Happy Feast

Today is the feast of the Falling Asleep of the Most Holy Mother of God according to our traditional Orthodox calendar. In the past it was on the Beheading of St. John the Baptist (Sept. 11th, Old Calendar) that we would make mention of the birthday of Patriarch Pavle of blessed memory. With the current Serbian patriarch, His Holiness Irinej however, it is today’s feast day of the Dormition that we remember his birthday. The patriarch turns 80.

By the way, I don’t think I made mention of this earlier but at a special meeting of the Holy Synod of Bishops on the day of Metropolitan Christopher’s burial, this past Tuesday, it was decided to make Patriarch Irinej locum tenens of the Libertyville-Chicago Metropolitanate.

The following is a homily delivered by Fr. Michael Reagan and posted on his The Abandoned Mind blog here:

Today after a two-week fast of preparation, we gather together to celebrate the Feast of the Dormition of our Most Holy Lady Theotokos. For the benefit of those who may not be familiar with these terms, the word dormition refers to the “falling asleep” of a saint, a phrase frequently used in the New Testament to describe the death of a holy one. Theotokos which means “God-bearer” is the term most often used by the Orthodox to describe the Virgin Mary, who gave birth to the Son of God in His humanity. Thus today’s Feast commemorates the death of Jesus’ mother, together with the historic events that holy Christian tradition tells us happened just before and after, and the rich, spiritual meaning these hold for all believers in Jesus Christ today.

When we speak of the departed saints “falling asleep,” this does not imply a belief that their souls lose consciousness or fall into a kind of slumber after death. The term seems to be a figurative one, referring to the holy body of the departed, rather than to the soul. At the departure of the soul, the body appears to “fall asleep” to await its reawakening when it is reunited with the soul at the Lord’s second advent. Referring to death in this way promotes the fundamental and glorious Christian belief that death has been soundly defeated by Christ and can no longer be considered a permanent condition even in the physical sense, but something more like a “nap” from which the saint’s body will one day arise.

And speaking of the physical, in contemporary Christendom outside of Holy Orthodoxy a belief has emerged that the body of a departed believer should not be regarded with any particular reverence. Even in many so-called “Christian” funerals these days it is implied or even outright declared that the dead body of the believer is little more than a discarded “shell” that once housed the so-called true person of the soul, but now is no more important than an old suit of clothes you might cast off and burn with the rubbish. This view is not informed by the scriptures or any Christian teaching, but reflects ancient pagan beliefs that despised the material aspect of our human nature as grossly inferior to the intellectual or spiritual aspects.

Because of this view that the body is unimportant after death, cremation was commonly used by the pagans to deal with the “problem” of body disposal. Orthodox Christianity so rejects this practice and the pagan ideas behind it, that the Church will not even allow an Orthodox funeral to be performed when cremation has been opted for. Orthodox Christianity does not denigrate the material as somehow less pure than the spiritual (Both aspects of our humanity were created by God and declared to be “very good” by Him). Furthermore, it sees the body as an integral part of the complete human being, even after death. This belief derives from the fact that Christ rose from the dead in bodily form, and not merely as a spirit alone. If the body were unimportant to our complete humanity or something to be discarded and left behind for the perfection of heaven, Christ’s humanity would not have been raised, glorified, and taken up into heaven to sit down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. Christ’s bodily resurrection and ascent in glory demonstrates what God intends for each of us, regardless of the time that may pass between the hour of our death and our final resurrection. We shall all be raised, our bodies restored and glorified at their rejoining with our souls, and shall be made to ascend into heaven with Christ, joining Him in His humanity for all eternity.

For this reason, Christians have traditionally gone against the prevailing pagan practices to instead treat the bodies of their departed with deep respect; washing and anointing their bodies and burying them lovingly and with many prayers, putting them to rest in their graves to await their final reunion with their departed souls in heaven. This isn’t soggy sentimentality, but a profound theological understanding of God’s plan for humanity, and the reason “To bury the dead” is considered one of the seven chief corporate acts of mercy in the Orthodox Church.

How do we really know that Christians, after their departure from this life, will one day be bodily resurrected, glorified, and taken up into heaven as Christ was? Do we have any record of this happening to a strictly human saint that we might have hope of the same? Indeed we do, for this is precisely what we are celebrating in today’s Feast.

According to the tradition of the Church, after her Son’s ascension into heaven, Mary lived the rest of her life in Jerusalem in the house of John, in whose care our Lord had placed His mother with the charge to care for her as if she was his very own. When in time it was revealed to Mary that her hour of death was drawing near, she asked to see all of her Son’s beloved original disciples one last time. These men were dispersed to the far corners of the known world, preaching the gospel. Exactly as Philip had once been taken up by the Holy Spirit and transported to another place after baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch, God was please to catch up each of the disciples from their respective locations and bring them to the bedside of Mary. Only Thomas, reviled by some as “The Doubter” but whose inspired confession of faith in the risen Christ, “My Lord and My God!” revealed the very heart of Christian truth, was excluded from this miraculous reunion for a divine purpose that would soon be revealed.

The other disciples gathered at Mary’s bedside and received a final blessing from her. When she reposed, they placed her holy body in a tomb, glorifying God that they had been allowed to be with her one last time. Three days later Thomas arrived, and asked his fellow disciples to accompany him to the tomb of Mary that he might see her body and pay his respects. When the tomb was opened, the body of Mary was found to be gone, with nothing but the sweet aroma of myrrh left remaining. As the apostles exited the tomb in awe, they all together beheld a vision of Mary being received into heaven by the Lord Jesus Christ to take an honored place beside her beloved Son. The apostles understood from this that the Lord had permitted these things to happen to His mother as an example and foretaste of what awaits all true believers, all those “who hear the word of God and keep it.” Their preaching of the certainty of our hope of resurrection and eternal life in Christ became all the more fervent after this.

Throughout Christian history there have been many extreme opinions about Mary. Some have exalted her so highly as to nearly make her out to be a “fourth person” of the divine Godhead. Others have so minimized her as to barely acknowledge her role in the incarnation of Christ or as a person of any importance to God beyond that. The Orthodox Church sees Mary in a more balanced way: as a merely human being like us, but also as a truly holy person with whom God was well-pleased. In her blessed death, together with her bodily resurrection and glorification and assumption into heaven, the Church sees a beautiful expression of God’s love for His saints. What happened to her is promised to one day happen to every one of those who strive during their lifetimes to love God. If we will remember God during our life, and love and serve Him to the best of our ability now, He will by no means forget us at the hour of our death. We can know this, because God was pleased to reveal it to the Church through Mary the Theotokos.

Every day we must stir ourselves up to love God, to seek Him in prayer, to serve Him in purity of heart and body. Sometimes we feel discouraged over what seems like such an endless and impossible effort. But we must remember that God is at work in us, both to work and to will for His good pleasure. Our task is the smaller one really. We must simply aim not to grieve the Holy Spirit of God, but to cooperate in His work, and allow the life and holiness of God to be formed in us. It is God who makes people holy, not we ourselves. Isn’t that refreshing, good news? If we will abide in Christ, Christ will abide in us, making us holy and abundant in every spiritual fruit.

From the example of the Dormition of our Most Holy Lady Theotokos, we can see that such holiness is the only thing that truly abides. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His holy ones.” When the time comes for us each to fall asleep in Christ, the love of God will awaken us, and we will understand then that all our striving was not in vain. Is this not worth any struggle we may face in our present lives? Let us not lose sight of this, but labor all the more and with renewed hope as the day of our salvation draws near.

6 thoughts on “Happy Feast

  1. I understand well the modern Christian attitude of disregard for the body of a departed loved one. During a discussion at a Bible study this past Friday evening, which was centered on the resurrection, the subject of cremation came up. Comments were made as to the insignificance of the dead body since the person is no longer there. I pointed to the recent acceptance of cremation among Christians, and that at one time no one who called themselves Christian supported cremation, for it was considered a pagan practice. I also pointed to the care and respect shown for our Lord’s body on the part of His disciples.

    My comments fell on dead ears. After all, in the Protestant view, if God can raise the body from ashes, what does it matter what we do with it after death. I suppose though, if I would have suggested that since it doesn’t matter, why not just throw the bodies of our loved ones in the trash? I find it increasingly more difficult to attend these Bible studies, but I do it for the sake of my non-Orthodox husband. Sigh…

  2. A very excellent explanation on the Falling Asleep of the Mother of God, as well as on the Orthodox regard for the human body, even when it is in physical repose.

    If I am not mistaken, it seems to me that in some places in Asia, Orthodox practice allows cremation. In Japan, for example, it is the ordinary practice, altho I believe it is because Buddhism is the ‘death religion’ in Japan, and perhaps that has influenced the whole culture towards the acceptance of cremation. In China, on the other hand, high reverence for the body in Confucianism counters the tendency of Buddhism to disregard the body. Everywhere Buddhism is the heir to the same pagan rejection of materiality that we see in our own pre-Christian philosophers.

    The other point I like about this post is your explanation of the life of the Theotokos being something like the pattern which is the destiny of all who believe in and follow Christ. When I give church tours in my local Greek church, I always take this approach, especially when explaining the ikon of the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos, and the disappearance of her body. In an odd sort of way, her body being raised to the heavens is sort of a foretaste of what will happen when the Lord comes again, and we all “meet Him in the air” together with the dead who will rise at that time. “Arpagisómetha” is the Greek word for this event in salvation history; it means something like we will be “abducted” or “snatched up”. It seems to me that this has already happened to the Theotokos, so that from beginning to end her life, as the life of the first Christian, demonstrates the complete pattern of salvation.

  3. Esteban,

    Thank you for your kind words and your prayers. And, of course, I have faith that God will guide the Patriarch and Bishops to do what is best for our church.

    God Bless you!

  4. Dear Valerie,

    I have, of course, read Bishop Georgije’s stirring eulogy (though I would have preferred to have heard it delivered, had not work constraints thwarted my intentions to attend the Funeral). Further, I have tried to inform myself as much as I can regarding the salutary developments that took place last year, which as everyone knows, and as you reiterate, were only done at the behest of the late Metropolitan himself and for the sake of the preservation of the unity and peace in the Church that he strove so hard to achieve. In recent days it has particularly struck me just how timely this move was, and thank God that the late Metropolitan had the keen spiritual foresight to settle these potentially disruptive matters well in advance of his blessed repose, the time of which was known only to God.

    Anyway, the actual point of my question was that, since the creation of the Metropolitanate of Libertyville-Chicago was so closely tied to the person of Metropolitan Christopher, I found it odd that the Synod should have appointed a locum tenens rather than make other arrangements — but perhaps that awaits another, full and regular session of the Synod.

    Allow me, finally, to offer you my deepest condolences in the death of your beloved father. Please be assured that the rest of us, his bereaved spiritual children, have insistently offered prayers not only for the repose of his soul, but also that his family according to the flesh might also be afforded every spiritual consolation at such a time as this.

  5. The Metropolitanate of Litbertyville-Chicago was not created for any purpose other than my father (+Metropolitan Christopher) creating this for the peace and unity of our Serbian Orthodox Church & people. This was not a suggestion or done by the Holy Synod but only by the recommendation of my late father. Read Vladika Georgije’s Eulogy and the Patriarch’s message on the website….www.serborth.org…here you can read and learn more.

    Yours in Christ………Valerie (Kovacevich) Backo

  6. May God grant him many years! This morning, Bishop Peter of Cleveland made prayerful commemoration of our Patriarch Irinej during the Great Entrance, on the occasion of his birthday.

    And happy feast day to you, dear Father!

    (As an aside, do you suppose that there will be a new Bishop for the Metropolitanate of Libertyville-Chicago? Frankly, I had thought that the creation of this mini-diocese was a way to allow the late Metropolitan Christopher to live in “semi-retirement” while yet active as a ruling hierarch, but that after his repose it would naturally be subsumed under the Diocese of New Gračanica and Midwestern America.)

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