Skip to comments.A Homily on the Dormition of Our Supremely Pure Lady Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary
Posted on 08/15/2003 6:24:18 AM PDT by Hermann the Cherusker
Both love and duty today fashion my homily for your charity. It is not only that I wish, because of my love for you, and because I am obliged by the sacred canons, to bring to your God-loving ears a saving word and thus to nourish your souls, but if there be any among those things that bind by obligation and love and can be narrated with praise for the Church, it is the great deed of the Ever-Virgin Mother of God. The desire is double, not single, since it induces me, entreats and persuades me, whereas the inexorable duty constrains me, though speech cannot attain to what surpasses it, just as the eye is unable to look fixedly upon the sun. One cannot utter things which surpass speech, yet it is within our power by the love for mankind of those hymned, to compose a song of praise and all at once both to leave untouched intangible things, to satisfy the debt with words and to offer up the first fruits of our love for the Mother of God in hymns composed according to our abilities.
If, then, "death of the righteous man is honorable" (cf. Ps. 115:6) and the "memory of the just man is celebrated with songs of praise" (Prov. 10:7). How much more ought we to honor with great praises the memory of the holiest of the saints, she by whom all holiness is afforded to the saints, I mean the Ever-Virgin. Mother of God! Even so we celebrate today her holy dormition or translation to another life, whereby, while being "a little lower than angels" (Ps. 8:6), by her proximity to the God of all, and in the wondrous deeds which from the beginning of time were written down and accomplished with respect to her, she has ascended incomparably higher than the angels and the archangels and all the super-celestial hosts that are found beyond them. For her sake the God-possessed prophets pronounce prophecies, miracles are wrought to foreshow that future Marvel of the whole world, the Ever-Virgin Mother of God. The flow of generations and circumstances journeys to the destination of that new mystery wrought in her; the statutes of the Spirit provide beforehand types of the future truth. The end, or rather the beginning and root, of those divine wonders and deeds is the annunciation to the supremely virtuous Joachim and Anna of what was to be accomplished: namely, that they who were barren from youth would beget in deep old age her that would bring forth without seed Him that was timelessly begotten of God the Father before the ages. A vow was given by those who marvelously begot her to return her that was given to the Giver; so accordingly the Mother of God strangely changed her dwelling from the house of her father to the house of God while still an infant . She passed not a few years in the Holy of Holies itself, wherein under the care of an angel she enjoyed ineffable nourishment such as even Adam did not succeed in tasting; for indeed if he had, like this immaculate one, he would not have fallen away from life, even though it was because of Adam and so that she might prove to be his daughter, that she yielded a little to nature, as did her Son, Who has now ascended from earth into heaven.
But after that unutterable nourishment, a most mystical economy of courtship came to pass as regards the Virgin, a strange greeting surpassing speech which the Archangel, descended from above, addressed to her, and disclosures and salutations from God which overturn the condemnation of Eve and Adam and remedy the curse laid on them, transforming it into a blessing. The King of all "hath desired a mystic beauty" of the Ever-Virgin, as David foretold (Ps. 44:11) and, "He bowed the heavens and came down" (Ps. 17:9) and overshadowed her, or rather, the enhypostatic Power of the Most High dwelt in her. Not through darkness and fire, as with Moses the God-seer, nor through tempest and cloud, as with Elias the prophet, did He manifest His presence, but without mediation, without a veil, the Power of the Most High overshadowed the sublimely chaste and virginal womb, separated by nothing, neither air nor aether nor anything sensible, nor anything supra-sensible: this was not an overshadowing but a complete union. Since what overshadows is always wont to produce its own form and figure in whatever is overshadowed, there came to pass in the womb not a union only, but further, a formation, and that thing formed from the Power of the Most High and the all-holy virginal womb was the incarnate Word of God. Thus the Word of God took up His dwelling in the Theotokos in an inexpressible manner and proceeded from her, bearing flesh . He appeared upon the earth and lived among men, deifying our nature and granting us, after the words of the divine Apostle, "things which angels desire to look into" (1 Pet. 1:12). This is the encomium which transcends nature and the surpassingly glorious glory of the Ever-Virgin, glory for which all mind and word suffice not, though they be angelic. But who can relate those things which came to pass after His ineffable birth? 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, ever adding thereto the supernatural increase of mighty deeds. And after the ascent into the heavens of Him that was incarnate of her, she rivaled, as it were, those great works, surpassing mind and speech, which through Him were her own, with a most valiant and diverse asceticism, and with her prayers and care for the entire world, her precepts and encouragements which she gave to God's heralds sent throughout the whole world; thus she was herself both a support and a comfort while she was both heard and seen, and while she labored with the rest in every way for the preaching of the Gospel. In such wise she led a most strenuous manner of life proclaimed in mind and speech.
Therefore, the death of the Theotokos was also life-bearing, translating her into a celestial and immortal life and its commemoration is a joyful event and festivity for the entire world. It not merely renews the memory of the wondrous deeds of the Mother of God, but also adds thereto the strange gathering at her all-sacred burial of all the sacred apostles conveyed from every nation, the God-revealing hymns of these God-possessed ones, and the solicitous presence of the angels, and their choir, and liturgy round about her, going on before, following after, assisting, opposing, defending, being defended. They labored and chanted together to their uttermost with those who venerated that life- originating and God-receiving body, the saving balsam for our race and the boast of all creation; but they strove against and opposed with a secret hand the Jews who rose up against and attacked that body with hand and will set upon theomachy. All the while the Lord Sabaoth Himself, the Son of the Ever-Virgin, was present, into Whose hands she rendered her divinely-minded spirit, through which and with which its companion, her body, was translated into the domain of celestial and endless life, even as was and is fitting. In truth, many have been allotted divine favor and glory and power, as David says, "But to me exceedingly honorable are Thy friends, O Lord, their principalities are made exceeding strong. I will count them and they shall be multiplied more than the sand" (Ps. 138:17). And according to Solomon, "many daughters have attained wealth, many have wrought valiantly; but she doth exceed, she hath surpassed all, both men and women" (cf. Prov. 31:29). For while 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, she deified the human race, and she alone of all women was shown forth to be a mother by nature and the Mother of God transcending every law of nature, and by her ineffable childbirth-the Queen of all creation, both terrestial and celestial. Thus she exalted those under her through herself, and, showing while on earth an obedience to things heavenly rather than things earthly, she partook of more excellent deserts and of superior power, and from the ordination which she received from heaven by the Divine Spirit, she became the most sublime of the sublime and the supremely blest Queen of a blessed race.
But now the Mother of God has her dwelling in Heaven whither she was today translated, for this is meet, Heaven being a suitable place for her. She "stands at the right of the King of all clothed in a vesture wrought with gold and arrayed with divers colors" (cf. Ps. 44:9), as the psalmic prophecy says con- cerning her. By "vesture wrought with gold" understand her divinely radiant body arrayed with divers colors of every virtue. She alone in her body, glorified by God, now enjoys the celestial realm together with her Son. For, earth and grave and death did not hold forever her life-originating and God-receiving body -the dwelling more favored than Heaven and the Heaven of heavens. If, therefore, her soul, which was an abode of God's grace, ascended into Heaven when bereaved of things here below, a thing which is abundantly evident, how could it be that the body which not only received in itself the pre-eternal and only-begotten Son of God, the ever-flowing Wellspring of grace, but also manifested His Body by way of birth, should not have also been taken up into Heaven? Or, if while yet three years of age and not yet possessing that super- celestial in-dwelling, she seemed not to bear our flesh as she abode in the Holy of Holies, and after she became supremely perfect even as regards her body by such great marvels, how indeed could that body suffer corruption and turn to earth? How could such a thing be conceivable for anyone who thinks reasonably'? Hence, the body which gave birth is glorified together with what was born of it with God-befitting glory, and the "ark of holiness" (Ps. 131:8) is resurrected, after the prophetic ode, together with Christ Who formerly arose from the dead on the third day. The strips of linen and the burial clothes afford the apostles a demonstration of the Theotokos' resurrection from the dead, since they remained alone in the tomb and at the apostles' scrutiny they were found there, even as it had been with the Master. There was no necessity for her body to delay yet a little while in the earth, as was the case with her Son and God, and so it was taken up straightway from the tomb to a super-celestial realm, from whence she flashes forth most brilliant and divine illuminations and graces, irradiating earth's region; thus she is worshipped and marvelled at and hymned by all the faithful . Willing to set up an image of all goodness and beauty and to make clearly manifest His own therein to both angels and men, God fashioned a being supremely good and beautiful, uniting in her all good, seen and unseen, which when He made the world He distributed to each thing and thereby adorned all; or rather one might say, He showed her forth as a universal mixing bowl of all divine, angelic and human things good and beautiful and the supreme beauty which embellished both worlds. By her ascension now from the tomb, she is taken from the earth and attains to Heaven and this also she surpasses, uniting those on high with those below, and encompassing all with the wondrous deed wrought in her. In this manner she was in the beginning "a little lower than the angels" (Ps. 8:6), as it is said, referring to her mortality, yet this only served to magnify her pre-eminence as regards all creatures. Thus all things today fittingly gather and commune for the festival.
It was meet that she who contained Him that fills all things and who surpasses all should outstrip all and become by her virtue superior to them in the eminence of her dignity. Those things which sufficed the most excellent among men that have lived throughout the ages in order to reach such excellency, and that which all those graced of God have separately, both angels and men, she combines, and these she alone brings to fulfillment and surpasses. And this she now has beyond all: That she has become immortal after death and alone dwells together with her Son and God in her body. For this reason she pours forth from thence abundant grace upon those who honor her-for she is a receptacle of great graces-and she grants us even our ability to look towards her. Because of her goodness she lavishes sublime gifts upon us and never ceases to provide a profitable and abundant tribute in our behalf. If a man looks towards this concurrence and dispensing of every good, he will say that the Virgin is for virtue and those who live virtuously, what the sun is for perceptible light and those who live in it. But if he raises the eye of his mind to the Sun which rose for men from this Virgin in a wondrous manner, the Sun which by nature possesses all those (lualities which were added to her nature by grace, he shall straightaway call the Virgin a heaven. The excellent inheritance of every good which she has been allotted so m uch exceeds in holiness the portion of those who are divinely graced both under and above heaven as the heaven is greater than the sun and the sun is more radiant than heaven.
Who can describe in words thy divinely resplendent beauty, O Virgin Mother of God? Thoughts and words are inadequate to define thine attributes, since they surpass mind and speech. Yet it is meet to chant hymns of praise to thee, for thou art a vessel containing every grace, the fulness of all things good and beautiful, the tablet and living icon of every good and all uprightness, since thou alone hast been deemed worthy to receive the fulness of every gift of the Spirit. Thou alone didst bear in thy womb Him in Whom are found the treasuries of all these gifts and didst become a wondrous tabernacle for Him; hence thou didst depart by way of death to immortality and art translated from earth to Heaven, as is proper, so that thou mightest dwell with Him eternally in a super-celestial abode. From thence thou ever carest diligently for thine inheritance and by thine unsleeping intercessions with Him, thou showest mercy to all.
To the degree that she is closer to God than all those who have drawn nigh unto Him, by so much has the Theotokos been deemed worthy of greater audience. I do not speak of rnen alone, but also of the angelic hierarchies themselves. Isaiah writes with regard to the supreme commanders of the heavenly hosts: "And the seraphim stood round about Him" (Isaiah 6:2); but David says concerning her, "at Thy right hand stood the queen" (Ps. 44:8). Do you see the difference in position? From this comprehend also the difference in the dignity of their station. The seraphim are round about God, but the only Queen of all is near beside Him. She is both wondered at and praised by God Himself, proclaiming her, as it were, by the mighty deeds enacted with respect to Him, and saying, as it is recorded in the Song of Songs, "How fair is my companion" (cf. Song of Songs 6:4), she is more radiant than light, more arrayed with flowers than the divine gardens, more adorned than the whole world, visible and invisible. She is not merely a companion but she also stands at Cod's right hand, for where Christ sat in the heavens, that is, at the "right hand of majesty" (Heb. 1:3), there too she also takes her stand, having ascended now from earth into the heavens. Not merely does she love and is loved in return more than every other, according to the very laws of nature, but she is truly His Throne, and wherever the King sits, there His Throne is set also. And Isaiah beheld this throne amidst the choir of cherubim and called it "high" and "exalted" (Isaiah 6:1), wishing to make explicit how the station of the Mother of God far trancer Is that of the celestial hosts.
For this reason the Prophet introduces the angels themselves as glorifying the God come from her, saying, "Blessed be the glory of the L,ord from His Place" (Ezek. 3:12). Jacob the patriarch, beholding this throne by way of types (enigmata), said, "How dreadful is this Place! This is none other than the House of God, and this is the Gate of Heaven" (Gen. 28:17). But David, joining himself to the multitude of the saved, who are like the strings of a musical instrument or like differing voices from different generations made harmonious in one faith through the Ever-Virgin, sounds a most melodic strain in praise of her, saying: "I shall commemorate thy name in every generation and generation. Therefore shall peoples give praise unto thee for ever, and unto the ages of ages." Do you see how the entire creation praises the Virgin Mother, and not only in times past, but "for ever, and unto the ages of ages"? Thus it is evident that throughout the whole course of the ages, she shall never cease from benefacting all creation, and I mean not only created nature seen round about us, but also the very supreme commanders of the heavenly hosts, whose nature is immaterial and transcendent. Isaiah shows us clearly that it is only through her that they together with us both partake of and touch God, that Nature which defies touch, for he did not see the seraphim take the coal from the altar without mediation, but with tongs, by means of which the coal touched the prophetic lips and purified them (cf. Isaiah 6:6-7). Moses beheld the tongs of that great vision of Isaiah when he saw the bush aflame with fire, yet unconsumed. And who does not know that the Virgin Mother is that very bush and those very tongs, she who herself (though an archangel also assisted at the conception) conceived the Divine Fire without being consumed, Him that taketh away the sins of the world, Who through her touched mankind and by that ineffable touch and union cleansed us entirely. Therefore, she only is the frontier between created and uncreated nature, and there is no man that shall come to God except he be truly illumined through her, that Lamp truly radiant with divinity, even as the Prophet says, "God is in the midst of her, she shall not be shaken'(Ps. 45:5).
If recompense is bestowed according to the measure of love for God, and if the man who loves the Son is loved of Him and of His Father and becomes the dwelling place of Both, and They mystically abide and walk in him, as it is recorded in the Master's Gospel, who, then, will love Him more than His Mother? For, He was her only-begotten Son, and moreover she alone among women gave birth knowing no spouse, so that the love of Him that had partaken of her flesh might be shared with her twofold. And who will the only-begotten Son love more than His Mother, He that came forth from Her ineffably without a father in this last age even as He came forth from the Father without a mother before the ages'? How indeed could He that descended to fulfill the Law not multiply that honor due to His Mother over and above the ordinances of the Law?
Hence, as it was through the Theotokos alone that the Lord came to us, appeared upon earth and lived among men, being invisible to all before this time, so likewise in the endless age to come, without her mediation, every emanation of illuminating divine light, every revelation of the mysteries of the Godhead, every form of spiritual gift, will exceed the capacity of every created being. She alone has received the all-pervading fulness of Him that filleth all things, and through her all may now contain it, for she dispenses it according to the power of each, in proportion and to the degree of the purity of each. Hence she is the treasury and overseer of the riches of the Godhead. For it is an everlasting ordinance in the heavens that the inferior partake of what lies beyond being, by the mediation of the superior, and the Virgin Mother is incomparably superior to all. It is through her that as many as partake of God do partake, and as many as know God understand her to be the enclosure of the Uncontainable One, and as many as hymn God praise her together with Him. She is the cause of what came before her, the champion of what came after her and the agent of things eternal. She is the substance of the prophets, the principle of the apostles, the firm foundation of the martyrs and the premise of the teachers of the Church . She is the glory of those upon earth, the joy of celestial beings, the adornment of all creation. She is the beginning and the source and root of unutterable good things; she is the summit and consummation of everything holy.
O divine, and now heavenly, Virgin, how can I express all things which pertain to thee? How can I glorify the treasury of all glory? Merely thy memory sanctifies whoever keeps it, and a mere movement towards thee makes the mind more translucent, and thou dost exalt it straightway to the Divine. The eye of the intelfect is through thee made limpid, and through thee the spirit of a man is illumined by the sojourning of the Spirit of God, since thou hast become the steward of the treasury of divine gifts and their vault, and this, not in order to keep them for thyself, but so that thou mightest make created nature replete with grace. Indeed, the steward of those inexhaustible treasuries watches over them so that the riches may be dispensed; and what could confine that wealth which wanes not? Richly, therefore, bestow thy mercy and thy graces upon all thy people, this thine inheritance, O Lady! Dispel the perils which menace us. See how greatly we are expended by our own and by aliens, by those without and by those within. Uplift all by thy might: mollify our fellow citizens one with another and scatter those who assault us from without-like savage beasts. Measure out thy succor and healing in proportion to our passions, apportioning abundant grace to our souls and bodies, s fficient for every necessity. And although we may prove incapable of containing thy bounties, augment our capacity and in this manner bestow them upon us, so that being both saved and fortified by thy grace, we may glorify the pre-eternal Word Who was incarnate of thee for our sakes, together with His unoriginate Father and the life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto the endless ages. Amen.
"In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
On this second Sunday of Great Lent our Church commemorates St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonike. Why?
Last Sunday, the first of Great Lent, we commemorated the return of icons to the life of the Church and affirmed our faith as being passed on unchanged from Jesus Christ and His disciples on to us today. St. Gregory Palamas was a fairly late saint. He died on November 14, 1359. So why not use an earlier saint like Basil or Chrysostom?
Let's get some basic information on St. Gregory Palamas. He was born in Constantinople about 1296. He became a monk of the great community at Mount Athos. Here he was one of the foremost supporters and practitioners of a type of contemplation called Hesychasm. The Hesychasts claimed that, by suitable spiritual disciplines, those engaged in contemplative prayer could come to see the "uncreated light" of God. Their opponents objected that this doctrine was inconsistent with the unity and the transcendence of God. At first, Hesychasm was condemned as heretical and Gregory was excommunicated. However, in 1347, thanks chiefly to the unwavering support of the monks of Mount Athos, Gregory was brought back from exile, cleared of heretical charges, and made bishop of Thessalonika. After much controversy, his position was declared orthodox by the church of Constantinople in 1351.
So we see that Gregory was an ascetic who achieved a high degree of sanctification. Great Lent is a time for us to take on the ascetic life, fasting, prayer and good works, in order to draw near to God and His light, to know God intimately. Interestingly, before the big controversy over Hesychasm, Gregory became an abbot at the Esphigmenou Monastery on Mount Athos. He was so strict that the monks rebelled and threw him out. It was from here that he went on to defend Hesychasm and be elected Archbishop of Thessalonike. His life was marked by many of these ups and downs. The same monks who threw him out, later rallied around him in the controversy over hesychasm.
Gregory quotes St. Basil in defending Hesychasm- "We know our God from His energies, but we do not claim that we can draw near to His essence." This concept of God's essence and His energies was a very important one. It is God's essence that is beyond comprehension, beyond our grasp both rationally and spiritually. When we encounter God, it is by grace (a free gift) in His energies. An example from nature that serves as an imperfect analogy is the sun. We don't have direct contact with the sun itself, with its essence, because that would totally atomize us. We do however feel the energies of the sun, warming our planet, giving life to all plants, providing vitamin D and tanning our bodies, and bringing a smile to our faces.
This is an important concept in Orthodoxy. For those who came to the Pan-Orthodox retreat a week ago Saturday, it is this distinction that differentiates between the heretical concept of pantheism and the Orthodox concept of panentheism. Pantheism states that God is all, and all things are God, that is to say that God's essence, is in all things and therefore we can and should worship trees, rocks, the sun, the moon, etc. Panentheism, is the belief that God, that is to say God's energies, is in all things, and that therefore all creation is worthy of respect. This reinforces the biblical understanding that God has called us to be good stewards of all creation. We are called to take care of the world, providing for our own needs without wasting or abusing anything in God's creation.
Gregory also used this concept of God's essence and energies to explain how God is mystically present in the Eucharist, in Holy Communion. It is God's energies that are present there, not His essence. We should receive Holy Communion often in order to fill ourselves with the energies of God.
Bishop Kallistos Ware makes an important observation. In the Orthodox Church, we focus on the Resurrected Jesus Christ and on the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mt. Tabor. Thus an outward sign of sanctity or holiness among Orthodox saints is shining with God's uncreated light. In the Catholic Church, with its focus on the Crucified Christ, on Jesus as the suffering servant, the outward sign of holiness is often the stigmata, reflecting Christ's pierced hands, feet and side in one's own flesh. Of course there are many other manifestations of holiness in both our Churches' histories and traditions.
As we come out of the starting gate of the fast and complete the first two laps, St. Gregory Palamas is presented to us as a bold example of faith in action. He is a role model in thought, word and deed. I pray that each of us may grow and be richly blessed through the course of the fast. I pray that God's energies may course through our spiritual veins, transforming us with God's uncreated light of truth, peace and love.
To God be the glory, now and forever and to the ages of ages, Amen."
"Following the Fathers
Following the Holy Fathers . . . It was usual in the Ancient Church to introduce doctrinal statements by phrases like this. The Decree of Chalcedon opens precisely with these very words. The Seventh Ecumenical Council introduces its decision concerning the Holy Icons in a more elaborate way: Following the Divinely inspired teaching of the Holy Fathers and the Tradition of the Catholic Church. The didaskalia of the Fathers is the formal and normative term of reference.
Now, this was much more than just an appeal to antiquity. Indeed, the Church always stresses the permanence of her faith through the ages, from the very beginning. This identity, since the Apostolic times, is the most conspicuous sign and token of right faithalways the same. Yet, antiquity by itself is not an adequate proof of the true faith. Moreover, the Christian message was obviously a striking novelty for the ancient world, and, indeed, a call to radical renovation. The Old has passed away, and everything has been made New. On the other hand, heresies could also appeal to the past and invoke the authority of certain traditions. In fact, heresies were often lingering in the past.1 Archaic formulas can often be dangerously misleading. Vincent of Lerins himself was fully aware of this danger. It would suffice to quote this pathetic passage of his: And now, what an amazing reversal of the situation! the authors of the same opinion are adjudged to be catholics, but the followersheretics; the masters are absolved, the disciples are condemned; the writers of the books will be children of the Kingdom, their followers will go to Gehenna (Commonitorium, cap. 6). Vincent had in mind, of course, St. Cyprian and the Donatists. St. Cyprian himself faced the same situation. Antiquity as such may happen to be just an inveterate prejudice: nam antiquitas sine veritate vetustas erroris est (Epist. 74). It is to sayold customs as such do not guarantee the truth. Truth is not just a habit.
The true tradition is only the tradition of truth, traditio veritatis. This tradition, according of St. Irenaeus, is grounded in, and secured by, that charisma veritatis certum [secure charisma of truth], which has been deposited in the Church from the very beginning and has been preserved by the uninterrupted succession of episcopal ministry. Tradition in the Church is not a continuity of human memory, or a permanence of rites and habits. It is a living traditiondepositum juvenescens, in the phrase of St. Irenaeus. Accordingly, it cannot be counted inter mortuas regulas [among dead rules]. Ultimately, tradition is a continuity of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, a continuity of Divine guidance and illumination. The Church is not bound by the letter. Rather, she is constantly moved forth by the Spirit. The same Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, which spake through the Prophets, which guided the Apostles, is still continuously guiding the Church into the fuller comprehension and understanding of the Divine truth, from glory to glory.
Following the Holy Fathers . . . This is not a reference to some abstract tradition, in formulas and propositions. It is primarily an appeal to holy witnesses. Indeed, we appeal to the Apostles, and not just to an abstract Apostolicity. In the similar manner do we refer to the Fathers. The witness of the Fathers belongs, intrinsically and integrally, to the very structure of Orthodox belief. The Church is equally committed to the kerygma of the Apostles and to the dogma of the Fathers. We may quote at this point an admirable ancient hymn (probably, from the pen of St. Romanus the Melode). Preserving the kerygma of the Apostles and the dogmas of the Fathers, the Church has sealed the one faith and wearing the tunic of truth she shapes rightly the brocade of heavenly theology and praises the great mystery of piety.2
The Mind of the Fathers
The Church is Apostolic indeed. But the Church is also Patristic. She is intrinsically the Church of the Fathers. These two notes cannot be separated. Only by being Patristic is the Church truly Apostolic. The witness of the Fathers is much more than simply a historic feature, a voice from the past. Let us quote another hymnfrom the office of the Three Hierarchs. By the word of knowledge you have composed the dogmas which the fishermen have established first in simple words, in knowledge by the power of the Spirit, for thus our simple piety had to acquire composition. There are, as it were, two basic stages in the proclamation of the Christian faith. Our simple faith had to acquire composition. There was an inner urge, an inner logic, an internal necessity, in this transition from kerygma to dogma. Indeed, the teaching of the Fathers, and the dogma of the Church, are still the same simple message which has been once delivered and deposited, once for ever, by the Apostles. But now it is, as it were, properly and fully articulated. The Apostolic preaching is kept alive in the Church, not only merely preserved. In this sense, the teaching of the Fathers is a permanent category of Christian existence, a constant and ultimate measure and criterion of right faith. Fathers are not only witnesses of the old faith, testes antiquitatis. They are rather witnesses of the true faith, testes veritatis. The mind of the Fathers is an intrinsic term of reference in Orthodox theology, no less than the word of Holy Scripture, and indeed never separated from it. As it has been well said, the Catholic Church of all ages is not merely a daughter of the Church of the Fathersshe is and remains the Church of the Fathers.3
The Existential Character of Patristic Theology
The main distinctive mark of Patristic theology was its existential character, if we may use this current neologism. The Fathers theologized, as St. Gregory of Nazianzus put it, in the manner of the Apostles, not in that of Aristotleἁëéåõôéêῶò, ïὐê ἀñéóôïôåëéêῶò (Hom. 23. 12). Their theology was still a message, a kerygma. Their theology was still kerygmatic theology, even if it was often logically arranged and supplied with intellectual arguments. The ultimate reference was still to the vision of faith, to spiritual knowledge and experience. Apart from life in Christ theology carries no conviction and, if separated from the life of faith, theology may degenerate into empty dialectics, a vain polylogia, without any spiritual consequence. Patristic theology was existentially rooted in the decisive commitment of faith. It was not a self-explanatory discipline which could be presented argumentatively, that is ἀñéóôïôåëéêῶò, without any prior spiritual engagement. In the age of theological strife and incessant debates, the great Cappadocian Fathers formally protested against the use of dialectics, of Aristotelian syllogisms, and endeavoured to refer theology back to the vision of faith. Patristic theology could be only preached or proclaimedpreached from the pulpit, proclaimed also in the words of prayer and in the sacred rites, and indeed manifested in the total structure of Christian life. Theology of this kind can never be separated from the life of prayer and from the exercise of virtue. The climax of purity is the beginning of theology, as St. John the Klimakos puts it: ÔÝëïò äὲ ἁãíåßáò ὑðüèåóéò èåïëïãßáò (Scala Paradisi, grade 30).
On the other hand, theology of this type is always, as it were, propaideutic, since its ultimate aim and purpose is to ascertain and to acknowledge the Mystery of the Living God, and indeed to bear witness to it, in word and deed. Theology is not an end in itself. It is always but a way. Theology, and even the dogmas, present no more than an intellectual contour of the revealed truth, and a noetic testimony to it. Only in the act of faith is this contour filled with content. Christological formulas are fully meaningful only for those who have encountered the Living Christ, and have received and acknowledged Him as God and Saviour, and are dwelling by faith in Him, in His body, the Church. In this sense, theology is never a self-explanatory discipline. It is constantly appealing to the vision of faith. What we have seen and have heard we announce to you. Apart from this announcement theological formulas are empty and of no consequence. For the same reason these formulas can never be taken abstractly, that is, out of total context of belief. It is misleading to single out particular statements of the Fathers and to detach them from the total perspective in which they have been actually uttered, just as it is misleading to manipulate with detached quotations from the Scripture. It is a dangerous habit to quote the Fathers, that is, their isolated sayings and phrases, outside of that concrete setting in which only they have their full and proper meaning and are truly alive.
To follow the Fathers does not mean just to quote them. To follow the Fathers means to acquire their mind, their phronema.
The Meaning of the Age of the Fathers
Now, we have reached the crucial point. The name of Church Fathers is usually restricted to the teachers of the Ancient Church. And it is currently assumed that their authority depends upon their antiquity, upon their comparative nearness to the Primitive Church, to the initial Age of the Church. Already St. Jerome had to contest this idea. Indeed, there was no decrease of authority, and no decrease in the immediacy of spiritual competence and knowledge, in the course of Christian history. In fact, however, this idea of decrease has strongly affected our modern theological thinking. In fact, it is too often assumed, consciously or unconsciously, that the Early Church was, as it were, closer to the spring of truth. As an admission of our own failure and inadequacy, as an act of humble self-criticism, such an assumption is sound and helpful. But it is dangerous to make of it the starting point or basis of our theology of Church history, or even of our theology of the Church. Indeed, the Age of the Apostles should retain its unique position. Yet, it was just a beginning. It is widely assumed that the Age of the Fathers has also ended, and accordingly it is regarded just as an ancient formation, antiquated in a sense and archaic. The limit of the Patristic Age is variously defined. It is usual to regard St. John of Damascus as the last Father in the East, and St. Gregory the Dialogos or Isidore of Seville as the last in the West. This periodization has been justly contested in recent times. Should not, for instance, St. Theodore of Studium, at least, be included among the Fathers? Mabillon has suggested that Bernard of Clairvaux, the Doctor mellifluous, was the last of the Fathers, and surely not unequal to the earlier ones.4 Actually, it is more than a question of periodization. From the Western point of view the Age of the Fathers has been succeeded, and indeed superseded, by the Age of the Schoolmen, which was an essential step forward. Since the rise of Scholasticism Patristic theology has been antiquated, has become actually a past age, a kind of archaic prelude. This point of view, legitimate for the West, has been, most unfortunately, accepted also by many in the East, blindly and uncritically. Accordingly, one has to face the alternative. Either one has to regret the backwardness of the East which never developed any Scholasticism of its own. Or one should retire into the Ancient Age, in a more or less archeological manner, and practice what has been wittily described recently as a theology of repetition. The latter, in fact, is just a peculiar form of imitative scholasticism.
Now, it is not seldom suggested that, probably, the Age of the Fathers has ended much earlier than St. John of Damascus. Very often one does not proceed further than the Age of Justinian, or even already the Council of Chalcedon. Was not Leontius of Byzantium already the first of the Scholastics? Psychologically, this attitude is quite comprehensible, although it cannot be theologically justified. Indeed, the Fathers of the Fourth century are much more impressive, and their unique greatness cannot be denied. Yet, the Church remained fully alive also after Nicea and Chalcedon. The current overemphasis on the first five centuries dangerously distorts theological vision, and prevents the right understanding of the Chalcedonian dogma itself. The decree of the Sixth Ecumenical Council is often regarded as a kind of an appendix to Chalcedon, interesting only for theological specialists, and the great figure of St. Maximus the Confessor is almost completely ignored. Accordingly, the theological significance of the Seventh Ecumenical Council is dangerously obscured, and one is left to wonder, why the Feast of Orthodoxy should be related to the commemoration of the Church's victory over the Iconoclasts. Was it not just a ritualistic controversy? We often forget that the famous formula of the Consensus quinquesaecularis [agreement of five centuries], that is, actually, up to Chalcedon, was a Protestant formula, and reflected a peculiar Protestant theology of history. It was a restrictive formula, as much as it seemed to be too inclusive to those who wanted to be secluded in the Apostolic Age. The point is, however, that the current Eastern formula of the Seven Ecumenical Councils is hardly much better, if it tends, as it usually does, to restrict or to limit the Church's spiritual authority to the first eight centuries, as if the Golden Age of Christianity has already passed and we are now, probably, already in an Iron Age, much lower on the scale of spiritual vigour and authority. Our theological thinking has been dangerously affected by the pattern of decay, adopted for the interpretation of Christian history in the West since the Reformation. The fullness of the Church was then interpreted in a static manner, and the attitude to Antiquity has been accordingly distorted and misconstrued. After all, it does not make much difference, whether we restrict the normative authority of the Church to one century, or to five, or to eight. There should he no restriction at all. Consequently, there is no room for any theology of repetition. The Church is still fully authoritative as she has been in the ages past, since the Spirit of Truth quickens her now no less effectively as in the ancient times.
The Legacy of Byzantine Theology
One of the immediate results of our careless periodization is that we simply ignore the legacy of Byzantine theology. We are prepared, now more than only a few decades ago, to admit the perennial authority of the Fathers, especially since the revival of Patristic studies in the West. But we still tend to limit the scope of admission, and obviously Byzantine theologians are not readily counted among the Fathers. We are inclined to discriminate rather rigidly between Patristicsin a more or less narrow senseand Byzantinism. We are still inclined to regard Byzantinism as an inferior sequel to the Patristic Age. We have still doubts about its normative relevance for theological thinking. Now, Byzantine theology was much more than just a repetition of Patristic theology, nor was that which was new in it of an inferior quality in comparison with Christian Antiquity. Indeed, Byzantine theology was an organic continuation of the Patristic Age. Was there any break? Has the ethos of the Eastern Orthodox Church been ever changed, at a certain historic point or date, which, however, has never been unanimously identified, so that the later development was of lesser authority and importance, if of any? This admission seems to be silently implied in the restrictive commitment to the Seven Ecumenical Councils. Then, St. Symeon the New Theologian and St. Gregory Palamas are simply left out, and the great Hesychast Councils of the fourteenth century are ignored and forgotten. What is their position and authority in the Church?
Now, in fact, St. Symeon and St. Gregory are still authoritative masters and inspirers of all those who, in the Orthodox Church, are striving after perfection, and are living the life of prayer and contemplation, whether in the surviving monastic communities, or in the solitude of the desert, and even in the world. These faithful people are not aware of any alleged break between Patristics and Byzantinism. The Philokalia, this great encyclopaedia of Eastern piety, which includes writings of many centuries, is, in our own days, increasingly becoming the manual of guidance and instruction for all those who are eager to practice Orthodoxy in our contemporary situation. The authority of its compiler, St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mount, has been recently recognized and enhanced by his formal canonization in the Church. In this sense, we are bound to say, the Age of the Fathers still continues in the Worshipping Church. Should it not continue also in our theological pursuit and study, research and instruction? Should we not recover the mind of the Fathers also in our theological thinking and teaching? To recover it, indeed, not as an archaic manner or pose, and not just as a venerable relic, but as an existential attitude, as a spiritual orientation. Only in this way can our theology be reintegrated into the fullness of our Christian existence. It is not enough to keep a Byzantine Liturgy, as we do, to restore Byzantine iconography and Byzantine music, as we are still reluctant to do consistently, and to practice certain Byzantine modes of devotion. One has to go to the very roots of this traditional piety, and to recover the Patristic mind. Otherwise we may be in danger of being inwardly splitas many in our midst actually arebetween the traditional forms of piety and a very untraditional habit of theological thinking. It is a real danger. As worshippers we are still in the tradition of the Fathers. Should we not stand, conscientiously and avowedly, in the same tradition also as theologians, as witnesses and teachers of Orthodoxy? Can we retain our integrity in any other way?
St. Gregory Palamas and Theosis
All these preliminary considerations are highly relevant for our immediate purpose. What is the theological legacy of St. Gregory Palamas? St. Gregory was not a speculative theologian. He was a monk and a bishop. He was not concerned about abstract problems of philosophy, although he was well trained in this field too. He was concerned solely with problems of Christian existence. As a theologian, he was simply an interpreter of the spiritual experience of the Church. Almost all his writings, except probably his homilies, were occasional writings. He was wrestling with the problems of his own time. And it was a critical time, an age of controversy and anxiety. Indeed, it was also an age of spiritual renewal.
St. Gregory was suspected of subversive innovations by his enemies in his own time. This charge is still maintained against him in the West. In fact, however, St. Gregory was deeply rooted in tradition. It is not difficult to trace most of his views and motives back to the Cappadocian Fathers and to St. Maximus the Confessor, who was, by the way, one of the most popular masters of Byzantine thought and devotion. Indeed, St. Gregory was also intimately acquainted with the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius. He was rooted in the tradition. Yet, in no sense was his theology just a theology of repetition. It was a creative extension of ancient tradition. Its starting point was Life in Christ.
Of all themes of St. Gregory's theology let us single out but one, the crucial one, and the most controversial. What is the basic character of Christian existence? The ultimate aim and purpose of human life was defined in the Patristic tradition as èÝùóéò [theosis; divinization]. The term is rather offensive for the modern ear. It cannot be adequately rendered in any modern language, nor even in Latin. Even in Greek it is rather heavy and pretentious. Indeed, it is a daring word. The meaning of the word is, however, simple and lucid. It was one of the crucial terms in the Patristic vocabulary. It would suffice to quote at this point but St. Athanasius. ÃÝãïíåí ãὰñ ᾄíèñùðïò, ἵí᾽ ἡìᾶò ἐí ἑáõôῷ èåïðïéÞóῃ. [He became man in order to divinize us in Himself (Ad Adelphium 4)]. Áὐôὸò ãὰñ ἐíçíèñþðçóåí, ἵíá ἡìåῖò èåïðïéçèῶìåí. [He became man in order that we might be divinized (De Incarnatione 54)]. St. Athanasius actually resumes here the favourite idea of St. Irenaeus: qui propter immensam dilectionem suam factus est quod sumus nos, uti nos perficeret esse quod est ipse. [Who, through his immense love became what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself (Adv. Haeres. V, Praefatio)]. It was the common conviction of the Greek Fathers. One can quote at length St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Maximus, and indeed St. Symeon the New Theologian. Man ever remains what he is, that iscreature. But he is promised and granted, in Christ Jesus, the Word become man, an intimate sharing in what is Divine: Life Everlasting and incorruptible. The main characteristic of theosis is, according to the Fathers, precisely immortality or incorruption. For God alone has immortalityὁ ìüíïò ἔ÷ùí ἀèáíáóßáí (I Tim. 6:16). But man now is admitted into an intimate communion with God, through Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit. And this is much more than just a moral communion, and much more than just a human perfection. Only the word theosis can render adequately the uniqueness of the promise and offer. The term theosis is indeed quite embarrassing, if we would think in ontological categories. Indeed, man simply cannot become god. But the Fathers were thinking in personal terms, and the mystery of personal communion was involved at this point. Theosis meant a personal encounter. It is that intimate intercourse of man with God, in which the whole of human existence is, as it were, permeated by the Divine Presence.5
Yet, the problem remains: How can even this intercourse be compatible with the Divine Transcendance? And this is the crucial point. Does man really encounter God, in this present life on earth? Does man encounter God, truly and verily, in his present life of prayer? Or, is there no more than an actio in distans? The common claim of the Eastern Fathers was that in his devotional ascent man actually encounters God and beholds His eternal Glory. Now, how is it possible, if God abides in the light unapproachable? The paradox was especially sharp in the Eastern theology, which has been always committed to the belief that God was absolutely incomprehensibleἀêáôÜëçðôïòand unknowable in His nature or essence. This conviction was powerfully expressed by the Cappadocian Fathers, especially in their struggle against Eunomius, and also by St. John Chrysostom, in his magnificent discourses Ðåñὶ ἈêáôáÞðôïõ. Thus, if God is absolutely unapproachable in His essence, and accordingly His essence simply cannot be communicated, how can theosis be possible at all? One insults God who seeks to apprehend His essential being, says Chrysostom. Already in St. Athanasius we find a clear distinction between God's very essence and His powers and bounty: Êáὶ ἐí ðᾶóé ìÝí ἐóôé êáôὰ ôὴí ἑáõôïῦ ἀãáèüôçôá, ἔîù äὲ ôῶí ðÜíôùí ðÜëéí ἐóôé êáôὰ ôὴí ἰäßáí öýóéí. [He is in everything by his love, but outside of everything by his own nature (De Decretis II)]. The same conception was carefully elaborated by the Cappadocians. The essence of God is absolutely inaccessible to man, says St. Basil (Adv. Eunomium 1:14). We know God only in His actions, and by His actions: Ἡìåῖò äὲ ἐê ìὲí ôῶí ἐíåñãåéῶí ãíùñßæåéí ëÝãïìåí ôὸí Èåὸí ἡìῶí, ôῇ äὲ ïὐóßᾳ ðñïóåããßæåéí ïὐ÷ ὑðéó÷íïýìåèá áἱ ìὲí ãὰñ ἐíÝñãåéáé áὐôïῦ ðñὸò ἡìᾶò êáôáèáßíïõóéí, ἡ äὲ ïὐóßá áὐôïῦ ìÝíåé ἀðñüóéôïò. [We say that we know our God from his energies (activities), but we do not profess to approach his essencefor his energies descend to us, but his essence remains inaccessible (Epist. 234, ad Amphilochium)]. Yet, it is a true knowledge, not just a conjecture or deduction: áἱ ἐíÝñãåéáé áὐôïῦ ðñὸò ἡìᾶò êáôáèáßíïõóéí. In the phrase of St. John of Damascus, these actions or energies of God are the true revelation of God Himself: ἡ èåßá ἔëëáìøéò êáὶ ἐíÝñãåéá (De Fide Orth. 1:14). It is a real presence, and not merely a certain praesentia operativa, sicut agens adest ei in quod agit [as the actor is present in the thing in which he acts]. This mysterious mode of Divine Presence, in spite of the absolute transcendence of the Divine Essence, passes all understanding. But it is no less certain for that reason.
St. Gregory Palamas stands in an ancient tradition at this point. In His energies the Unapproachable God mysteriously approaches man. And this Divine move effects encounter: ðñüïäïò åἰò ôὰ ἔãù, in the phrase of St. Maximus (Scholia in De Div. Nom., 1:5).
St. Gregory begins with the distinction between grace and essence: ἡ Èåßá êáὶ èåïðïéὸò ἔëëáìøéò êáὶ ÷Üñéò ïὐê ïὐóßá ἀëë᾽ ἐíÝñãåéá ἐóôé Èåïῦ [the Divine and Divinizing illumination and grace is not the essence, but the energy of God; Capita Phys., Theol., etc., 68-9]. This basic distinction was formally accepted and elaborated at the Great Councils in Constantinople, 1341 and 1351. Those who would deny this distinction were anathematized and excommunicated. The anathematisms of the council of 1351 were included in the rite for the Sunday of Orthodoxy, in the Triodion. Orthodox theologians are bound by this decision. The essence of God is absolutely ἀìåèåêôÞ [incommunicable]. The source and the power of human theosis is not the Divine essence, but the Grace of God: èåïðïéὸò ἐíÝñãåéá ἧò ôὰ ìåôÝ÷ïíôá èåïῦíôáé, èåßá ôéò ἐóôé ÷Üñéò, ἀëë᾽ ïὐ÷ ἡ öýóéò ôïῦ Èåïῦ [the divinizing energy, by participation of which one is divinized, is a divine grace, but in no way the essence of God; ibid. 92-3]. ×Üñéò is not identical with the ïὐóßá. It is èåßá êáὶ ἄêôéóôïò ÷Üñéò êáὶ ἐíÝñãåéá [Divine and uncreated Grace and Energy; ibid., 69]. This distinction, however, does not imply or effect division or separation. Nor is it just an accident, ïὔôå óõìâåâçêüôïò (ibid., 127). Energies proceed from God and manifest His own Being. The term ðñïúÝíáé [proceed] simply suggests äéÜêñéóéí [distinction], but not a division: åἰ êáὶ äéåíÞíï÷å ôῆò öýóåùò, ïὐ äéáóðᾶôáé ἡ ôïῦ Ðíåýìáôïò ÷Üñéò [the grace of the Spirit is different from the Substance, and yet not separated from it; Theophanes, p. 940].
Actually the whole teaching of St. Gregory presupposes the action of the Personal God. God moves toward man and embraces him by His own grace and action, without leaving that öῶò ἀðñüóéôïí [light unapproachable], in which He eternally abides. The ultimate purpose of St. Gregory's theological teaching was to defend the reality of Christian experience. Salvation is more than forgiveness. It is a genuine renewal of man. And this renewal is effected not by the discharge, or release, of certain natural energies implied in man's own creaturely being, but by the energies of God Himself, who thereby encounters and encompasses man, and admits him into communion with Himself. In fact, the teaching of St. Gregory affects the whole system of theology, the whole body of Christian doctrine. It starts with the clear distinction between nature and will of God. This distinction was also characteristic of the Eastern tradition, at least since St. Athanasius. It may be asked at this point: Is this distinction compatible with the simplicity of God? Should we not rather regard all these distinctions as merely logical conjectures, necessary for us, but ultimately without any ontological significance? As a matter of fact, St. Gregory Palamas was attacked by his opponents precisely from that point of view. God's Being is simple, and in Him even all attributes coincide. Already St. Augustine diverged at this point from the Eastern tradition. Under Augustinian presuppositions the teaching of St. Gregory is unacceptable and absurd. St. Gregory himself anticipated the width of implications of his basic distinction. If one does not accept it, he argued, then it would be impossible to discern clearly between the generation of the Son and creation of the world, both being the acts of essence, and this would lead to utter confusion in the Trinitarian doctrine. St. Gregory was quite formal at that point.
If according to the delirious opponents and those who agree with them, the Divine energy in no way differs from the Divine essence, then the act of creating, which belongs to the will, will in no way differ from generation (ãåííᾶí) and procession (ἐêðïñåýåéí), which belong to the essence. If to create is no different from generation and procession, then the creatures will in no way differ from the Begotten (ãåííÞìáôïò) and the Projected (ðñïâëÞìáôïò). If such is the case according to them, then both the Son of God and the Holy Spirit will be no different from creatures, and the creatures will all be both the begotten (ãåííÞìáôá) and the projected (ðñïâëÞìáôá) of God the Father, and creation will be deified and God will be arrayed with the creatures. For this reason the venerable Cyril, showing the difference between God's essence and energy, says that to generate belongs to the Divine nature, whereas to create belongs to His Divine energy. This he shows clearly saying, nature and energy are not the same. If the Divine essence in no way differs from the Divine energy, then to beget (ãåííᾶí) and to project (ἐêðïñåýåéí) will in no way differ from creating (ðïéåῖí). God the Father creates by the Son and in the Holy Spirit. Thus He also begets and projects by the Son and in the Holy Spirit, according to the opinion of the opponents and those who agree with them. (Capita 96 and 97.)
St. Gregory quotes St. Cyril of Alexandria. But St. Cyril at this point was simply repeating St. Athanasius. St. Athanasius, in his refutation of Arianism, formally stressed the ultimate difference between ïὐóéá [essence] or öýóéò [substance], on the one hand, and the âïýëçóéò [will], on the other. God exists, and then He also acts. There is a certain necessity in the Divine Being, indeed not a necessity of compulsion, and no fatum, but a necessity of being itself. God simply is what He is. But God's will is eminently free. He in no sense is necessitated to do what He does. Thus ãÝííçóéò [generation] is always êáôὰ öýóéí [according to essence], but creation is a âïõëÞóåùò ἔñãïí [energy of the will] (Contra Arianos III. 64-6). These two dimensions, that of being and that of acting, are different, and must be clearly distinguished. Of course, this distinction in no way compromises the Divine simplicity. Yet, it is a real distinction, and not just a logical device. St. Gregory was fully aware of the crucial importance of this distinction. At this point he was a true successor of the great Athanasius and of the Cappadocian hierarchs.
It has been recently suggested that the theology of St. Gregory, should be described in modern terms as an existentialist theology. Indeed, it differed radically from modern conceptions which are currently denoted by this label. Yet, in any case, St. Gregory was definitely opposed to all kinds of essentialist theologies which fail to account for God's freedom, for the dynamism of God's will, for the reality of Divine action. St. Gregory would trace this trend back to Origen. It was the predicament of the Greek impersonalist metaphysics. If there is any room for Christian metaphysics at all, it must be a metaphysics of persons. The starting point of St. Gregory's theology was the history of salvation: on the larger scale, the Biblical story, which consisted of Divine acts, culminating in the Incarnation of the Word and His glorification through the Cross and Resurrection; on the smaller scale, the story of the Christian man, striving after perfection, and ascending step by step, till he encounters God in the vision of His glory. It was usual to describe the theology of St. Irenaeus as a theology of facts. With no lesser justification we may describe also the theology of St. Gregory Palamas as a theology of facts.
In our own time, we are coming more and more to the conviction that theology of facts is the only sound Orthodox theology. It is Biblical. It is Patristic. It is in complete conformity with the mind of the Church.
In this connection we may regard St. Gregory Palamas as our guide and teacher, in our endeavour to theologize from the heart of the Church."
In virtually every single icon of the Mother of God she pleads, prays, grieves and shines with the presence of the Son. To look at her is to see her love for Him. The essence of the Dormition for me, is the love of the Son for t he Mother. This is also an icon of the joyful promise of Christian death. Here Christ's love gives life to the body of the one who loved Him so well as Mother and true disciple. Here He becomes mother as He carefully cradles her soul and takes her Home.
John, the Beloved Disciple, weeps and hovers over the body of the Mother given to him with the Lord's halting, broken words from the Cross. He does not yet see Christ in the radiant mandorla of light.
The Archangel Gabriel bows low in loving recognition once again, of the one who became Mother of the Word Incarnate and Mother of all Christ's offspring until the end of time and into eternity.
As with the nativity of the Virgin and the feast of her entrance to the temple, there are no biblical or historical sources for this feast. The Tradition of the Church is that Mary died as all people die, not "voluntarily" as her Son, but by the necessity of her mortal human nature which is indivisibly bound up with the corruption of this world.
The Orthodox Church teaches that Mary is without personal sins. In the Gospel of the feast, however, in the liturgical services and in the Dormition icon, the Church proclaims as well that Mary truly needed to be saved by Christ as all human persons are saved from the trials, sufferings and death of this world; and that having truly died, she was raised up by her Son as the Mother of Life and participates already in the eternal life of paradise which is prepared and promised to all who "hear the word of God and keep it." (Luke 11:27-28)
In giving birth, you preserved your virginity. In failing asleep you did not forsake the world, 0 Theotokos. You were translated to life, 0 Mother of Life, and by your prayers, you deliver our souls from death. (Troparion)
Neither the tomb, nor death, could hold the Theotokos, who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions. For being the Mother of Life, she was translated to life, by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb. (Kontakion)
The services of the feast repeat the main theme, that the Mother of Life has "passed over into the heavenly joy, into the divine gladness and unending delight" of the Kingdom of her Son. (Vesper verse) The Old Testament readings, as well as the gospel readings for the Vigil and the Divine Liturgy, are exactly the same as those for the feast of the Virgin's nativity and her entrance into the Temple. Thus, at the Vigil we again hear Mary say: "My soul magnifies the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Saviour." (Luke 1:47) At the Divine Liturgy we hear the letter to the Philippians where St. Paul speaks of the self-emptying of Christ who condescends to human servitude and ignoble death in order to be "highly exalted" by God his Father. (Philippians 2:5-11) And once again we hear in the Gospel that Mary's blessedness belongs to all who "hear the word of God and keep it." (Luke 11:27-28)
Thus, the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos is the celebration of the fact that all men are "highly exalted" in the blessedness of the victorious Christ, and that this high exaltation has already been accomplished in Mary the Theotokos. The feast of the Dormition is the sign, the guarantee, and the celebration that Mary's fate is, the destiny of all those of "low estate" whose souls magnify the Lord, whose spirits rejoice in God the Saviour, whose lives are totally dedicated to hearing and keeping the Word of God which is given to men in Mary's child, the Saviour and Redeemer of the world.
Finally it must be stressed that, in all of the feasts of the Virgin Mother of God in the Church, the Orthodox Christians celebrate facts of their own lives in Christ and the Holy Spirit. What happens to Mary happens to all who imitate her holy life of humility, obedience, and love. With her all people will be "blessed" to be "more honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim" if they follow her example. All will have Christ born in them by the Holy Spirit. All will become temples of the living God. All will share in the eternal life of His Kingdom who live the life that Mary lived.
In this sense everything that is praised and glorified in Mary is a sign of what is offered to all persons in the life of the Church. It is for this reason that Mary, with the divine child Jesus within her, is called in the Orthodox Tradition the Image of the Church. For the assembly of the saved is those in whom Christ dwells.
It is in the small house outside Ephesus that is widely regarded as the dwelling place of the Theotokos during the latter years of her life. The main room has been rebuilt as a church, but the kitchen remains much as it was in the first century. It is a beautiful place to visit - very calm and quiet.
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