A Sermon Preached on the Dormition of the Theotokos
by Peter Sizer
Someone told me recently that we DO worship the Mother of God, whatever anyone says to the contrary. Likewise we worship all the saints and the icons. For, he said, the English word "worship" stands for the Greek word proskunw, which refers both to our worship of God (Greek: latreia), and the veneration or honour we offer to the Theotokos, the saints and the icons (douleia or uperdouleia).
Our word "worship" is indeed derived from the Anglo-Saxon word "weorðscip", which is the state of deserving honour, or the act of giving honour. It is used for the worship of God, but also for any kind of honour. That is why we still refer to "his worship the mayor", and call the magistrates "their worships". And there is the line in the Church of England Prayer Book marriage service, when the bridegroom says to the bride "with my body I thee worship".
However, words change their meanings. We nowadays associate the word "worship" specifically with the worship of God. The use of the word in expressions like "she worships the ground he walks on" is considered exaggerated or facetious.
So we venerate or honour the Theotokos. We do not venerate her because of anything she is in herself, but because of her part in our salvation. We honour her because of her part in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; God himself become man, the God-Man.
The Virgin Mary must indeed have been better than any human being who has ever lived to have been chosen to be the mother of the Son of God. She must have been completely free from personal sin. But we do not venerate her for that reason. We do so because if she had not agreed to become the mother of Jesus Christ our salvation would not have been possible. The Incarnation was God's act, but it depended also on the willing co-operation of the Virgin Mary - the Mother of God, Our Lady.
Look at any icon of the Theotokos (that is, a simple icon of Mary, as distinct from those commemorating events, like today's of the Dormition). She is always accompanied by, or pointing towards, her Son. So it is not possible to venerate the Mother of God without at the same time worshipping the Son of God.
In honouring the part of the Virgin Mary in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, we are honouring her because of her obedience. When told she was to be the mother of God's Son, she replied, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word". (Luke 1.38a). Mary obeyed God, and that is what is required of all Christians. It is because of their obedience that we honour all the saints, and obedience is what is required of us.
That brings us to today's readings. Two verses in the Gospel reading make the point about the obedience of the Mother of God.
A woman in the crowd cries out: "Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked." (I tend to remember the words from the King James' version read by Metropolitan Anthony in the Russian Cathedral recording of this service).
But Jesus replies: "Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it." (Luke 11.27-28).
What matters is Mary's obedience. What matters is the obedience of all Christians. Mary obeyed by playing her part in the Incarnation of the Son of God. The choice of the Apostle reading is therefore appropriate. It is the famous "Christ hymn" from St Paul's letter to the Philippians, which celebrates our Lord's birth as man, death on the cross and His Resurrection.
However, apart from the two verses added at the end from the next chapter, which do refer to her, it is difficult at first sight to see what the Gospel reading has to do with the Mother of God. It is the story of Jesus' visit to the two sisters Martha and Mary.
Martha and Mary stand for the two kinds of Christian vocation - the call to the active life (or life in the world) and the call to the contemplative life (life as a monk or nun). Mary, the Mother of God, our Lady, is the model for both callings. She set the example for active life in the world by being the mother of Jesus Christ and rearing him. She was also very much a contemplative person, for whatever happened in her life and the life of her Son "she kept all these things in her heart". So the Theotokos is the pattern for all of us, whether we are called to live in the world or to enter a monastery.
The feast of the Dormition probably dates from the late fifth century (though it may be earlier). It was always celebrated in Jerusalem on the same date as now. In Egypt it was celebrated on January 18. Later it spread to other places, some choosing August 15 and some January 18. In the 7th century, however, the Byzantine Emperor Maurice decreed that the Dormition was to be celebrated everywhere on August 15, Later the Pope adopted the same date for the feast in the West, and it has been celebrated on that date in both East and West ever since.
In the West the feast is called the Assumption, for both Roman Catholics and Orthodox believe that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven. There is, of course, no mention of this in the New Testament (in fact there is very little mention of the Mother of God anywhere in the New Testament). The story comes from apocryphal sources. We believe it, however, because it accords with the experience of the Church.
The Old Testament tells us that Enoch and Elijah were assumed bodily into heaven. We believe therefore that Mary, who is without personal sin and was chosen because of her goodness to be the Mother of God, must at least have been assumed, without corruption, into heaven. Indeed we believe that she has been deified -been made like God. We believe that she has already received her Resurrection body (as have other saints). As followers of Jesus Christ, we are promised that we shall all be deified, achieving the likeness as well as the image of God, and receiving Resurrection bodies (though for most of us all this will happen beyond this life). The Mother of God is therefore our example.
However, although Orthodox Christians believe in the assumption of the Theotokos, it has not been made into a doctrine of the Church (as it has in the Roman Catholic Church). That is perhaps why we do not call this feast the Assumption, but the Dormition of the Mother of God. Dormition means "falling asleep", which is of course just a metaphorical way of saying "death".
The Orthodox Church has generally avoided formulating doctrines about the Mother of God. We are required to believe only that she is the virgin mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God, both God and man. But the story of Mary's assumption into heaven does indeed accord with the Church's experience, and is generally believed by Orthodox Christians. It is perhaps best summed up in one of the hymns sung at Vespers for today(it is the last idiomelon of the aposticha):
"When thou wast translated to him who was born of thee in an inexplicable way, O virgin Theotokos, there were present James, the brother of the Lord and first of the Chief Priests, and Peter, the honoured head and leader of theologians, with the rest of the divine rank of Apostles, clearly uttering divine words, praising the amazing divine mystery, the mystery of the dispensation of Christ God, and with joy preparing thy body which was the God-receiving originator of life, O most glorified one, while the most holy angels looked from on high, struck with astonishment and surprise, and saying one to another; Lift ye your gates and receive ye the mother of the Maker of heaven and earth. Let us laud with songs of praise her sanctified, noble body, which contained the Lord, invisible to us. Therefore we, too, celebrate thy memory, O all-praised one, crying; Exalt the state of Christians and save our souls." AMEN.