Friday, August 27, 2010

Tomorrow will be my last day of teaching for the summer; Monday begins a new school year. Your prayers are coveted.

Those Orthodox Christians under the (Old) Julian Calendar will celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos tomorrow; I wish all of them a blessed feastday; as we will be entertaining company from out of town who will be celebrating the feast on that day, I've been thinking (again) about the feast, and my earlier talk of a post.

Fr. John's homily on New Calendar Dormition struck me for several reasons, most of all because it asserted, as do the earliest fathers of the Church who speak of the celebration, that it is a historical event steeped in the ancient consciousness of the Church--it is, in other words, a feast which was treated as venerable and established even in the fifth centuries (the dates of the earliest festal homilies we have come from this period).

As is not surprising, St. Gregory Palamas' homily on the subject provides the reader with a succinct, thorough explanation of the Church's honoring of the Falling-Asleep of God's mother. He begins with an exposition of the Scriptures that prophetically put forth her role as the Queen Mother, the Queen of Heaven. The seat at Christ's right hand was not his to give to James or John, for at the right hand of the King stands the Queen (Ps. 45.9, LXX). This idea that the Queen and Mother would sit enthroned at the right hand of her son the king was something imminently familiar to the Ancient Near East; Bathsheba, upon entering to speak with King David, bowed before him, yet after his death, Solomon not only rose to greet his mother, but arranged for a throne to be built for her at his right hand (I Kings 1.16, 31; 2.19, and it is interesting to note that Solomon listened to the petition of his mother). Taken in and of themselves, these passages do not point to the Theotokos any more than, say, Isaiah 7.14 in its historical context, necessarily points to Christ instead of a deliverer-king against the Syrians of Isaiah's day. The point is, as St. Gregory points out, that "she is the only one who has a place in heaven with her divinely glorified body in the company of her Son."

Indeed, he asks, moving to another prophecy from the Psalms, "how can that body which not only received within it the pre-eternal, only-begotten Son of God, the ever-flowing found of grace, but was also plainly seen to bear Him, fail to be taken up from earth to heaven" when it was written "that the ark of Christ's holiness should arise with Him who rose on the third day (Ps. 132.8, LXX). Again, these prophecies were understood--and rightly so--to refer to she who had held Him who is God; they, together with other readings which liken her to the Burning Bush, Jacob's Ladder, and the Eastern Gate of Ezekiel's vision, leave one with a strong sense of how the apostles reacted to the Mother of God and how the Church has seen her since.

The most beautiful aspect of the Orthodox veneration of the Mother of God, however--and this is borne out in the story of the Dormition quite explicitly--is that the Mother of God patterns herself after her Son (as should we all) and is thus a conduit for divine grace of which we may partake. She, in other words, becomes by grace what Christ is by nature--she, through the energies of God becomes what Christ has and is via the divine essence. She becomes the bush through which we encounter the fire of God, she the tongs with which we are offered the divine coal, she the means through which we may "partake of and touch the intangible divine nature." Thus, when St. Gregory says that the Theotokos "sends briught shafts of holy light and grace down to earth, illuminating all the space around the world," or that she is "the synthesis of divine, angelic, and human loveliness, a nobler beauty to embellish both worlds," he does not mean One divine by nature and pre-eternal, coming down to be the Man from Heaven, but rather one "originating from the earth" and thus partaking of Christ's divinity through divine energies.

Why is this important? It was not simply necessary that Christ be the mediator between God and man by being both human and divine; he also needed to form an example foundation, par excellence, of renewed creation. In paradoxical form, the Mother of God "is the cause of what preceded her the protectress of what comes after her, and she procures eternity" for us through her humanity deified by his divinity. As with her, so with all of us, and we are "illumined by her, the true lamp of divine radiance."

Blessed feast.


biss said...

Thanks for this.

Our A. was baptised on this day (new calendar).

David B said...


Thanks for reading. Feasts of the Mother of God are my favorites.