The Incarnation of Our Lord is shocking. God takes on human flesh, totally human in fact, descended if we are to believe the biologists, from the same forebears as all of us.
But there is another side to the Incarnation, because by that action we may become God-like, we can participate in the reality of God’s energies, we can stand boldly before God. The feast of the Dormition makes this clear, in the shape of the death and translation into heaven of the Theotokos. According to Orthodoxy the Mother of God died as we all do, “falling asleep,” so to speak, as the name of the feast indicates. She died as all people die, not “voluntarily” as her Son, but because of her mortal human nature. Tradition has it the Apostles were summoned and all were present at the funeral, except St. Thomas.
St. Thomas arrived a few days later, and desiring to see her one more time, convinced the others to open her tomb. Upon doing so, the Apostles discovered that her body was no longer present. The icon shows her soul being received by Christ, as a child in swaddling bands, an echo of the Nativity stories, as she is reborn into eternity. Indeed a short while afterwards, her body was translated by Him into the eternal heavenly habitations. This was fully just and proper, befitting her unique holiness. She is taken into the heavens bodily as some point out, as all the redeemed shall be, and for this she is rightly called more honourable than the Cherubim.
Looking back on her life we see that the Power of the Most High dwelt within her, He took flesh from her. Her “yes” made the Incarnation possible. She did not abandon the world, (in the words of the hymn for today), and her intercession is called upon by all of us regularly and with due confidence. Her presence in heaven is a hope for us all; flesh can stand in the presence of God. This was the case for Elijah. also taken up to heaven, although in his case without death first.
Now she has her proper habitation in Heaven, into which today she is translated from earth, for Heaven is a most fitting place for her. She stands at the right side of the Almighty “adorned in golden robes, arrayed in diverse colours” (Ps. 44 : 9-10), which is quoted in the service for the preparation of the Holy Gifts. “They shall mention Thy name from generation to generation: therefore the nations shall give thanks to Thee forever” (Ps. 44/45: 17-18). All generations shall call her blessed. Her body, which was truly the Ark of the Lord might be expected not to suffer decay. Let us be clear though that hers is a human body. She was mortal as we are mortal. Indeed it is her humanity that makes it possible for Christ himself to be fully human. Her transcending of the limits of unregenerate humanity is celebrated and serves as an example.
She prays for us, distributes blessings generously on us, and never ceases this gracious help. She is praised in hymns addressed to her and we cannot help but pile on the superlatives. What sets her apart from us is simply her wonderful obedience and willingness to serve God. That led to her being truly the habitation of God in a unique and wonderful way, yet all of us carry God within us. We are all temples of the Holy Spirit.
We celebrate her passage from this life to immortality in Heaven, her soul’s acceptance by Christ at the point of mortal death, and her intercession and hope for us all. She is truly a great and wonderful lady. We praise and honour her, who made our salvation possible by her obedience. She is seen as a type of the Church and frequently portrayed in the altar itself, in the apse over the throne. After all she is the throne of God in a special way. She does not detract from her Son but rather she is shown in the icons pointing to Him or holding Him forward, or else praying to Him.
She is an example to us all. We need to learn from her, and follow her lead and we need her help by her prayers.
As St. Gregory Palamas prayed, so we also come before her….
“O Lady, grant your mercy and your grace abundantly to all your people, your inheritance. Deliver us from the misfortunes afflicting us. Behold how much and how greatly we are oppressed… by those both without and within. By your might transform all for the best…. bestow your help and healing commensurate with our passions,...granting to our souls and our bodies abundant grace for every need. Though we may be incapable of containing your riches, increase our capacity and so grant them to us that we, saved and strengthened by your grace, may glorify the Pre-eternal Word Who was Incarnate of you for our sakes, together with His Unoriginate Father and Life-Creating Spirit, both now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”