Sermon for the Dormition (2017)
“God became Man, that man might become god!” —St. Athanasius the Great
Today, this epitome of our whole Orthodox Faith is fulfilled.
This saying was fulfilled by Christ when He became incarnate, suffered, died, was buried, rose again and ascended to sit with our human nature upon His Father’s throne far above all the heavens of angels. Since that time, man has become god, but only in potential. But today, these words find their fulfillment in actuality; for the Mother of God has been translated also to that throne!
Christ revealed to His beloved Apostle: “To him that overcometh I will grant to sit with Me in My throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in His throne!” Christ’s saving work which was worked on behalf of all mankind is encompassed in the words: “I overcame and am set down with my Father in His throne;” but the words: “I will grant to sit with Me in My throne” are fulfilled today—the Dormition and Translation of the Mother of Christ God!
“God became Man, that man might become god!” All of us are familiar with this saying; in fact, maybe too familiar. Maybe, amongst us Orthodox, it has become like a party-banner which we wave before the non-Orthodox—if not in deed but only in mind.
“God became Man, that man might become god!” Maybe we recoil from over-familiarity with this saying. Maybe we receive it completely insensibly and unconsciously. Maybe we like to repeat it in mind and word with pride, not really understanding what we are saying. Maybe we like to think of it in philosophical way, or rather, in a romantic manner—forgetting that the God Who became Man voluntarily endured all manner of suffering and humiliation before He entered into His rightful glory as God. Others, when they hear this saying, think that what is being said is the greatest blasphemy, paganism and polytheism.
But this is only because they hear it from a human perspective; that is, they are focusing too much on man in this saying, and not enough on God. They only hear this saying as if it were proclaiming multiple gods, and ascribing something only proper to God to man. But, when heard correctly, one can only hear about the great love of God: for this saying is proclaiming—not the glory of man in himself, but—the glory of God Who glorifies mankind.
This saying is proclaiming the great truth that God has given us all things; all that is His He has given us, and wants to give us, ever over-filling us with them. By all things we are not to understand only houses, beautiful land, fragrant flowers, the brightness of day, the joy of brotherly communion.
Not only all this has God given us, but He has truly given us Himself; that is, His pre-eternal life, His ever-ascending joy, His unshakeable peace, His beauty, wisdom, glory and honor—all this He has given us already by becoming Man; and all this He wants to continue to give us, perfecting it unto the ages after He comes again in glory to establish the new heavens and earth.
“God became Man, that man might become god!” When heard in an Orthodox manner, all that one hears about is the great and incomprehensible love of God, His infinite mercy.
Out of His great love, God first created us! And when we had fallen, by His mercy He prepared mankind for 5500 years to receive its Savior, when God became one of us and dwelt with us.
In order to understand more fully the Mystery of this present Feast today, we must understand God’s great love, and His original purpose for creating us. Let us listen to Elder Porphyrios:
The Church is without beginning, without end and eternal, just as the Triune God, her Founder, is without beginning, without end and eternal.
She is uncreated just as God is uncreated. She existed before the ages, before the angels, before the creation of the world—“before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4) as the Apostle Paul says. She is a divine institution and in her “dwells the whole fullness of divinity” (Col. 2:9). She is an expression of the richly varied wisdom of God. She is the mystery of mysteries. She was concealed and was revealed “in the last of times” (1 Pet. 1:20). The Church remains unshaken because she is rooted in the love and wise providence of God.
The Three Persons of the Holy Trinity constitute the eternal Church. The angels and human beings existed in the thought and love of the Triune God from the beginning. We human beings were not born now; we existed before the ages in God’s omniscience.
The love of God created us in His image and likeness. He embraced us within the Church in spite of the fact that He knew of our apostasy. He gave us everything to make us gods too through the free gift of grace...
With the divine incarnation of the Only-Begotten Son of God, God’s pre-eternal plan for the salvation of mankind was revealed again to men...
God, in His infinite love, united us again with His Church in the person of Christ. On entering into the uncreated Church, we come to Christ, we enter into the realm of the uncreated. We the faithful are called to become uncreated by grace, to become participants in the divine energies of God, to enter into the mystery of divinity, to surpass our worldly frame of mind, to die to the ‘old man’, and to become immersed in God. When we live in the Church, we live in Christ. This is a very fine-drawn matter, we cannot comprehend it. Only the Holy Spirit can teach us it...
The head of the Church is Christ, and we humans, we Christians, are the body...The Church and Christ are one.
Christ united the body of the Church with heaven and with earth: with angels, men and all created things, with all of God’s creation—with the animals and birds, with each tiny wild flower and each microscopic insect. The Church thus became “the fullness of Him Who filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:23), that is, of Christ. Everything is in Christ and with Christ. This is the mystery of the Church.
Today, at the Dormition of the Virgin Mother of God, the whole of this Church, which Elder Porphyrios speaks of, is present!
Our Tradition explains that it was not just the 12 apostles that were miraculously translated to the place of the Mother of God, but that all the 70 apostles were also there. The glorious hierarchs—James the Brother of the Lord, Timothy, Dionysius and Hierotheus were also brought there. Also, all the faithful in the area were called by James to come there too.
They were all waiting, not just for the repose and departure of the soul of their beloved Mother, but for Christ Who was coming to greet her and take her all-pure soul to heaven. She told them to watch and pray, that her Son might find them watching when He comes. This was in the Garden of Gethsemane, where, before, Christ also exhorted His disciples to “watch and pray!”
So, we see the whole Church on earth gathered around the Mother of God—all the apostles, the twelve, the seventy, the beloved and true son of the Virgin, the bosom-friend of her Son, John. We see Paul, the apostle “born out of due time”; we see the hierarchs he has ordained; we see James; we see the faithful, the virgins, and all the Church on earth present at this time.
Then Christ came in His glory. The hymns speak of Christ “descending once again”, this is a foreshadowing of His Second and Glorious and Final Coming—when He shall visit the earth and all mankind. But now, we see Him coming, privately revealed to His whole Church on earth. And He brings with Him the whole heavenly Church also.
Many angels from all their various ranks came, escorting Christ Who came from heaven to earth, that He might escort His all-pure Mother from earth to heaven—Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Powers, Authorities, Principalities, Archangels and Angels; all the angelic ranks were present.
Also coming with Christ were the souls of the patriarchs, prophets, Joachim and Anna, and many of the “righteous spirits made perfect by faith” who had reposed, both from the foundation of the world all the way until that day. The prophets beheld her of whom they prophesied: the Virgin Who gave birth to God!
So we see the whole Church gathered together today: those in heaven and those on earth. They meet into one place, a synaxis, a most holy gathering, a great rite: the burial of the Mother of God.
Today, we also enter into this countless and most glorious host. We sing the Lamentations, and process with the burial shroud of the Mother of God. We enter into the fullness of this mystery which is taking place today, and we taste a portion of her glory.
Today also is celebrated and hymned the Translation of the Mother of God to heaven. At her Dormtion, Christ received her soul and took it to heaven. But, three days later, her soul was mysteriously re-united with her body, and she was translated—body and soul—to the heights of heaven, set down on that throne prepared for her by her Son, and reigning with Him in His Kingdom.
The perfection and completion of the great work of Christ is both fulfilled today, and foreshadowed. It is fulfilled, because not only does the God-Man sit upon the throne of the Divinity, but a human person has also been brought to sit there in glory.
And this itself is a foreshadowing of what will take place when Christ comes again at the end of the world to glorify His saints. We see fulfilled today the end of Christ’s work, its perfection and crown: the Mother of God is glorified, and according to our Tradition, she is now—not only beyond death, but also—beyond the general Resurrection, having already been resurrected in body. She is also beyond the Second Coming and the Last Judgment, for she now sits—mysteriously—co-enthroned with her Son, “ever reigning as Queen with her God” as the hymns explain. She is the embodiment of our Orthodox Faith! And today, through her we experience tangibly the great grace of God which over-fills her.
Every time we call upon her, she hastens to help us. Her power of prayer and heavenly help have been multiplied beyond all the ranks of angels and saints—her prayer has more power than all the saints and angels gathered together collectively. Yet, all the angels and saints gather together with her, and also intercede for us who are on earth, that we might enter also into that future Kingdom when Christ comes!
Every time we kiss her icon, we kiss the image of the Queen who is far exalted beyond all creation, the most beautiful aspect of all the universe, the crown of everything visible and invisible. The great desire of God the Holy Trinity is fulfilled in her even today: that human nature might be glorified in the uncreated and ever-existing life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit Who has reigned forever as God and King. Human nature has been baptized into the Divine Nature by Christ’s ascension. And now, today, a human person partakes of this great gift, today, the day of the Virgin’s ascension!
Many more things could be said of this great Feast. Yet, we have the richly-laden spiritual banquet-table of the Church’s hymns, her iconography, the sacred history of the event and the many beautiful homilies of the saints which nourish us fully with the meaning and great importance of this feast.
Yet, we have something even more than this, or rather, something which flows forth through all of these: the great glory and grace of God. The Mother of God is glorified today, and we with her. Her Son has taken her to heaven to sit her down in everlasting glory—body and soul. And it is through her and her intercession that we also partake today of that self-same glory which is none other than the pre-eternal glory of God, that glory which Christ said was His together with the Father and the Spirit before all things.
I don’t think any of us are left without the great impression of this grace today. Last night the whole Church was filled with spiritual silence, fragrance, light, peace, joy and beauty. The solemnity of this Feast is the crown of the Church year. And I do not think that any of us are left without its power being sensed within our own mortal flesh, if even a little.
There are many who blaspheme today, even those in the Church, who say that this Feast is all a bunch of fairy-tales. They do not blaspheme simply because they do not believe that these things took place, but because they make the Pillar and Ground of all Truth, the Holy Church, into a preacher and believer of fairy-tales.
I wonder how such people can even celebrate this Feast which is and is rightfully called a Second Pascha. How can they enter into the Church on this glorious day and not feel themselves partaking of the glory and grace of the Mother of God who pours her grace out upon us all, making us sharers in her glory?
But we who now celebrate this Holy Feast truly experience the great reality of these things—and we have come to understand that this Feast is the natural outcome and fulfillment of Christ’s glorious work for all mankind. His Mother has become our Mother, and we praise her as our Queen, together with all the angels, apostles and saints.
For, together with her we have entered into the endless joy of the Kingdom of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit—the Pre-eternal Church and Assembly of Three Persons Who has granted us through the mediation of the Theotokos and that of her Son, the God-Man, to enter into the divine life forever.
St. Gregory Palamas—echoing the divine Damascene, “the slave of the Virgin”—reveals to us that it is only through the Mother of God that angels and men partake of any gift from God, whether temporary or eternal, both in this life and that to come. The saints glorify and praise her as the divine treasury of God through whom God bestows His many divine and eternal gifts upon us.
Truly, this mystery is explained by that great hymn of the Virgin herself: “My soul doth magnify the Lord!” She does not detract from the glory of God, but rather magnifies it and multiplies it, just as a prism does not take away the beautiful rays of the sun, but rather shows it forth to be more beautiful by refracting its light into a many-colored rainbow. In the Virgin, God is glorified and seen more clearly! And by His exalting her, we perceive even more the greatness of His love which seeks to give us the all of Himself.
Such is the soul of the Mother of God, and of all the saints also. By glorifying her and them, we do not take away, but multiply the glory of the One God in Three Persons, Who has poured out all of His grace upon us, baptizing us into His pre-eternal life through the Incarnation of Christ which has only come to pass because the Virgin-Mother freely accepted the great invitation of God.
Such are our reasons for praising her, because she has kept herself completely spotless for God, and has offered her whole self—body and soul—to her Creator. And seeing her love for Him, God became a Man through her. In a mysterious way, by her free-will offering of her whole self to God, she has allowed God to freely fulfill His greatest desire: to be united with us and to glorify us in Himself!
She was the only one worthy to give birth to God. And granting her special grace, God prepared her to receive His divinity within herself. This divinity has been poured out upon us by the Incarnation; and today even more so; for she constantly intercedes with her Son to bathe us in His grace: the divine and endless life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit which has no beginning and no end—this is what is given to us today; may we respond in love to this great love of God, Who is Himself Love, Three Persons in One Nature, Who has united our one nature of many persons to Himself forever through the mediation of our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos!
I have always loved this feast as well. It gives me hope because she is the first soul to be taken by Christ to Heaven.
This is our goal and heart felt wish. Thank you for the sermon. It was inspiring!
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