Saturday, August 16, 2014

How to Follow the Example of the Most Holy Theotokos: Homily for the Sunday After the Dormition in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians  4:9-16
St. Matthew 17: 14-23
           On Friday we began celebrating the Feast of the Dormition, which commemorates the falling asleep of the Most Holy Theotokos.  We celebrate especially that she followed her Son into the life of the resurrection, as her body ascended into heaven after her death.  She was the first human being to accept Jesus Christ into her life at the Annunciation, when she agreed to become His mother, and now she is also the first to participate fully in His victory over death in the Heavenly Kingdom.
            St. Paul could rightly say of himself to the Corinthians, “I have begotten you through the gospel.  Therefore I urge you, imitate me.”  But the Theotokos could say this with even greater force, for she is the spiritual mother of us all.  Our Lord took His body and all the other dimensions of His humanity from her.   She played a crucial role in Christ’s becoming the New Adam in Whom we are all healed, restored, and united with God.  The mother of Jesus Christ is thus also the New Eve, the mother of the Church, our mother, and the first and best example of what it means to love and serve her Son with every ounce of our being.
            If we are honest with ourselves, we will see immediately that we all have a very long way to go in following her example.  In purity of heart, she agreed to become the virgin mother of the Son of God.  She risked her life by accepting a miraculous and shocking pregnancy as an unmarried girl.  Even as she became the living temple of the incarnate Son of God, she was surely ridiculed and rejected by many; and she suffered the unspeakable pain of witnessing her only Son’s rejection and crucifixion. Nonetheless, she always said “yes” to God’s will for her life and had tremendous faith.  As the Theotokos said as a young girl to the Archangel Gabriel, “Behold the Handmaid of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word.”
            But instead of following her example, we are too often like the disciples who could not cast out a demon because of their unbelief.  The Lord called them a “faithless and perverse generation” and asked rhetorically, “How long shall I be with you?  How long shall I bear with you?”  He was frustrated with them, for they lacked even the small bit of faith identified with a tiny mustard seed, which is all the faith it takes to move mountains.
            The disciples were trying to cast out the stubborn kind of evil that leaves only with prayer and fasting.  St. Matthew’s gospel records this scene immediately after the Lord’s Transfiguration, when Sts. Peter, James, and John saw Christ in His divine glory and heard the voice of the Father identify Him as the Beloved Son of God.  Despite this great revelation, the disciples did not yet have mature faith in Him, let alone fast and pray in ways that strengthened them for the ministry of the kingdom.  So they were powerless to cast the demon out of the young man.
            The hard truth is that we are often like them.  We may keep up the outward appearances of the Christian faith, but it does not take much to reveal how weak and small our faith really is. The fullness of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ has been given to us.  We are members of His Body, nourished by His own Body and Blood.  By the power of Holy Spirit, Christ dwells in our hearts.  What generations of prophets dreamed of and longed for, we have.  But we so often act, speak, and think as though none of that is real.  We build our lives on our own plans, our own desires, and our own abilities.  We trust in the false gods of the world:  money, pleasure, relationships, or our own self-centered will.  We look to our own schemes to find meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in our lives, and not to God.
            We can sometimes fool ourselves pretty well that everything is fine with us spiritually, but it often does not take much of a conflict or a disappointment to inflame passions such as pride, lust, greed, self-righteous judgment, or resentment of others.  Once those catch fire, it may take a lifetime to put them out, and we wonder how we have become so weak, why our faith has so little power, health, and joy.  Like the disciples, we are then confronted with the sickness of our souls.
            When we recognize this truth about ourselves, we must remember the Theotokos as our mother and model.  Having followed her Son into the eternal life of heaven, she has great boldness as His mother to intercede with Him on our behalf.  Remember that Christ worked His first miracle, turning the water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, at her request.  We should all ask for her help and intercession every day of our lives.  We ask righteous people in this life to pray for us, and who better to intercede on our behalf with her Son than the Mother of God, who is also our mother in Christ.
            The Theotokos is also a model for us because she was brought up in the Temple as a young child, and then she became the living Temple of God when she contained Jesus Christ in her womb.  Her faith was not imaginary; it was as real and life-changing as her miraculous pregnancy.  Yes, her role in the salvation of the world is unique; but we are all called to the same kind of faith that enabled her to say “Yes” to God’s will for her life.  “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
            There is no way to develop that kind of faith-- there is no way to become a living temple of the Lord—other than through prayer.  For in order to strengthen our belief and trust in the Lord, we must give Him our attention.  No human relationship exists without attention and focus, and the same is true for the life of faith.  We must open our minds and hearts to God from the depths of our souls, being present with Him both in the words of spoken prayer and watchful silence as we listen for His word.
            The “Our Father” is our model prayer as Christians, and it provides a structure for all our petitions and requests.  Blessings before meals, the Jesus Prayer, and other short prayers found in any prayer book enable us to place our daily lives into God’s hands.  These written prayers are a springboard for using our own words to speak with God and to growing in prayer without words, where we commune with the Lord in silence.  If we want to grow in faith, the first step is to grow in prayer.
            If someone kept track of how we used our time and energy each day, that person would know what is really important to us.  If we say that something is important, but we hardly invest any time and energy in it, then it is not really important to us, no matter what we say.  Let us apply that standard to our prayers, remembering that the Virgin Mary’s life of dedicated prayer gave her the faith to become the Theotokos, the living Temple of God.  If we follow her example, then we will have a power and strength in the Christian life well beyond what the disciples had when they failed to cast out the demon.

            During this time of the Dormition, we are reminded of the great blessing that is ours in Christ Jesus.  For we are all called to receive Him into our lives, to become His living temples, to love and serve Him with every ounce of our being, and to follow Him into the eternal life of the Kingdom.  His mother shows us how to do this more than anyone else.  She is an icon of our salvation who always points to Christ, inviting us to the life of true faith and obedience.  Let us celebrate this season of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos by praying as she did and does to the Lord Who conquered sin and death and Who will bless us also with the joy of life eternal when we come to Him in true faith,  repentance, and love.   Let us learn from the Mother of God how to enter into the joy of the Heavenly Kingdom. 

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