Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On this Feast day of the Falling Asleep of our Lady and her Assumption into Heaven, we will not find this event in Sacred Scripture. We will, however, find it attested to in the Sacred Tradition of the holy Church, both East and West. We will find it in some extra-canonical writings, which are writings outside of Scripture, much as we do all the feasts associated with our Pangia (the All-holy One). Having heard the stories of these extra-Biblical writings, the Church has canonized the stories but not the writings containing them. She does so because the stories resonate strongly with her overall experience of the Theotokos. She deems these, then, as true and worthy of our devotion. The fact that these stories and feasts have stood the test of time and scrutiny should say something to us about their worthiness to speak to us the truth, and how the Church over the centuries has canonized certain writings as Sacred Scripture and discerned others not worthy of inclusion in the holy canon of Scripture.
As the story goes, our Lady Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, yearning to be with her Son, was told by Gabriel the angel of her pending death in three days, the very same angel who had announced to her the Glad Tidings of her election to bear the Son of God at her consent (Lk. 1:26-38). He presented to her a palm-branch from Paradise as a sign to be carried in her funeral procession. Before she died, however, the Theotokos yearned also to see the Lord’s Apostles one last time. But, they were scattered abroad spreading the Gospel. So, the Lord hearkened unto the voice of His Mother and gathered them all together, just as He had once miraculously transported the Deacon Philip to Azotus one day (Ac. 8:26-40). The lone exception, however, was the Apostle Thomas who arrived on the third day after the Blessed Virgin’s death. But, it was Thomas’ absence that led the Church to the faith of her assumption into Heaven, just as it was his absence that enabled the Church to believe the Lord’s Resurrection from the dead (Jn. 20:24-29). Grieving to see the Theotokos one last time and to venerate her sweet body, the Apostles opened the tomb of the Pangia for Thomas, only to discover that she was not there! Later that day, angels could be heard singing and the now resurrected Theotokos appeared to the Apostles and assured them, “’Rejoice, I will be with you always!’” And so, she has been and always will be as the Mother of the Church.
On this day, however, I wish to pull from the Church’s hymnody. It has been said – and it is true – if you want to know what the Church believes, come pray with her and listen carefully to the sacred songs her faithful sing and the prayers we offer. Here, in her prayer and hymnody, is the theology and the Faith of the Church. So, what has the Church said concerning this Mother of all Christians? What do we believe concerning her, especially as it pertains to the Feast of our Lady’s Dormition, her Falling Asleep and Assumption into Heaven? At Great Vespers last evening, we heard this stichera (verse) from “Lord, I Call”: “O marvelous wonder! The source of life is laid in the tomb, and the tomb itself becomes a ladder to Heaven.” Yes, we certainly have the Resurrection of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ that we, too, with Him, shall one day be raised from the dead. But, it is our Lady’s Dormition that further makes us confident because what we hope to one day experience she, now, has experienced and continues to experience. Death has been conquered by her Son Whose Death and Resurrection has transformed its finality into our victory, making death the gateway to Eternal Life, our “ladder to Heaven,” as the stichera says.
In the service called Small Vespers, a service not often used in the parish, we find this stichera also sung at “Lord, I Call”:
With what lips shall we, poor and worthless, call the Theotokos blessed? She is more honored than the creation, and more holy than the cherubim and all the angels. She is the unshaken Throne of the King, the Abode in which the Most High has dwelt. She is the salvation of the world, the Holy Place of God, Who richly grants unto the faithful great mercy in this her holy Feast.
Here, we fulfill what the young Virgin maiden prophesies in her Magnificat, that is, “’all generations will call me blessed’” (Lk. 1:46-53). She receives greater honor – more than creation – and is deemed more holy than the cherubim and all the angels. Why? Because, of all the women who have ever been and ever will be, she alone has done what no other woman can do or will ever do: her womb was the “Throne of the King, the Abode in which the Most High has dwelt . . . the Holy Place of God”! Who can claim such a thing? Who would dare to claim such a wonder, except she who is alone Theotokos – “the Bearer of God”? She alone has given birth to God the Word and she alone is true Theotokos! Through her Eve is once again elevated and resumes her place as the mother of the living. Thus, the Church boldly says, sometimes to the chagrin of others, that the Theotokos is “the salvation of the world”!
We recall one day how our Lord was being put to the test by some of the Sadducess who did not believe in any sort of resurrection and so they presented Him with the conundrum of a woman who had seven husbands who had all died leaving her a widow. They wanted to know whose wife she would be if there was indeed a resurrection. It was in that set up we hear our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ clearly say, not only that the Sadducess were in serious error, but that they even failed to rightly grasp Moses when God Almighty said to His Prophet, “’”I AM the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” God is not the God of the dead, but of the living’” (Ex. 3:6; Tb. 3:8-17; Mt. 22:23-33; Mk. 12:18-27; Lk. 20:27-40). The Theotokos, beloved, with all the saints in the inheritance of light, is not dead but very much living, and she continues her ministry in Heaven begun here on earth at Cana in Galilee – the ministry of intercession and supplication (Jn. 2:1-12). Our Lady and Mother is, as we sing in one Theotokion, our “unchanging mediation before the Creator” and in another Theotokion, our “constant advocate before the Creator.” She lifts her hands and her voice before the Throne of God, interceding and praying on our behalf – her sons and daughters – who cry unto her, “Most holy Theotokos, save us!” “She asks without ceasing for great mercy on the world” (Small Vespers stichera, “Lord, I Call”).
Finally, in the Theotokion of the “Lord, I Call” of Small Vespers, the Church sings thusly:
She who is higher than the heavens and more glorious than the cherubim, she who is held in greater honor than all creation, she who by reason of her surpassing purity became the receiver of the everlasting Essence, today commends her most pure soul into the hands of her Son. With her all things are filled with joy and she bestows great mercy upon us.
She could not escape the fate of all mortals even though “by reason of her surpassing purity [she] became the receiver of the everlasting Essence,” that is to say, the receiver of God Himself. Her womb contained the Uncontainable One, we sing, and “became more spacious than the heavens”! But even death could not hold her. Her soul is received into the hands of her Son Who, with the angels, came to greet her at the drawing of her last breath, and her most pure body is translated into the courts of Heaven. And, now, as our Mother most holy and full of grace, the Queen of Heaven and all the angels of God, higher than all the saints, she has not abandoned us. Her love for us sinners envelopes us and she intercedes on our behalf. For she is the salvation of the Christian people (Theotokion).
Most holy Theotokos, save us!
Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
Pp. 2:5-11Lk. 10:38-42; 11:27-28