In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
From the row of icons of the Twelve Great Feasts on the icon-screen, we see that the very last one on the right has been taken down and placed in the middle of the church. With the Feast of the Dormition, the Falling-Asleep of the Most Holy Mother of God, we come to the ending of the Church’s Year. And we are reminded that the Church’s Year begins in September with the Birth of the Mother of God, as we see from the icon of that Feast to the extreme left of the screen.
Today’s Feast also explains to us the origin of the hymn that we sing to the Mother of God: ‘More honourable than the cherubim, beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim’. These are not simply elegant words that a pious hymnographer sat down and wrote, they have an origin in a spiritual revelation, as all that is in the Church.
For this Feast reminds us of how our Lord from the Cross entrusted the care of His Mother to the Apostle John the Divine. It reminds us of how the Holy Virgin, then aged about sixty, was visited three days before her falling-asleep by the Archangel Gabriel, who long before had announced to her the conception of Christ in her womb. We recall how the Apostles were miraculously brought to Jerusalem to make their farewells. We recall how the Virgin gave away all her earthly possessions to poor widows as she made ready for her burial in Gethsemane, next to her parents Sts Joachim and Anne and also her kinsman Joseph.
We recall how she comforted the grieving, how her house was filled with light, her face shone and her body was fragrant, as Christ came with the angels to take her soul, as we can see from the icon of this Feast. We are reminded how her soul was taken up by Her Son, together with the cherubim and the seraphim, and now we understand the origin of our hymn: ‘More honourable than the cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim’. We remember how the Apostles, singing in procession, took her body to the tomb which then they sealed.
We recall how the Apostle Thomas arrived, delayed for three days, and wanted too to make his farewell; and so the tomb was unsealed and found empty except for the burial clothes and the wonderful fragrance. And from the very beginning we Orthodox have piously taken this to mean that the body of the Holy Virgin was so pure that it too had been taken up to Heaven, and that is why we have nowhere any bodily relic of the Mother of God.
And we understand by this that the first in the Kingdom of Heaven after Christ is the Holy Virgin. We understand by this that even given the weakness of human nature it is possible for our bodies to attain to utmost holiness. The Mother of God is, after Christ, the first-fruit of the Resurrection and shows us the way to the life of the Resurrection.
Of course there are people who will tell you that none of this is written in the Bible. But for us Orthodox the Holy Scriptures are only part of the ongoing Revelation of the Holy Spirit, which we call the Tradition. We are not dead to the Spirit, the Spirit speaks to us still, with ever more revelations about the life of the Coming Kingdom.
I began by saying that with this Feast we come to the ending of the Church’s Year. In it we also come to the ending of human life on earth. It is a tradition with us that our cemetery churches are mainly dedicated either to the Resurrection or else to the Dormition. It is a privilege for Orthodox to die on one of these Feasts. For it is indeed our destiny to die; it is the only certain thing in this life; every day that passes we draw one day nearer to our deaths. However, whatever our destiny, our ambition is not to die, but rather to fall asleep, in the manner of the Virgin, and have our souls taken to heaven by the holy angels, that death might become a mere passage from mortal life to immortality, from this deathly life to deathlessness in the Everlasting Kingdom of Christ and all His saints.
Most Holy Mother of God, Save us!