Tomorrow is the feast of the Dormition or Falling Asleep of Our Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. In this feast we commemorate not simply her falling asleep in a holy dying, but something else even more special. Listen to what St Gregory Palamas says of this in one of his homilies for the feast:
For, as she co-operated and suffered with that exalting condescension (kenosis) of the Word of God, she was also rightly glorified and exalted together with Him.
This is the key to understanding the importance of the Dormition for our Christian lives. The Mother of God co-operated with divine grace such that her very own womb became a temple of the Incarnation of the Word. She abased herself in humility and now she is exalted beyond death to take her place in heaven, participating already in the fruits of her Son’s Resurrection. This exaltation of the Theotokos is, properly speaking, her Ascension; made possible by Christ’s very own exaltation, which is the crown of His Paschal victory over sin, evil, suffering and death.
In the Gospel of St John that we have heard today at Matins, St Mary Magdalen, equal to the Apostles, meets the risen Christ unawares in the garden. There is a little detail in that account often neglected. She must have reached out to our Lord to touch him because in chapter 20 and verse 17 it is recorded that Jesus said to her:
Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.
The point here is that you are not supposed to cling to ascended persons, in this case Christ. They have to go to their natural home, heaven and not remain earthbound any more. We know from the Dormition of the Theotokos that this Ascension is not limited to Christ alone but rather is the invitation of the Father to all. We are all called through the practice of radical repentance, humility and obedience to God to ascend to the heavenly heights with the Panagia, All-Holy Mary. This is also made clear in the iconography of the Church. I shall illustrate this now from the account of the death of that great desert Father of Egypt, St Sisoes the Great. This is an extract from his life given on the website of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Washington DC.
Venerable Sisoes the Great (+429) was a monastic hermit who struggled in the Egyptian desert, in a cave blessed by the struggles of his predecessor, the Venerable Antony the Great. Engaged for 60 years in spiritual struggle in the desert, St. Sisoes achieved great spiritual purity and so grasped the gift of working miracles, that by his prayers, he once even brought a deceased youth back to life.
At the end of his life, St. Sisoes lay on his deathbed, the disciples gathered around their elder noticed that his face had become radiant. They asked the dying man what he beheld. Abba Sisoes replied that he was looking upon the Holy Prophets and Apostles. His disciples asked him “With whom are you conversing?” He answered that the Angels had come for his soul, and that he was asking them for but a little more time in which to repent. His disciples objected: “Father, you are not in need of repentance.” However, with great humility, the Saint replied: “Truly, I do not know whether I have even begun to repent.” As soon as he had uttered those words, his face became so radiant that the brethren could not dare look upon it. The Venerable Saint had just managed to relate to them that he beheld the Lord Himself, when his Holy Soul departed for the Heavenly Kingdom.
Do you see that all the elements of the falling asleep of this great and holy desert Father are reproduced from that which we know of our Lady’s Dormition … the gathering of the apostles and prophets, the angel with Christ coming to receive the soul into heaven? It is a pity that icons of St Sisoes only usually show him gazing at the tomb and remains of St Alexander the Great as an exercise of sobriety in the face of death. That is good for us all but far more significant is the promise of the Father to all his true children that like the very Mother of God herself we can ascend and be glorified in heaven. This promise is grounded in the resurrection of Christ and the fruits of that divine victory for all those who follow Him and place themselves in Him. What is required from us, therefore, as indeed it was required of our Lady is that we abase ourselves in humility and obedience. This is the radical repentance of which even St Sisoes deemed himself not worthy.
A final reflection on the Feast: … the Dormition of the Theotokos is not part of the kerygma, that is the announcement or proclamation of the Holy Gospel to the world; nor has it ever been dogmatised by the Church (except of course by Roman Catholicism). This is not at all because it lacks for us a certain importance; quite the contrary; it is probably the most important feast of the Mother of God in our calendar. The reason for keeping this Feast within the household of faith rather than being part of our public proclamation is because it celebrates the goal of our salvation, namely deification. What we announce to the world are those events that make that deification possible and primarily the life, death, resurrection and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
This evangel, this good news, is not only a joyous proclamation but also an invitation to repent in the light of that message. To preach the goal of salvation rather than the means, would be to ‘put the cart before the horse.’ Nonetheless, in the Church, for those who have heard the message of salvation and responded to it, the Dormition of the Mother of God attains its full significance and dominance. Having come to Christ and having accepted Him, we are all now called through an earthly love to join Him eventually in the heavenly places. With the promise of Ascension being extended to all, it looks as though heaven is going to get pretty crowded! What a joyous prospect! Let us not neglect to seek out this gift and pursue it for ourselves, until we in turn repose in the Lord.