Friday, August 12, 2011

Come, O Gathering of Those who Love the Feasts

Dear Parish Faithful,

This year, August 14 & 15 - the eve of the Dormition and the actual Feast day itself – fall on a Sunday evening and Monday. This means that many parishioners will face a challenge (of sorts) to participate in this “summer Pascha.” The Great Vespers on the eve of the Feast has been developed in our parish over the years, and parish participation has grown accordingly. In fact, over the last five years or so, this festal service has become one of the most well-attended in our Feast Day cycle. We now decorate the “tomb” (epitaphios) of the Theotokos as well as place the icon of her blessed repose within it and place the tomb in the center of the church to allow for our veneration of the Dormition/Falling Asleep of the Mother of God . This is clearly an echo of Great and Holy Friday. (Even though we do not use them, a series of “lamentations” have been composed, again after the pattern of the Lamentations before the tomb of Christ during the Holy Saturday Matins). Yet, returning to church on Sunday evening is not a very promising prospect according to the history of our parish. I am quite realistic about this, having eliminated certain services over the years (Sunday evening Lenten services) for that very reason. However, the Church calendar is what it is, and this year the Feast falls on these particular days. The Church calendar always poses a challenge in our contemporary setting!

However, it certainly is not “impossible” to return to church on a Sunday evening. Here is one possible way of approaching that near “impossible” endeavor: Every Feast is the actualization of the event being commemorated; its “re-presenting.” This is the mystery and glory of “liturgical time” within the Church. We become participants and not mere observers. That is what is behind the use of the word “today” when we commemorate an event in the life of Christ or the Mother of God:

Come, O gathering of those who love to keep the feasts, come and let us for a choir … For today is heaven opened wide as it receives the Mother of Him who cannot be contained. (Litiya of the Feast of Dormition)

Now, as Christ is the New Adam, the Theotokos is the New Eve. As the first Eve became the “mother of all living,” the Theotokos is now the Mother of all of those “alive” in Christ and in the Church and essentially of all humankind as the intercessor of those both aware or unaware of her universal motherhood. This motherhood to all believers was clearly manifested at the Cross, when the Lord, from the Cross, declared to the beloved disciple: “Behold, your mother!” This came right after Jesus told His Mother concerning the beloved disciple: “Woman, behold, your son!” (JN. 19:26-27) The beloved disciple (John) represents all true disciples and believers in Christ. Thus, all disciples have been placed within the maternal embrace of the New Eve, The Ever-Virgin Mary and the Mother of the living. Again, she is our common mother. So, in addition, to our actual (biological) mothers whom we love, we love the Mother of God and seek her maternal embrace. We highly venerate her as the Mother of God and the Mother of the living. How sad for those Christians who do not openly venerate the Theotokos!

If the Feast of the Dormition commemorates – and thus actualizes – the falling asleep in death of the Theotokos, then we “re-present” her funeral in our liturgical services dedicated to this event. Being present at this Feast is like being present at the funeral service of our own mother! Of course, we declare that “neither the tomb nor death could hold the Theotokos” and that “she was translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb.” (Kontakion of the Feast) Because of her Son – our Lord Jesus Christ – she died a “deathless death.” The Theotokos has actualized our common hope and destiny in Christ, Who has “trampled down death by death.” In commemorating her blessed repose, we commemorate/celebrate her “translation” into the presence of God in the Kingdom of Heaven. This is why the Dormition is in reality a Feast. We should be able to draw out the implications of these glorious and marvelous truths in how we then approach this Feast.

The full liturgical cycle that we serve for the Dormition is a wonderful opportunity to express our love and respect for the Theotokos. I encourage those who are able to be present for the full cycle to do so. But often enough, our responsibilities – like going to work! – make that unrealistic. Yet, if work precludes the possibility of our presence for the Liturgy on Monday morning, then we are blessed with the Great Vespers on Sunday evening. I believe that it is always very important to be serious about our claims. If we claim that the Virgin Mary is the Mother of God and the Mother of the living, our response to that claim takes on an added depth and urgency. Presence and participation is always a good way to begin.

The Dormition of Our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary:

Great Vespers with Litiya and Blessing of Loaves – Sunday at 6:00 p.m.
Divine Liturgy – Monday at 9:30 a.m.