Why is it really necessary for Christians to pay attention to the death of Mary the Mother of Jesus? Does it add anything to our spirituality, does it increase our moral sensibilities, does it fill our minds with wisdom? These are interesting questions. I can remember as a Protestant Christian that I would have certainly answered any questions like this in the negative, and I can remember teaching people to believe that the life and contribution of Mary really had nothing to do with their day to day Christian walk. But I’ve certainly changed my mind on this issue. in this episode of Harmony of Thunder we’re going to look again at the sermon of Patriarch Modestus on the Dormition of the Theotokos in order to try and uncover the answer to the question: in what way does our attention to this great feast of the Orthodox Church benefit us as Christians?
Hi, welcome to Harmony of Thunder, where we explore and enjoy the rich tradition of Orthodox preaching. I’m your host, Fr. David Smith. Each week, Harmony of Thunder chooses a sermon from scripture or from the works of a saint and we spend our time together looking at the style, the illustrations, and the spiritual message of the preacher. For the past two weeks we’ve been looking at the sermon entitled, “An Encomium on the Dormition of our Most Holy Lady, Mary, Mother of God and Ever Virgin By Our Father the Holy Modestus, Archbishop of Jerusalem” as found in the book On The Dormition of Mary, Early Patristic Sermons, translated and with an introduction by Brian E. Daley, S.J., and we’ll spend one more week with it. I think he has some answers to our question that will help and enlighten us.
While I don’t address this particular sermon in my book Mary Worthy of All Praise, published by Conciliar Press in 2003, I do speak to the difference between my pre-and post-Orthodox conversion opinion of the Mother of our Savior. If you’d like to hear more about this, I hope you look for it in my book.
Lord Jesus Christ, through the prayers of Your Most Pure Mother and of all the saints, bless your Holy Orthodox Church with great preachers and people who want to hear them. Amen.
There are three aspects of the celebration of the Dormition that add to the spiritual riches of Orthodox Christians. First, the Holy Spirit has designated that this fast and feast become a part of the church. Second, the invisible events which occurred around the falling-asleep of the Mother of God are truly amazing and worthy of recollection. And third, Mary does not cease to be the Mother of God, even after her earthly demise. We not only have her as an intercessor for us before the throne of her Son, but we also must expect that in the eternal Kingdom of God she will continue to play a major role, just as the mothers of earthly kings play an important part in their courts.
First, we have the fact that the Holy Spirit has moved upon the fathers of the church to make the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos one of the major days of commemoration in the calendar, made even more consecrated by the inclusion of a strict fast during the 14 days preceding. This is part of the opening of Patriarch Modestus’ sermon: “…these inspired prophets (and here he’s speaking of those who were chosen to be “teachers in the Church of Christ our God”), these inspired prophets have been judged worthy to discover sacred writings and to expound them for each holy festival of the Mother of God, and so to escort the devout people towards riches that can never be taken away, toward the Spirit’s most splendid array of honors, towards the divinely designed edification of the orthodox Churches, for the glory of God our Savior.”
The preacher really speaks about two works of the Holy Spirit here. First, the Spirit chooses those who He wants to serve as teachers, prophets and leaders in the Church. When he first mentions those “teachers in the Church of Christ our God,” he specifically says that they were given that place “by the divine grace of the all-holy Spirit.” While it is not the safe prerogative of Orthodox Christians to simply sit back and let the hierarchy do, say, and teach as they please, it is likewise the duty of all Orthodox Christians to understand that a movement of the Holy Spirit has placed these leaders in our midst, and that any criticism must take this important fact into account.
The preacher then speaks of a second gift of the Holy Spirit, which is the actual teaching of these inspired prophets. Let me read a part of the sermon in which he speaks of the miraculous gathering of the apostles at her death: “So the divine apostles, whom we have mentioned before, hastened from every corner of the earth, led and assisted by an impulse from on high, to find that all-holy Mother, through whose offices they had been found by Christ and had been considered worthy of a mission in the Holy Spirit – the highest dignity by far which the Spirit bestows. She had already attained that honor, and was, at that moment, about to receive in addition Christ’s heavenly gifts.” The Brian Daley, the translator of the sermon, points out that the preacher here refers to a comparison of the Spirit’s call upon the apostles and His earlier call to Mary. The Holy Spirit had given her a job to do, a job which, when done properly, would make the call of the apostles possible. Here we see how the Spirit moved upon a series of God-lovers; Mary, then the apostles, then the fathers of the Church, in order to bring to us the amazing story of the salvation of the world, a story in which we play, hopefully, an additional, contemporary role.
Secondly, this great feast of the Dormition feeds our souls by teaching us about the unseen forces that accompanied the events it commemorates. Listen to these remarkable words by Modestus: “Think of it! Holy angels were sent from God to his holy and glorious Mother, to one who is higher than they and all the powers of heaven, the one who had found grace with God; they are sent from heaven on high to one who has been shown by God to be higher and wider than heaven itself – sent now, not to announce the incomprehensible news that God has been conceived, as once the archangel Gabriel did, but to lead her towards the one she conceived, in his heavenly kingdom; not to proclaim her inconceivable childbirth to all the world by bringing good tidings to shepherds, but to receive her with everlasting glory and to let her enter into the ineffable joy of the Lord, who was born of her.”
Now you might say, “How does Modestus know all this?” Look at what he’s done. We have in the Holy Scriptures the clear description of the angelic activity around her giving birth to the Christ. Doesn’t it follow that that there was a similar angelic gathering at her falling-asleep? Certainly! All that Modestus has done is to bring the two events together, as he says: “sent now, not to announce the incomprehensible news that God has been conceived … but to lead her towards the one she conceived.” His witness here is reasonable, poetic, and true.
And finally, we look toward the heavenly kingdom. There Christ is king over all, and every subject bows before him in love. Will his mother just stand to the side as one of the rank and file? Not a chance. Not a chance. If you’re a person who desires to dwell with Christ eternally in the Kingdom of God, you’re a person who is preparing to honor his mother forever, as Modestus says, “They placed in a tomb as in a shrine of life, in the place called Gethsemane – they who had become the eye-witnesses and servants of the Word, and those holy ones who then were in their company. Their desire in doing this was that through her, our kindly and just judge might be rendered merciful towards us – Christ our God, who came forth from her, and who will appear in glory like lightning from heaven, to take his place where the prophets have foretold, to judge the living and the dead with the divine apostles, through the ministry of the holy angels.”
The picture is truly awesome, the lightning, the judgment of the living and the dead, the ministry of angels. This picture is truly awesome, and those who carefully handled the body of the Theotokos after her demise had this awesome picture in their mind. “Remember how we lovingly cared for her body!” we can hear them say, “when you come to judge the earth with awesome power and glory!”
What a lovely sermon this has been, how good it has been to explore and enjoy it! Especially with you, dear listener. I’m still not sure if I’m going to read you a couple of my favorite poems on the Theotokos next week, but I hope you’ll give Harmony of Thunder a listen to find out!
Lord Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, the Savior of the world, grant that we may glorify you with our love for you and your mother as we acknowledge the angelic powers and the reality of your eternal Kingdom, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God, Amen.