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)

A Call to Christian Service: Imitate Paul

“At the heart of Paul‘s message in the letter is his appeal to the Philippians to imitate him (Philippians 3:17), which we must read in light of his depiction of himself as being in humble and humiliating circumstances. He opens the letter by noting that he and his co-worker Timothy are ‘slaves’ of Christ, then points out that he is also a prisoner. Thus, Paul’s basis for his assurance is not arrogance or a feeling of success. Rather, his confidence emerges from the fact that in his own situation, God has used what seems to be a bad situation for a greater purpose: although Paul is in prison, the gospel has spread (Philippians 1:12-14); although some preach from impure motives, Christ is still proclaimed (1:15-18); although death seems preferable, life is necessary, but Christ is honored in either case (1:19-26). What seems to be a lowly and dangerous situation Paul upholds as an experience to be used for the greater glory of God. Paul intentionally interprets as positive circumstances that seem to indicated a loss of status: imprisonment, dissension with others, the threat of death. He reaffirms his role in God’s greater purpose in order to underscore his own character, which allows him to speak to the Philippians as he does.

He calls them to be like him- not to aspire to greatness, but rather to unity (humility) and service (Philippians 2:1-14). Instead of competing for honor, he directs them to pursue a vision that continues and strengthens a value that already exists in the community: mutuality.”  (Richard S. Ascough, Passionate Visionary, p. 38)

The Virgin Mary and the Robe of Glory

“In her virginity, Eve put on

leaves of shame, but your mother has put on,

in her virginity, a garment of glory

that encompasses all, while to Him who covers all

she gave a body as a tiny garment.”

(Ephrem the Syrian)

The imagery of the Robe of Glory, deeply embedded in the Syriac tradition, is used to describe the various stages of salvation history: Adam and Eve are originally clothed in it in Paradise, but lose it at the Fall; Christ, the Divine Word who “put on the body,” deposits humanity’s lost Robe of Glory in the River Jordan at his baptism, and at each Christian baptism it is received in potential from the Font (often described both as the Jordan and as a womb; …); finally, at the Last Judgement, it becomes the clothing of the Righteous in reality ….

Since Christ’s presence in the Jordan makes the Robe of Glory available again to humanity, his presence in Mary’s womb is understood as constituting her baptism, thus providing her with her Robe of Glory …. Mary’s giving Christ “a body as a tiny garment” and receiving in return a “Robe of Glory” is one of the ways in which Ephrem brings out the idea of exchanged involved in the incarnation; this is expressed in epigrammatic form: “He gave us divinity, we gave Him humanity” (Sebastian P. Brock & George A. Kiraz, Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, p. 51).

The Sweetness of the Sun and the Eucharist

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“The soul climbs up unceasingly.  And the further up it goes, the higher it longs to go.  The ascent kindles its desire, and the food of the Divine Eucharist increases its hunger for mystical contemplation.  St Symeon the New Theologian, who looked upon the beauty of the uncreated light and was nourished on the food of incorruption, uses a unique image:

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‘I do not know which give me greater delight, the sight and enjoyment of the purity of the rays of the Sun, or the drinking and the taste of the wine in my mouth.

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I want to say the latter [the taste of the wine], and yet the former [the rays of the sun] attracts me and seems sweeter.  And when I turn to them, then I enjoy still more the sweetness of the taste of the wine.  So the sight [of the rays] does not lead to satiety, nor can I have enough of drinking [that wine].

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For when it seems that I have drunk my fill, then the beauty of the rays sent forth makes me thirst greatly, and again I find myself hungry and thirsty.'”  (Hiermonk Gregorios, THE DIVINE LITURGY, pp 221-222)

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Christian Marriage: A Sign of Christ’s Presence

“It is an adulteration of marriage for us to think that is is a road to happiness, as if it were a denial of the cross. The joy of marriage is for husband and wife to put their shoulders to the wheel and together go forward on the uphill road of life. “You haven’t suffered? Then you haven’t love,” says a certain poet. Only those who suffer can really love. And that’s why sadness is a necessary feature of marriage. “Marriage,” in the words of an ancient philosopher, “is a world made beautiful by hope and strengthened by misfortune.” Just as steel is fashioned in a furnace, just so is a person proved in marriage, in the fire of difficulties. When you see your marriage from a distance, everything seems wonderful. But when you get closer, you’ll see just how many difficult moments it has.

We often speak of seven “mysteries,” or sacraments. In this regard, a “mystery” is the sign of the mystical presence of some true person or event. An icon, for instance is a mystery. When we venerate it, we are not venerating wood or paint but Christ, or the Theotokos, or the saint who is mystically depicted. The Holy Cross is a symbol of Christ, containing his mystical presence. Marriage, too, is a mystery, a mystical presence not unlike these. Christ says, “wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am among them” (Mt 18.20). And whenever two people are married in the name of Christ, they become the sign which contains and expresses Christ himself. When you see a couple who are conscious of this, it is as if you are seeing Christ. Together they are a theophany.”   (Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, The Church at Prayer, pp. 95-96, 98)

Being in God’s Image

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”  (Genesis 1:27)

Our ability to reason, to use logic, wisdom and knowledge, is seen in the Church Fathers as one way that humans are in God’s image and likeness.

“This reason, in which perhaps most Fathers found the divine image, made human beings “partakers of his [i.e. God’s] own Word, possessing, so to speak, a kind of reflection of his Word,” as Athanasius says. And, because for the Fathers reason was a participation in the Word, it carried with it, unlike reason as understood by us today, a supernatural connotation: to use one’s reason was to act in a graced way and to be open to the realm of the supernatural.”   (Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, pp. 71-72)

Called to the Abundant Light

“Whereas the old law proclaimed that God was the Maker and Lord of heaven, and laid down God-pleasing ordinances for those under the law, it did not give any promise of heavenly benefits, nor did it offer communion with God, or an eternal, heavenly, inheritance to those who obeyed it. But once Christ the King of all had visited us in the flesh ‘to call sinners,’ as He says Himself, ‘to repentance’ (Matt 9:13), there were greater rewards for those who obeyed and repented, and, through works of repentance, ordered their lives according to Christ’s gospel, keeping the holy commandments it contains.

Nor were these rewards simply greater, but also incomparably more excellent.

For what was promised was

the kingdom of heaven,

light without evening,

heavenly adoption as sons,

celestial dwellings,

and a divine and eternal way of life,

and even more than this:

for we shall be ‘heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ’ (Rom. 8:17), and ‘I am come,’ says the Lord, ‘that ye might have life, and that ye might have it more abundantly’ (cf. John 10:10).

These are not resounding but empty phrases, nor just a litany of vain words, but an account of the unchanging things actually stored up as prizes for those who believe and live according to Christ.”

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 445)

The Miracle of God’s Mercy

As Jesus sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’ [Hosea 6:6].  For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  (Matthew 9:10-13)

St. John Damascene (d 780AD) composed an evening prayer in which he wonderfully expressed the joy and hope of Christians experiencing the grace of God’s salvation:

It is not wonderful if You have mercy upon the pure;

and it is not a great thing if You save the righteous,

but show the wonders of Your mercy upon me, a sinner! 

(II) Whom Do You Seek?

Sermon notes for 16 July 2017

See previous post: (I) Whom Do You Seek?

This Gospel lesson begins with some folk seeking Jesus – to bring him a paralytic.  The lesson doesn’t say what the people coming to Jesus were looking for, but Jesus sees their faith and pardons the paralytic of his sins.  We might infer from this that this is exactly what these folk were seeking from Jesus.  They will by the end of the story get even more – the paralytic will be healed.  But it is possible that the man wanted forgiveness more than anything else and Jesus correctly discerned this.

Gospel: Matthew 9:1-8
So Jesus got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own city. Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” And at once some of the scribes said within themselves, “This Man blasphemes!” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” – then He said to the paralytic, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” And he arose and departed to his house. Now when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men.

Why did Jesus heal this man?  To prove he was not blaspheming, and that He really did have the power to forgive sins.   Jesus’ initial and prime response to their faith is to forgive the sins of the paralytic.  Jesus heals the man only as the afterthought, to prove that his words about forgiveness are real.

We often love miracles of all sorts, but in Christianity they are supposed to be signs pointing to the Kingdom of God.  They are not the main attraction.  Yet the attraction of miracles, and even magical events captures the attraction of many Christians.  In loving the miracle, they can lose sight of its importance and meaning.

Note:  In the Gospel lesson, the people marveled, not that the man was healed, but that Christ has the power to heal!  They actually are on to something important and aren’t being distracted by the miracle.

The Gospel lesson begins with some faithful people seeking Jesus out.  In response to their faith, Jesus forgives.

Last week, I asked you to think about, “What is my question for Jesus?”  The paralytic’s question may well have been, “Can you forgive me?”

Today, I ask you something Jesus asked, “Whom do you seek?”

We might think that seeking Jesus is always a good thing, and it is, except that sometimes people do seek Him for wrong reasons.  We can think back to the Garden of Gethsemane.

Then Jesus, knowing all that was to befall him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When he said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he;  . . . So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews seized Jesus and bound him. (John 18:4-11)

The men coming to arrest Jesus were seeking Him!  And note that Jesus does not disseminate or obfuscate in His answer.  He plainly and truthfully says that He is Jesus.  He accepts all who seek Him!  He is not worried about their motives.  If they are seeking Him, they are on a right path, even if they don’t know it.  He doesn’t try to avoid them or escape them.

But some do seek Jesus to be rid of him.

Sometimes people are seeking Him and yet can’t see Him even when He is right in front of them

Jesus said to Mary Magdalene, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).   (John 20:15-16)

Why couldn’t she see Him?  She was looking for a dead man.  She didn’t understand yet who He is.  So her wrong understanding prevented her from seeing Him exactly as He is.

This can happen to any of us if we fail to seek out the risen Lord, but rather only want a miracle worker or a magician or a slave to clean up our messes and our lives.  If we aren’t looking for the risen Lord, we will miss Him entirely even if he stands right before our eyes.

This is also how sometimes our desire for and love miracles can blind us, for we seek the magic and the power but not He who is empowered to save us.  The Magi of Matthew 2 were able to find the Messiah, even if He was still but a young baby because they were looking for the King of the Jews – they were looking for who Jesus is rather than whom they imagine Him to be.  The stars and the angels guided them right to Jesus.

If we seek Jesus for who He is, we will find Him and be able to see Him.

A final thought based upon today’s Epistle lesson – Romans 12:6-14 –

Brothers and sisters, having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.

Seeking Jesus requires effort and emotion, energy and enthusiasm on our part.  Look at the Epistle – it emphasizes diligence, fervor, strength, steadfastness as well as affection, rejoicing and cheerfulness.  Seeking Jesus is not for the half-hearted or double-minded.

Note as well what St. Paul says we are to do – provide for the saints and practice hospitality.  I actually think we do these two things well.    The last point comes much harder to us –  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse!

 

(I) Whom Do You Seek?

I seek not what is yours but you”

(2 Corinthians 12:14)

Then Jesus, knowing all that was to befall him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” (J0hn 18:4-5)

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.” (J0hn 6:26-27)

“For the early Christians, the Body of Christ is on the altar because He is among them. For the contemporary Christians, Christ is here because His Body is on the altar. It seems to be analogous, but in fact, there is an essential difference between the early Christians and us. For them, everything is in knowing Christ, loving Him. For us, everything is in the desire to be enlightened. The early Christians came to Communion to follow Christ, whereas now Christ is not the unique reason for partaking of Communion.” (Fr. Alexander Schmemman, The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemman, p. 31)

It is possible that we are far more interested in the gifts that we will personally receive than we are in the Giver of the gifts.  We come to church for what we can get out of it.  We lose interest in Christ, but want miracles in our lives.  We crave contact with the divine but don’t want there to be a Lord over  us.

“You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40)

Mary Magdalene turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (John 20:14-16)

Next:  (II)  Whom Do You Seek?