This Thursday we began celebrating a great feast of the Church, the Feast of the Dormition of Mary the Theotokos. When we think of the Virgin Mary, we cannot help but marvel at the unique and glorious role that she plays in our salvation. For the Son of God to humble Himself to the point of becoming a human being, He had to have a mother. God entered into creation and became one of us through her. She was truly the temple of the Lord in her miraculous pregnancy. And Mary had the astounding role of raising Jesus Christ, of nursing, loving, and guiding Him as any mother does for a child. She lived a life of great piety and purity all her days, and the tradition of the Church teaches that the Theotokos was a much loved and respected figure in the early Christian community in the years following Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven.
The icon of the feast of the Dormition shows that Christ came with the angels to receive Mary’s soul upon her death. All the other apostles were present, but St. Thomas did not arrive until three days after her burial. When the tomb was opened so that he could see her one last time, Mary’s body was gone. The first one to receive Christ had become the first one to share in His resurrection, to follow Him body and soul into eternal life. Through Mary, Christ descended to earth. And now through Christ, Mary has ascended to heaven. And as she said when she appeared to the apostles the evening of that third day, “Rejoice, I am with you all the days of your lives.”
Our Lady the Theotokos is herself an icon of our salvation. She models for us what it means to accept Christ and to love and serve Him. Her death and ascension are reminders of our destiny, of our hope, for the fullness of eternal life in the Kingdom. And now she is with the Lord in heaven, praying for us—for the Church and the entire world– interceding with her Son on our behalf with the boldness of a mother—the same boldness that she demonstrated in asking Christ’s to help with the shortage of wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. That was His first miracle in John’s gospel, and He did it upon the request of His mother, even as He continues to respond to her prayers.
No, we cannot fully understand the mystery of the eternal Son of God having a human mother or of their relationship to one another. For these amazing truths are part of the great miracle of the Incarnation: that Christ really did become one of us in order to make us partakers of the divine nature, in order to bring us into His eternal life. And Mary the Theotokos is the prime example of one who is truly united with Christ, who shines with His holiness. Throughout her life, she led the way in loving and serving Christ; and upon her death, she led the way into the life of the Kingdom.
If we want to follow her example of participating so fully in the life of God, we need to take our Lord’s miraculous feeding of the Five Thousand as a model for our lives. A hungry multitude needed to be fed and all that the disciples could collect were five loaves and two fish. That was not very much, but it was all that they had and they offered it to the Savior for Him to bless. He did so and there was so much food that twelve basketsful were left over.
Of course, this story reminds us of the Last Supper, when Christ took bread and blessed, broke, and gave it back to His disciples as His own Body. And now He does something similar, taking a humble offering and miraculously making it more than it would have otherwise been.
Because of her prominence in our faith, we sometimes forget how humble, obscure, and seemingly unimportant the Theotokos was in her time and place. Even though she grew up in the Temple, she was just a young girl without much standing or significance in her society. She was an unmarried virgin when the Archangel Gabriel was sent to convey the news that she was to become the mother of the Messiah. She did not fit with the conventional expectations for women to become wives and mothers and to play their role in the ongoing life of the Jewish people. Her miraculous pregnancy was viewed as a scandal and she could have easily been killed as a result.
During our Lord’s earthly ministry, there must have been those who looked down upon her as the mother of that crazy rabbi who threatened the established religious order. Since Christ was crucified as a traitor and a blasphemer, she was surely guilty by association in the eyes of many. Her life was extraordinarily difficult and she was never one of the powerful and privileged of her society.
But what the Theotokos did do in her humility, obscurity, and weakness was to say “yes” to God with every ounce of her being. She obeyed the Lord without reservation, offering every dimension of her life to Him with a pure heart. And through her complete obedience, the Son of God became a human being and salvation has come to the world. Mary is not a goddess, but a human being. She also needed a Savior, for she could not conquer death or unite humanity and divinity by her own power. And her offering of herself to Him plays a crucial role in our salvation.
As we continue to celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos, we are called to follow her example of making a full offering of our lives to the Lord. It does not matter that her life circumstances are different from ours or that most of us have had years or decades of practice in saying “no” to God’s will in various ways. All that we need to do is to say “yes” as best we can, offering who we are in obedience to our Lord and trusting that He will use us according to His will in ways that far exceed what we could have accomplished on our own.
We know from the gospels that Christ’s disciples did not fully understand Him and very often fell short of His expectations for them. The Savior did not reject them, however, and in the Feeding of the Five Thousand used their pathetically small offering to meet the needs of others in a miraculous way as a sign of the Kingdom.
The same Lord who worked that miracle took His human nature from an obscure Jewish virgin through a set of circumstances that was unbelievable by normal human ways of thinking. Likewise, it is crazy to say that five loaves and two fish could feed thousands of people with a lot left over. But ours is a faith that is not controlled by worldly ways of thinking, by what is normal and conventional in the corrupt existence to which we have all become too accustomed. For the Lord Who conquered death through a cross and an empty tomb invites us all to participate fully in a Kingdom not of this world by offering ourselves to Him like the loaves of bread we bake for the Divine Liturgy.
In the normal course of things, bread is simply bread. But by the power of the Holy Spirit, the bread offered in the Liturgy becomes the risen and ascended Body of Christ, “the medicine of immortality” that nourishes us for eternal life. No, we cannot transform bread by our own power, but someone has to bake it and someone has to offer it.
You and I are just like that bread. We have to become an offering of humble obedience, as did the Theotokos. If we follow her example, there is no telling what God will do with us, no limit to what He will accomplish through us. So let us continue celebrating the Dormition of the Theotokos by becoming more like her as we freely obey Christ and welcome Him into our lives by offering ourselves to Him. If we do so, we will follow our Lord and His Mother into the brilliant glory of the Kingdom of God.