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The Summer Pascha
A Sermon on the Dormition of the Theotokos
Today is the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God, the “summer Pascha,” one of the greatest of all the Great Feasts, and a day of surpassing spiritual consolation and joy. It is called the “summer Pascha” not only because of the height of its glory and the radiant splendor of its joy, but also precisely because on this day, all the divine promises of Pascha have now been fulfilled — not only in the theanthropic person of Christ, but also in the quintessentially human person of Mary, the Mother of God. Today the Queen of Heaven proves to us — beyond any shadow of doubt — that death has truly been put to death, that heaven has truly been opened to the whole human race, and that Christ our God has truly come to make even us lowly sinners into nothing less than “partakers of the divine nature” (2. Pet. 1:4), destined to come — just as she has — “unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). Today, all the gifts and promises of Christ shine forth in the person of His Mother, as a pledge and a foretaste of the day on which they shall shine forth in us all.
Just as Jesus Christ is the perfect revelation of the uncreated God, “being the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His person” (Heb. 1:3), so too (if it is not too bold to say) the Mother of God is the perfect revelation of our created humanity — of all that God has created our humanity to be, and of all that His grace has given our humanity to become. The Mother of God reveals to us darkened sinners the true beauty and glory and joy of a human life that has been given wholly and unstintingly to her Son.
My brothers and sisters, how greatly do all of us stand in need of such a revelation from the Mother of God! Because how often do we tend to look upon Christ’s divine commandments with some degree of resentment, or with fear, or even with an overwhelming sense of loss? How often do we feel — at least on some subconscious level — that God is perhaps even trying to rob us of something precious by forbidding the very things which we believe will bring us happiness, the very things which some deep part of us looks upon as life itself?
And yet as we stand today in the presence of the Mother of God lying in the Tomb before us — as we gaze upon her face, so full of divine peace — can any of us really imagine that her immaculate and sinless life, her life of perfect obedience and renunciation and faith, was missing anything? Is it not rather our own sinful lives that are suddenly shown to be hollow and shabby, next to the incomparable beauty and richness of her grace? When we stand before the Tomb of the Mother of God, then — and only then — are our lives revealed as they truly are.
But it is not only our lives that are revealed truly in the light of the Mother of God: it is also our deaths. And we must make no mistake: although today is without doubt a day of great gladness and rejoicing, yet it is not on this account any less a summons to freely embrace our own death. This great and holy day is both festival and funeral, and to celebrate the one without honoring the other is simply to cheat ourselves of the divine inheritance our Mother has given everything to bequeath us. Because the Most Holy Mother of God’s whole life was nothing less than one continuous and uninterrupted martyrdom, one lifelong offering up of herself on the altar of her most-beloved Son and God. Our great abbess the Theotokos exemplifies more than any other the truth sometimes written over the gates of holy monasteries: “If you die before you die, when you die you shall not die.”
The great secret of the Mother of God’s entire grace-filled life was revealed to us in the Epistle lesson we have all just heard: “being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross” (Phil. 2:8). Because what else was the Mother of God’s entire life, if not precisely the incarnating of the divine life of her Son? And so just as He “became obedient unto death,“ even so did she likewise become “obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross.”
My brothers and sisters, if we do not believe that the Cross belongs just as much to the Mother of God as to Christ — if we do not believe that it belongs just as much to us as to Christ — then we are simply fooling ourselves. Christ did not come merely to put on a performance, or to show Himself to us as some spectacle meant for our passive consumption. No: He came so that we might become participants and communicants in every single element of His divine life — including and especially His death. Then, and only then, will the resurrection of Christ — and the resurrection of the Most Holy Mother of God which we celebrate on this great and glorious day — become our own resurrection as well. St. Paul explained all of this just after the conclusion of the Epistle lesson we heard today:
But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ… that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. (Phil. 3:78,10-11)
So this is the message which the Mother of God brings to us on this, her greatest feast-day: do not flee from obedience. Do not flee from death. Do not cling to the fleeting pleasures and riches of this swiftly-passing life; God is not trying to rob you of anything, but rather to fill you with treasures beyond any human comprehension, and joy beyond all compare. Be “made conformable unto His death,” and so “attain unto the resurrection of the dead.”
It takes great faith to be able to truly “lay aside all earthly care,” as the Divine Liturgy will shortly summon us all to do: faith such as we darkened sinners — if we are honest with ourselves — can perhaps scarcely begin to muster. But that is why God has given us His Mother. We do not need to understand it on our own. We do not need to do it on our own. We only need the obedience and the humility to flee constantly to the loving arms of our Mother: because so long as we cling steadfastly to her, she will by no means fail to bring each and every one of us with her to our heavenly home.
And so, as we gaze upon her holy face in the icon before us — filled even in the moment of her death with all the peace and power of the resurrection of her Son — let each of us resolve to make both her life and her death our own, crying out with all our hearts: “In giving birth thou didst preserve thy virginity. In thy Dormition thou didst not forsake the world, O Theotokos. Thou wast translated unto life, since thou art the Mother of Life; and by thy supplications dost thou deliver our souls from death.” Amen!