Praying with the Entire Church
“O you apostles, assembled here from the ends of the earth, bury my body: And You, O my Son and my God, receive my spirit” (Exapostilarion of Dormition of the Theotokos)
To be a genuine Orthodox Christian is to share in the joy of fellowship gathered around the holy Mother of God, Mary the ever-virgin one. Yet in America a hesitancy arises even with the Church among the faithful. What is so normal and self-evident an attribute of the Church as family must be explained, even defended in our nation. The uncertainty comes from two sources:
First, the strident posturing of the television and radio preachers who rarely have anything positive to impart regarding a love for the Lord’s mother. This is due to their lack of understanding saintliness as we recognize and honor the saints. Their theology has no place for the continual lifelong struggle to overcome sin and the satanic powers that oppress the Lord’s anointed, nor the joy of celebrating with and for those as human as ourselves who were able through the grace of God to overcome the demonic forces, utilizing the equipment of prayer, fasting, and constant union with the Holy Spirit, as did Mary.
Next, they haven’t truly assimilated the family-like nature of the Church. So much of non-Orthodox Christianity is exclusively personal. How frequently we hear the question: “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?” The obvious response is of course: “Yes;” however, that doesn’t incorporate the full story of our relationship with the Lord Jesus. To be in Christ is to experience His sacred life even while we are in this body which will die and be buried, as well as to know the joy of fellowship in the company of saints led by the Lord’s beloved mother. This is the meaning of the above verse taken from the service of celebrating her death and burial. The apostles, who had dispersed to the far reaches of the known world bringing the holy gospel to as many as they might reach, upon learning of her passing from the earth gathered as they had at the time of her Son’s death and resurrection to do her honor. This need not be proven unless we insist on arguing that such an assembly was literally impossible; yet surely the news of such a death would have spread, and they would be united in spirit. The custom of the Jews was to have the internment at sunset of the day of death; nevertheless, who would deny that all who were able to attend surely would have done so.
The Church’s theme is the theological logic of what it means to die in light of Christ’s resurrection. Suddenly with Pascha our relationship to death is changed. Because Christ is alive, all who die in Him are not dead in the conventional sense, but alive in Him. Those who share His life while in this body, who are in fact branches of the tree Who is Christ, receive the gift of eternal life by being grafted into the Living Vine (John 15). They no longer wither and disintegrate but are revivified when this life is completed.
For those outside of the Orthodox experience it is understandable that what we say of the radiant presence of the saints seems nothing but a fairy tale. Just a pleasant fantasy to tell children and the naive to temper the dread of death and the loneliness of a life without the deceased. But those who live the liturgy are surrounded by the saints whenever the holy Eucharist is celebrated. They remain invisible to our limited eyesight, yet their presence can be experienced. Is it too much to ask of our faithful, that they trust the believers who have personally witnessed countless experiences of the intercessions of the Theotokos? Can one be a true Orthodox Christian and ignore her protection over Constantinople, and many subsequent appearances?
It’s not accidental that the Feast of Dormition follows soon upon the great spiritual witness of transcendence, the Feast of Transfiguration. Both are potential embarrassments to the pedestrian souls who are closed to the spiritual insights that are given to those who share the life of Christ within the company of saints. The Church invites them to search deeper into their hearts for a glimmer of the uncreated light which surrounded the Lord Jesus on the Transfiguration mountain and recognize the saints brought to light by that illumination.
The death of the Theotokos was not a passing into nothingness, nor was it an eternal rest, as our world sometimes sentimentally thinks of the world beyond. It was for her a new opportunity to be with her only-begotten Son Who was not only hers, but God’s. She is alive in her Son and our God not just to be with Him, but to intercede with Him for all her friends, as she did at the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee. For her, death was an involvement with the Christians of the world in a manner impossible to her while she lived the life we do today. Only after this world with its limitations had disappeared was she able to visualize the entire world in light of the Kingdom of God, and to pray for its welfare.
~Vladimir Berzonsky, Praying with the Entire Church (Website of the Orthodox Church in America: http://oca.org/reflections/berzonsky/praying-with-the-entire-church, August 9, 2003).