Archpastoral Homily for Great Vespers of the Dormition
At the Dormition Greek Orthodox Church in Oakmont, CA.
Today, we have come to celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos, not to mourn her death. We have come to praise God for His miraculous assumption of her soul and body into Paradise. We have not come to despair her absence, and to grieve over her remains. We are happy today, and we rejoice for her eternal life in the presence of her Son, and her watchful care over us her children. She is truly the pre-eminent Christian, the very first to receive Jesus into her heart as Lord and Savior. She is the mother of us all, as she is our Leader who shows us all how to receive Christ, how to follow Him through the pilgrimage of life, and how, most of all, to pray.
We have come today to hasten to her protection, for protection, truly, is what we need today. There are Islamicists who want to destroy the Patriarchate of Constantinople. There are terrorists who attempt to explode passenger jets from London to New York. There are jihadists who sent teenagers as suicide terrorists into all regions of the Middle East. There are wars and rumors of wars throughout the world. And the modern world, despite its weakness and inability to even perceive the darkness, continues to reject the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It continues to embrace the corrosive "anti-Gospel" of materialism, secularism and agnosticism. It continues to deny that God is the Creator of Creation. It continues to malign and denigrate Jesus as Christ and the Son of God, choosing instead to imagine that he married Mary Magdalen and escaped to France with her, and starting the royal bloodline of French kings.
How true it is today, in the poem entitled "The Second Coming," where the poet writes:
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world ...
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.*
How true it is of the modern world, that the worst seem to be the strong ones, and the good ones are silent, afraid to commit themselves, caught in the web of worldly ambition and petty arguments. "Things fall apart, and the center cannot hold." How true it is, now that we see the continued decay of the Western world. We are today, just like the inhabitants of the great city of Constantinople, the New Rome, who were also surrounded by an ocean of barbarians at the gate, bent on the destruction of all things that are ancient, true, beautiful and good.
In pious prayer, at the church of Blachernae, in the midst of danger, necessity, wrath and want, a vision was seen of the higher, greater things. The Theotokos, the Virgin Mary, was seen above the City, higher than the danger and serene in her fellowship with Christ, covering the city with her pious veil of purity and faith. Her prayer and love were revealed as more potent than the walls of the kings, the armies and navies of the Golden Horne. It was the love of Christ for His Mother and the Church that gave life and protected it. It was the supplication and prayer of the Mother and her Church to Christ that promised hope, courage, and faith in the face of trial and despair.
When the times were dark and the moment was full of dread, the Orthodox Christians of Constantinople cried out to the First Christian to lead them to the prayer of faith. She was the righteous one, of whom the Apostle James prophesied when he promised that " ... the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much."
Who can this be, this effectual righteous person, but mostly true of the Virgin Theotokos? Who can pray better? Who can have more faith? Who can believe without doubting more? Who can move mountains better? Who can be more free of anxiety, and pray with more assurance, simplicity and peace, than Mary, Mother of God, and radiant Queen of Heaven?
For it is Mary, most of all, of whom St. Paul described in his brilliant prescription for the holy, mysterious Prayer for Peace: "Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
The Orthodox Church knows that all prayer is passed through the entire fellowship of the Saints, led in mystic love by the Mother of God. Prayer is never solitary, and prayer is never contained. Every prayer that is uttered in faith is taken up, like incense, as a song to the heavens. It becomes a melody echoed by the saints and the angels. Finally, it is presented in its ultimate, quintessential theme to Christ God by His Mother, the Theotokos.
She can do so, because she is His Mother. She can do so, because she is there. She can do so, because He received her soul as a mystic infant at her Dormition. She can do so, because Jesus Christ raised up her body, releasing it from the tomb, and raising it in glory, imperishable, spiritual, utterly beyond all expectations and limitations.
She reveals today, at the Dormition, that prayer is made possible by Resurrection and the fellowship of the Saints. Prayer is the divine cord of kindness that links us all to that certain hope of Heaven and everlasting joy. Prayer is the experience of communion with the Holy Trinity, and the revelation of meaning and truth. Prayer is the overthrow of despair, and the revolution of salvation.
Every prayer reflects the happiness of the Dormition. For the Dormition was a victory, and a manifestation, of the deep ways, and the high ways, of prayer that conquers death. For this reason, at the Dormition, the earth and the heavens rejoiced. Jacob of Serug wrote this in his beautiful poem of the Virgin:
The heavens and the mountains and all the plains which were adorned,
Broke forth in praise when the virginal body was being laid in the grave.
All living creatures made a joyful sound of praise in their places;
All the earth was stirred by their shouts of joy.
There were shouts of joy, because heaven and earth knew that humanity had finally attained its chief vocation, its greatest glory, and the human race had finally embraced meaning, truth and significance. There was joy, because mankind had finally entered the fullness of prayer. Prayer is, itself, the very substance of the Protective Veil. It is higher than the pride of nations. It is stronger than the might of armies. It is deeper than all the strategies of evil. The Protective Veil of a mother's supplication surrounded Constantinople, and it surrounds us today.
*William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"
Metropolitan Nicholas is the Metropolitan (Archbishop) of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese.