The Dormition


Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, August 15, 2021.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ.

The scripture readings today are extremely significant and apropos to the day. Saint Paul's talking about self-emptying: the Kenosis of Jesus Christ, who came to the world, giving up all His divine prerogative to become one of us and save us in an act of utter humility.

And then from John’s Gospel about Mary and Martha. Martha was so concerned about many things and could not listen to Jesus. Mary let go of all concerns and sat listening at the Lord’s feet. He called tHis “the good portion.” Martha operated from her ego and Mary let go of it. And when the woman cried out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts you sucked", he corrected her, saying, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” That one was the Virgin Mary.

The Feast of the Dormition does not appear in Scripture. It does in a few apocryphal works. The story became part of popular piety, if some accounts are true, before the Third Ecumenical Council in 431, even in the second and third centuries. In those days some lamented that there was no incontrovertible Historical and scriptural evidence. The apocryphal works even disagreed in various details and are regarded as romanticized accounts. Still they hold an intriguing and intuitive spiritual value that springs from a classic typological interpretation of scriptural prophecy.

Think of the verse from Psalm 131:8 as a prophecy not only of Christ, but also of His Mother:

"Arise, O Lord, into your resting place: you and the ark, which you have sanctified."

Where is His “resting place”?  Two places: on earth, which the psalms calls “His footstool,” and in His mother’s womb, and also in His heavenly kingdom. Thus, he “rises” in the Incarnation into and from His “ark” and rests forever with her in His never-ending kingdom. Scripture is not in the reading, but in the interpretation.

Another well-known example is the burning bush Moses saw on Mt. Sinai. We see this as a metaphor of the Theotokos who held the fire of Divinity in her womb and who, like the bush, was not consumed. Other symbols also apply. She is the “ark of the covenant,” and the jar of manna, Jacob’s Ladder and the Gate of Heaven. Therefore, with this hermeneutic at play, it didn’t seem possible to early Christians that this “sanctified ark” would undergo the corruption and decay inherent in death. As our Orthros hymns proclaim, “hers was a death without corruption.” So the belief spread that she was taken into heaven by her Son, body and soul.

So, the celebration of Our Lady’s falling asleep may not have hard historical or even biblical evidence, but the typological interpretation of scriptural prophecy does “bear witness” to it.

Epiphanius of Salamis (appr. 310/20 – 403) wrote about the Dormition making the same point as Psalm 131, “her holy body, by which light rose on the world, [rests] amid blessings.”

I have heard it said since I was a little evangelical child (and even a few weeks ago) this strange and unreasonable belief – that Christ took nothing from her. Any young girl could have sufficed, they said. She was like an smooth tunnel through which the Word of God passed without dependence on anything she could have offered Him including her DNA. Why then did he need a mother when a stork or a cabbage patch would do just fine? How then is Christ fully human?

But Holy Scripture does not agree. Mary was not just any young woman. When the angel Gabriel came to her he said something most significant, “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” And we repeat that greeting to her every day of our lives. You see, to be “full of grace” is to be full of God and this was said before she became pregnant with God’s Son. No, not any young 14 year old girl would have sufficed! God found one who was “full of grace.” He waited for her. Had she said no, the Lord would not have been born.

There is a story about a wise rabbi who was asked when the Messiah would come. He replied, "When one person could be found who would say 'Yes' to God." And there is one who gave a whole-hearted yes to God and she is the one we celebrate tonight. She emptied herself in order to receive Him.

If the Incarnation is real, then this must be true: she was truly His mother. She shared her flesh with Him, gave birth to Him, loved Him like a son, breast-fed Him, changed his diapers, dressed Him, bathed Him, instructed and corrected Him like all mothers do. Her DNA is his DNA and his blood is her blood. He looks like her. And Jesus loved her and cared for her from infancy and he still does eternally. What loving Son would abandon his Mother? Especially the Son of God?

So, we echo the Angelic Greeting and fulfil Our Lady’s prophecy and command, “All generations shall call me blessed.” And we recognize her as Mother of God because Elizabeth did when she asked, “How is it that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” When she said that she used the word that for the Jews was always substituted for the unpronounceable Name, the Tetragrammaton. That word is “Adonai”, which means Lord. She actually was saying, “How is it that the Mother of my God should come to me?”

The veneration of the Mother of God among the early Christians and among us now is immense. It is part of the internal life of Orthodox Christianity. We tend to guard her zealously because she is our mother as well. Our celebration this weekend is an explosion of love and gratitude for her role in our salvation.

With beautiful hymns in a Feast built not from historical facts, but from the love we have for the One she bore, the only One we worship, the One whose mother she is, our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. Our love for him transfers naturally to her as well. We are grateful to him for her and to her for him.

The whole of humanity listened attentively for a quiet, gentle voice to say this,  “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me as you have said.” This is the Theotokos, the Birth giver of God, the one who was and is forever and ever “full of grace,” Mother of God and mother of us all.