Romans 12:6-14; Matthew 9:1-8
Today we enter a very rich period in the life of the Church, for we are beginning the Dormition Fast as we process with our Lord’s Cross and prepare to celebrate the feast of His Transfiguration. “Dormition” means “falling asleep” and every year at this time we commemorate the end of the earthly life of the Mother of God, after which she followed her Son body and soul into the Kingdom of Heaven. We fast during this time just as we do in Lent, for we must humble ourselves and gain spiritual strength if we are to follow her example of complete obedience and receptivity to the Lord. During this season, we focus on becoming like the Theotokos in her honest and pure response to the Archangel Gabriel: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.” She is the first and model Christian who shows us how to offer our lives to Christ, as we acknowledge by proclaiming so often in our services, “Commemorating our all-holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, with all the Saints: let us commend ourselves and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.”
In order for the Savior to ascend the Cross for our salvation, He had to be born of a woman and fully human with a body just like ours. Otherwise, He could not have lived, died, and risen up as the New Adam. Only the God-Man could have made crucifixion a pathway to the heavenly kingdom for the children of Adam and Eve who remained enslaved to the fear of death as the wages of sin. He alone could transform the most dreaded means of execution in the Roman Empire into “a weapon of peace and a trophy invincible.” Christ told His disciples to take up their crosses and follow Him, and the best example of doing so is surely given by the same woman whose free consent was necessary for Him to become fully one of us. As Saint Symeon told the Theotokos when her Son was forty days old, “a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” (Lk. 2:35) She stood by the Cross with the horrific sorrow of a mother watching her child slowly die as a victim of an unjust and public execution. The Theotokos did so knowing that He was the Son of God Whom she brought into the world through her own body and whom she had loved and served for over thirty years. We cannot begin to imagine her agony at His death or her joy at His resurrection.
After His resurrection, however, her life did not simply return to normal. The Risen Lord appeared various times to His followers and then ascended into heaven after forty days. The Theotokos was present with the disciples on the day of Pentecost and had an exalted place among the first Christians throughout the rest of her earthly life. She did not, however, enjoy the conventional arrangement of an elderly mother living the rest of her life with her only biological son. As He saw His beloved disciple John from the Cross, Christ said, “Woman, behold your son!” And to John He said, “‘Behold your mother!’ And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.” (John 1,9: 26-27) Surely, the Theotokos bore the cross of her unusual motherhood all her days with the same complete openness to God that had enabled her to become His Living Temple when she contained the Savior in her womb.
We will celebrate in a few days our Lord’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, when the spiritual eyes of Peter, James, and John are opened to behold the blinding light of His divine glory. At the Transfiguration, the Father identifies Christ as His Son. His superiority to Moses and Elijah, representing the Old Testament law and the prophets, is made manifest. In order to prepare to celebrate the Transfiguration, we ourselves must become transfigured so that we will have the spiritual vision to know Christ as He truly is and not merely according to our expectations, assumptions, or preferences. He is not merely another, or even the best, teacher of religious truth of any kind. He is not simply an example of how to live, believe, think, or feel. He is, instead, the Alpha and the Omega, the eternal Word of God Who spoke the universe into existence. He is the King Who reigns from a Cross, not from a throne or by the power of empires or nations. His resurrection reveals the weakness of the dominions that still cause those enslaved to the fear of death to tremble as they worship at the altars of the false gods of this world. As Saint Paul wrote, “He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore, God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2: 8-11)
Like the Theotokos, we must take up our crosses if we want to be transfigured such that we can bear witness to the Savior’s victory over the corrupting power of sin and death in our own lives. Taking up our crosses is not a form of punishment, but the necessary struggle for people to open themselves to receive Christ’s healing. The Savior forgave the sins of the paralyzed man in today’s gospel reading and restored his ability to walk. That could not have been easy for someone who had been lying motionless for years and had to adjust to a completely different way of life. But had he stayed in bed out of fear about pain from his weak muscles and anxiety about facing new challenges, he would have refused to have embraced the freedom, strength, and joy that the Lord had made possible for him. The formerly paralyzed man had to bear the cross of obedience, which was necessary for him to accept the healing he had received.
With intensified prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the period leading up to the feast of the Dormition provides us all with opportunities to follow the example of the Theotokos in turning aside from our usual distractions and excuses in order to say “Yes” to God with every ounce of our being. It gives us all an opportunity to become transfigured in holiness as we take up our crosses and participate personally in the liberation from the paralysis of sin and death that our Lord has worked and shared with us through His Cross. All that we must do is to make use of the spiritual resources available through Christ’s Body, the Church. Participating regularly in the Divine Liturgy should be a basic commitment of our lives, as should availing ourselves of Confession for the forgiveness of our sins whenever we are aware of having weakened our relationship with Christ. We should pray daily in our homes, before meals, and especially when our minds become clouded by tempting thoughts of any kind. The Jesus Prayer is particularly beneficial in this way and is also useful whenever we are not engaged in something that requires great mental concentration.
Let us begin this rich period of life in the Church with the spirit described by St. Paul in today’s epistle reading: “Brethren, having gifts that differ according to the grace that was given to us, let each use them accordingly… Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. Love one another with brotherly affection… Bless those who persecute you; bless, and do not curse.” The Christian life is not a hidden or exotic path for only a few beautiful souls. It is a calling that extends to everyone, especially those who know their spiritual weakness and who have fallen short time and time again in efforts to overcome personal brokenness by their own power. It is a calling to entrust ourselves to the liberating power of the Cross of Christ, for He alone has destroyed the chains of death that had held us captive from time immemorial. Let us do so by taking up our crosses as we die to all that would keep us from offering ourselves fully to Him as did the Theotokos. Let us become transfigured in holiness as we pray, fast, repent, and give generously to our neighbors as we become living icons of the Savior’s fulfillment of the human person in the likeness of God. The richness of this time of year is ultimately for our salvation, and we should all make good use of it. For that is the only way to gain the spiritual clarity to welcome Him more fully into our lives as we say, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.”