“Commemorating our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commend ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God.”
We have entered into the time of the Dormition Fast, one of the holiest times of the Orthodox Church ecclesiastical year. It is a time when we fast and attend the Paraklesis services that the Church conducts in times of great distress and sorrow of the soul. We submit names on pieces of paper for those in our lives who are sick and suffering so that our Priests can read these names aloud and prayerfully during the Paraklesis services. The Dormition Fast is a time where we focus on healing of the body, mind, and soul of loved ones. We seek God’s mercies (which is a meaning of the word paraklesis) and pray to the Holy Theotokos to intercede on our behalf and petition our Lord for healing. For our Lord is the “God of all comfort, who comforts us all in our tribulation” (2 Corinthians 1: 3-4) and He promises to send us the Comforter (the Paraclete), who is the Holy Spirit.
The Sacrifice of the Theotokos
Perhaps no saint we petition to intercede for us knows sorrow of the soul more than the Theotokos. At Jesus’s dedication in the temple, the aged Simeon told her, “yes, a sword will through your own soul also.” (Luke 2: 35) The notes in the Orthodox Study Bible that comment on this passage remind us that the sword in her soul was the deep anguish she experienced witnessing her beloved Son’s humiliating and excruciatingly painful death on the cross and that her soul was pierced in grief. Despite being our greatest saint, at that moment in time, she was simply a grief-stricken mother.
I have seen that grief up close. I stood right behind a mother burying her adult son and saw the soul piercing grief as she sobbed and shook uncontrollably while gripping the casket. I remember as a little boy being woken at night when a mother staying at our house, who had just lost her young son to cancer, cried all through the night and it hauntingly echoed throughout the house. I think there is no greater grief in life than a mother losing a child. What mother would not herself prefer to die to save her child? A man once told me, after his son had gotten in a horrible ugly fight with his mom, that he pulled his son aside and told him not to treat her that way. He reminded him as to why saying, “Son, I am your father and would kill to save you, but she is your mother and would actually die to save you.”
Such is the depth and sacrificial nature of a mother’s love.
Just as Christ sacrificed Himself for us, the Holy Theotokos, as His mother, participated in His sacrifice through her own sacrifice. We, in turn, fast and pray during this time to enter into and participate in the sacrifice of the Theotokos, because through sharing her participation, we draw closer to Christ. Her sacrifice was greater than all others who shared in Christ’s earthly presence.
Unlike Peter and the other Disciples who tried to prevent Christ from going to Jerusalem because they had an earthly perception of His mission (Matthew 16: 21-28), there is no record of her ever trying to interfere with Jesus’ Passion. She accepted His mission of the cross, and thus the Lord’s will, while suffering the anguish of a mother watching her child suffer beyond what human beings should ever have to endure.
Doing God’s Will
Yet, she did not live a life of blind and unreasoning faith. At the Annunciation, by asking the Archangel Gabriel questions (Luke 1: 34) and then accepting God’s will (Luke 1: 38) and choosing to do it, she showed herself to be a person of contemplation and introspection, a person of depth and perfect devotion to the Lord. Starting with her acceptance of the Lord’s will when she said, “Let it be according to your word” and throughout her life, Mary followed God’s will even in pain. Luke 2: 51 says that concerning the words and actions of her Son, “[she] kept all these things in her heart.” She was clearly seeking deeper meaning in the ordinary events of His and her life. She was actually being a model Christian as she sought to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, to understand God’s will in daily life.
All of this is why she is the saint above all saints. Nobody, not Peter, Paul, John the Baptist, Moses, and all of the other saints throughout Scripture and history, is held in higher esteem in the Church than Mary, whose name literally means “exalted one.” She is unique among human beings and the greatest of all saints. She is beloved and precious to the Church because of her relationship to Christ and what she achieved as a human being who did God’s will. Contrary to some misconceptions, Mary is never revered outside of her relationship to Christ or in isolation. Nor, as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware states, is she regarded as the fourth person of the Trinity. He reminds us that she is simply the Mother of God and the one who understands God better than anyone else.
We call her Theotokos, which means “bearer of God.” The popular connotation is “Mother of God” because she gave birth to Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity and God in the flesh. She is the Mother of the Son of God Who assumed His full humanity in her womb. She is the greatest human example of what it is to reflect Christ, do His will, and have union with Him.
Matthew Gallatin in his book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells, reminds us Mary did what we are all to do as Christians – bring Christ into the world. Mary did it physically. She was the vessel through which God came to earth in the flesh. She gave to God the only thing in the Universe He did not possess – human nature. As Christians, bringing Christ into the world is something we are to do also. We are to do it spiritually via our transformation as we grow in Christ and reflect more and more of His nature in what we do and say and how we treat others.
Mary, Motherly Love, and Grace
At the end of the fast, we celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos on one of the holiest Feast Days of the Church. Our Holy Tradition teaches when Mary died, Christ Himself carried her soul into Heaven while her body laid in her tomb near the Garden of Gethsemane. Three days later the Apostles found her tomb empty and an Angel appeared telling them that her body had been assumed into Heaven too. Mary was and is alive, body and soul, with her Son and Lord. We rejoice in this on August 15, the Feast of the Dormition of Our Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary.
Why is this important? As Orthodox Christians, we have all been taught there is no Crucifixion without the Resurrection. We can never separate them. It reminds that there is temporal pain followed by eternal joy. Mary’s grief, the deepest of all griefs, was temporary but her joy is permanent. The heartbreaking grief of all mothers, whose bonds of love with their children represent the deepest of all earthly loves, is made temporary due to the hope of eternal joy they (and all of us) have in Christ. Mary is our ladder to Christ, the Saint who we venerate above all, who is closest to our Lord. It is no accident that the Church recognizes the power and example of a mother’s love as one of strongest vehicles of grace we have to draw near to God, who is love.
Knowing these truths during these days in August, we fast in sorrow, petition for healing in this time set aside for healing, praise God in all things no matter the outcome, and then feast as a reminder of the glimpses of joy we have now, and promise of the never-ending joy to come.
“Truly you are worthy to be blessed, Mother of our God, the Theotokos, You the ever blessed one, and all blameless one, And the Mother of our God. You are honored more than the Cherubim, And you have more glory, when compared, to the Seraphim; You, without corruption, Did bear God, the Logos; You are the Theotokos; You do we magnify.”
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