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.