The Theotokos and the Church Year
Dr. Clark Carlton · September 2, 2008
Clark wishes everyone a happy new (Church) year by exploring the importance of the Church cycle and the significance of the Theotokos.
“Come now and let us reason together,” saith the Lord. “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land.”
Hello, and welcome once again to Faith and Philosophy. Today’s topic is “The Theotokos and the Church Year.”
I want to begin by wishing everyone a happy new year—ecclesiastical new year, that is. I thought this would be a good time to talk about the Church calendar; in particular, the shape of the calendar. Liturgy, in the Orthodox sense, is designed to do more than simply present the mysteries of the faith to us. One of its primary functions is formative; that is, the liturgical cycle is designed to help form us spiritually, in keeping with St. Paul’s admonition that we are not to be conformed to the world, but to Christ.
As I have said many times before on these podcasts, the purpose and impact of the liturgical cycle is difficult to gauge if one’s liturgical life is limited only to Sunday mornings. Of course, one hits most of the highlights of the Church year on Sunday mornings, but a good many of the cyclical events take place on other days of the week. In fact, it is really difficult to fully appreciate what happens on Sunday without some experience of the liturgical cycle for the rest of the week.
Now, when you add to this the fact that many major and mid-major feasts often fall on weekdays, we can begin to see just how much of our liturgical life we are missing by being Sunday-morning Christians. You can read all the books on Orthodoxy in print—and [ahem] mine, by the way, are available from Regina Orthodox Press—and still not get the point. The reason is that Orthodox Christianity is not an ideology. That is, it is not a set of rational propositions.
The only way to “get” Orthodoxy is to be formed by her life, her spirit, and this is impossible without being immersed in her liturgical life. I attended St. Vladimir’s back when Frs. Meyendorff and Hopko were on the faculty, but as much as I love Fr. John, the truth is I learned far, far more from attending chapel every day than I learned in the classroom. I expect others could say the same. It is necessary, then, for us to pay attention to the entire liturgical cycle—or cycles, really, because there are several that overlap—in order for us to understand the formative power of the liturgy.
Today I want to call one particular aspect of the yearly cycle to your attention. The first major feast of the Church year is coming up: the Nativity of the Theotokos. And we have just celebrated the last major feast of the year: the Dormition of the Theotokos. Nothing, I repeat: nothing in our liturgical cycle is accidental. If the liturgy is to form us spiritually, then it must intersect with our lives at the most crucial moments. Certainly there is some form of blessing or ritual for every important moment in our lives, from the cradle to the grave, but what I want to stress today is the fact that the Church year itself takes our life up into itself and celebrates and consecrates it as part of God’s redemptive economy.
Here we have to be careful, because what I am talking about is the relevance of the liturgical cycle to our lives, but throwing the word “relevance” about these days can be tricky. Seeker-sensitive Evangelical churches are all about being relevant to the “way we live today,” but of course that is not the kind of relevance I’m talking about. Basically, what they are doing is pandering to the lowered standards of a superficial consumeristic culture. “Come to church in your pajamas at four o’clock on Sunday afternoon. Be entertained by the praise band or the drama team while you sip your latte, and then settle back to listen to Pastor Chuck, bedecked in blue jeans and t-shirt, give the meaningful and practical lifestyle message.”
Liturgy, on the other hand, quite literally subsumes our life—that is, if we let it—into the life of Christ and his saints. More specifically, it subsumes our life into that of the Theokos, who is both model and mother for us all. Let us not forget here St. Nicodemus’ bold statement that the world was created for our Lady, the Theotokos, and she, in turn, was created for Christ. There is nothing—absolutely nothing—that we affirm dogmatically about the Virgin Mary that is not at once a witness to the incarnation of her Son and also a confession of what we ourselves expect as members of his Body.
Let’s think about the Dormition for just a minute. The Church teaches that after our Lady died a natural human death, just like every other Christian, her immaculate body was assumed into heaven. In other words, she was resurrected, and reigns at the right hand of her Son. “At thy right hand stood the queen, all gloriously arrayed.”
When I first converted, some twenty years ago, I was rather agnostic on this point. I knew that the Church had not officially dogmatized the Assumption the way that the Roman Catholic Church had, so I just sort of bracketed off the question and went on to more “meatier” theological subjects. That all changed the first time I was able to celebrate the Dormition liturgically. Once that happened, I understood that it could not have been any other way. It wasn’t a matter of reading the right books; it was a matter of entering into the spirit of the liturgical celebration and, in turn, being formed by it.
Here’s the point I want to stress. When we celebrate the dormition, resurrection, and glorification of our Lady, we are celebrating our own death, resurrection, and glorification with Christ. For everything that we say happened to the Theotokos will one day happen to those who follow Christ and love his appearing. As Fr. Schmemann was wont to say, “She is the great exemplar, not the great exception.” Let’s put it this way. Christ was fully man, but he was also fully God. There was no way he was not coming out of that tomb. As the anaphora of St. Basil puts it—and this is the best single summary of our theology out there—“It was not possible for the Author of Life to be a victim of corruption.”
But we are not divine, so how do we know that Christ’s death and resurrection works for the rest of us? We know, because the Virgin Mary is our proof. Because she was the first—to use the popular evangelical phrase—to invite Jesus into her heart, she was also the first to experience the consummation of his salvific economy. He is the first fruits of the resurrection, she the second: the pledge, the proof, that we, too, shall share in the resurrection of the dead and of the Day that knows no evening.
If we think of the liturgical year as a drama, the drama of salvation, we must understand that it is our story that is being told. It is being told through the biblical accounts of the life of Christ and through the lives of his saints, but in particular, it is told through the life of our Lady, from her Nativity to her Falling-asleep, because she is the crown of creation itself. From birth to death, and the hope of the life to come, the liturgy takes our life into itself in order to form us into the likeness of Christ.
Now may our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who was born of a woman that he might deify all those born of women, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska and of the blessed Elder Sophrony (Sakharov), have mercy upon us all, and grant us a rich entrance into his eternal kingdom.