Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 10:38-42; Luke 11:27-28;
Genesis 5:22-24; 2 Kings (4 Kingdoms) 2:1-12.
As a response to my last “bonus” blog on the Transfiguration of our Lord, one of my writers asked me if I might consider writing on the Old Testament background not only to the readings for Sunday’s Divine Liturgy (which I have been doing every other week), but also for the major feasts. This week’s offering is a compromise: since the Dormition of the Theotokos adjoins the Lord’s Day, I will concentrate upon the readings for the feast, and those Old Testament readings that help to explain what is going on in the mysterious event that we celebrate during it.
The synaxarion from the festal Orthros informs the faithful:
On August 15 in the Holy Orthodox Church, we commemorate the venerable Dormition and Translation of our supremely glorious Lady the Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary.
That the world-saving Maiden died is no marvel,
Since, after the flesh, the world’s Maker died also.
God’s Mother lives forever, though she died on the fifteenth.
The Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary and revealed to her that within three days she will find repose. She returned to her home with great joy, desiring in her heart once more to see in this life, all of the Apostles of Christ. The Lord fulfilled her wish and all of the Apostles, borne by angels in the clouds, gathered at the same time at the home of John on Zion. After seeing them, the Theotokos peacefully gave up her soul to God without any pain or physical illness. The Apostles took the coffin with her body from which an aromatic fragrance emitted and, in the company of many Christians, bore it to the Garden of Gethsemane to the sepulcher of her parents, Saints Joachim and Anna. Only the Apostle Thomas was absent, according to God’s Providence, in order that a new and all-glorious mystery of the Holy Theotokos would again be revealed. On the third day, Thomas arrived and desired to venerate the body of the Holy All-pure one. But when the Apostles opened the sepulcher, they found only the winding sheet and the body was not in the tomb. That evening, the Theotokos appeared to the apostles surrounded by a myriad of angels and said to them: ‘Rejoice, I will be with you always.’
The first thing to notice is that none of these details is derived from the Holy Scriptures. Properly speaking, stories about our Lady are not part of the gospel, the good news that focuses upon Jesus the Messiah, our crucified and risen Lord God. The narrative about her Dormition and Translation (or “Assumption”), is instead an echo or recapitulation of the gospel, a story repeated by family members to each other as a means of glorifying the Lord and remembering his mercy towards us. A cause of great celebration for those who already have accepted the gospel and been baptized into Christ, the feast of the Dormition offers a preview into our own future, and assures us that the Lord cares not only for our souls, but also for our bodies and for the communion of saints as a whole. And, for those who are skeptical about the historical probability of the story, may I remind us of the fact that there are no bodily relics of the Theotokos: what an odd thing, considering the ubiquity of such relics for other key saints! This absence of holy remains is completely coherent with the assumption of our Lady, which for Orthodox (over against some Roman Catholic piety) also requires that first she truly died, for reasons we shall explore.
There are many stories in antiquity that are similar (but not identical) to the Dormition. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, both Biblical and extra-biblical stories relate strange events concerning the departure of godly men and women from the human realm: Enoch, Sybil (daughter of Enoch), Moses, Elijah, Melchizedek, Eliezar, Jabez, Sirach, Baruch are said by some to have been snatched away by God without dying, and reserved in the heavens for a role in the consummation of all things. Many of these stories are dubious in nature, and even contradict the Scriptures—for example, in Exodus, the tomb of Moses is unknown, but God is said to have buried the patriarch, so he is not assumed without dying. In the Bible only the note-worthies Enoch and Elijah are uniquely described as being assumed, body and spirit, without dying.
The Enoch report is both short and enigmatic: “Enoch walked with God after the birth of Methuselah three hundred years, and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.” (Gen 5:22-24 RSV) Taken by itself, these few verse are not clear, but they are interpreted elsewhere in the later Old Testament and in the New: “Enoch pleased the Lord, and was taken up; he was an example of repentance to all generations” (Sir 44:16 RSV); “No one like Enoch has been created on earth, for he was taken up from the earth” (Sir 49:14 RSV); “By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was attested as having pleased God” (Heb 11:5 RSV). From these passages we learn about Enoch’s intimacy with God, how he was an example of repentance to the faithful, how he pleased God. Enoch’s end is a luminous sign of God’s grace towards all, reminding us of the abnormality of death—despite its virtual universality—and how God has other things in store for those who turn from evil and walk with him. He is the exception that proves the rule, so to speak.
The story about Elijah is more dramatic, and takes its contours from the Elijah-Elisha cycle in the books of 1 and 2 Kings (3 and 4 Kingdoms).
Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. And Elijah said to Elisha, “Tarry here, I pray you; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. And the sons of the prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take away your master from over you?” And he said, “Yes, I know it; hold your peace.” Elijah said to him, “Elisha, tarry here, I pray you; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The sons of the prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take away your master from over you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know it; hold your peace.” Then Elijah said to him, “Tarry here, I pray you; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the sons of the prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle, and rolled it up, and struck the water, and the water was parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could go over on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “I pray you, let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” And he said, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.” And as they still went on and talked, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and rent them in two pieces.
(2 Kings/4 Kingdoms 2:1-12 RSV)
This intriguing story features Elijah’s foreknowledge of his assumption, Elisha’s observation of this uncanny event and, in the background, an acknowledgement of the exceptionally righteous character of the one assumed, a divine power that is passed on to his disciple. However, the stress is not upon Elijah’s own person, but the climax praises God: “My father! My father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” Elisha resumes Elijah’s work, striking the water with the prophet’s cloak and saying, “Where now is the God of Elijah?” The prophet is no longer on earth, but God is present. Furthermore, Elijah comes to be associated (Malachi 4:5) with an eschatological return, to which Jesus himself refers as he instructs his disciples on the way down Mount Tabor. Perhaps Elijah has been rewarded for his faithfulness, and eluded death, but this is because God has other plans for him, it seems. And the one who comes in the power of Elijah in the New Testament, John the Fore-runner, in no way eludes death, but suffers his beheading in a bizarre and careless worldly moment: the world mocked, but that is because it was not worthy of him!
This brings us finally to the difference that we see in the unusual event of an assumption that takes place after the climactic events of the New Testament. Our loving Theotokos did not herself escape death, though her body was prevented from corruption, and translated to the blessed presence of our Lord. The rush of the apostles to be at her bedside issues in an eleven-fold witness to her actual death—a peaceful repose, clearly the reward of the many agonies she had already suffered alongside her Son at the cross, but a death nonetheless. Why is the fact of her death so important?
The New Testament vision of Revelation 11 gives us a clue. There, we hear about “two lampstands” or witnesses of the faith, unnamed, but associated, it seems, with Enoch and Elijah, or perhaps Moses and Elijah. By the way that these two are introduced, we anticipate a strange and holy ending to their sojourn among humanity.
[God says,] “And I will grant my two witnesses power to prophesy … clothed in sackcloth.” These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands which stand before the Lord of the earth. And if anyone would harm them, fire pours out from their mouth and consumes their foes; if anyone would harm them, thus he is doomed to be killed. They have power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood, and to smite the earth with every plague, as often as they desire. (Rev. 11:3—6)
As often happens in visions, the narrative does not go as expected. We anticipate that these two famous figures, who remind us of Enoch, Elijah and Moses, will be snatched up out of trouble, or buried by the Lord himself. But in this vision, that is not how the story progresses. Instead, they are ignominiously murdered before their final reward:
And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that ascends from the bottomless pit will make war upon them and conquer them and kill them, and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city which is allegorically called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified. For three days and a half men from the peoples and tribes and tongues and nations gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb, and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to those who dwell on the earth.
But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up hither!” And in the sight of their foes they went up to heaven in a cloud. (Rev 11:7-12 RSV)
Why is it that these heroes, able to bring all the resources of heaven against their foes, are killed and scorned in such a fashion? Clearly, it is because their lives are meant to mirror that of their Lord. Their bodies are scorned, like his, in the street of the great city, and gifts are exchanged in celebration of their death, just as Herod and Pilate became friends at the occasion of Jesus’ trial. Only after shameful death (and resurrection), then, are the two witnesses brought up to heaven. The strange stories of the Old Testament have undergone a palpable change, because they now conform to the pattern of the Lord himself. To be truly great does not mean to escape death, but to suffer it, and so to conquer with Christ. As the apostle instructs us in the reading for the feast, Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself of no reputation, became a servant and died—even the death of the cross—and so was highly exalted (Phil 2:5-11)!
I am reminded of that luminous passage in C. S. Lewis’s novel Perelandra (aka Voyage to Venus). At meeting the residents in Voyage, Ransom is surprised that, unlike his previous experience in Malacandra/Mars (Out of the Silent Planet), where the sentient beings appeared in un-usual and varied shapes, the two ‘aliens’ on Venus have human form. They are not, in fact ‘alien.’ Ransom asks why, and is told that because the Creator has honored the human form by assuming it, now every sentient being will follow in this pattern. Since our Lord Jesus Christ has died, and so glorified human death, everyone who belongs to him own will now follow in this train—even, or perhaps most especially the most honorable among us. Our Lady experiences, like the Lord Jesus, everything that is human. In her conception, she is not exempt from the temptations of the ancestral curse—though she continually presents herself to the Lord as his chosen, as she says, “Be it unto me.” During her life, she is not rescued from the “sword” that the prophet Simeon declares “will pierce” her heart. And she dies with all flesh, as witnessed by her loving Christian family. But that death is immediately honored by the Lord, and she is taken up—as a witness, up close, of what God eventually will do for his entire family. The gospel readings for the Marian feasts embrace us unequivocally. We, like the Theotokos and Mary the sister of Lazarus, are called to sit at Jesus’ feet, concentrating upon the one thing that is necessary. Then, we will hear the Lord’s words to the woman in the crowd: “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:27-28 RSV) To each one of us is given a particular gift, and calling. The Theotokos, astonishingly, has been given a womb more spacious than the heavens, because it held the Creator of the Universe; but all of us who hear and keep the word of God are blessed! This is confirmed by the falling asleep of the holy Virgin, who died in the company of the apostles and as a witness to them: “That the world-saving Maiden died is no marvel/Since, after the flesh, the world’s Maker died also./ God’s Mother lives forever, though she died on the fifteenth.”
This is true also of those of us who believe, as the Lord himself has assured us: “he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26, RSV). Death is no longer final for us, but a sleep from which He will awaken us, a “dormition” (Remember the French for “to sleep,” dormir.) Not all of us will, like the Theotokos, have sweet-smelling remains that are very quickly vivified and translated into the heavenlies: Holy Mary’s path is an exceptional sign to us of glory, as Enoch’s translation was a sign of accepted repentance in his day. But we are called in this life to be, as Tuesday’s reading for this past week reminded us, “the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor 2:15-16, RSV).