“Today the living ladder, through whom the Most High descended and was seen on earth, and conversed with men, was assumed into heaven by death. Today the heavenly table, she, who contained the bread of life, the fire of the Godhead, without knowing man, was assumed from earth to heaven, and the gates of heaven opened wide to receive the gate of God from the East. Today the living city of God is transferred from the earthly to the heavenly Jerusalem, and she, who, conceived her first-born and only Son, the first-born of all creation, the only begotten of the Father, rests in the Church of the first-born: the true and living Ark of the Lord is taken to the peace of her Son.”
St John of Damascus: Third homily on the Dormition of the Mother of God
Dear brothers and sisters,
Greetings as we celebrate the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos, and her translation from earth to heaven.
I am only able to write a brief greeting for the feast, having worked yesterday afternoon/evening, and having returned to work to work until 14:30, today.
Belatedly, when we gather in St John’s, later, we will hear the words of the encomia, based on those which we sing before the plashchanitsa / shroud on Good Friday, hearing the joyful nature of the verses, which balances the mourning of the apostles, as we celebrate the translation of the Mother of God from death to life.
“Overcome with wonder, in awe, in beholding thee Pure Maiden laid out as dead, for from Thee has Light beamed forth to all the world.”
From the first stasis of the Greek encomia
The fact that she fell asleep in the slumber of death is essential to the glory and triumph of the feast, as we celebrate not a deathless Assumption, but a Dormition and Assumption that realises true and full participation in the Resurrection, as the Theotokos shares in her Son’s victory over death, as is raised and ascends in the flesh, to sit at His right hand.
It is the reality of her death and the sojourn of her body in her tomb in Gethsemane, together her physical resurrection, that makes this feast a second Pascha, which manifests Christ’s victory on the Cross and the empty tomb.
In his first homily for the feast St John of Damascus says, “O wonder surpassing nature and creating wonder! Death, which of, old was feared and hated, is a matter of praise and blessing. Of old, it was the harbinger of grief, dejection, tears, and sadness, and now it is shown forth as the cause of joy and rejoicing.”
He stresses the reality of her burial, saying,
“This truly happened, and she was held by the tomb… so now that holy, undefiled, and divine body, filled with heavenly fragrance, the rich source of grace, is laid in the tomb that it may be translated to a higher and better place.”
And, in his second homily, he writes of her burial by the apostles:
“Then they reached the most sacred Gethsemane, and once more there were embracings and prayers and panegyrics, hymns and tears, poured forth by sorrowful and loving hearts. They mingled a flood of weeping and sweating. And thus the immaculate body was laid in the tomb.”
As her death becomes the gate through which she is raised and translated to heaven, she is recognised as the Gate of Life through which the God-Man and Saviour passed in the Divine Incarnation, and in the words of the Akathist Hymn, “the Heavenly Ladder, by which God came down…”
“We had shut the door of paradise; thou didst find entrance to the tree of life. Through us sorrow came out of good; through thee good from sorrow. How canst thou who art all fair taste of death? Thou art the gate of life and the ladder to heaven.”
St John of Damascus: Second homily on the Dormition of the Mother of God
As the Gate and the Ladder, she shows the way, as represented by her most ancient iconographic prototype: the Hodegetria – ‘She who shows the Way”.
Through her Dormition and Assumption, enthroned in the Kingdom of Heaven, she becomes the Hodegetria in an even greater and more profound way. Her earthly mission in showing the way is transformed, as the Way, the Truth and the Life – her Son – translates her into eternity, from whence she continues to guide us, now freed from earthly constraints and the limitations of time and space, in the ultimate and eternal reality of the Kingdom of Heaven, from whence her “countenance appeareth now as paradise, breathing forth to all believers grace and life.”
But, the glory of the Mother of God, is rather the Lord’s Glory, for as the moon reflects the light of the sun, so the Theotokos reflects the glory of her Son. As St John of Damascus peaches in his first homily for the feast, “Neither human tongue nor angelic mind is able worthily to praise her through whom it is given to us to look clearly upon the Lord’s glory.”
St Gregory Palamas contemplates the beauty of the Mother of God, translated from earth to heaven, as he asks her,
“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.”
Thus, we too approach with hymns as we celebrate the Dormition, and the Assumption of the Mother of God, a spiritual translation through which she truly receives this fulness of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in Heaven, “From thence thou ever carest diligently for thine inheritance and by thine unsleeping intercessions with Him, thou showest mercy to all.”
“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 intellect 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 succour and healing in proportion to our passions, apportioning abundant grace to our souls and bodies, sufficient 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.”