The Dormition of the Theotokos: We are in God’s Hands

“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Thessalonians 4:14-15)

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The Feast of the Dormition is our commemoration of the death of Jesus Christ‘s own Mother.   The Holy Trinity entrusted the incarnation of the Word of God to Mary: God becomes human and entrusts His human life to this very special woman.  At her death, Mary entrusts herself to her Son, the incarnate God.

Because this Feast does deal with death, it is a good time for us to reflect on death.  Oftentimes we avoid thinking about death until we are forced to face it at a funeral, and then our emotions can be so stirred that we cannot think rationally about it.  This Feast allows to think about death in a Christian way.  We pray in our liturgies for a Christian ending to our life – Mary, the Theotokos, experiences a truly Christian death, commending her soul and body to Her Son.

When someone dies –  we often comfort ourselves or others by saying that the deceased “is in God’s hands NOW.”  That is true, but only because we, our lives, are ALWAYS in God’s hands.  God doesn’t just take an interest in us at our death. But our popular belief seems to indicate that we are in control of our life until death and only then do we have to rely completely on God.  Our Christian life though is lived in God always and everywhere.  “… for ‘In him we live and move and have our being'”  (Acts 17:28).

God is love, God is not reacting to us, but always acting for us in love – throughout our life and in our death.  God receives our soul at death, not in reaction to our death, but because He carried us in love throughout our life.  We are never far from God, never separated from Him.

At the Feast of the Dormition we sing the Kontakion:

Neither the tomb, nor death, could hold the Theotokos,

who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions.

For being the Mother of Life,//

she was translated to life by the One Who dwelt in her virginal womb.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death.  The Feast of the Dormition is the celebration of this Good News:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:35-39)

Death no longer can separate us from God because Jesus Christ died, descended to the place of the dead, and conquered death raising us all to eternal life.  The Feast of the Dormition is a celebration of our belonging to Christ, and sharing in His victory over death.

None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.  (Romans 14:7-9)

The Dormition of the Virgin is a celebration of Christ’s resurrection – and of His extending the resurrection to His Church.

The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him …  (2 Timothy 2:11-12)

Opposing Racism: Commending OUR LIFE to Christ

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“Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith for ever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the sojourners, he upholds the widow and the fatherless; but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The LORD will reign for ever, thy God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the LORD!”   (Psalm 146:5-10)

In many Orthodox churches, it is customary to sing the above Psalm 146 at the Eucharistic Liturgy.  The Psalm expresses an ideal for the life of the people of God and how we are to be godlike, and to act toward the stranger, the sojourner and the oppressed with the same intention as God Himself: executing justice for them all.  In fact, we are to treat them as we would wish to be treated (Matthew 7:12).  It is for this same reason, this same vision, that the Orthodox in America need to stand together with those who oppose racism and bigotry.  It is why we believers need to oppose white supremacist or neo-Nazi groups: such ideology goes against the very understanding we have of God, of what it is to be human and of Christianity.  All humans are called by Christ into a holy unity.  It may be natural to us to identify with people like us – same ethnicity, or race or social class.  These may be the people we spend the most time with, marry and live with in our neighborhoods.  Scripture itself has a great deal of “us” and “them” thinking.  We can choose to live with and marry people like ourselves, but in Christ, we are to treat all others – the stranger, the alien – as we treat people like ourselves.  St. Paul writes forcefully:

12801397374_0fe3e55abb_n“… remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.

For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”   (Ephesians 2:12-22)

Our vision as Orthodox calls us to this peace in Christ – to live at peace with those who are our neighbors.   As Christ taught, the real question is not “who is my neighbor?” but rather “how can I prove myself to be a  neighbor to those I meet?”  (Luke 10:29-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan).  We Orthodox in America need to prove we are Christ’s neighbor by standing against violence and racism and hatred, by siding with those we think of as the stranger, the alien, the sojourner.  Many of us Orthodox came to America as strangers and aliens (or our ancestors did), and many Orthodox as immigrants encountered prejudice and hatred for no other reason than our names, our languages, our Orthodox Faith.  Our message within our parish communities is to be Christ’s message of being neighbors, of love, of caring for the oppressed.  Our Communion is with Christ, not with those who practice or preach hatred and violence nor with those who teach any form of racism.

We would do well to remember our scriptures and the story of the great flood, and what prompted God to want to drown evil and send it back to the depths of the sea out of which it came:

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.

And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold, I will destroy them with the earth.”  (Genesis 6:11-13)

Those promoting violence and hatred embrace a way of life which God has hated (Isaiah 59:7-8; Psalm 11:5-6; Proverbs 6:16-19) throughout the existence of the human race.

We Orthodox Christians are called to be one race, a race united in Christ, not based on genes but on faith and holiness:

4263457299_d973374b2e_n“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”  (1 Peter 2:9-12)

If we pay attention in the Divine Liturgy, we realize all of us share in the same life.  The Liturgy doesn’t speak about “lives” but life (in the singular, one life shared by all of us):

let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God.

enable us to serve You in holiness all the days of our life.

May the Holy Spirit Himself minister together with us all the days of our life.

 I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come

For a Christian ending to our life: painless, blameless, and peaceful;

To You we commend our whole life and our hope, O loving Master.

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We all share the same life given to us by God which is why we need to stand with those whose life is threatened by those who rant and rail for violence, hatred and racism.  Life is precious and sacred.  Racism precisely denies “our life” – our common humanity which Christ took on in the incarnation – the one human life given to us all by our Creator.

[The Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America has issued a statement regarding the events which took place  last week in Charlottesville, VA.  The statement deals with racism and violence in America and a call for all of us Orthodox Christians to adhere to the Gospel commands of Christ and to the Tradition of our Church.  You can read their statement at:

In Praise of Our Lady, Mary

On August 15 we in the Orthodox Church remember the Dormition of the Theotokos.

There is a great deal of beautiful poetic reflection on Mary’s role in our salvation.  The poem below is from the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition:

My Lady Mary–

Consecrated to virginity from your earliest years,

Whose heart gave no entry to the desires of this world,

There is none among men or angels that can compare with you.

You are the thorn bush that bore the flames of fire,

Out of which God himself spoke

About how he would deliver the tent of his people Jacob from it.

You are the Cloud of Manna raining down at the time dew descends

All manner of delightful food, flavored according to each one’s taste.

(Enzira Sebhat, Harp of Glory, p. 81).

Mary Opens Heaven to Us

“This hymn sums up the entire body of hymnography for the feast. Mary, the chosen dwelling-place of God, is offered as a pure and blameless sacrifice. She is preordained as the one who brings salvation to mankind. It is precisely at this point, however, that we may ask whether the hymnography has passed into the realm of hyperbole. If, as we have already noted, the hymnography of this period presupposes an understanding of salvation (theosis) in which God alone can save man, how can it be said that Mary “has opened the Kingdom of Heaven to us”? Or, how can it be affirmed that Mary is the “restoration of all who dwell on earth: for through thee we are reconciled to God”?

It is precisely because salvation is defined in terms of theosis that these hymnographers can make such statements about the Virgin without encroaching upon the uniqueness of Christ. God alone can redeem man and deify human nature, but man must be able to receive that gift. This is the role of the Virgin Mary. She is the pure and blameless sacrifice that mankind offers to God as the one who is able to receive the salvation that God has prepared for the human race. It is important to note here, however, that while this hymnography often refers to Mary as reconciler and mediatrix, she is never referred to as redemptrix or co-redemptrix. Mary is the necessary human component in the reconciliation of man with God, but in no way is she said to redeem or deify man.”  (C. Clark Carlton, “The Temple that Held God”, from St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly Vol 50, No 1-2   2006 , p. 112).

A Prayer of St. John Chrysostom

O Lord, my God, I know that I am not worthy that You should enter into my soul’s habitation because it is desolate and in ruins. You will find no fitting place therein to lay Your head. But as from on high You humbled Yourself and came to us, so now submit to the measure of my lowliness. As You consented to lie in a manger, consent now to come into the manger of my soul and body. As You did not scorn to enter and to dine with sinners in the house of Simon the leper, scorn not to enter into the house of my humble soul, although I, too, am a sinner and leper.

As You did not cast out the sinful woman, a harlot, when she approached to touch You, so have also compassion on me, a sinner, as I approach to touch You. Lord and Master, let the burning fire of Your holy Body and precious Blood be unto me for cleansing, enlightenment and strengthening of my soul and body; for relief of the burden of my many transgressions, protection from all diabolical influence, restraint of my sinful habits and the putting to death.

(My Orthodox Prayer Book, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Kindle Location 1086-1094)

 

Moses, Seeing God and the Transfiguration

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“In Exodus 33 we find the paradox of intimacy and distance, knowledge and ignorance, presence and transcendence. Moses in the Tent of Meeting seeks guidance from the Lord for his work as leader of the people of Israel; he is told, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest’ (v. 14); but Moses wants more, and asks to see the glory of God. To this request comes the reply, ‘You cannot see my face; for man cannot see me and live’ (v. 20). As this incident unfolds we see a distinction between what Moses does see and what he is unable to see: ‘And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’” (vv. 21-23). The mystery remains, and Moses is not able to see God face to face. But the Israelites are aware of the effect of Moses’ time in the presence of God, for the face of Moses shines ‘because he had been talking with God’, shines with a brightness so great that his face had to be veiled (Exodus 34:29-35). Here we have an early example in the Scriptures of the human face transfigured because of close contact with God; it is an experience that is repeated in the lives of many saints. Much of what we see in the life of Moses we see also in the lives of other Old testament prophets, such as Elijah (1 Kings 19) and Isaiah (Isaiah 6), so it is not surprising that these Old Testament episodes become ‘types’ which help to interpret later events, and which find greater significance in the light of the subsequent developments.

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St. Gregory of Nyssa used the life Moses as a starting point and framework for his exposition of Christian ascetical theology, and from Gregory derives a while tradition of apophatic theology which uses the imagery of darkness to articulate the Christian experience of living with the mystery of God’s presence. The theophanies involving Moses and Elijah are included in the Scripture readings at Vespers for the Feast of Transfiguration .”   (John Baggley, Festival Icons for the Christian Year, p. 60-61).

The Feast of the Transfiguration (2017)

“These are the divine prodigies behind the present festival; what we celebrate here, on this mountain now, is for us, too, a saving Mystery. This sacred initiation into the Mystery of Christ, this public solemnity, gathers us together. So that we might come inside the ineffable sanctuary, and might enter the place of Mysteries along with those chosen ones who were inspired to speak God’s words, let us listen to a divine, most sacred voice, as it seems to invite us from the peak of the mountain above us inviting us with strong words of persuasion and saying, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, on the day of the Lord – in the place of the Lord and in the house of our God.” [Our hope is] that, bathed in a vision of him, flooded with light, we might be changed for the better and joined together as one; and that, grasping hold of the light in light, we might cry out: “How fearful is this place! This is nothing other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven!”

This is the place towards which we must hasten, I make bold to say, since Jesus who dwells there and who has gone up to heaven before us, is our guide on the way. With him, let us also flash like lightning before spiritual eyes, renewed in the shape of our souls and made divine, transformed along with him in order to be like him, always being deified, always changing for the better – leaping up the mountain slopes more nimbly than powerful deer, soaring higher than spotless doves, lifted up to the summit with Peter and James and John, walking on clouds with Moses and Elijah – so that the Lord might say of us as well: “There are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of man coming” to them “in the glory of his Father” (Anastasius of Sinai, Homily on the Transfiguration, Light on the Mountain, pp. 167-168).

 

 

The Blessing of Fruit

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Many Orthodox have the practice of blessing grapes or fruit at the Feast of the Transfiguration.   We find mention of the Christian blessing of fruit already in the early 3rd Century in THE APOSTOLIC TRADITION of St. Hippolytus of Rome.   He offers no explanation as to why some things may be blessed but doesn’t allow certain things to be brought for a blessing, even though all food is to be received with thanksgiving.

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Hippolytus doesn’t connect this blessing to a particular feast but writes:

Fruits indeed are blessed, this is grapes, the fig, the pomegranate, the olive, the pear, the apple, the mulberry, the peach, the cherry, the almond, the plum; but not the pumpkin or the melon, or cucumber or the onion, or garlic or any other vegetable.

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But sometimes flowers also are offered.  Let the rose and the lily be offered, but not others.

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And for all things which are eaten they shall give thanks to God, eating them to His glory.”  (pp 54-55)

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Deification: Becoming God’s Children

Patristic tradition usually sees a man’s potential for deification in the fact that man is created by God in his own image. Because of this natural affinity, the fathers spoke of a man as potentially a son of God. The process of deification involves the realization of the status of son of God through the process of hyiothesia (“adoption of sons”).The idea is present already in the New Testament. Christ gave power to those who receive him “to become the sons of God” (Jn. 1:12), that the faithful might “receive the adoption as Sons” (Gal 4:5; cf Rom 8:15). This adoption of sons was accomplished through Christ’s incarnation. Athanasius represents one set of ideas when he asserts that “Christ made us the sons of the Father and deified man by becoming himself a man.”

His thought hinges upon the idea of the incarnation: humanity is deified in a natural (physikos) manner, being assumed by God in the incarnation. Due to this understanding – our becoming God’s children as a natural consequence of God the Son becoming man – he uses the concept of hyiothesia as synonymous with “deification”: to be a son or daughter of God is to be deified. Another set of ideas is presented by Basil, who speaks of our adoption not so much through natural deification at the incarnation as through its subsequent effects: the descending and indwelling in man of the Holy Spirit.”   (Nicholas V. Sakharov, I Love Therefore I am, pp. 144-145)

Why Should We Fast?

“We are taught to fast regularly as part of our Christian discipline. Why should we fast? How do we serve God by going hungry? Surely we need adequate food each day in order to work hard in God’s service. Jesus criticized most vehemently those who drew attention to their fasting, urging us to fast in secret; so clearly fasting is not a matter for personal pride. There are two reasons to fast. The first is to break our attachment to material things, of which food is the most central, and so compel us to depend on spiritual things. When we are eating regularly, food not only sustains our bodies, but provides pleasure and satisfaction. In itself there is nothing wrong with such pleasure. But when we do without food, we are reminded that the only true and lasting source of joy is spiritual. The second is to express solidarity with those whose poverty forces them to go hungry. We may fast from time to time as a discipline; but many people fast continually because they have not money to buy food. If we are truly to show compassion to the poor, we must experience within our own bodies the consequences of poverty. Fasting is thus an incentive toward generosity. And the money saved during a fast can readily be given to relieve the enforced hunger of others.”  (St. John Chrysostom, On Living Simply, p. 78)