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)

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)

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.

Honoring the Theotokos

Mary, Theotokos, we salute you. Precious vessel, worthy of the whole world’s reverence, you are an ever-shining light, the crown of virginity, the symbol of Orthodoxy, an indestructible temple ,the place that held Him whom no place can contain, Mother and Virgin. Because of you the Holy Gospels could say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”

We salute you, for in your holy womb was confined Him who is beyond all limitation. Because of you the Holy Trinity is glorified and adored; the Cross is called precious and is venerated throughout the world; the heavens exult; the angels and archangels make merry; demons are put to flight; the devil, that tempter, is thrust down from heaven; the fallen race of man is taken up on high; all creatures possessed by the madness of idolatry have attained knowledge of the Truth; believers receive Holy Baptism; the oil of gladness is poured out; the Church is established throughout the world; pagans are brought to repentance.

(St. Cyril of Alexandria, Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodian and Pentecostarion, p. 100)

Seeing With the Eyes of Faith

The first teaching given to us in writing is, “In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth” and all the other statements about creation. By faith we understand that the ages were brought to completion by the word of God so that what is seen might be made from what is invisible (Hebrews 11:3): the body’s eye did not recognize the God of all as creator; instead, faith instructed us that God, who has always existed, created what did not exist. There is, after all, no example of this among human beings; yet though learning nothing of the kind from nature, we have in faith a teacher of the unexpected. Human beings, of course, make something out of something, whereas the God of all produced what exists out of nothing.

(Theodoret of Cyrrus, Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, pp. 181-182)

The Transfiguration: Making Visible What He Is

The Transfiguration of Christ  (Matthew 17:1-9) is not so much that Christ was somehow changed, but that the apostles themselves were changed enabling them to see Christ as is always is.  The limits of seeing only with one’s eyes was lifted in that moment and the Apostles saw with the eyes of their heart who Jesus is.

“He was transfigured, then: not taking on what he was not, nor being changed to what he was not, but making what he was visible to his own disciples, opening their eyes and enabling them, who had been blind, to see. This is what the phrase means, “He was transfigured before their faces”; he remained exactly the same as he was, but appeared in a way beyond the way he had appeared before, and in that appearance seemed different to his disciples.”  (St John of Damascus, Light on the Mountain, p. 221)

“To speak of a ‘transfiguration of creation’ in such cases is clearly to speak from the viewpoint of human experience. Just as the transfigured Christ does not change in himself, but simply allows his disciples to briefly perceive him as he is, so it is with creation’s praise of God: it becomes perceptible only when humans have ears to hear.”  (Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation, pp. 144-145)

There is Hope: We Can Change


For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”  (Isaiah 55:10-11)

“Let no one, therefore, who is living in vice despair of himself, know that, as agriculture changes the properties of plants, so the diligence of the soul in the pursuit of virtue can triumph over all sorts of infirmities.”  (St. Basil, The Fathers of the Church, p. 78)

Making the Sign of the Cross

Do nothing at all without the beginning of prayer. With the sign of the living cross, seal all your doings, my son. Go not forth from the door of your house till you have signed the cross. Whether in eating or in drinking, whether in sleeping or in waking, whether in your house or on the road, or again in the season of leisure, neglect not this sign; for there is no guardian like it. It shall be unto you as a wall, in the forefront of all your doings. And teach this to your children, that heedfully they be confirmed to it.

(St. Ephrem the Syrian – d. 379AD, from Let Us Attend: Reflections on the Gospel of Mark for the Lenten Season, p. 77)

Cleanse the Eyes of Your Heart

“And as St. Augustine reminds us in the following reflections, sand is thrown in the eyes of the heart not only by a multiplicity of images, not only by association of ideas, but also by the refusal to serve one’s neighbor in practical ways. To be too busy filling the coffers prevents one from emptying one’s heart so as to make it attentive to the ‘interior Master’. For ‘where your treasure is,’ says Jesus, ‘there will your heart be also.

To purify yourself, have faith. You would like to see God. That desire is good, it is noble, and I challenge you to make trial of it. You would like to see him? ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ (Matthew 5.8). Think first of all about purifying your heart…You believe that God is evident to the eyes like a light…But if your eyes were clogged with sand, would you not have to wash them out before you could see the light?

Your heart is defiled also. And avarice spreads its murkiness there…Do you not realize that by hoarding in this way you are covering your heart with mud? How then will you see him whom you desire? 

You say to me, ‘Show me your God.’…

I answer you, ‘Take a look at your heart. Everything you see in it that might sadden God, remove. God wants to come to you. Listen to Christ your Lord: “My Father and I will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14.23). That is God’s promise. If I were to tell you I was coming to stay with you, you would clean your house. Now it is God who wants to come into your heart. Do you not hasten to purify it? How could he dwell with avarice? God has commanded you to clothe the naked. But avarice induces you to strip the one who is clothed…I am looking at your heart. What do you have in it? Have you filled your coffers but thrown away your conscience?…Purify your heart.’ (Augustine of Hippo)”

(quoted in Roots of Christian Mysticism, p. 166-167)

Walking to God

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To walk straight to God is to walk in love. This is the way of the undefiled who, as the Psalmist says, “seek Him with their whole heart” (Ps. 119:2), thereby showing what is the desire which has been enjoined upon us. Those who “walk in the law of the Lord” (Ps. 119:1) are those who live in love, the commandment on which the whole law depends (Mt. 22:40). They do so in order that they may straightway strip themselves of all sin, which alone obscures the vision of the soul.

(St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, p. 209)