|49 - Afterfeast of the Dormition, Aug 16, 2009|
I Corinthians 4:9-16
At the Feast yesterday I pointed out that the end of the Church’s liturgical year and its beginning on Sept 1 transpires within a 40 day period that begins with the Feast of Transfiguration on Aug 6 and is completed with the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross on September 14. This forty day period is marked by a pascha when we pass over from the old liturgical year into the new as we pass from the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos on Aug 15 over to her Nativity on Sept 8.
Is there any significance to be drawn from the fact that the Nativity of the Theotokos falls on the eighth day of the New Year, and the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross falls on the seventh day after the Nativity of the Theotokos? Eight is the number of Resurrection, the Eighth Day that is the beginning of the New Age in which Christ is all in all; and seven is the number of fullness, wholeness, completeness. It calls to mind the mystery of the Church, which is the body of Christ, the fullness of Him who is all in all. The Nativity of the Theotokos marks the dawning of our salvation because it means that she who will give birth to God has appeared on earth. But in the way the Church’s liturgical year is constructed, we pass over to the dawn of our salvation – the Nativity of the Birthgiver of God – by way of the Theotokos’ Falling Asleep.
This “pascha” of the Theotokos takes place in the uncreated light of Christ that shines from Mt Tabor, from the Transfiguration of Christ our God. It illumines with its mystical light this blessed season showing us, it would seem, both the meaning of the Theotokos’ death, and therefore our death in Christ, and also showing us how we go about entering into the meaning of our death in Christ.
It is showing us that death in Christ is the death of death, the death of the old man that is at enmity with God. It is our death in Christ – that is to say, to die in Christ is to die in union with Christ. And, Christ is the Fountain of Life, He is the Resurrection and the Life; He is the Way to the Father. Therefore, to die in Christ is to descend into the darkness of death enveloped in the Light of Christ, like Noah riding the floodwaters in the ark to the top of Mt Ararat. As we die and our soul separates from the body, if we are dying in Christ, then the separation of the soul from the body is like removing old garments that are tattered and worn, and being clothed in a new body, in new clothes. In the Church we have already put on these new clothes, this new body, at our baptism; we call it the Robe of Light. It is the life-creating Light of Christ’s Holy Spirit, the Robe of Immortality.
In Christ, death, that is to say, has been transfigured. It has become itself the transfiguration of the old into the new, of that which was separated from God and at enmity with Him into that which is united with God in the love of God, of an earthly life that ends in death into an earthly life that ends in our own pascha when we pass over into the arms of Christ like the Theotokos in her Dormition to become, like the Theotokos in her Nativity, Children of God born from above.
This is the great mystery, the great secret of the Christian Faith that is revealed to the eyes of faith in the Feasts of this 40 day paschal season of the Church as she passes over from the old to the new in the Transfiguration of Christ, in the Dormition of the Theotokos, in her Nativity and in the Elevation of the Cross. I say it is the great secret of the Christian Faith because only those who, like the Theotokos, have given their life over to the Word of God in the Yes of the Theotokos can see it. Those whose Yes is still given over to the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life see the faithful dying like anyone else; and see even their death as evidence that the Christian Faith’s proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ is so much religious folderol, a religious myth no different in substance from that of Osiris or Dionysius or Marduk or Ishtar or any of the other gods and goddesses of ancient mythology.
Those whose yes is still imbedded in the lusts of this world cannot see that the principle of existence is not sub-atomic matter or energy; it is a spiritual reality that cannot be measured by science or by the mind of human philosophy. It is the spiritual reality of the immeasurable love of God. It is in the love of God that everything moves and has its being. Those who cannot see this also cannot see the love of God that is revealed in the death of Christ, in the death of the Theotokos, and in the death of His saints – even when they are looking right at it. But, those whose yes has been withdrawn from the lusts of the world and given over to the Word of God in His Holy Church, His body that is the fullness of Him who is all in all – they begin to see with the eyes of faith, the eyes of their heart the love of God lying unseen beneath the movement of space-time as the underlying foundational principle of the world. They see in the death of Christ, in the death of the Theotokos and in the death of the saints the revelation of divine love; for they see that in Christ death has become the death not of life but of death. In Christ, death is no longer the end; it has been transfigured into a gate that opens onto the unseen, spiritual essence of the human heart, a door that faces the East and that has been opened by the death of Christ onto the Garden of Eden, so that those who die in the Yes of the Theotokos united to the death of Christ pass over from this life that is soaked in the bitter waters of death into the eternal life of God that is soaked in the Living Waters of Christ’s Holy Spirit.
This is the meaning of death that is proclaimed to us in the Feasts of the Church. It is why we say at every feast, “The Joy of the Feast be with you!” – the joy of Christ whose death on the Cross has destroyed death; the joy of Christ’s Holy Resurrection whose Living Waters have spread throughout the world filling it with the Light of His glory that shines from Mt Tabor and from the life of the Theotokos, she who is called herself the Holy Mountain.
So, how does one enter into this meaning of the Christian Faith?
One notes that this morning’s Gospel takes place immediately after Christ comes down from Mt Tabor with His holy disciples. When we leave the Church after the Divine Liturgy and go back into the world, is it not like the disciples coming down from Mt Tabor with Christ and being thrust immediately back into the darkness of this world that lives not for God but for itself, and that has become darkness, filled with all kinds of infirmities and evils? And is it not significant that Christ, after He was transfigured on the Mount, returned immediately back to the world to continue on His path to Golgotha? In other words, He did not come into the world to forsake it. He came into the world to save it; and that meant descending into the teeth of the world’s darkness to crush them, to cast out the dark spirits lurking there and to transform hell into a place of rest and joyous anticipation – such as we experience when we come into the darkness of the Church on Great and Holy Saturday night. In Christ, the darkness has been transfigured into the darkness of the Theotokos’ womb, a darkness of expectant anticipation as we await the coming of the Bridegroom at Midnight in the glory and light of His Holy Resurrection.
Is this not teaching us that we enter into the meaning of the mystery of Christ’s Pascha not by forsaking the world but by entering into it and engaging it directly in the Yes of the Theotokos through which we become clothed in the Light of Christ? Then, our death becomes a martyrdom, a witness to the love of God and to the victory of His Cross by which death has been destroyed and those in the tombs have been given life. And, as we learn in this morning’s Gospel, we enter into the Yes of the Theotokos through prayer and fasting; in other words, by taking up our Cross in the ascetical disciplines of the Church. That means above all fasting with our minds so that our minds are centered on the Word of God, not on the words of the world; so that the images that are imbedded in our secret heart are not the images of the lusts of the world but images of the love of God in the glory of His saints in whom God rests in the light and joy of His Holy Resurrection, so that the food and drink of our inner being is the Living Bread and the Living Cup of the Church’s Holy Eucharist, the very body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. That is to say, we enter into the meaning of Christ’s Holy Church and the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection as we abide in the Word of God who abides in His saints in the Yes of the Theotokos; and as we seek to do God’s will and not ours, nourishing ourselves on the Gospel in the joyous light of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Church is leading us through this blessed liturgical season of the year’s end as through the waters of our baptism. If we are attentive, mindful, if we are diligent in keeping our eyes and ears, our minds and heart, our hands and feet attending to the way of Christ and not to the way of the world, the eyes of our hearts will be opened to behold the mystery of the Church: that Christ is in our midst, God is in our midst, Immortal Life is in our midst, the love of God is in our midst, opening the gates of death onto a better and changeless path that ascends to God. We must abide in the Word of God. We cannot be casual about it. We cannot accommodate ourselves to the world. The Gospel, not the lusts of the world, must be our life, the food and drink of our mind and heart. The Gospel must be what we thirst and hunger for. As we pass over into the New Year, to the Nativity of the Theotokos and to the Elevation of the Cross, (and as I leave for vacation) I leave with you this exhortation: let’s encourage each other to be ever more faithful to the Word of Christ’s Holy Church, so that our life may become in our dying a witness to a darkened world starved for meaning to the ineffable love of God, the secret of the Christian Faith, the underlying principle of the world. Amen.