On Thursday, we begin the experience of the Dormition Fast. During this fast for the next two weeks we remember “the falling asleep” or death of the Mother of God, the Theotokos, and Her translation into heaven. The word “dormition” is from the Greek word Koimisis that means “falling asleep in death” [See ]https://orthodoxwiki.org/Dormition]. It is important to understand that Holy Mary was born and died just like all of us, as a mortal human being. Yet, as the 14th century Greek theologian St Gregory Palamas preached, Holy Mary became “the holiest of the saints” [See https://orthochristian.com/38894.html, p.1].
During the next two weeks we are urged not to eat meat, fish and dairy products such as eggs, milk, butter and cheese, except that on Monday, August 6th, the Feast of the Transfiguration, fish can be eaten. These guidelines must then be adapted to the age and health of each of us—a personal decision that we each make. However, today, rather than focus on how we can fast, I would like to propose a different purpose: How can we draw closer to the Mother of God during the next two weeks? How can we link our lives to Hers?
St Gregory Palamas points out that “the flow of generations and circumstances journeys to the destination of that new mystery [formed] in Her,” the birth of Jesus Christ. We are each a small part of that steady “flow of generations and circumstances” that goes on a journey to Jesus Christ. Each of our journeys to Christ is uniquely our own, but the goal of every journey is the same—oneness with Christ.
In becoming the Mother of God, Holy Mary is a model for us. St Gregory explains that the death of The Theotokos was, and I quote, “life-bearing, translating Her into a [heavenly] and immortal life; and its commemoration is a joyful event and [a celebration] for the entire world.” The reason for our joy today is because, as St Gregory phrases it, “She alone stood between God and the whole human race; God became the Son of Man and made men sons of God; She made earth heavenly [and] she deified the human race” [https://orthochristian.com/38894.html, pp. 2-3]. It is certainly obvious that “the whole human race” includes women, but that was sometimes forgotten in the 14th and earlier and later centuries. Therefore, it is important to rephrase St Gregory’s insight to: The Theotokos “alone stood between God and the whole human race; God became the Son of Man and made men and women sons and daughters of God; the Theotokos made earth heavenly and she deified the human race.”
What does that mean—“to deify the human race”? Father John Anthony McGuckin defines deification as “the process of sanctification of Christians whereby [we] become progressively conformed to God” [The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology, p. 98]. That is a powerful definition. Deification is “a process”—that’s a series of stages, not a single event. We “become progressively conformed”—that’s to move forward and advance in stages. The end of each of our journeys is, steadily and unsteadily, to become more like God.
How can that happen? We can become more like God, because that is how He created us. In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, chapter 1, verse 26, reads: “Let us [that is, God] make a human being in our image and likeness.” Now, when Adam and Eve sinned, God did not change His plan that every human being should be made in His image and likeness. When we sin—and we are all at some times in our lives sinners—God does not change His intention that each of us should be made in His image and likeness. As St Irenaeus of Lyons pointed out in the second century, we each need to be renewed from our “old habits into the newness of Christ” [Against the Heresies 3.17.1, as explained by Father John Behr in Irenaeus of Lyons: Identifying Christianity, p. 90].
I think this movement away from “old habits” and the gradual renewal “into the newness of Christ” in our lives, every day, happens slowly and steadily. The little book, Mother of the Light: Prayers to the Theotokos, reflects that: “After the union of humanity and divinity [with the birth of Jesus Christ], it is through You, [Mother of God], that we are restored to God, for whenever we lose our way, either through the [influence] of the devil or because of our own ignorance and carelessness of mind, we find our way back to Your Son’s compassion through Your unceasing prayers to Him” [Newrome Press, Columbia, Missouri, 2018, p. 26].
There are two really important insights in that reflection. First, that Christ knows us and has mercy on us, wanting to draw us back to Him. Second, that the Mother of God is praying at all times to Christ for each of us. The Mother of God is interceding, that is appealing to Christ for us, that we will draw closer to Him. When Holy Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ, Her gift to humanity did not end with that birth. Throughout Her life and after Her death She continues to wish that every human being will know Christ, be supported by Him and serve Him. The central point of this sermon is quite simply that, if we ask Her, the Mother of God will pray for us and guide us to Her Son’s purposes in our lives.
The little book, Mother of the Light: Prayers to the Theotokos, goes on to point out that “my mind is often distracted not only by things [I have done], but also by the thoughts and images of things that have not yet happened and which may never happen…. Things are difficult and confusing for me on every side, and I am at a loss as to what to do. This is why I turn to You [Mother of God] for [protection from danger or trouble], seeking Your swift [and lasting] help. Be compassionate to me, my most pure Lady, and, using your boldness as a Mother, ask Your Son and God to forgive the sins I have committed…. Be with me always, take me by the hand, show me the way forward, drive away [any] hostile [evil] powers, and in every way watch over me and protect me, for … I am Your servant…. Make me worthy, by means of [Holy] Communion … to be purified and [enlightened by Your Son, our Lord”] [pp. 27-29].
To conclude, that prayer suggests that during these next two weeks, we can each say to ourselves: “Mother of God, help me, draw me closer to Your Son, that I may lose ‘old habits’ and participate more fully in the ‘newness of Christ.’” Let us stand and pray.