Bishop Alexander of the Russian Orthodox church
Content: Introduction. Pascha (Resurrection or Easter). Nativity of the Theotokos (Mother of God). Elevation of the Cross. Presentation of the Theotokos in the Temple. Nativity of Christ. Theophany (Baptism of our Lord). Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Annunciation. Entrance of our Lord into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday). Ascension of our Lord. Pentecost (Descent of the Holy Spirit). Transfiguration of the Lord. Dormition of the Theotokos.
The holy days of the Russian Orthodox Church are divided into two categories: the major or great feast days that commemorate events in the lives of Christ and the Theotokos; and holy days that commemorate the various events in the lives of the saints.
It is known from the Gospels that the time of the death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ was during the time of the celebration of the Jewish feast of Passover, which is calculated according to the Old Testament lunar calendar. The Church fathers used the same calculations to produce the Paschal cycle, therefore, all the feasts connected with Pascha are movable. All others are celebrated on a specific date and are called immovable feasts.
The immovable great feasts are: the Nativity of the Theotokos (8/21 Sept.), the Elevation of the Cross (Sept. 14/27), the Presentation of the Theotokos in the Temple (Nov. 21/Dec. 4), the Nativity of Christ (Dec. 25/Jan. 7), Theophany (Jan. 6/19), the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Feb. 2/15), the Annunciation (March 25/Apr. 7), the Transfiguration of the Lord (Aug. 6/19), and the Dormition of the Theotokos (Aug. 15/28).
The movable great feasts are: Entrance of our Lord into Jerusalem, Ascension of our Lord, Pentecost, and Pascha.
The Church calendar begins with the Nativity of the Theotokos celebrated on Aug. 26/Sept. 8. This holy day corresponds closely to the date of the Jewish New Year, which to the Hebrews signified the beginning of a new era in their lives. Similarly the early Church, which generally followed the Old Testament celebrations of the Hebrews, proclaimed the new Christian era by announcing to the world the birth of the Holy Virgin Mary. She was to be the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, by His birth was to bring a new era into the world — the era of Christianity.
Holy feast days are not just to remember the past. By participating in these feasts each believer draws closer to the experience of the Holy Church, and follows its leadership. Each Christian soul relives the great events of the Gospels and of Church history, and in this way goes through a school of spiritual growth.
The word “pascha” in Hebrew means “passing over, deliverance.” The Hebrews, celebrating the Old Testament Passover, commemorated the miraculous exodus of the Jews out of Egypt, when they crossed the parted Red Sea being led by their great Prophet, the God-beholder Moses. They left the land of slavery, Egypt, to enter into the Promised Land. Christians, celebrating the New Testament Pascha, exult in the deliverance through Christ of all the people from slavery to the devil and in the granting of life and everlasting bliss. The Church sings of this in the canons when she sings: “From death to life and from the earth to the Heavens has Christ God brought us.”
Pascha is the essence of our faith, for Christ rose from the dead, as we will rise from the dead. Pascha is the Feast of feasts, the Triumph of triumphs and, therefore, the services of this feast are exceptionally magnificent and especially triumphant.
The Resurrection of Christ was attested to by the blood of the apostles and by the thousands upon thousands of martyrs. The spiritual joy of Pascha is expressed in the victorious hymn: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life,” and is felt in the heart of each believer.
On Great and Holy Friday, in the ninth hour (about three in the afternoon), Christ was crucified on the cross and gave up His spirit to the Father. There were but a few who stood by the cross that day weeping as Christ suffered and died: among those few were His young disciple John, His Mother, and some other women followers. All the others had ran away in tears a long while back. When it was evening, a rich man from Arimathea came along. His name was Joseph. He, too, was a disciple of Jesus. This Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate gave orders for the body to be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a new linen winding sheet, and placed it in his own tomb, which he had just recently dug out of the rock. Then he rolled a large stone across the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there, facing the tomb. The next day, Great and Holy Saturday, the chief priests and the Pharisees met with Pilate and said: “Sir, we remember that that deceiver said while he was yet alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Command therefore that the sepulcher be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night and steal him away, and say unto the people, ‘He is risen from the dead,’ so that the last error shall be worse than the first.” Pilate said unto them, “Ye have a watch. Go your way, make it as secure as ye can.” So they went and made the sepulcher secure, sealing the stone and setting up a watch” (Matt. 27:57-66).
Commencing after midnight Saturday and continuing on into the next day (now known as Sunday) the greatest and most joyous event the world has ever known happened. The guard was standing at the grave, the large stone with the seal was intact then, suddenly, the earth shook and our Lord Jesus Christ, by the power of His Divinity, raised Himself from the dead. Soon after this an angel came down from Heaven and rolled away the stone from the entrance to the tomb and sat upon it. The appearance of this angel was like lightning and his clothes were white as snow. The soldiers guarding the tomb fell to the ground in terror, but they soon got up and ran to tell the chief priests what had happened. The chief priests gave the guards a large sum of money and said, “‘Say ye, “His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we slept.” And if this come to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him and secure you.’ So they took the money, and did as they were taught; and this account is commonly reported among the Jews until this day” (Matt. 28:13-15).
Meanwhile, in the early morning, while it was still dark, several pious women went hurrying to the tomb to anoint the body of Christ with myrrh. They were not aware of the great event that had taken place, nor even of the seal of the Sanhedrin, or of the guards. Their worry was about who would roll away the heavy stone from the tomb. Mary Magdalene reached the tomb first and, seeing that the stone had been rolled away, ran to Peter and John saying: “They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulcher, and we know not where they have laid Him!” (John 20:2). Hearing this, Peter and John immediately ran to the grave with Mary Magdalene. The rest of the myrrh-bearing women came to the grave and saw that the stone had been rolled away. So they went in; but they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. They stood there uncertain about this, when suddenly two men in bright shining clothes stood by them: Full of fear, the women bowed down to the ground, as the men said to them: “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen! Remember how He spoke unto you when He was yet in Galilee, saying, ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’ And they remembered His words, and returned from the sepulcher and told all these things unto the eleven and to all the rest” (Luke 24: 1-9).
In the city of Nazareth there dwelled a God-fearing elderly couple, Joachim, from the house of David, and Anna, from the priestly tribe of Aaron. In those days Hebrews, awaiting the Messiah, believed that any one who did not have children had in some way offended God and was being punished by having no descendants to be part of the Messiah's kingdom. Joachim and Anna grieved greatly because they were childless. Despite the ridicule and reproaches that Joachim and Anna received from their neighbors, they did not lose hope but continually prayed that God might grant them a child, which they promised to dedicate to the service of God. For their patience, their faith and their love of God and of each other, their prayers were heard: a daughter was born to them in their old age. An angel directed them to name the child Mary, which in Hebrew means “lady and hope.” The one who was to be the Mother of God was born into a righteous family, known more throughout the generations for its goodness than for its royal blood. The importance of this feast, the first in the Church calendar year (which begins September 1/14) is that it was the first step in preparing mankind for its promised salvation.
The feast of the elevation is in honor of the Cross of Christ. In remembrance of the suffering and death of Christ on the Cross, the day is one of strict fasting.
If the birth of the Holy Virgin is the anticipation of the mystery of the Incarnation, then the Cross announces the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. For this reason the feast is celebrated in the beginning of the Church calendar year (August 19/September 1st).
The sign of the cross — in Roman times an instrument of shameful death, after Golgotha it became the symbol of salvation and victory.
Through suffering to joy, through death to victory, through sacrificial giving to fulfillment of God's will — such is the way of the Redeemer of the world, such is the way of His followers. “Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mark 8:34). This is not just difficulties and suffering, which on their own do not become the Cross. “To take up your cross” is to reject your self, defeat love of self, learn to live for others, learn courage, patience, and to faithfully follow Christ.
The origin of this feast is found in the glorious reign of Constantine the Great (fourth century), who erected the church of the Resurrection on the sites where the Tomb and Golgotha were. This place had drawn Christian pilgrims from the very beginning of the existence of the Church. However, in the beginning of the second century, Emperor Hadrian, who was against both Judaism and Christianity, decided to destroy traces of both religions. He rebuilt and renamed Jerusalem, leveled Golgotha, filled in the Tomb and built a temple to Venus in its place. When the Emperor Constantine proclaimed Christianity a free religion, he, at the urging of his Christian mother, St. Helen, ordered the pagan temple to be destroyed and excavation on this holy site to be begun. Layer after layer was removed and all of a sudden in the depths of the earth, when all hope was gone, an empty space appeared and then the true and holy sign of our salvation. Writes a contemporary of the events, Evsebius: There in the ground three crosses were found — but the sign which had been placed on Christ's cross had fallen off, and it was impossible to decide which was His cross. Only after miracles occurred at one cross, such as the healing of a sick woman and the resurrection of one who was dead, did it become known which was the True Cross. Then crowds of people flocked to the place wishing to bow before the Life-giving Cross and started begging the Patriarch to raise it so all could see. The Patriarch stood on an elevated place and raised the Cross, and from this action comes the name for the feast.
On the site where the Cross was found, St. Helen built a church to the glory of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the True Cross was kept in it. The main part of the Life-giving Cross is even at present kept in Jerusalem, in the Greek church. The other parts of it were carried all over the Christian world.
The hymns to this feast speak of the Cross that is raised above the world as “the beauty of the Church,” as “the confirmation of the believers.” The Cross is the sign of God's love for man, the harbinger of the coming transfiguration of nature.
Joachim and Anna did not forget their promise to dedicate their child to the service of God. When Mary was three years old they brought her to the Temple. Young girls, friends and relatives with lighted tapers formed a procession and conducted her to the steps of the Temple. There the child Mary all by herself walked up to the very top of the stair, where she was met by the High Priest, Zacharias, as he had met other children dedicated to the service of God. Moved by the Holy Spirit, the High Priest led Mary into the Holy of Holies of the Temple, where he himself was allowed to enter but once a year. Thus, the child Mary was dedicated to a higher service and a higher calling than any other child. After her dedication she remained in the Temple for twelve years, praying and fasting. She read and studied the Holy Scriptures and learned needlework along with other young girls. Mary decided to dedicate the rest of her life to God and vowed to remain forever a virgin. This holy day serves to remind parents that children are given to us by God, and that we as parents must remember that it is our duty to bring them up according to God's commandments — that is to love and obey Him.
After the Annunciation, Mary continued living in Joseph's house, and “she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. And Joseph, her husband, being a just man and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call His name JESUS, for He shall save his people from their sins.’ Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, ‘Behold, a Virgin shall be with child and shall bring forth a Son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel,’ (Isaiah 7: 14) which being interpreted is: ‘God with us’” (Matt 1: 18-23).
The story of the birth of our Savior according to St. Luke begins thus: “It came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And Joseph also went up from Galilee out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, who was great with child” (Luke 2:1-15).
And though the Christ child was born in a manger in humble circumstance, the joyful tidings of His birth became known to the poor shepherds in a nearby field and to eastern wise men in far off lands. To the shepherds the angel said: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord . . . And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men’” (Luke 2: 10-11;13-14). Following a star, wise men from the East came to worship the newborn King of the Jews. They saw the young child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshipped Him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto Him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matt 2: 1-11).
When Christ attained the age of thirty, His time to preach had come, and He appeared to the people for the first time at the Jordan, where John the Forerunner had been heralding the coming of the Messiah. He preached baptism and repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Crowds of people came to John from everywhere, and many began to wonder if he was the promised Messiah, but he told them; “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to bear. He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. ”
“Then came Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan unto John to be baptized by him. But John forbad Him, saying, ‘I have need to be baptized by Thee, and comest Thou to me?’ And Jesus answering said unto him, ‘Suffer it to be so now, for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then John suffered Him. And Jesus, when He had been baptized, went up straightway out of the water. And lo, the heavens were opened unto Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting upon Him. And lo, a voice came from Heaven, saying, ‘THIS IS MY BELOVED SON, IN WHOM I AM WELL PLEASED’” (Matt. 3:11-16).
Thus, mystically, the Holy Trinity appeared before all the people at the baptism of Christ: the voice of God the Father was heard witnessing to God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit descended as a dove upon the Savior of the world. That is why this feast day is called Theophany — the manifestation of God to man.
According to the law of Moses, every firstborn male was to be brought into the temple to be dedicated to God on the fortieth day after birth. At that time a sacrifice of thanksgiving was also to be brought. The Holy Mother of God followed this law, even though she knew that the Child was the Son of God. Thus, Joseph and Mary brought the Child Jesus into the temple on the fortieth day along with a humble sacrifice of two young pigeons.
In Jerusalem at that time there lived a man, Simeon, who was just and devout and was awaiting the consolation of Israel. According to tradition, Simeon was in Alexandria 270 years prior to this date, translating that passage in the Scriptures where Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah was to be born of a Virgin. He wanted to change the word ‘virgin’ to another meaning ‘young woman’, but an angel of the Lord stopped his hand and foretold Simeon that he would not see death before seeing the Messiah born of the Virgin.
Led by the Holy Spirit into the temple on the day that the holy family brought the Child Jesus to fulfill the law, Simeon took the Child into his arms and blessed God by saying: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared in Hebrew before the face of all people, a light to lighten the gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).
“And Joseph and His mother marveled at those things which were spoken of Him. And Simeon blessed them and said unto Mary His mother, ‘Behold, this Child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be spoken against (yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:33-35).
Anna the prophetess, who was a widow of 84 years and did not depart from the temple, but served God by fasting and praying, was also there. “And she, coming in that instant, gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spoke of Him to all they that looked for redemption in Jerusalem. And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee to their own city, Nazareth” (Luke 2: 38-39).
When Mary became of age, according to Hebrew custom of the time, she could no longer stay at the Temple, but had to either return to her parents or marry. Since Joachim and Anna had died, and Mary had proclaimed her vow of celibacy to the High Priest, it was decided to betroth her to an elderly distant relative who would protect and care for her. She, therefore, went to live in Nazareth with the elderly Joseph, who was a carpenter. Here according to tradition, while Mary was reading from the prophet Isaiah about the birth of the Messiah to a virgin, the angel Gabriel appeared to her. “And the angel came in unto her and said, “Hail, thou who art highly favored, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women.’ And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying and cast about in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, ‘Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found favor with God. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth a Son, and shalt call His name JESUS. He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of His father David, and He shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of His Kingdom there shall be no end.’ Then said Mary unto the angel, ‘How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?’ And the angel answered and said unto her, ‘The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee. Therefore also that Holy Being who shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.’ . . . And Mary said, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her” (Luke 1: 28-38).
In the Russian language this holy day is called Blagovescheniye — “the announcement of glad tidings,” because this was the first time that the glad tidings of the coming of the Savior were proclaimed to the world. Annunciation generally falls during the Great Lent, but it is of such great importance that it is still celebrated even if it coincides with Holy Friday or Pascha.
On the last sunday of the Great Lent, the Church remembers the triumphant entrance of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem. The day before, on Saturday, is the remembrance of the great miracle which had recently been wrought in Bethany — the resurrection of Lazarus, who had been dead and buried four days in his tomb. Many of the people, having witnessed this miracle, believed in Christ and were awaiting His coming into Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. But the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees wanted to have Jesus killed because they envied Him, and so they gave an order to be told when Jesus would come into Jerusalem.
The time of Christ’s suffering was nearing. Just six days before Passover, when Mary, the sister of the resurrected Lazarus, poured expensive myrrh on Jesus’ feet, some of His disciples were displeased at such waste, thinking that the money from the sale of this myrrh could have been used to help the poor. Knowing what lay in store for Him in Jerusalem, Christ told His disciples that with this anointing His body was being prepared for burial. He spoke at great length about the suffering that was drawing near for Him. Finally Jesus gathered His disciples to go to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. “When they drew nigh unto Jerusalem and had come to Bethphage unto the Mount of Olives, then sent Jesus two disciples, saying unto them, ‘Go into the village opposite you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them unto Me. And if any man say aught unto you, ye shall say, “The Lord hath need of them,” and straightway he will send them.’ . . . And the disciples went and did as Jesus commanded them. And they brought the ass and the colt and saddled them with their clothes, and they set Him thereon” (Matt. 21:1-3; 6-7). Coming near Jerusalem, Jesus wept over the city that was doomed to be destroyed for not recognizing the time that God came to save it.
Many in Jerusalem found out that Jesus, the one who had resurrected Lazarus—who had been dead four days — was nearing. “And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way, and others cut down branches from the trees and strewed them in the way. And the multitudes that went before, and followed, cried out, saying, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’ And when He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the multitude said, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee.’ And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all those who sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers and seats of those who sold doves, and said unto them, ‘It is written, “My house shall be called the house of prayer,” but ye have made it into a den for thieves’
And the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them. And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that He did, and the children crying out in the temple and saying, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ they were sore displeased, and said unto Him, ‘Hearest thou what these say?’ and Jesus said unto them ‘Yea, have ye never read, “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings Thou has perfected praise”?’” (Matt. 21:8-16).
In the next days Jesus Christ taught in the temple. He spent the nights outside the city. The chief priests, the teachers of the Law, and the elders of the people looked for an opportunity to kill Him, but they could not because all the people were around Him listening to His teachings.
This holy day is celebrated on the fortieth day after the Resurrection of Christ, on the Thursday of the sixth week of Pascha. The ascension of Christ into heaven is mentioned in the prophecies of the Scriptures. Christ Himself, upon His resurrection, said to Mary Magdalene: “I ascend unto My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God” (John 20:17).
This great event, with which Jesus’ life on earth concludes, is briefly mentioned in the Gospels of Mark and Luke. But in the Acts of the apostles there is a fuller account. Gathering His disciples, Jesus commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to await what had been promised by the Father, that is the descent of the Holy Spirit. “John truly baptized with water, but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days hence . . . Ye shall receive power after the Holy Spirit is come upon you; and ye shall be witnesses unto Me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:5, 8)..
. Saying this, He went with His disciples to Bethany and stopped on the Mount of Olives. “While they beheld, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, ‘Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who is taken up from you into Heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into Heaven’” (Acts 1:9-11).
Then the disciples returned to Jerusalem to where the Theotokos and the myrrh-bearing women were in prayer. In the Gospel of Mark it is written that upon ascending to heaven, the Lord sat upon the right side of God the Father, that is, the human soul and body of Jesus Christ took on the same glory as His Divinity.
Ascending to heaven, Jesus Christ promised to always be invisibly on earth among those who believe in Him.
The real beginning of the history of the Church, is the feast of Pentecost of 30 AD On the tenth day after the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, His disciples, His Mother, some other holy women and some of those Jews who came to believe in Him, (about 120 in all) were gathered in a home on mount Zion. As was usual, they were spending their time in prayer and in awaiting the promised Holy Spirit, when all of a sudden there was a noise from heaven as of rushing wind that filled the whole house where they were. And there appeared tongues of fire that spread out and rested on each person. And they were filled by the Holy Spirit and began to converse in other languages.
This day was the Jewish feast of the Pentecost that commemorated the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. Because of this there were many people in Jerusalem from different lands. When they heard this unusual noise in the air, they started gathering near the house where the apostles had been. They were surprised to hear, each in his own tongue, the wonderful works of God. “And they were all amazed . . . saying one to another, ‘What meaneth this?’ Others mocking said, ‘These men are full of new wine.’ But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice and said unto them, ‘Ye men of Judea and all ye who dwell in Jerusalem, be this known to you, and hearken to my words. For these are not drunken as you suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day [nine in the morning according to our time]’” (Acts 2:12-16). The time of fulfillment of the prophecies had come, when the Spirit of God would come down on those faithful to Him. “Ye men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man approved of God among you by miracles, wonders, and signs, which God did through Him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know — Him, being delivered up in accordance with the established plan and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken and by wicked hands have crucified and slain. But God hath raised Him up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held” (Acts 2:22-24).
These words of Peter, suggested to him by the Holy Spirit deeply moved the people, and on that day about three thousand people were baptized in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Such was the beginning of the spreading of the Gospel, that through the apostles and their disciples it first spread throughout Judea, and then throughout the world.
From the time when the Holy Spirit passed over the apostles like “a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind” (Acts 2:2) and when “there appeared unto them cloven tongues as of fire, and it sat upon each of them” (Acts 2:3), they became different people. Those, who had just recently ran in fear from the garden of Gethsemane, now began a world-wide bringing forth of the Gospel. They were not to be stopped by threats, torture, or death. They were followed by ever new generations of witnesses and martyrs for Christ. Mighty rulers armed against them, philosophers opposed them, great temptations were put in their path — but crucified, burned, perishing in the arenas of gladiators, they stood firm in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Troubling waves of false Christians, unworthy pastors, false teachers and dissenters crashed over them — but nothing can destroy the Church of Christ. In the words of our Divine Teacher: “I will build My church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt.16:18).
Jesus Christ, in speaking to His disciples, often told them that He was to go to Jerusalem to receive suffering at the hands of the high priests and the teachers of the Law, that he was to be killed and to be resurrected on the third day. The apostles believed that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah, but they were deeply distressed at the thought of His suffering and could not bear to hear that He, the Son of God and the Messiah, would be degraded, would suffer, and would die. The disciples still had earthly hopes about the glory of the Savior. They hoped that Jesus would free Judea from the Roman Empire's rule and would restore the Kingdom of Israel.
To strengthen their faith for the time when they would see Him suffering and to take their minds off earthly thoughts, Jesus Christ showed His disciples His Divine glory. Not long before His suffering, Jesus took three of His disciples — Peter, James, and John — and led them up a high mountain, Tabor, to pray. Walking a little distance from them, He began to pray while the exhausted disciples fell asleep. When they awoke, they saw their Teacher transfigured: His face shone like the sun, and His clothing was white as snow and glittering like light. And standing with Jesus were two prophets — Moses and Elijah — who appeared in their heavenly glory to talk with Jesus about how He would soon fulfill God's purpose by suffering and dying in Jerusalem.
“When they awakened, they saw His glory and the two men who stood with Him. And it came to pass as they departed from Him, Peter said unto Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for Thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah’ — not knowing what he was saying” (Luke 9:32-33). “While he yet spoke, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them. And behold, a voice out of the cloud, said, ‘THIS IS MY BELOVED SON IN WHOM I AM WELL PLEASED. HEAR YE HIM!’ And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were sore afraid. And Jesus came and touched them and said, ‘Arise, and be not afraid.’ And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, except Jesus only. And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, ‘Tell the vision to no man until the Son of Man be risen again from the dead’ (Matt. 17:5-9).
The disciples fell to the ground in fear. Jesus came near them, touched them and said: “Arise, do not be afraid.” The disciples arose and saw Jesus as He always was. When they were descending from the mountain, Jesus commanded them not to speak of what they had seen until He had arisen from the dead.
After such proof of His Divine glory, the apostles' faith in Christ as the Son of God could no longer be swayed.
The feast of the Dormition is the last great feast in the Church calendar year. It is preceded by a two week fast. The glorious lot of the Ever Blessed Virgin in the role of God's salvation of the world made all her life wonderful and exemplary.
After the Crucifixion of Christ, the Mother of God was taken to live in the house of her adopted son, the Apostle John. Tradition notes that even after the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, the Mother of God remained in Jerusalem, visiting those places where the Savior of the world preached, suffered and died. She did not want to leave the country that was dear and holy to her. When Caesar Herod Agrippa began to persecute the Church, both the pagans and the Jews, indignant at the respect the Mother of God was receiving from the Christians, wanted to kill her. It was during this time that she traveled with Apostle John to Ephesus. Church tradition has this as the time of her visit to Cyprus to Bishop Lazarus, who had been raised from the dead after four days, and to the Mount Athos. When the persecution ended, the Mother of God returned to Apostle John’s house at Zion in Jerusalem.
Once when she went to the Mount of Olives to pray, Archangel Gabriel appeared and spoke of her approaching death. Upon returning home, she told Apostle John all that the Archangel spoke of and started preparing herself for her final day on earth. Friends and relatives gathered, and eleven of the apostles were miraculously transported from various parts of the world to her deathbed. They were all amazed seeing each other there. When the Apostle John explained that the Mother of God would soon be departing this world they understood why God had brought them together, and they became sad. But she comforted them saying: “Do not cry and darken my happiness with your sadness. I am going to my Son and your God, and you will bury my body and return each to your work.” As the time of her death neared the room shone with a divine light, the roof disappeared, and a wondrous sight appeared before all. The Lord Jesus Christ descended from heaven surrounded by many angels. All looked upon this wondrous sight with awe and reverence, and when they approached her bed, the holy body of the Mother of God was radiant and a smell of incense pervaded the room.
The apostles carried the body of the Mother of God through the city to Gethsemane to be buried at her request in the tomb of her family and Joseph. They buried her body, closed the tomb with a stone and remained there at the site in prayer for three days. On the third day Apostle Thomas arrived and was very saddened he had been unable to take his leave of her when she had been alive. To make him feel better, the other apostles rolled away the stone to let him pay his respects to the body. But on entering the tomb, they found that the body was not there — only the winding sheet remained. They returned home to partake of a communal meal at which they always left a place for the Resurrected Lord. After the meal, they raised the bread left for Christ aloft and exclaimed “Lord, Jesus Christ, help us.” And they heard a choir of angels, and when they looked up they saw the holy Ever-Virgin surrounded by angels. She hailed them, saying: “Rejoice, for I am always with you.” Then the apostles were filled with joy, and instead of using the usual words, they exclaimed “Most holy Theotokos, help us.” And now they understood and believed that upon the third day after her Dormition, the Mother of God had been resurrected.
Thus, the Dormition of the Mother of God is not a sad event, but a joyous one. Her death is but a short sleep, after which follows her resurrection and ascension to heaven.
From the very beginning, the Church saw in the Mother of God one who would pray for all of mankind. She is the haven of the mothers of the world. She teaches how to live in total faithfulness to the will of God. She, who kept in her heart the divine words, is an example of faithfulness, love and service.
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