|46 Beginning the Dormition Season - July 29, 2007|
I Corinthians 3:9-17
The Church over the summer has been leading us from Pentecost to the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos. With this morning’s Gospel, the Church prepares us to enter the beautiful season of the Dormition Fast that begins this Wednesday on Aug 1. Pentecost marks a transition in the liturgical year. We move from focusing on Christ’s Pascha to focusing on the Falling Asleep or the pascha of the Theotokos. In the focus on the Theotokos’ Falling Asleep, the Church directs our prayerful attention to the moment of our own falling asleep, our own death; she shows us how to transfigure our life into a falling asleep in the Lord like our Mother, the Theotokos.
On the way from Pentecost to the Dormition of the Theotokos, we pass through the Feast of Transfiguration on Aug 6. The period from Transfiguration to the Elevation of the Cross on September 14 is 40 days, which shows us that this period as a kind of mini-Lent; it is a pascha when we pass over into the new Church year while we behold the Theotokos passing over from her Falling Asleep on Aug 15 to her birth as a “daughter of God” on Sept 8. The new Church year begins on Sept 1. We celebrate the Theotokos’ nativity on the eighth day of the new Church year, Sept 8 (eight is the symbol of resurrection). And on Sept 14, the seventh day following the nativity of the Theotokos and the 40th day from Transfiguration, we celebrate the elevation of the Cross. This mini-Lenten season, when we pass over into the new Church year and celebrate the pascha of the Theotokos from her death on Aug 15 to her birth as a daughter of God on Sept 8 culminates with the Church taking up the Cross of Christ to begin another liturgical journey to the Pascha of the Lord and to Pentecost. When we enter prayerfully into the Spirit of this liturgical cycle of the Church year, it takes up the passing years of our own life and transfigures them into a living prayer. As we journey through the years to our own grave, we are circling by means of the Church’s liturgical cycle ceaselessly round the tomb of Christ and his holy Mother as round a bridal chamber in a kind of liturgical, cosmic dance. Entering into this liturgical ‘dance’ of the Church, the movement of our life to the grave is transfigured into our own pascha. The moment of our death becomes the consummation of our union with the pascha of the Theotokos as she passes over from this life into the Pascha of the Lord, and with her we are taken up into the life of God in the mystery of Christ’s holy resurrection.
In this liturgical light we see both Pentecost and the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos in this morning’s Gospel. For, on Pentecost, the risen Lord Jesus appears to the disciples in the Upper Room gathered behind closed doors, and he breathes on them the Holy Spirit. There, too, the disciples were afraid when they saw the Lord, thinking he was a ghost, just as they tremble with fear in this morning’s Gospel when they see the Lord walking to them on the water and they believe they are seeing a ghost. As for the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos, no Orthodox Christian can read this morning’s Gospel and not think of death. For in the funeral service, we are directed to pray, “Beholding the sea of life surging with the storm of temptations, and taking refuge in thy calm haven, we cry aloud unto Thee: raise up my life from corruption, O greatly merciful One.”
Can you see how those who die in the resurrected life of the Church are embraced at the moment of their death in the joy of Pentecost on one side, and in the beauty of the Theotokos’ Dormition on the other? Can you see that they are embraced at the moment of their death by God as their Father in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit, and by the Church, their Mother?
In the Pentecostal light, then, of this particular liturgical season, the Lord who is walking on the water coming toward the disciples in the boat in this morning’s Gospel is the risen Lord Jesus. He is coming to meet the disciples; he is coming to meet us. The point of that meeting is the moment of our death.
The moment of our death in the Lord actually begins as soon as we begin to die to ourselves. And that happens as soon as we take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church to practice Christ’s commandments. When, for example, we choose to turn our inner desire away from the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life and toward the pursuit of divine goodness and beauty and truth, we are in that moment beginning to fall asleep in the Lord. When we choose to bless those who revile us, to forgive those who wrong us, we are in that moment beginning to fall asleep in the Lord. When we choose to work on finding the beam in our own eye, no longer focusing on the speck in our brother’s eye, in that moment we are beginning to fall asleep in the Lord. In each moment such as these, according to this morning’s Gospel, the risen Lord comes to meet us on the sea of this life even as it surges all around us with the storm of temptations.
The boat is the Church; the disciples are the faithful. This shows us that we are sitting here this morning in an icon. For, this building is no ordinary building; it is an icon of the Church; it reflects the divine reality of the Kingdom of Heaven that is within us. Hiding beneath the veil of this ordinary church building is the spiritual reality onto which this building opens as soon as we began with the prayer of the Divine Liturgy: “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” That spiritual reality is Christ’s holy resurrection in which he is coming to us this morning as we sit here in the boat of the Church as in a calm haven in the midst of the sea of life, surging all around us with the storms of temptations.
St Peter who cries out to the Lord in this morning’s Gospel is the “rock” on which Christ builds his holy Church and against which the gates of hell shall not prevail (Mt 16:16-18). That rock, specifically, is the confession of faith that was revealed to St Peter not by flesh and blood but by the Heavenly Father: the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. All who are baptized in this confession of St Peter are made to stand on the rock of this confession of the Church. Now we begin to see the meaning of St Peter’s cry to the Lord, “Command me to come to you on the water.”
And the Lord gives the command: “Come!” This is the very command the Lord gives in the Gospel that we read on Pentecost: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. He who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (Jn 7:37-38, 8:12) Therefore, when St Peter calls out, “Command me to come to you on the water,” he gives voice to the cry of those who believe in Jesus, who love him, and who want to follow him: “Lord, teach me your statutes, make me to understand your commandments, enlighten me with your precepts.” And when the Lord says to him in reply: “Come!” he is saying, “Let him who would come after me deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
On Monday, we read from St Matthew’s Gospel and heard Jesus saying to us: “Unless you are converted and become as little children you will by no means enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Mt 18:3) The context of this week’s Scripture lessons shows that Jesus means that unless we become as obedient and as submissive to God our Father and the Church, our Mother, as little children are to their parents, we will not enter into Christ’s Holy Resurrection and into the Kingdom of Heaven. The Savior himself goes on to say: “Therefore, whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
I believe it is fair to say that the central lesson of this liturgical season is concerned to show us how we can enter into the falling asleep of the Theotokos and into her pascha that unites her in the Pascha of the Lord. That spiritual lesson devolves on the image of St Peter this morning reaching out his hands and crying out to the Savior: “Lord save me, lest I perish. Raise up my life from corruption, O only merciful One!” The hands of our heart that we stretch out to the Lord in a spiritual way are our will, our desire: i.e. our faith, our hope, our love. To reach out the hands of our heart is to take up our cross. We do that in a concrete way and we give flesh and blood substance to our cry to the Lord to save us when we begin to practice obedience to the commandments of Christ. For then Christ has a hand to grasp that he can pull on to draw us out of the sea of this life surging with the storm of temptation and place us with him in the boat, the calm haven, of his holy Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who is all in all.
The Church journeys in her liturgical cycle from the pascha of the Theotokos to the Pascha of the Lord to the pascha of the Theotokos to the Pascha of the Lord. She moves, in other words, from the love of God to the love of the holy Theotokos, and from the love of the blessed Theotokos to the love of God. They are united in their love for one another in their falling asleep, in their tomb, which, in the holy resurrection of Christ, is transfigured into a bridal chamber where the flesh is transfigured into Spirit by him who became flesh for our sakes. Those who take up their cross and practice Christ’s commandments fall asleep in the Lord with the Theotokos; they are taken up into the love of God and his holy Mother, the Theotokos. In the tomb of those who deny themselves for the sake of Christ, as in their heart, the Lord and his holy Mother come to them to transfigure the tomb of their heart into a bridal chamber of the baptismal font, and to transfigure their falling asleep in the Lord into their being born from above as children of God.
For, as we practice the commandments of Christ and fall asleep in the Lord, we discover that it is the eyes of the old man that are closing because it is the old man in us that is dying; and the eyes of the new man that was born in our heart in our baptism begin to open, and the new man rises up in the calm haven, the boat, of the Church to behold the mystery of the Theotokos rising up in the arms of her Lord and her Savior, a newborn child, an icon of our own regeneration from above as children of God.
Look inside yourself and see on what you have placed your faith, your hope and your love. With the hand of your heart, take up your cross and reach out to the Savior and with his holy Mother, put your faith, your hope and your love in him. Take up the excellent way of humility. Deny yourself and practice obedience to the way of Christ in submission to the love of God for his holy Mother, and to the love of the Theotokos for her Son and our God. Practice Christ’s holy commandments daily and fall asleep daily in the Lord with the Theotokos and all the saints, worshipping the Savior daily in the love of the saints and in the confession of the Church, crying out with them in the great company of the faithful as the disciples cry out in this morning’s Gospel: “Truly, you are the Son of the living God.”