We usually commemorate saints on the day of their departure from this life, their birth into eternity. Today, therefore, is the greatest of the feasts of the Mother of God. Although as a very major saint she has other festivals honouring her, today marks her falling asleep and her assumption into heaven, the first to be glorified in the resurrection of her Son. In a fitting, indeed, elegant way, the Church’s year has as its first great festival in September the Nativity of the Mother of God. The last great occurs today. Her span of life on earth is, therefore, celebrated near the start and end of the Church year, framing it. This is fitting for the one who carried God within her womb, because she who was the birth-giver of God is both our great example and the one in whom we see our own humanity glorified. Our Lady, full of Grace, inspires us to follow her in obedience and love toward our heavenly goal.
She spoke truly when she said that all generations would call her blessed. If anyone does not see her as blessed then there is a problem. Yet Christ Himself made a curious statement which seems to deny this. We read in today’s Gospel that a woman called out to Him: “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” But He said: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:27f) In fact there is no contradiction. She was and is blessed, but we too are blessed if we keep the word of God in obedience. That is Christ’s call to us. The All Holy One did keep the word of God. Her ascent to the call of God by the message of the Archangel Gabriel was essential in the Incarnation of Christ Himself. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered: “May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38)
She was to suffer of course; we all do in different ways. She had to endure seeing her Son die for she was there at the crucifixion, yet throughout she remained, faithfully, the handmaid of God. She is the central figure in the life of the Church after her Son. He is worshipped but in every service she is venerated. She prays for us all and shows us what Christians are called to be. She is a type of the Church and the Mother of all Christians. Today, at the Dormition, we celebrate her falling asleep; the day she passed from this transitory life into the fullness of eternal life. The icon for the feast shows her soul being received by Christ, who is there at her departure, usually shown with the ranks of angels, whilst she lies on a funeral bed surrounded by the Apostles. Christ may be unseen by them, yet He is shown as truly present. Our Lord of course is always with us, by the operation of the Holy Spirit, whether we are aware of Him or not.
Today we celebrate a departure as a festival, not a time of mourning, although for those who loved her on earth this passing was indeed a time of grief, yet suffused with hope. Parting is always sad, we miss friends who are no longer with us. We experience sorrow at other times also. For example, it is a source of sadness when a friend moves abroad for a new job or children leave home, despite the fact we are glad for them moving on to new and exciting things. All these experiences of loss can move us toward hope for better things, a brighter resolution. In the case of death, this hope of course is the Resurrection.
To say someone has fallen asleep, passed away, died, means what? For non-believers it signifies the end of life. For some heterodox it seems almost the same. For the true Christian there is no death without Resurrection and no Resurrection without death. Christ defeated death; that is what Pascha is about and, of course, it is central to our faith. We are all faced with an ending to life in its present stage, a separation of body and soul until the soul is reunited with the resurrection body. This is like the caterpillar turning into the chrysalis before it can emerge into the butterfly. The body of the caterpillar breaks down and is remade. To quote St John of Kronstadt: “It is as if it were a temporary dream after which, by the voice of the Lord and the fearful yet wonderful trumpet of the Archangel, all the dead shall live and come forth each to his place: either to the resurrection of life or to the resurrection of condemnation (John 5:29). This is what the Christian means by translation. We should be ready for this translation, for the day of the general resurrection and judgement, for this indescribable world event, recorded in the Holy Scriptures.”
This process starts with the caterpillar eating to build up its strength and we also ought to lay up our reserves, the fruits of repentance and spiritual growth. This involves loving God and our neighbours. It means that we do not seek what we might want in our confused thoughts and pride; it means doing and being as God requires so that we might be dwelling places for the Holy Spirit. When we live in this way, we can enter the kingdom of heaven and prepare to face judgement before Godin a great hope, trusting in His love and mercy. The All Holy Theotokos followed this path and we see her in the icons greeted by her Son, leaving this life utterly fulfilled. God was with her throughout and He wants to be with us all in the same way. Christ wants to live with us and in us and we show this by our obedience: “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.” John 14:23
I talked earlier of the pain of departure and loss. Yet it is a mistake to think that physical death is final. Some saints have appeared again on earth in special circumstances for our help and encouragement. We look forward to being reunited with those whom we love and who love us; from whom we are never separated in Christ. We pray for them and they pray for us. We are all part of the one Church, so we may ask the prayers of those who have gone before us to their rest. This practice goes back to the beginning of the Church and reflects Jewish traditions in the centuries immediately before the birth of Christ. There is, for example, a funerary inscription in the Catacombs of Rome. “O Sabbatius, sweet soul, ask and pray for your brothers and companions.” We also continue to ask the prayers of the saints regularly. Death is defeated; those who have gone ahead still love and care for us. This is demonstrably true of the Mother of God. As the Troparion for today says:
“In giving birth you preserved your virginity, in falling asleep you did not forsake the world, O Theotokos. You were translated to life, O Mother of Life, And by your prayers, you deliver our souls from death.”
As we celebrate today the entry of this great Lady, the Theotokos into new life in Christ, we honour her and glorify her Son who defeated death to make this possible. We also need to take her as our example as well as cherish her as a loving friend and intercessor for us all.
And so to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be glory now and ever and to the ages of ages.