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.

Bearing the Failings of the Weak

25210883198_a8c8ee7cb4_mIn Romans 15:1-7, St Paul offers his understanding of how Christians should deal with disagreements within the Christian community.  He offers this same teaching several times in his letters to the churches.  The framework is that we are to love one another, but he is trying to apply it practically to a situation where different opinions arise on an issue.   He wants to help the local community learn how to be of one mind even as there are disagreements about various practices.   St Paul is not here writing about doctrinal issues but about pious practices within a community.   St Paul acknowledges that some people are more tolerant of divergent practices than others.  Some people are zealous, some have a strict interpretation of what is allowed, while others think pious practices are of no real significance.  His solution is that when parishioners are uncomfortable with what others are doing, love requires that those who are strong in the faith have to lovingly be patient with those who are weak in the faith.  The strong in faith are not those who have the greatest scruples, but rather those who are not bothered by various practices and who don’t worry if not everyone measures up to a standard.  St Paul sees those who are weak in faith are much more subject to being scrupulous about every detail of the rules.  But he does not comment that strong vs weak means better vs worse or right vs wrong.  He recognizes only that there are divergent opinions about divergent practices and he hopes people can recognize that what is really important is that we learn to live in love for one another as Jesus commanded.  St Paul writes:

We then who are strong (who have power/strength, dynamis) ought to bear with the scruples/weaknesses/failings of the weak (adynamis, those without power/strength), and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification. For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.” For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.

The strong have to bear not just those who lack strength but have to bear with their failings.  The strong have to pick up the slack, even if they aren’t personally bothered by some behaviors, they have a responsibility not to offend those who have many scruples or who have a hard time keeping the faith to the full.

St Paul says the strong have to bear with the weak.   Bear – this is the same word as Christ uses in telling us to take up/bear the cross to follow Him.  It is the same word used to describe Christ bearing his own cross in John 19:17.  We can remember also that Christ bore our sins on the cross as well as bearing the cross itself!

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The strong bearing with the weak is the opposite of social Darwinism – which advocates the survival of the fittest.   For St Paul, following Christ means the strong have to help the weak and wait for them and care for them, not forget about them, or leave them in their problems.  Christian love is not about competing with others to get ahead, but is about community where one works with and for everyone else.

In Galatians 6:2 St Paul says to bear one another’s burdens to fulfill the law of Christ.   We are to bring the weak to God, not leave them to their own devices or to sleep in the beds they have made for themselves.  We are to help the weak with their struggles, this is the Law of Christ.  This is the Gospel.

Throughout the Liturgy we sing “Lord have mercy!”  This is the petition of all of us, but especially of the strong for the weak.  The petitions are not time for us to sit down and take a time out during the Liturgy but exactly the times in the Liturgy when we take up the burden of others.  We come to church to do the communal work of God (the Liturgy), which means lifting up the weak and needy in your prayers.

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Here is a story from the desert fathers about how one saintly monk attempted to bear with the burden of a weak brother:

When the abbot of the monastery was going to start the Divine Liturgy he discovered that the priestly stole was missing.  The abbot said there would be no Liturgy until the stole is returned.  Nothing happened.  So the abbot ordered that every room in the monastery was to be searched.  One young monk immediately went to an old monk who had the reputation of being a saint, and he confessed to the old man that he had taken the stole.    The older monk told the young monk not to fear but to hide the stole in his cell.  So of course the stole is found in the old monk’s cell.  Despite his reputation as a saint, the other monks are furious at the old man and denounce him as a fraud and a thief.  They severely beat him.  The old man begs for mercy and promises to repent, but the other monks do not want a thief in their monastery and expel him from the monastery.   The monks then assemble in the church for Liturgy, but God sends an angel to the church and prevents the abbot from approaching the altar.  The abbot tells the brothers that they need to bring the old man back and be compassionate toward him.  They bring the old monk back and the angel allows the Liturgy to proceed.

The old man bore with the weakness not only of the young monk but with all the other monks.

St Paul concludes the lesson of Romans 15:1-7 with these words: Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.

We are to receive each other as Christ received us.  We are to welcome one another as Christ welcomed us.  We are to treat others as Christ treats us.  This is the rule of community which St Paul believes fulfills the law of Christ.

Christ does not require us to be in his good favor before allowing us in His presence.  While we were still sinners Christ died for us.  He came to seek and save sinners.  We are here because Christ sought us out as sinners and we have accepted Christ’s invitation to live according to His commandments.

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A final good example of how this principle worked in St Paul’s favor.  From Acts 9:10-17 –

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for a man of Tarsus named Saul; for behold, he is praying, and he has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon thy name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Ananias had heard about Saul and how Saul totally opposed Christianity.  He wanted nothing to do with Saul and certainly did not want to help him.  If Saul was suffering, he deserved it.  Christ tells Ananias to show Saul what Christian love is.  And the rest is history.

Romans 12:9-21

In Romans 12:9-21, St Paul lists a variety of attitudes, feelings and behaviors which he believes are genuinely Christian, and thus to be put into practice by all who follow Christ.  The list is simple and straightforward, so no commentary is needed.  We only need to put them into practice in our hearts, minds and lives to demonstrate our own desire to be disciples of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.

Let love be genuine;

hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;

love one another with brotherly affection;

outdo one another in showing honor.

Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord.

Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.

Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Live in harmony with one another;

do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited.

Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.

If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Repentance: So God Can Enter My Heart

“’My victory is Your victory,’ David says to the Lord, ‘and my defeat, which is my sin, is likewise a loss for Your glory, for it interrupts the advance of Your glory in the hearts of men.’  It follows, then, that when we don’t repent, when we have no awareness of our sin, when we are without tears, when we are content to lie in the muck of our sins, we implicate God Himself in our fall. Have we sinned? Do we remain in our sin? If so, then He cries out: ‘They cast me out, the beloved, as a corpse to be despised.’

When I reject the way of repentance, I reject God. When I choose to remain in sin, I expel God from my heart. But as soon as I turn from my sin, God enters my heart. And when He does, I discover my place in the Church, which is His body and His bride.” 

(Archimandrite Aimilianos, Psalms and the Life of Faith, p. 221)

2019 Post-Pascha to Pentecost Posts

35162630206_33a960e501_mAll of the posts related to the themes of the Post-Paschal Sundays for 2019 have been gathered into one file and are now available at Post Paschal Sundays (PDF).

You can find PDF links for all of the posts on my Blog for each of the past 11 years for Christmas, the Pre-Lenten Sundays, Great Lent, Holy Week, Pascha and Bright Week, and the Post-Paschal Sundays at  Fr. Ted’s PDFs.

Denying the Self

Throughout our life, we go through many changes, experiences many ups and downs. Today we are children of the light (cf. Jn 12:36), but tomorrow we are filled with doubts and wonder: ‘Who is God? Where is God? God has forgotten me.’ This happens because the ego has placed itself in opposition to God, has made a god of itself, and it is impossible for the two to coexist. The presence of one requires the absence of the other. It’s as if two mighty gods, the God of my salvation and the god I have made out of myself, have come into conflict. If the ego wins, I will experience psychological isolation, which will include isolation from those around me, along with feelings of bitterness and sorrow. These feelings are the proof that the ego has rejected the God of salvation. The ‘ego’ – taken to include body, soul and spirit – has sent God into exile. Before this happens I am locked in a struggle with God, and woe to me if I should win.

…If, however, I am victorious; if I decide to put my ego to death, then the King of Glory will rise from the dead (Ps 23:7), the Lord of my salvation (Ps. 87:1; Is 38:20) for whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Mt 16:24). The darkness of my isolation will be dispersed by the light of God, and He Himself will be my companion; He will grant me genuine spiritual life, which is something greater than my life, for it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20). I shall discover that Christ lives in me. His experiences shall become mine. This is the goal of my struggling; this is why I wrestle with God. And it is not just my struggle, but the struggle of every soul, and of the Church as a whole.”

(Archimandrite Aimilianos, Psalms and the Life of Faith, p. 218-219, 219-220).

In the Canon of Repentance of St Andrew of Crete we contemplate the following words which mark the same struggle between ego and God:

I have become an idol to myself, utterly defiling my soul with the passions, O compassionate Lord.  But accept me in repentance and allow me to behold your presence.  May the Enemy never possess me; may I never fall prey to him.  O Savior, have mercy on me.

True Orthodoxy

A meditation for the Sunday of Orthodoxy

“In the course of my own winding, pilgrim’s, road to Orthodoxy it was the tangible sense of beauty that served as a constant allure. It was the radiant kindness of a few luminous souls, several of them bishops and priests, that made flesh for me what I had been searching for, not so much the zealotry that many were eager to offer me as their witness to the truth. Years later I came across a saying of St Symeon the New Theologian to the effect that a candle can only be lit from the flame of another living candle, and it struck me as exactly apposite.

When Truth is a living person, we can no longer try to make it synonymous with mere accuracy. What is at stake is more a question of authenticity. Orthodoxy is often approached by those outside it as a system of doctrines. But it is far more than this, and this is why a book of systematic theology does not quite capture reality. Orthodoxy is the living mystery of Christ’s presence in the world: a resurrectional power of life. It cannot be understood, except by being fully lived out; just as Christ himself cannot be pinned down, alaysed, digested, or dismissed, by the clever of this world, whom he seems often to baffle deliberately. His message is alive in the world today as much as when he first preached it.

The Orthodox Church is, essentially, his community of disciples trying to grow into his image and likeness, by their mystical assimilation to the Master who abides among them.”

(Fr. John A. McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, p. XI)

Going to Confession

In confession a man breaks through to certainty. Why is it that it is often easier for us to confess our sins to God than to a brother? God is holy and sinless, He is a just judge of evil and the enemy of all disobedience. But a brother is sinful as we are. He knows from his own experience the dark night of secret sin. Why should we not find it easier to go to a brother than to the holy God? But if we do, we must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God, whether we have not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution. And is not the reason perhaps for our countless relapses and the feebleness of our Christian obedience to be found precisely in the fact that we are living on self-forgiveness and not a real forgiveness? Self-forgiveness can never lead to a breach with sin; this can be accomplished only by the judging and pardoning Word of God itself.

Who can give us the certainty that, in the confession and the forgiveness of our sins, we are not dealing with ourselves but with the living God? God gives us this certainty through our brother. Our brother breaks the circle of self-deception. A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person. As long as I am by myself in the confession of my sins everything remains in the dark, but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light. But since the sin must come to light some time, it is better that is happens today between me and my brother, rather than on the last day in the piercing light of the final judgment. It is a mercy that we can confess our sins to a brother. Such grace spares us the terrors of the last judgment. Our brother has been given me that even here and now I may be certain through him of the reality of God in His judgment and His grace.

As the open confession of my sins to a brother insures me against self-deception, so, too, the assurance of forgiveness becomes fully certain to me only when it is spoken by a brother in the name of God. Mutual, brotherly confession is given to us by God in order that we may be sure of divine forgiveness. But it is precisely for the sake of this certainty that confession should deal with concrete sins. People usually are satisfied when they make a general confession. But one experiences the utter perdition and corruption of human nature, in so far as this ever enters into experience at all, when one sees his own specific sins. Self-examination on the basis of all Ten Commandments will therefore be the right preparation for confession. Otherwise it might happen that one could still be a hypocrite even in confessing to a brother and thus miss the good of the confession.

Jesus dealt with people whose sins were obvious, with publicans and harlots. They knew why they needed forgiveness, and they received it as forgiveness of their specific sins. Blind Bartimaeus was asked by Jesus: What do you want me to do for you? Before confession we must have a clear answer to this question. In confession we, too, receive the forgiveness of the particular sins which are here brought to light, and by this very token the forgiveness of all our sins, known and unknown.”

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, pp 138-141)

There is a lot to digest in the quote above, but for us Orthodox, this week, we might pay attention especially to the last paragraph as we prepare for our own confessions.  We should have an answer for the last question when we come to Christ in our own confession – Christ asks us, “what do you want me to do for you?”  What do I need from Christ at the end of my confession?  What do I want from Christ as I confess my sins?    If the answer is “nothing, I’m just fulfilling my obligation”, then we will receive nothing for sure.   Do we want forgiveness of our sins?  Do we want healing of our souls?  Do we want to be cleansed of our sins?  Do we want Christ to abide in our hearts?  Do we want  to be able to forgive others?   Do we want to move in a new direction in life?  Do we want to move toward the Kingdom of God?  Do we want to be able to love others as Christ loves us?

The Dangers of Discipleship

At the same time, he [Jesus] emphasizes from the start the controversial nature of this mission, which would be fulfilled in spite of the longstanding laws of both the Jewish and Gentile worlds, which would provoke anger, rejection, and malice, and which would be the cause of family strife. He does not behave at all as a Jewish rabbi of his time would, who probably would promise his disciples various blessings, predict success in other undertakings, and teach them how to achieve it. Jesus says nothing of the sort. He does not promise his disciples success, happiness in their personal life, material prosperity, or spiritual comfort. He does not promise them acceptance from their compatriots, the Gentiles, or even their close relatives.

We can only guess what sort of reaction such predictions elicited from the disciples. As John Chrysostom writes:

For indeed we have great cause to marvel, how they did not straightway dart away from Him on hearing these things, apt as they were to be startled at every sound, and such as had never gone further than that lake, around which they used to fish; and how they did not reflect, and say to themselves, “And wither after all this are we to flee? The courts of justice against us, the kings against us, the governors, the synagogues of the Jews, the nations of the Gentiles, the rulers and the ruled.”

(Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Jesus Christ: His Life and Teaching, p. 425)