what happened to Mary at the end of her life.  Absolutely nothing is recorded in the official tradition which he knew in the 4th Century.  He will make an argument from silence about what it means: the mystery of her death is so great that people piously avoided writing about it as the faithful were not prepared to contemplate the mystery.  This explanation lends itself to then focusing on the miraculous elements of the story: the ancients were silent because of the great mystery, so the preachers decided to elucidate the greatness of the mystery so the faithful would understand why earlier generations didn’t even speak about it.  This was all compounded by the rhetorical tendency of the preachers to elaborate the theme and find new and greater ways to praise the mystery.  That is obvious throughout the book’s collection of sermons on the Dormition – each preacher wants to outdo all the previous ones in praising the amazing events, and so they embellish the praise, taking it to ever greater rhetorical heights.

John of Thessalonica (d. 649AD) puzzles over why the great Orthodox city of Thessalonica was only in his day (7th Century) beginning to celebrate the Dormition which he mistakenly believes was an event known in Christian antiquity.

“… some people committed to writing the wonderful things that happened in her regard at that time.  Practically every place under heaven celebrates every year the memory of her going to her rest, with the exception of only a few, including the region around this divinely protected city of Thessalonica. Why is this? … Our forebears, then, were neither heedless nor lazy; yet although those who were present then [at Mary’s death] described her end truthfully, we are told, mischievous heretics later corrupted their accounts by adding words of their own, and for this reason our ancestors distanced themselves from these accounts as not in accord with the catholic Church.  For this reason, the feast [of her Dormition] passed, among them, into oblivion.”     (p 47-48)

John has already come to accept as tradition that the stories of Mary’s Dormition were written about the time they actually happened.  He assumes the stories of her Dormition are historically accurate and reliable.  He either has heard or assumes that virtually all other cities in the Empire celebrate the Dormition except a very few and his own city is one that does not.  He doesn’t conclude that Thessalonica is thus keeping and defending the more ancient tradition, rather he has a very pious explanation – their city forefathers were aware that heretics had altered the stories of the Dormition and to protect the city from false teachings had decided to stop commemorating the Dormition.  Apparently he thought in his day they now had the true version of the Dormition story so they could celebrate the feast.

Whereas earlier generations of Christians shied away from the Dormition stories because they saw them coming from heretical, Gnostic or suspect sources,  John thinks the sources are true but later generations of heretics altered them and so by going back to the sources they are embracing the correct tradition.  It is a wonderful twist of logic.

Orthodox scholar Carrie Frederick Frost says that today, “The tales included in the Book of James are not considered by Orthodox to be historical and incontrovertible fact, but instead are understood as meaningful reflections on the life of Jesus and his mother.” (MATERNAL BODY, p 7)

St Andrew of Crete (d. ca 726AD) writing even later in history is still struggling with why the Dormition which by his day was a well established Feast throughout Orthodoxy is not found in the canonical scriptures or in the witness of many of the great Fathers of the Church.  It does strike him as unbelievable that the apostles and eyewitnesses of Christ didn’t write about such a great event as the Dormition.

“Someone truly eager for knowledge might well wonder why none of the sacred writers, as far as we know, wrote about the immaculate, supernatural passing of the Mother of God, or left us any account of it at all, in the way they composed the divine book of the Gospels or gave us other revelations of the mystery of God.

Truly for Andrew it is hard to believe no one in the ancient church bothered to record the spectacular events of the Dormition.  He will offer several possible explanations as to why this might be true, but he doesn’t commit himself to any of them.  Because the Feast has become so popular, he doesn’t even entertain the idea that maybe the ancients didn’t keep the Feast because they in fact didn’t know about it.  But he knows there are some serious questions about the veracity of the events being celebrated.   His mental dissonance is relieved by several different possible explanations, but then he has an ace card in the end which assures him of the truthfulness of the Feast.

Our answer is: she whom God took as his own fell asleep much later [then the events of the Gospels] – for it is said that she had reached extreme old age when she departed from this world.  Or perhaps the times may not then have favored a full account of these events; it was not appropriate for those sowing the seed of the news of God’s saving plan to speak in detail of these things, at the same time they were writing the Gospels, since these events needed another, specific and very deliberate kind of treatment, not possible at that moment.  If, on the other had, the reason for their silence is that the inspired writers were only telling the story of God’s plan of salvation up to the end of the Word’s presence among us in flesh, and that they simply did not [choose to] reveal anything that happened after Jesus was taken up from the earth, I can accept this as well.

Andrew does not fully embrace any one explanation for why the ancient tradition of the church is silent on the Dormition.  His comments – ‘or perhaps’ and “‘if the reason is’ and ‘I can accept this as well’ – seem to me to be an acknowledgment that none of the arguments in themselves convince him, but since there are several possibilities he is willing to accept that one of them probably is true.  He is comfortable enough with there being different possibilities, even it no one of them is completely convincing.  He is not completely sure which of the arguments actually settles the case. He goes on:

But lest some wonder why  we have so much to say, while tradition is completely silent about today’s mystery, I think it would be good to add to my own words what I have been able to find [in the tradition], to support and confirm what I propose for your reflection.  For even it the mystery appears only obscurely in the sacred literature, it has not remained completely unmentioned in their pages.    It was, in fact, referred to by a man learned in sacred doctrine, who, they say, investigated holy things with wisdom and erudition… The man was Dionysius.”    (pp 126-127)

The Byzantines were rhetorically profuse, Andrew recognizes this and reflects on the fact that “while tradition is completely(!) silent about today’s mystery [the Dormition]” he and others have plenty to say about the Dormition.   Interesting that he says the tradition is completely silent about the Dormition but then he brings forth that Dionysius, the supposed 1st Century bishop, is the witness from antiquity which makes the whole Dormition true, acceptable and believable.  What he probably is recognizing however is that the Fathers of the earlier centuries never mentioned Dionysius.  That was a mystery that was harder to solve in a church which loved to quote ancient sources to prove the authority of beliefs.   They were not into innovation and so needed tradition to prove the rightfulness of a doctrine or practice.   The early generation of holy patristic luminaries never quoted or mentioned this Dionysius.  The reason as is commonly believed among Orthodox scholars today is that the Dionysian corpus of writings was falsely ascribed to the First Century bishop while in reality it was written only in the 6th Century.  Thus we often see today it referenced as being written by the Psuedo-Dionysius.  As reported in Orthodoxwiki:

Bishop Alexander (Golitzin) of Toledo writes that it is “now recognized as indefensible” that the author of the Dionysian writings could be the first century disciple of St Paul. “The first clearly datable reference to the Dionysian corpus comes to us from …532….” Bishop Alexander’s own suggestion is that the real author of the works was the fifth-century theologian Peter the Iberian.

The Patristic writers of the 6-8th Centuries were true to their conservative nature that all theology needed to be supported by the writings of earlier Church Fathers.  They were handing on an ancient tradition not innovating new practices.  The absence of any recognized tradition related to the Dormition was a dilemma since the Feast fit in so well with the rest of established dogma and in many ways was a crowning of that doctrine of the incarnation and theosis.   The sudden appearance in the Sixth Century of documents claiming to be from a First Century witness, made it possible for the Dormition to be accepted as a traditional Feast in the Orthodox Church.  It proved to the bishops and theologians that the Feast was authentic and ancient.   Their own desire to be conservative and hold to tradition rather than innovation led them to accept as tradition something which was not.

The development through the 6th-8th Centuries of the Feast may show the dubious historical and factual truth of the events being celebrated.  However, they don’t change the theology of what is being celebrated.  The Dormition of the Theotokos is not needed to establish the truth of the incarnation or the resurrection or of theosis.  Rather the Dormition relies on the theological truth of Christ to have any meaning.  The Dormition of the Thetotokos is not foundational to the teachings about Christ, but just further pious meditation on them.

Awakening to Life

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.   (Psalm 116:15)

Seldom do we modern people think of death as being precious.  We generally like to avoid thinking about death and often attempt to turn funerals into a celebration of life.   The Scriptures however tell us that in God’s eyes there is something precious, valuable, sterling in the death of a saint.  For God looks upon us humans from a perspective very different from our own.

The death of a saint is precious in God’s eyes because Life is precious. Life is not made less precious in God’s eyes because there is sickness or sorrow or suffering in it.  For God holds precious the life and the lives who have come into existence in and through God’s created order.  And whether a human lives for 94 years or 94 seconds, they are no less precious to God, for God lives in eternity, not in time, and God does not experience us in time or for a limited amount of time.  God brings us into the timelessness of eternity in order to best experience us.

Unlike God for whom all life is precious, for us humans we more often hold that some life is precious and sometimes life is precious and some lives are more precious than others.  We feel the pain, sorrow and grief when someone we care about suffers or dies.  We feel that for those we care about life is short,  and we understand that giving one’s life in service to others is the ultimate sacrifice, exactly because life is precious.  But we also anguish over and are sunk in doubt when suffering enters into our life or the life of those we care about.  Because life is precious we don’t want those important to us to suffer, we don’t want to suffer ourselves, and we don’t want death to end this short life.

So God sees us from the timeless point of view of eternity, and we see things only from our limited experience within the universe of space and time.

The Scriptures have another view of this and that view combines God’s view with our own.  Life is precious.  But life is also fraught with difficulties – just consider the two Psalms 23 & 91 which mention evil, the valley of the shadow of death, enemies, the deadly pestilence, the terror of the night, the arrow that flies by day, the pestilence that stalks in darkness, the destruction that wastes at noonday.   Sudden death, violence, terrorism, disease, aging, crime, natural disaster, and human made disaster.  The Psalms are quite realistic about all the problems that beset us and threaten this precious life.

The Scriptures are clear that despite all these threats to life, God is love and God finds our lives precious, even if life is cut short, even if the world is awash in sin, even if there are evil divisions between.   God sees through all of these distractions, and sees us as the people created in God’s image and likeness, everyone of us, and God still sees life and people as precious.   All that happens in the world, good and evil, does not change the fact that life is precious in God’s eyes.  And so too precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of God’s saints.  Whatever role they had in the world however great or minor, however long or short, God sees beyond all the things that color our assessment of things and sees the precious human being, that one part of creation created in God’s own image and likeness.  God recognizes in us what God created us for and wants us to be.

And in Scriptures the end of life in this world, death, is often recognized as a rest from the labors and struggles in this world.   Scripture offers comfort to those who are still struggling in this world, still dealing with sickness, sorrow and sighing by calling the death of a person the time when they cease from their labors in this world and enter into their rest.    That is what we read in the writings of St Paul such as 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.  The comfort offered is that death is a sleep, a time of rest, until the Lord awakens us in God’s Kingdom.  The implication is that we lie down in this world to enter into our rest as the twilight of our life comes to an end. The next thing we will know is the morning dawn in God’s kingdom where everything is light.

The preciousness of the death of a saint, of a believer, is that God knows that person will now be with God forever, no longer suffering in this world, no longer toiling, but enjoying the blessedness of all God’s creatures in an eternal life with our Creator.

In the Orthodox tradition we sing a hymn at the funeral service which says:

With the saints give rest, O Lord, to the soul of your servant who has fallen asleep in a place of brightness, a place of repose, where sickness, sorrow and sighing have fled away.

We commit our deceased loved ones to that blessed kingdom where all life is precious in God’s eyes and all feast on the blessedness of seeing God because all the obstacles which prevent us from seeing God in this life have been taken away.

Opening the Eyes of the Blind

In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.  (Isaiah 29:18-19)

Then turning to the disciples he said privately, “Blessed are the eyes which see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”  (Luke 10:23-24)

St Ephrem the Syrian reflecting on blindness (physical and spiritual) and on Christ healing us writes:

“Great is the gift which is cast before our blind eyes:

for even though we all have a pair of eyes each,

few are those who have perceived that gift,

[who are aware of] what it is and from whom it comes. 

Have mercy, Lord, on the blind, for all they can see is gold!

O Jesus who opened the eyes of Bartimaeus,

You opened his eyes that had become blind against his will;

open, Lord, the eyes that of our own will 

we have rendered blind; thus shall Your grace abound. 

The mud [that You made then], Lord, 

Tells us that You are the Son of our Maker. 

(Select Poems, p. 109)

The Work of the Church

The Gospel lesson of Matthew 14:14-22 :

And when Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick.

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Who is in this crowd upon whom Jesus has compassion/mercy?  Some who are sick, lost souls, some seeking God, the walking wounded, those who have lost their faith, the downcast and the outcasts.   But also, there were curiosity seekers, non-believers, some who are hostile to Christ – His enemies.  Throughout the Gospel His enemies follow Him everywhere, listening to His words, gathering evidence against Him – but they are in the mix and often very near Christ for they engage Him in conversation.

Christ ministers to all of them.  His grace, love, mercy, compassion is not limited to His disciples, but extends to all whom He sees.  Jesus teaches us by His own example to love and commands us to love one another in the same that that He loves us.  He is moved by compassion when He looks on us.   We have to be aware of how Christ loves us and to see the world through the eyes of Christ.

How are we to judge others?  With compassion.  Any who come to Christ, who seek Christ for any reason are to be welcomed by us and blessed by us.  This is how the Lord Jesus loves us.  He expects us to love as He loves us.  Is it hard? Yes.  Is it impossible?  Hardly.

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When it was evening, His disciples came to Him, saying, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food.” But Jesus said to them, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” And they said to Him, “We have here only five loaves and two fish.” He said, “Bring them here to Me.” Then He commanded the multitudes to sit down on the grass.

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And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitudes. So they all ate and were filled, and they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments that remained. Now those who had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and children. Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away.

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Jesus does not simply make their hunger go away by divine magic.  Rather, Christ feeds them.  He blesses the only food they had, and feeds 5000 men besides women and children from this food.  The food doesn’t miraculously appear on each plate, but rather the disciples distribute it.  The disciples have to work to make sure the people are fed.  Christ receives from His disciples the food which some people had worked to make possible – bread and fish.  He takes this human made food and blesses it.  There is synergy between the disciples and Christ, working together for the good of all the people.  This is the Church.

Christ entrusts some problems to us His disciples and asks us to deal with the problems.  He doesn’t miraculously make the problems go away.   He says to us: I am not taking hunger away, but I empower you to do the work necessary for these people to feel cared for and to be fed.   The disciples themselves had to provide the food and distribute it.

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We obey Christ not by having problems go away but by dealing with them.  The Gospel lesson began with Jesus seeing the crowd and feeling compassion for them.  The Gospel lesson ends with Jesus feeding them.  It is the work of the Church.