"Homilies on the Dormition of the Holy Mother of God"
by St. John of Damascus
Source Used: On the Dormition of the Holy Mother of God, by John of Damascus. Early Patristic Homilies On the Dormition of Mary. Popular Patristics Series number 18 published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press (1997). Translated by Brian E. Daley S.J.
Homily I: On the Dormition of the Holy Mother of God
ON THE DORMITION OF THE HOLY MOTHER OF GOD
By John, Lowly Monk and Sinner, Servant of the Servants of Our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Old Lavra
1.”The just are remembered with praise,” says the wise Solomon (Prov 10:7). “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints,” proclaims God’s ancestor David (Ps 115:6 [LXXJ. If, then, all the just are remembered with praise, who will not give praise to the source of justice, the treasury of holi-ness–not in order to glorify her, but in order to win eternal glory for oneself? The tabernacle of the Lord’s glory, after all, is in no need of glory from us; [she is] the city of God, of whom
“glorious things are spoken,”
” as holy David says to her: “Glori-
ous things are spoken of you, City of God!” (Ps 86:3 [LXXJ) For what other city shall we understand for the invisible and uncircumscribed God, who contains all in his own hand, but her who alone truly welcomed the super-essential Word of God, in a way beyond all nature and essence-who received the God who exists in a way beyond all limitation? Glorious things were spoken of her by the Lord himself; for what could be more glorious than to receive the true and original will of God (cf. Is 25:1)?
2. Neither the human tongue nor the mind of the angels that live beyond this universe can give worthy praise to her, through whom it has been granted to us to gaze clearly on the glory of the Lord. What, then- shall we keep silent, cowering in fear, because we cannot praise her worthily? Not at all! Or shall we stretch out our foot over the boundary, as they say, and ignore our own limitations? Shall we shake off the reins of
fear, and boldly reach out to the untouchable? Never! Min-gling, instead, fear with longing and weaving from them both a single wreath, let us, in holy reverence, with trembling hand and yearning soul, pay gratefully the humble first-fruits of our minds, as we must, to the Queen Mother, the benefactress of all nature!
The story’ is told that some farmers once were plouging the earth behind their oxen, when they saw a king pass by, majestically clad in purple and resplendent in his shining crown, and surrounded by an enormous crowd of bodyguards. Since there was nothing at hand for them to present to their ruler, one of them immediately scooped up some water in his hands-for there was abundant water flowing nearby-and brought it to the king as a gift. The king said to him, “What is this you bring me, my son?” And the peasant boldly replied, “I bring what I have, since I thought it best not to let my poverty hide my eagerness to give. You have no need of our possessions, nor do you desire anything from us but good will. But for us, giving you a gift is both a duty and a praiseworthy gesture; for glory has a way of coming to those who show themselves grateful.” The king was filled with wonder, and praised the man’s wis-dom; he received the farmer’s act of kindness graciously, and bestowed on him many generous gifts in return. If, then, that haughty tyrant preferred good will to abundant wealth, will not this truly good lady, the Mother of the God who alone is good (see Mk 10:18), whose graciousness is without limit and who judged two farthings more valuable than great contributions (Mk 12:42) will she not receive us, too, by judging our intention rather than our ability? Yes, surely she will accept this act of praise, for we offer it as our duty, and she will repay us with incomparable blessings.
Since, then, it is wholly necessary for us to speak, in order to perform our simple duty, let us address her now as follows:
3. What shall we call you, O Lady? With what titles shall we address you? With what words of praise shall we crown your holy and glorious head–you who are the giver of good things, the source of our wealth, the ornament of the human race, the boast of all creation, the one through whom creation itself is truly called blessed? Through you, it has come to hold what it never held before; [through you] it gazes “with unveiled face” (2 Cor 5:18) at him whom it lacked the strength to look on before.
Open our stammering mouths, O Word of God! Give us graceful words as you open our lips! Breathe in us the grace of the Spirit, through which fishermen become orators and illiterate people speak a wisdom that is above human powers! Let us, who are so weak of voice, find a way to utter, if only indis-tinctly, the great news about your dear Mother. For she was chosen from generations of old by the providential will and pleasure of God the Father, who begot you outside of time without alteration and without passion; she gave you birth, made flesh from herself at the end of the ages, to be our propitiation and salvation, our righteousness and our redemp-tion–you who are “life from life and light from light, true God from true God.”? If her childbearing was remarkable, if her conceiving was beyond all nature and understanding and of saving worth for the world, surely her falling asleep was glorious, too- -truly sacred and wholly worthy of praise.
The Father predestined her, and the prophets spoke of her through the Holy Spirit. The sanctifying power of the Spirit reposed on her, cleansed her and made her holy; in a certain sense, he fertilized her in advance. Then you, the Father’s self-defining Word, dwelt in her without being limited, summoning the farthest reaches of our nature up to the endless heights of your incomprehensible divinity. Taking the first-fruits [of our nature] from the holy, spotless and utterly pure
blood of the holy Virgin, you built around yourself a structure of flesh, livened by a rational and intelligent soul; you gave it individual existence in yourself, and became a complete human being without ceasing to be completely God, of the same essence as your Father. Taking on our weakness, rather, in your unutterable mercy, you came forth from her a single Christ, a single Lord, one and the same who is both Son of God and Son of Man, at once completely God and completely hu-man, the whole God and a whole human being, one composite individual [formed] from two complete natures, divinity and humanity, and [subsisting] in two complete natures, divinity and humanity.
? You are not simply God or merely human, but
one who is both Son of God and God enfleshed, God and human at the same time; you have not undergone confusion or endured division, but you bear in yourself the natural qualities of two natures essentially distinct, yet united without confusion and without division in your concrete existence: the created and the uncreated, the mortal and the immortal, the visible and the invisible, the circumscribed and the uncircumscribed, divine will and human will, divine activity no less than human activity; two self-determining realities, divine and human at the same time; divine miracles and human passions-I refer to natural and blameless passions” For you assumed the first Adam entire, Lord, in the mercy of your heart; [you assumed him] free from sin, as he was before his transgression, with body, soul, mind and all their natural characteristics, that you might bestow salvation on the whole of me for truly “what is not assumed is not healed”
So you became “the mediator be-
tween God and humanity” (1 Tim 2:5); you put our alienation to an end, and led the apostates back to your Father; you restored what had gone astray, you gave light to what was in darkness, you renewed what was worn away, you transformed what was corruptible into incorruption. You freed creation
from the error of worshipping many gods; you made human beings children of God, and revealed disgraced men and women to be sharers in your divine glory. The one who was condemned to the lowest parts of the earth you raised “above every principality and power” (Eph 1:21); the one who was sentenced to return to earth and to dwell in the underworld you seated–in your own person-on a royal throne Who, then, served as the place where these boundless blessings, [these gifts] beyond all mind and understanding, became real? Was it not the everlasting Virgin, the one who gave you birth?
4. Do you see, my fathers and brothers who are friends of God, the grace of this present day? Do you see the lofty and venerable standing of her whom now we praise? Are not the mysteries of her being awe-inspiring? Are they not full of wonder?
Blessed are they who can see what is, above all things, worth seeing! Blessed are they who have acquired spiritual senses!’ What bolts of lightning light up this present night! What companies of angelic guards glorify the falling-asleep of the mother who gave us life! What inspired utterances come from the Apostles, pronouncing blessings at the burial of that body that bore God! See how the Word of God, who deigned in his tender mercy to be her son, has cared for this holy and godly mother of his with his lordly hands, and has received her sacred soul to himself! O benign lawgiver! Not subject to the law, he fulfilled the law which he himself had imposed; for he commanded that children do their duty towards those who begot them, when he said, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Ex 20:12) That he has done this will be evident to anyone who is even slightly initiated into the divine words of the holy Scriptures. For if, as divine Scripture says, “The souls of the just are in the hand of the Lord” I is 3:1), will not she, all the more, have commended her soul into the hands of her son and her God? The argument is true beyond all contradiction!
If you wish, however, [let us consider] who she is, where she came from, and how she has been allowed to grace this life of ours–this gift at once more exalted and more dear to us than all the other things God has given us. Let us consider, as far as we can, how she spent this life of ours, and what mysteries she was allowed to share in. For the pagans honor the departed with funeral orations, and eagerly work into them whatever details they consider attractive, so that the words of praise will be both a fitting tribute for the one being eulogized and an encouragement and an invitation to virtue for those left behind. Most of the time they weave such a speech out of legends and impossible inventions, since those being celebrated have, on their own, so little that is worthy of praise. How, then, shall we fail to seem wholly ridiculous if we shroud in deep silence what is radically true and worthy of veneration, what really obtains for all people blessing and salvation? Will we not receive the same sentence as he who hid the talent (Mt
25:25)? Let us begin our eulogy, then, being careful to keep our discourse brief, lest it have the same negative effect on your hearing that too much food has on the human body.
5. Her parents were called Joachim and Anna. Joachim, being the shepherd of a flock, was no less careful of his thoughts than of his sheep, and led them both as well as he could, wherever he wished. For since he had been watched over like a sheep himself by the Lord God, he lacked none of the choicest gifts. Let no one think that I mean by “the choicest gifts” the things that are to most people’s liking–the things greedy minds always long for, but which do not last, nor are capable of making their possessor a better person. Such are the pleasant things of the present life, which cannot attain to lasting power, but “collapse around themselves”8 and immediately perish, even if people possess them in superfluity. No indeed, it is not for us to admire such things, nor is this the portion of
those who fear the Lord! Rather, we admire the gifts that are really attractive and lovely to those whose thoughts are true, goods that remain forever: things that please God and that produce ripe fruit in those who have acquired them (see Ps 1:3). I mean the virtues, which give their fruit in due season–give the fruit, that is, of eternal life in the coming age for those who have labored worthily and have invested the results of their exertions there, as far as possible. Labor, after all, comes before the virtues, and eternal blessedness follows them!
Joachim, then, habitually shepherded his inner thoughts
“in green pastures” (Ps 22:2 [LXXI), abiding in the contemplation of holy Scripture; he enjoyed the “refreshing water” (ibid.) of divine grace, turning away from immoral things and walking on “the paths of righteousness” (ibid.). And Anna, whose name means “grace,” was one with her husband in heart as well as home; yet although she abounded in all good quali-ties, she was, for some mysterious reason, affected by the complaint of sterility. For grace was truly sterile [then], unable to bear fruit in human souls. Therefore “all people were in a state of decline and frustration”; no one “had understanding, no one sought after God” (Ps 13:3, 2 [LXX]). Then the good God looked down and had pity on the creatures of his own hand; willing to save his creation, he put an end to the sterile period of grace I mean the sterility of Anna, whose thoughts were turned to God. She bore a child, one such as never before had been, and never again will be. And the healing of her sterility revealed most clearly that the world’s sterility in goodness was also about to be healed, and that its bare trunk was about to bear the fruit of indescribable blessedness.
6. Then the Mother of God came forth, according to the promise. An angel announced the conception of her who was to be born. For in this respect, too, it was right that she who was to be the bearer, in flesh, of the sole and truly perfect God
should not be lacking anything, or take second place. She was later consecrated in the holy temple of God and lived there, displaying a better and purer ideal and way of life than others, free from all contact with immoral men and women. But when the bloom of her maturity came upon her, and the law forbade her to remain within the sacred precincts, she was betrothed to a suitor who was to be, properly speaking, the guardian of her virginity: Joseph, from the ranks of the priests, who until his old age had kept the law without compromise, far better than his peers. This holy and spotless maiden now lived with him, remaining at home and knowing nothing of what transpired outside her doors.
7. “When the fullness of time came,” as the divine Apostle says (Gal 4:4), the angel Gabriel was sent by God to this woman who was truly a child of God; he said to her, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” (Lk 1:28) The word of the an-gel, to her who is higher than an angel, is lovely: it brings joy to the whole world. But “she was troubled by his word” (Lk
1:29), having no experience of contact with men-she had chosen rather to keep her virginity intact. So “she wondered within herself what this greeting might mean.” (Lk 1:29) And the archangel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found grace with God.” (Lk 1:30) She had truly found grace, who was worthy of grace. She had found grace, who had labored much in the field of grace and had reaped grace’s abundant harvest. She had found the depths of grace, who had kept safe the vessel of a twofold virginity-_for she preserved the virginity of her soul no less than that of her body, and thus her bodily virginity was also preserved.
“And you shall bear a son,” he said, “and shall call his name Jesus.” (Lk 1:31) “Jesus” means “savior”: “for he will save his people from their transgressions.” (Lk 1:34) What did the treasury of true wisdom reply to this? She did not imitate
Eve, her mother, but rather made good Eve’s lack of caution, using nature as her protection; so she spoke out thus in response to the angel’s word: “How shall this happen to me, since I do not know a man?” (Lk 1:35) “You are speaking of the impossible,” she tells him. “Your words break the boundaries of nature, which he who formed nature established. I will not let myself act as a second Eve and overturn the will of the Creator. If you are not speaking godless things, tell me the manner of this conception, and put an end to my difficulty.” And the messenger of truth replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the holy one to be born of you shall be called Son of God (Lk 1:36). What is now being achieved is not subject to the laws of nature, for the Creator is also lord of nature, and it is in his power to change nature’s boundaries.” And she, hearing with holy reverence the name she always yearned for and revered, uttered her obedient answer in words full of fear and joy: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).
8. “O depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God,” I, too, wish now to say with the Apostle; “how incomprehensible his judgments, and how unsearchable his ways!” (Rom 10.33f.) O boundless goodness of God! O love that has no explanation! He who calls what is not into being (cf. Rom
4:17), who fills heaven and earth (cf. Jer 23:24), for whom heaven is a throne and earth a footstool (cf. Is 66:1), has made the womb of his own servant his ample dwelling-place, and accomplishes in her the mystery newer than all that is new. Being God, he becomes a human being; in a supernatural way, he is brought into the world at the time of his birth, and opens the womb without damaging the closed portal of virginity. He,
“the shining-forth of the Father’s glory, the stamped impression of his reality, who sets all things in motion by the word of
his mouth” (Heb 1:3), is carried as an infant in earthly arms. O truly divine wonders! O mysteries above nature and under-standing! O virginal boasts that outstrip the human condition!
What is this great mystery about you, O holy mother and virgin? “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (Lk 1:28 [var.], 42) Blessed are you for generations of generations; you alone are worthy to be called blessed. Behold, all generations do call you blessed, as you have said (Lk 1:48). The daughters of Jerusalem (Cant
6:8) -that is, the Church’s daughters saw you, and the royal princesses-_-the souls of the just–proclaimed you blessed and will praise you for all ages.
You are the royal throne, around which angels stand (cf. Is
6:1), to see their Lord and creator seated upon it. You are called the spiritual Eden, holier and more divine than that of old; for in the former Eden the earthly Adam dwelt, but in you the Lord from heaven. The ark prefigured you (cf. Gen 6:14), in that it guarded the seeds of a second world; for you gave birth to Christ, the world’s salvation, who overwhelmed <the flood of sin and calmed its waves. The burning bush was a portrait of you in advance (cf. Ex 3:2); the tablets written by God described you (cf. Ex 32:15f.); the ark of the law told your story (cf. Ex 25:10); the golden urn (cf. Ex 16:33) and candelabrum and table (cf. Ex 25:23, 31), the rod of Aaron that had blossomed (cf. Num 17:23)- -all clearly were foreshadowings [of you]. For from you issued the flame of divinity, the self-definition and Word of the Father, the sweet heavenly manna, the nameless “name that is above every name” (Phil 2:9), the eternal and inaccessible light, the heavenly “bread of life” (In
6:48), the uncultivated fruit that grew bodily to maturity from you. Did not the furnace point to you, whose fire was at once dew and flame (cf. Dan 3:49f.), a type of the divine fire that dwelt within you? The tent of Abraham, too, quite obviously
signified you (cf. Gen 18:6); for human nature brought to God the Word, still dwelling in the tent of your womb, its own first-fruits taken from your pure blood, as bread hidden in the ashes: bread shaped and baked by the divine fire, [humanity] existing within its own divine individuality and finally reaching the true existence of a body animated by a reasonable and an intelligent soul. And I almost forgot Jacob’s ladder (cf. Gen 28:12)! What, then? Is it not obvious to everyone that it too is an anticipation and a type of you? Just as [Jacob] saw that ladder joining heaven and earth by its [two] ends, so that angels could go up and down on it, and just as he saw the strong and unconquerable one symbolically struggling with him, so you, too, are an intermediary; you have joined distant extremes together, and have become the ladder for God’s descent to us-the God who has taken up our weak material and has woven it into a unity with himself, making the human person a mind that sees God (cf. Gen 32:31). 10
Therefore angels came down to [Christ], worshipping their God and master; and human beings have taken on the angelic way of life, in order to lay hold of heaven.
9. Where shall I put the testimony of the prophets? Do they not refer to you, if we wish to show their true meaning? What, after all, was that fleece of David (cf. Ps 71:6 [LXX]; Jg 6:36-
40), on which the Son of that God who is king over all things came down like rain–the Son who is also without beginning and who reigns with the one who begot him? Was it not you, most obviously? Who was the virgin whom Isaiah, in his vision of the future, predicted would conceive in her womb, and bear as a son, the one who is “God with us” (Is 7:14): that is, the one who would remain God after becoming human? What was Daniel’s mountain, from which Christ, the cornerstone, was cut without the use of a human instrument (cf. Dan 2:34,
45)? Was it not you, who gave birth without human seed, and continued to remain a virgin? Let the divine Ezekiel come for
ward and show us the locked gate, passable to the Lord but never opened, which he proclaimed in prophecy (cf. Ezck
44:1f.). Let him point to the fulfillment of his words. Surely he will point to you, through whom came the God who is above all–a gate of virginity he did not open when he took flesh. For truly the seal remains eternally unbroken!
The prophets, then, proclaim you. The angels serve you, the apostles revere you, the virginal mouthpiece of God”
care of the ever-virgin who was Mother of God.!? Today the angels minister to you as you go home to your Son, joined by the souls of the just, of patriarchs and prophets. The Apostles are your escort, with a countless throng of inspired Fathers gathered from the ends of the earth as in a cloud, by your Son’s divine command, in this holy and sacred city, Jerusalem. In their godly enthusiasm, they sing holy hymns to you, the source of the Lord’s body that is for us a stream of life:
10. “Oh, see how the source of life is carried over into life, through the midst of death! See how the one who overcame the defining limits of nature in her childbearing now gives way to those same limits, and submits her unsullied body to death! It was only right for that body to ‘lay aside what is mortal and put on immortality’ (1 Cor 15:53), since the Lord of nature himself did not refuse the test of death. He died in the flesh, and by that death destroyed death, bestowed incorruptibility on corrupt nature, and made death the source of resurrection. See how the maker of all things receives into his own hands her holy soul, now separated from that tabernacle that received God.” He rightly honors her who was by nature his handmaid, but whom by his saving plan he made to be his mother, in the unfathomable ocean of his love for humanity. For he truly became flesh, and did not feign his incarnation!”
They Lie, the Apostles] saw, we are told, the ranks of angels awaiting your departure from this world of human life. O
lovely emigration, which was for you a migration to God! For even if this is granted by God to all who are inspired to serve him–and it is granted to them all, we believe still there is an infinite difference between God’s servants and his mother. 14
What, then, shall we call this mystery concerning you? Death?
But even though your holy and blessed soul was separated from your privileged, immaculate body, and your body was committed to burial, as custom demanded, still it did not remain in death, nor was it dissolved by corruption. For she whose virginity remained undamaged in childbirth also kept her body un-damaged in her passage through death. She was brought over to
“a better and more divine tent” (cf. Heb 9:11) that is not cut down by death, but endures always, for endless ages of ages.
For just as the all-bright, ever-shining sun, when it is hidden for a while by the body of the moon, seems in a way to fail and to be covered in darkness, accepting shadow in place of light, yet nonetheless never ceases to produce its own light-for it has welling up within itself an ever-flowing fountain of light, or rather is itself an inexhaustible fountain of light, as the God who created it has ordained–so you, too, the ever-flowing fountain of true light, the inexhaustible treasure of life itself, the abundant spring of blessing, the cause and sponsor for us of all good things, even if your body is hidden for a short space of time in death, still you pour forth light for us in a generous and endless stream: immortal life, unceasing, pure and inexhaustible waves of true blessedness, rivers of grace, springs of healing, blessings without end. “You are like an apple tree growing in the midst of the deep woods” (Cant 2:7), and your fruit is sweet in the mouths of the faithful. Therefore I will not call your holy passing (from this world] a death, but rather a falling-asleep, a part-ing, or–more properly speaking–a homecoming. For when you parted from the things of the body, you went to make your dwelling among greater things.
11. The angels and archangels carried you there. The unclean spirits of mid-air trembled at your departure. The air was blessed by your passing through it, the aether of the upper regions was sanctified. Heaven received your soul with joy. The powers [of heaven] met you with holy hymns and splendid cere-mony, crying out words such as these: “Who is this who as-cends, robed all in white’ (Cant 8:5), ‘spreading over us like the dawn, beautiful as the moon, singular as the sun’ (Cant 6:10)?
How beautiful you are, how sweet! ‘You are the flower of the plain, like a lily among thorns’ (Cant 2:1f.)! “Therefore the young maidens love you_-we rush towards the fragrance of your myrrh’ (Cant 1:3f.). ‘The king bears you into his chamber’ (ibid.), where the powers accompany you in procession, the principalities sing your blessings, the thrones praise you, the cherubim are struck dumb with joy, the seraphim praise you, for you are called, by nature and by God’s own plan, the mother of their Lord. You have not simply gone up into the heavens like Elijah (see 2 Kg 2:11 [LXX]), nor have you simply been trans-ported, like Paul, to the third heaven (see 2 Cor 12:2). You have gone on to the very royal throne of your Son, where you see him with your own eyes and rejoice; you stand beside him in great, indescribable freedom (cf. Ps 44:10 [LXX]; Heb 4:16; 9:12;
10:19-35). For the angels and for all the powers that exist above this world, you are ineffable gladness; for the patri-archs, endless happiness; for the just, unutterable joy; for the prophets, continual exaltation. You are a blessing for the world, sanctification for all things, rest for the weary, consolation for the grieving, healing for the sick, a harbor for the storm-tossed, forgiveness for sinners, friendly encouragement for the sorrowing, ready help for all who call on you.
12. O wonder truly above nature! O amazing event! Death, long seen as revolting and hateful, is now praised and called blessed. Long known as the bearer of sadness and depression,
of tears and melancholy, it is now revealed as the cause of joy and celebration. So it is, if for all God’s servants, whose death is now called blessed, the ends of their lives give sure proof that they have found God’s favor-_if their death is called blessed for this reason! Death brings them to fulfillment and shows them to be blessed by making their goodness unchang-ing; as the proverb puts it, “Do not call a person blessed before his death” (Sir 11:28).
But we do not understand this as applying to you. Blessedness was yours- not death! Your passing was not your arrival at perfection, nor did your departure bestow security on you. For to you the beginning, middle and end of all the good things that are beyond our minds, their security and true confirmation, was your coneeiving without male seed, God’s dwelling in you, your childbearing without damage [to your virginity l6
So you truly
predicted that you would be called blessed by all generations, not from the moment of death but from the very moment of that conception (Lk 1:48). Therefore death has not made you blessed, but you have yourself made death glorious; you have destroyed its horror and shown death to be a joy.
And so your holy, spotless body is committed to a reverent burial, as angels go before you and stand around you and follow after, doing all the things by which it is fitting to serve the mother of their Lord. The Apostles, too, are there, and all the full membership of the Church, crying out divine hymns to the music of the harp of the Spirit, and singing: “We shall be filled with the riches of your house; holy is your temple, wonderful because of [God’s] salvation” (Ps 64:5 [LXXI); and again,
“The Most High has made his tabernacle holy” (Ps 45:5 [LXX), and “God’s mountain is a mountain of plenty, the mountain where God is pleased to dwell” (Ps 67:16f. [LXX]).
The company of Apostles lift you up on their shoulders, the true ark of the Lord God, as once the priests lifted up the ty
pological ark that pointed the way to you; placing you in the tomb, they carry you, as through another Jordan (cf. Jos 3:15), into the true land of promise to the “Jerusalem which is above, the mother of all the faithful” (Heb 11:10), whose builder and craftsman is God. For your “soul did not go down into the underworld, nor did your flesh see corruption” (Ps
15:10). Your immaculate, completely spotless body was not left on earth, but you have been transported to the royal dwelling-place of heaven as queen, as lady, as mistress, as Mother of God, as the one who truly gave God birth.!
13. Oh, how could heaven receive one who is called “wider than the heavens”? How could a grave contain the one who contained God? Yet surely it did receive her, surely it did make room for her; for that body was not “wider than heaven” in any spatial sense. How, after all, can something three cubits long, something that grows more frail each day, be compared with the breadth and length of heaven? But in grace, surely, she surpassed the measure of every height and depth; for nothing can be compared with what is divine. O sacred, wonderful, august and adorable monument! Angels come to venerate it, standing by in much reverence and holy fear; the demons tremble; human beings come forward in faith, showing it honor and wor-ship, venerating it with eyes and lips and yearning of soul, and drinking deep of its inexhaustible store of blessings.
Just as if one should store up costly ointment in his clothes or in some other place, and later remove it, some trace of the fragrance would remain when the ointment is gone, so now, too, that holy, sacred and spotless body, full of divine fragrance, that boundless spring of grace, even though it was first placed in the tomb and then taken away again to a better, higher place, still did not leave that tomb without honor: it gave it a share of divine fragrance and grace, and left it as a source of healing and of all good gifts for those who approach it in faith.
14. We, too, have sat in attendance upon you today, O Lady-Lady, and once again, Lady_ Mother of God who knew not man! We have fastened our souls on you as our hope, letting ourselves hang on you–mind, soul and body as on a strong and unbreakable anchor. We have given you honor, as far as we could, with “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19;
Col 3:16), though we can never honor you worthily. For if, as a holy writer has taught, honor towards our fellow servants demonstrates respect for our common Lord,” how can we neglect to honor you, who gave your Lord birth? How shall we be less than eager to do it? Shall we not count you more precious than breath itself, necessary though that is, and more valuable to us than life? For so we may express even more fully reverence for our own Lord. But why do I even speak of reverence for the Lord? The precious gift of recalling you, surely, is reward enough to those who commemorate you devoutly, an excess of joy that will never be taken away. What pleasure does not fill such a person? What blessings [does he lack] who makes his mind the storehouse of your holy memory?
This is our sacrifice of thanks to you, the first-fruits of our words, a dedicatory offering of our impoverished intelligence, moved by its longing for you to forget its own weakness. Receive our desires kindly, since you know they exceed our power. And you, good Lady, bearer of our good Lord, watch over us; lead and guide our lives where you will; put the urges of our most shameful passions to rest, calm the tossing of their waves, lead us to the safe harbor of God’s will, make us worthy of the blessedness to come, the sweet light of his own face, who is God the Word, made flesh from you. With him, may there be to the Father glory, honor and majesty, with his holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and always and unto ages of ages!
Homily II: On the Dormition of the Holy Mother of God
ON THE HOLY AND GLORIOUS DORMITION AND TRANSFORMATION OF OUR LADY MARY, MOTHER OF GOD AND EVER-VIRGIN
By Our Holy Father John, Monk of Damascus and Son of Mansour
1. No human being can worthily praise the holy passing of the Mother of God–not if he had ten thousand tongues and as many mouths! Even if all the tongues of the world’s scattered inhabitants came together, they could not approach a praise that was fitting. It simply lies beyond the realm of oratory.’ But since God loves what we offer, out of longing and eagerness and good intentions, as best we know how, and since what pleases her Son is also dear and delightful to God’s Mother, come, let us again grope for words of praise. So we shall obey your orders, O excellent shepherds so beloved of God,’ as we invoke the help of the Word who became flesh from her, who fills every mouth that is open towards him (Ps 81:11 [LXX]), and who is her only ornament, her perfect commendation. We know that when we begin to praise her, we are only paying what we owe, and that once we have offered this honor we become debtors again, so that our debt [of praise] always remains new, even when it has been discharged.
May she whom we celebrate be gracious to us-she who is above all creatures and reigns over all God’s works as Mother of God, the God who created and shaped and rules over all things. And I ask for your understanding towards me, too, O company so eager to hear God’s word; accept my good inten-tions, applaud my desires, be compassionate towards the weakness of my words. Imagine a king, given the governing
authority over his fellow men and women by God himself, whose table is always abundantly furnished and crowded with food of every kind, whose palace enchants us with the fragrance of costly ointments. If one should bring him, out of sea-son, a violet as purple as the sea, or a fragrant rose blooming amid its thorns, emerging mottled from its green calyx and gradually developing its color to full blush, or perhaps some honey-sweet fruit of autumn, he would notice not the slight value of the gift but its rarity at that time; and being a man of judgment and discernment, he would marvel at how unexpected it is, and would bestow on the peasant, in return, generous and elegant gifts. So we, too, bring this flower to the Queen in our wintertime of words; we arm an aging tongue for a contest of praise, and sharpen our mind with yearning as we might sharpen iron with a stone. And so, too, crushing words out of our mind like unripe grapes, we offer to you, connoisseurs of language and lovers of good oratory, this dim spark, this unfermented wine. May we be received still more favorably than that peasant
What should we offer the Mother of the Word but words?
Like always rejoices in like, because it recognizes it as its own.
Let us, then, open the starting-gates of speech, let us loosen the reins a little, and spur this discourse on as if we were riding a race-horse. And you, O Word of God–ride with me as my helper; give words to my stammering mind, make the track smooth for my speech, and lead my course straight towards your good pleasure, the goal of a wise person’s every word and thought.
2. Today the holy, incomparable virgin enters the heavenly sanctuary that lies above the universe. She so longed for virginity that she was transformed into it, as if consumed by the purest fire. Every virgin, after all, loses her virginity in giving birth; but she, who was a virgin before giving birth, remained
so during her labors and even after them.” Today the holy, living ark of the living God, the one who carried her own maker within herself, comes to her rest in the temple of the Lord not made by hands. David-her ancestor and God’s leaps for joy (2 Sam 6:4; 1 Chr 15:25); the angels join in the dance, the archangels applaud, the virtues give praise, the principalities rejoice with them, the powers exult, the dominations delight, the thrones make festival, the cherubim sing their hymn, and the seraphim glorify God.
They glorify him in no negligible
way, when they give glory to the Mother of glory.
Today the sacred dove, the pure and innocent soul who was also purified by the Holy Spirit, has flown from the ark-I mean from that body which received God and is the source of our life; and she has found “a place of rest for her feet” (Gen
8:9), flying up to the intelligible world and pitching her tent in the spotless land of our heritage on high.
Today the Eden of the new Adam welcomes the spiritual Paradise where our condemnation has been cancelled, where the tree of life is planted, where our nakedness is clothed again. For we are no longer naked and exposed, lacking the radiance of the divine image and stripped of the abundant grace of the Spirit; we need no longer tell the story of that tragic, ancient nakedness, saying, “I have taken off my tunic, and how shall I put it on again?” (Cant 5:3) For in this Paradise, the serpent has no means of entry–that serpent whose false promise of divinization led us to a covetousness that made us the equal only of irrational beasts. The only Son of God, who is God and of the same substance as the Father, formed himself into a human being from this virgin, from this pure soil; and so I, who am human, am made divine I, who am mortal, have now become immortal, and have stripped off my tunic of skin. For I have taken off corruption, and put on the robe of divinity.
Today the immaculate Virgin, who never involved herself
in earthly passions but was nourished on heavenly thoughts, did not return to earth (cf. Gen 3:19); being truly a living heaven, she now dwells in the tents of heaven. For who could err in calling her heaven, unless one were to say–and say rightly–that she has been lifted even above heaven in her incomparable privileges? For the maker and preserver of heaven and of everything in and beyond this universe, the craftsman of all that has been made, visible and invisible he who has no place, because he is the place of all other beings (if, indeed, place is defined as what contains the things within it): he has created a child in her, of his own power and without human seed, and has revealed her as the spacious treasure-house of that divinity that fills all things, alone and uncircumscribed.
He has gathered himself up completely in her, without suffering diminution, yet he remains wholly beyond her, abiding in himself as his incomprehensible home.
Today the treasury of life, the abyss of grace (I do not know how I can say these things with my bold, fearless lips!) is wrapped in a death that brings life. Undaunted, she draws near to death, having given birth to death’s destroyer–if one may call her departure from the world, so full of holiness and life, a death at all. For how could she, who brimmed over with true life for all, ever become subject to death’s power? Still, she yields to the law established by her own Son, and as a daughter of the old Adam she undergoes the ancestral trial, since even her Son, life itself, did not refuse it. But as Mother of the living God, it is also right that she should be brought into his presence. For if God was concerned “lest the first human being reach out his hand and take from the tree of life and eat, and live forever…” (Gen
3:21), how can she, who has received the life that knows no beginning or ending, the life free from the boundaries of both birth and death, not live herself for endless ages?
3. Long ago, the Lord God punished the ancestors of this
mortal race, who had gorged themselves on the strong drink of disobedience and had made the eyes of their heart drowsy with the wine of sin, weighing down their eyelids with sinful self-indulgence until they fell asleep in death; he banished them from the garden of Eden and drove them away. But now Mary has shaken off all the assaults of passion, and has planted again the shoot of obedience to God our Father, introducing life anew for all her race. Shall not Paradise receive her? Shall not heaven open its gates wide with joy? Surely it will! Eve once lent her ear to the message of the serpent, and allowed herself to hear the Enemy’s advice; her senses all enchanted by the deceiving charms of counterfeit pleasure, she received the sentence of grief and sorrow, undergoing the pangs of childbirth, the judgment–with Adam–of death, and imprisonment in the depths of Hades. But Mary, the truly all-blessed one, lent her ear to the Word of God, and was filled with the energy of the Spirit. She bore the Father’s good pleasure in her womb, at the angel’s word, and without sensual passion or contact conceived the very person of God the Word, who fills all things.
She brought him into the world without suffering the pains that adhere to our nature, for she was wholly united with God. How shall death consume her? How shall the realm of death receive her? How shall corruption dare to assault that body once filled with life? These things do not belong to her; they are all foreign to both the soul and the body of the one who bore God.
Death saw her and was afraid. For he had assaulted her Son, but learned from his defeat and grew wise from the expe-rience! For her the gloomy path down to the underworld remains untrodden; a straight, gentle, easy path to heaven is Opened for her. For if Christ, who is life and truth, has said,
“Where Iam, there will my servant be also” (In 12:26), is it not even more certain that his Mother will abide with him? She bore him before she knew suffering; her passing from life, too,
must be free from suffering. “The death of sinners is burden-some” (Ps 34:22 [LXXI); but since in her “the sting of death, which is sin” (1 Cor 15:56), was quelled, shall we say that the end of life was anything but the beginning of a better life, one that will know no end? “Precious,” truly, “is the death of the saints” of the Lord God of hosts (Ps 116:15 [LXX]); and precious above all the rest is the passing of the Mother of God!
“Let the heavens reioice now.’
” and the angels applaud; “let
the earth be glad” now (Ps 96:11; 97:1 [LXXI), and all men and women leap for joy! Let the air ring out now with happy song, and let the black night lay aside its gloomy, unbecoming cloak of darkness, to imitate the bright radiance of day in sparkles of flame.’ For the living city of the Lord God of hosts is lifted up, and kings bring a priceless gift from the temple of the Lord, the wonder of Sion (cf. Ps 68:30 [LXX]), to the Jerusalem on high who is free and is their mother (Gal 4:26): those who were appointed by Christ as rulers of all the earth–the Apostles- -escort to heaven the ever-virgin Mother of God!
4. It does not seem to me out of place to describe now, in what words I can- -to sketch out in at least a few scenes and im-ages-_-the marvels that came to pass at the death of this holy woman, the Mother of God, as we have learned of them in summary form from ancient times, as we say, at our mothers’ knees.
I can see in my mind this woman, holier than all things holy, sacred and venerable above all others- -the sweet vessel of the manna, or rather its true source- lying on a pallet in the celebrated Holy City of David: on Sion, that prominent and glorious mountain, where the law of the letter was fulfilled and the law of the Spirit proclaimed; where Christ, the lawgiver, brought to completion the symbolic Pasch and where the God of the Old and the New Covenant gave us the true Pasch; where the “lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (In 1:29), initiated his disciples into the mystical banquet, im
molated himself for them like the “fatted calf,” and trod out the grape of the “true vine” (cf. Lk 15:23, 27; Jn 15:1); where Christ was seen by the Apostles when he rose from the dead, and proved to Thomas–and through him to all the world–that he is God and Lord, possessing two natures even after he had come back from the dead, and with them two ways of acting and two autonomous wills, which shall remain in operation for endless ages.
This city is the citadel of the
Churches; she is the refuge of the disciples. Here the all-Holy Spirit was poured forth on the Apostles in the form of fire, making a great sound and communicating in many tongues. Here John the Theologian received the Mother of God into his care, and ministered to her needs. It was this city, the Mother of all the world’s Churches, which played home to the Mother of God, after her Son’s return from the dead. In this city, then, the Blessed Virgin lay, on a bed one can only call thrice blessed.
5. Having come to this point in my discourse, I am–if I may express my inner feelings- on fire with hot and restless yearning, I am seized with a thrill of awe and bathed in joyous tears, imagining that I could embrace that blessed and beloved bed, so filled with wonders. This bed has received the tabernacle from which came life itself; by its very nearness it has come to have a share in her sanctity. And this holy tem-ple-truly holy, truly worthy of God- I seemed for a moment to embrace with my own arms! I pressed my eyes, my lips, my forehead, my neck, my cheeks to her limbs, rejoicing in these sensations as if her body were present and I could touch it, even though I knew full well that I cannot see the one I long for with these eyes. How can one touch what has been lifted up into the heavenly sanctuary? But enough of this! What honors, then, were paid her by the one who has commanded us in the Law to honor our parents?
The Apostles were scattered everywhere on this earth,
fishing for men and women with the varied and sonorous tongues of the Spirit, seeking to capture people in the net of their preaching and to save them from the pit of error by bringing them in to the spiritual, heavenly table at that mystic feast, that sacred banquet, that spiritual wedding of the heavenly Bridegroom–the banquet which the Father has spread, most royally and splendidly, for the Son who is his equal in power and who shares his nature. But by a divine command, a cloud swept the Apostles to Jerusalem from the ends of the earth as if it were itself a net, gathering eagles and drawing them in. For
“where the body is,” said Christ the Truth, “there the eagles will gather” (Mt 24:28). If this saying, after all, refers to the second coming of the one who spoke these words, to his second great and manifest arrival from heaven to dwell with us, still it is not inappropriate if we borrow it here, too, to season our discourse. The eye-witnesses, then, the servants of the Word, were there, ministering also to his Mother as they were bound to do and hoping to claim from her a blessing, as something valuable beyond price. For who can doubt the suggestion that she is the source of blessing and the fountain of all good gifts? The companions and successors of the Apostles were with them, too, to share in both their service and her blessing; for those who share in the labor will share proportionately in its rewards. And the holy community, God’s chosen ones from Jerusalem, were also standing by.
It was fitting that the most outstanding saints and prophets of old were with them, too, sharing in this holy guard of honor: those, namely, who had proclaimed beforehand that God’s Word would be born in flesh from her, for our sakes, out of love for us. Nor was the company of the angels excluded. For every creature who remained obedient to the King’s desire, and who therefore was worthy of such an honored position, had to be part of the escort for his fleshly Mother–that truly
fortunate and blessed woman, honored before “all genera-tions” and all creation (Ps 103:20f. [LXX]; Dan 7:9f; Lk 1:48).
All of them stood near her, as she was bathed in the beacon-light of the Spirit and illuminated them in turn with brilliant ra-diance, while each of them fixed the pure eyes of his spirit on her, in reverence and awe and unwavering affection. For there is not one being to whom this office does not fall–at least, no more than One alone; for no creature has received from on high supreme and incomparable Being, which, when it de-scended, would be capable of doing all things and accept no obligation to offer worship!
7. Then there must have been inspired speech, words that spoke of God! Then there must have been heavenly singing, celebrating her departure from this world! For it was right then, too, to sing the praises of the superabundant goodness of God, his greatness beyond all greatness and his power beyond power’s bounds, his self-restraint towards us beyond all height and magnitude, the richness beyond all riches of his unimaginable kindness, the inexhaustible abyss of his love. It was right to celebrate how [the Son], without abandoning his own great-ness, came down and emptied himself in the way that led to his exaltation (cf. Phil 2:6-10), supported by the good pleasure of the Father and the Spirit. It was right to sing of how the One who is above all substance took on substance in the womb of a woman, in a way above all substantial explanation,” of how he is God, yet became human–remaining both, yet the same person; of how he did not leave behind the divine essence, yet
“shared like us in flesh and blood” (Heb 2:14); of how he who
“Fills all things” (Eph 3:19; 4: 10) and “carries the universe with the word of his mouth” (Heb 1:3), came to dwell in a narrow place; of how the body of this celebrated woman, material and fragile as grass (cf. Is 40.6), received the consuming fire of the Godhead (Deut 4:24; Is 33:14; Heb 12:29), yet remained un
consumed, like purest gold. All these things came to pass by the will of God; for if God wills it, all things are possible, but nothing can be achieved against his will.
All this story became the subject of a great contest of words: not so that one might outdo the others–that kind of competition, after all, belongs to vainglorious minds that are far from pleasing God–but so that nothing might be lacking from their eagerness and force of expression, as they sang God’s praises and honored the Mother of God.’
8. It was then, indeed, that Adam and Eve, the ancestors of our race, cried out piercingly, with joyful lips: “Blessed are you, our daughter, for canceling the punishment of our trans-gression! You inherited from us a corruptible body, but you bore in your womb, for our sakes, the garment of incorruptibil-ity. You took your being from our loins, but you restored to us our well-being. You put an end to our travail, and broke through the swaddling-bands of death. You made available to us again our ancient home: we were the ones who locked Para-dise, you the one who opened the way to the tree of life.
Through our actions, sad times overtook good; but through yours, yet better times have come again out of sadness. How, then, shall you, the immaculate one, taste death? For you, death will be the bridge to life, the stairway to heaven, the ford to the banks of immortality. Truly you are blessed, O most blessed one! For who has been offered in sacrifice but the Word himself, suffering all that we have learned he did?”3
All the chorus of the saints’4 joined in the applause: “You have fulfilled the prophecies! You bring us the joy we have been waiting for! Through you, we have been released from the bonds of death! Come to us, holy and life-giving treasure come to us who long for you, for you have brought our longing to its end!”
But the throng of holy ones, still living in the body, who
stood by, took up a contrasting strain with equal emphasis:
“Stay with us,” they said, “our consolation, the only comfort we have on earth! Do not leave us orphans, O Mother, as we face danger in order to share the sufferings of your Son. Let us keep you among us, as rest in our labors and respite in our tri-als. If you wish to stay, it will surely be possible, and if you prefer to go, nothing will stand in your way. But if you go away, O tabernacle of God, then let us go with you, we who are called your people because of your Son! In you, we have the only consolation left to us on earth; to live and die in your company is the lot of the blessed! But how can we speak of your dying? For you, even death is life–and better than life, for it exceeds this life to an incomparable degree. But for us, how will life be livable, if we do not have you for a compan-ion?”
9. This, it seems to me, is what the Apostles must have said to the Blessed Virgin, along with the whole assembly of the Church. But when they saw that the Mother of God was hastening towards the end of her life, even eager for it, they turned their minds towards hymns for the departing; for they were moved by divine grace, and lent their mouths to the Spirit, borne beyond flesh and yearning to leave this world with the departing Mother of God, even hastening ahead of her, in a way, in the intensity of their desire (cf. 2 Cor 5:1-8). And when all of them had brought to completion what desire and duty led them to do, when they had woven a colorful and abundant garland of sacred song, they received her blessing, as if it were some God-given treasure, and spoke their final words, fitting for the moment of death. They said, I imagine, words recalling how fleeting and insecure this present life is, and revealing the hidden mysteries of the good things to come.
10. Just then, it would seem to me, something must have happened that fit these circumstances and that would naturally follow them. I mean that the King must have come to the one who gave him birth, to receive her soul into his pure and holy hands, her soul so upright and spotless. And it seems likely that she would have spoken thus: “Into your hands, my Son, I confide my spirit!’ (Ps 30:6 [LXX]; Lk 23:46; Acts 7:59) Receive the soul that is so dear to you, which you have preserved blameless. Yours is my body, too; I do not give it to the earth!
Keep it safe, since you were pleased to dwell in it, and to preserve its virginity as you were being born. Bring me close to you, so that where you are, the fruit of my womb, I too may be, and may share your home. I am hastening towards you, who came to dwell so immediately in me. And you must console my dear children, whom you have been pleased to call your brothers and sisters, when I go away from them; add a blessing to the blessing I shall now give them by laying on my hands.” Then, having spoken these words, she would have raised her hands, I imagine, and would have blessed those gathered there; and she would have heard, “Come, my blessed Mother, ‘into the place of my rest’ (Ps 132:8 [LXX]; cf. Ps 95:11 [LXXI). ‘Arise, come, my dear one,’ beautiful among all women; ‘for behold, winter has passed, and the time of pruning has come’ (Cant
2:10-12). ‘My dear one is beautiful, and there is no blemish in you’ (Cant 4:7). “The odor of your ointments surpasses all fra-grance’ (Cant 1:3; cf. 4:10).” And having heard these words, the holy woman would have committed her soul to the hands of her Son.
11. And what happened next? I imagine that the elements of nature were stirred up and altered, that there were sounds, crashes, rumblings, as well as remarkable hymns from angels who flew before her, providing her with an escort and with companions on the way. Some of them would have acted as a guard of honor for her spotless, holy soul, and would have ascended with it on its way to heaven, until they had brought the
Queen to her royal throne (cf. Ps 44:10 [LXXI); others would have surrounded her holy, sacred body, singing the songs that only angels can sing in honor of the Mother of God. And what of those [humans] who stood around that holy, sacred body?
They would have woven a tissue of reverent love, of joyful tears, around that holy, blessed temple; they would have embraced and kissed each limb belonging to that body, and that very contact would have been for them a sanctification and a blessing. Then sickness would have melted away; the cohorts of demons would have fled, rushing every which-way to their dens beneath the earth. The air, the fiery ether, the sky would have been made holy by the ascent of her spirit, as earth was sanctified by the deposition of her body. Even water had its share in the blessing: for she was washed in pure water, which did not so much cleanse her as it was itself consecrated. the deaf received perfect hearing again, the feet of the lame had their power to walk restored; sight was renewed in the blind, and the writ of condemnation was tor up for sinners who approached in faith (cf. Is 35:5f.; Mt 11:5; Lk 7:21f.; Acts
3:7; Col 2:14).
And what happened then? Her pure body would have been wrapped in fresh cloths, and the Queen placed again on her couch. Then lamps would have been brought, ointments ap-plied, funeral hymns sung; the angels would have chanted, in their own tongue, a song most fitting for them, while the Apostles and holy ancestors would have sung sacred canticles, inspired by the Spirit.
12. And then, then, the ark of the Lord would have departed from Mount Sion; borne on the glorious shoulders of the Apostles, it would have been brought, by way of a tomb, to its heavenly precincts. ” But first it is carried through the midst of the City, like a beautiful bride adorned with the unapproachable splendor of the Spirit; so its makes its way to the
sacred enclosure of Gethsemane, with angels before and beside it, covering it with their wings, and in the full assembly of the Church.
King Solomon, when he wanted to deposit the ark in the temple of the Lord, which he had built, called together “all the elders of Israel to Sion, to bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord up from the city of David, which is Sion… And the priests lifted up the ark and the tent of witness, and the priests and Levites brought it up. And the King and the whole people went in front of the ark, sacrificing bulls and sheep without number.
And the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord into its place, in the innermost chamber of the Temple, to the holy of holies, under the wings of the cherubim.” (1 Kg 8:1-6 [LXX]) So now, to bring to its place the spiritual ark, not of the Lord’s covenant but of the very person* of God the Word, the new Solomon himself, King of Peace 2
and master-builder of the
universe, called together on this day the sublime ranks of heavenly spirits, and the leaders of the new covenant- I mean the Apostles–with all the holy people then in Jerusalem. And he solemnly led her soul, accompanied by angels, into the real and original Holy of Holies in heaven (see Heb 9:12; 10:20), resting on the very wings of the four “living creatures” (Ezek 1:6); he seated her next to his own throne, within the veil where Christ himself, our forerunner, has gone in his own body (ef. Heb 9:12;
10:20). But her body was carried by the hands of the Apostles, the King of Kings overshadowing it with the radiance of his invisible divinity, while the whole community of the saints ran before her, crying out holy acclamations and offering “a sacrifice of praise” (Ps 106:22 [LXXI), until the body was laid in the tomb as in her bridal chamber, and through it was given to the delights of Eden and the tabernacle of heaven.
13. It happened that Jews were present as well–those, at least, who were not wholly without good sense. And it might
not be a bad idea to add to our account, like a bit of spice in a cooked dish, what is reported on the lips of many people.?
They say that when those bearing the blessed body of the Mother of God came to the steep descent of the mountain, a certain Jewish man, enslaved by sin and committed to error, imitated the servant of Caiaphas who slapped the divine, majestic face of Christ, our God; becoming an instrument of the devil, carried forward by a bold, irrational whim, he rushed with demonic impulse towards that holiest of vessels, which even the angels approached with fear, and wildly seized the bier with both his hands, insanely trying to wrest it down to the ground. This attack, too, had its origin in the envy of the Prince of Evil. But the fruits came before the labors were ended, and the man reaped bitter grapes, worthy of his own foul purpose!
For they say that his hands failed him,’
22 and it was possible
suddenly to see the perpetrator of this dreadful deed, caught not only red-handed but completely handless, until he changed his mind and began to believe, and was converted. Immediately the pallbearers stood still; the wretched man placed both his arms on that dwelling-place of life, that bearer of miracles, and was brought in an instant from being mutilated to having healthy hands again. So a crisis can often be the mother of decisions that are for our good.? But let us return to the subject of our discourse.
14. From there, her body was carried to that holy place, Gethsemane. Again there were kisses and embraces, again words of praise, hymns and invocations and tears; they were bathed in streams of sweat from their anguish and affectionate grief. So that holy body was placed in its glorious, peerless monument; and from there it was lifted up to its heavenly home on the third day.
For it was fitting that this worthy dwelling-place of God- the spring of the water of forgiveness, which no human
ever dug; the wheatfield of the bread of heaven, which no human ever ploughed; the vine of the grape of immortality, which no human ever watered; the ever-blooming, richly fruitful olive-tree of the Father’s mercy- should not be confined within the hollows of earth. But rather, as the holy, spotless body which came from her, and which had its concrete existence in God the Word, rose on the third day from the tomb, so indeed it was right that she, his Mother, should be taken out of her grave and joined with her Son; and just as he had come down to her, so she, his first love, should be taken up to that “greater and more perfect tabernacle, …to heaven itself.” (Heb 9:11, 24)
It was fitting that she, who gave refuge to God the Word in her womb, should dwell in the tent of her own son; and as the Lord said that he must be in his own Father’s house (Lk 2:49), so it was right that his mother should make her home in her son’s palace, “in the house of the Lord, the courts of the house of our God” (Ps 134:1; 135:2). For if “the home of all who rejoice is in him” (Ps 87:7), where else should we find the cause of our joy?
It was fitting that she, who preserved her virginity undam-aged by childbirth, should have her body preserved from corruption even in death. It was fitting that she, who held the creator in her lap as a baby, should rest in the tabernacle of God. It was fitting that the bride, whom the Father took for his own, should dwell in the bridal-chamber of heaven. It was fitting that she, who gazed at her own son on the cross, and who [there] received in her heart the sword of pain that she escaped at childbirth, should look on him enthroned with his Father. It was fitting that the Mother of God should receive the blessings of her son, and be reverenced by all creation as Mother and servant of God. For a heritage always passes from parents to children; but now, as a wise man has said, the streams of the sacred rivers flow upwards! For the Son has subjected all creation to his mother!
feas,% Come, then, let us celebrate today oursclves a funeral
for the Mother of God! We do not bring flutes and revel-ers, or join in revels like those that are said to be celebrated for the mother of the so-called gods”
-the one whom, the myth-
makers say, had many children, while the truth is she had none.
These are but spirits, shadowy apparitions, bravely pretending to be what they are not, and they find their support in the foolishness of those they deceive. For how can one produce a bodiless being by sexual relations? How are they united to each other? And how can that be a god, which first did not exist, and is later brought into being? That the race of spirits is bodiless is surely clear to everyone, even to those whose intellectual eyes are blind. For Homer said, somewhere in his works, when describing the condition of those he considered gods,
They eat no bread, nor drink the fiery wine; Therefore they lack blood, and are called immortal. They do not eat bread, he says, and do not drink the wine that warms us; for this reason they are bloodless, they have no blood–yet they are called immortal! How rightly he says that “they are called” this! For they are called immortal, but are not what they are called; they have already died the death of wickedness.
But we, for whom God is the object of worship God, who has not come from non-existence into being, but who always and from all eternity is, beyond cause and explanation, beyond any notion of time or nature: we honor and venerate the Mother of God! We do not mean to suggest that the timeless birth of his divinity was from her-for the begetting of God’s Word lies outside time, of equal eternity with the Father- out we confess his second birth, a freely-chosen birth in the flesh, and we know and proclaim the cause of this birth. For he who without beginning exists without a body became flesh “for us and for our salvation,” that like might be wholly saved by its
like; and taking flesh from her, the holy virgin, without the union of human parenting, he was born, while remaining wholly God. Becoming wholly human, he is himself the whole God with his flesh, and a whole human being with his supremely transcendent divinity. So we, who recognize this virgin as Mother of God, now celebrate the feast of her dormition. We do not call her a goddess- we will have none of such pedantic classical fabling
• _for we proclaim her death. But we recog-
nize her as Mother of the God who became flesh.
16. Let us praise her, then, today with sacred songs, we who are privileged to be called and to be the people of Christ. Let us honor her with an all-night assembly.?
Let us delight in her ho-
liness of soul and body; after all, she is truly, after God, the holiest of all beings, for like always delights in like! Let us do her homage by our mercy and our compassion for the poor. For if God is honored by nothing so much as by mercy, who can deny that his mother is glorified, too, by the same thing? She has opened up to us the unspeakable depth of God’s love for us!
Through her, our age-old war against our creator has come to an end. Through her, our reconciliation with him has been forged, peace and grace have been bestowed on us, human beings join with the chorus of angels, and we who were once without honor have now been made children of God. From her, we have plucked the grape of life; from her we have harvested the flower of incorruptibility. She has become the mediator of all good things for us. In her, God has become human and the human being God!
What could be more paradoxical than this? What could be more blessed? My head spins with reverent fear at what I have just said! Let us dance to the sound of tambourines, O you who are young at heart, with Miriam the prophetess (Ex 15:20), putting to death “our earthly members” (Col 3:5)-for that is the mystic significance of the tambourine. Let us shout in our
hearts the cry of victory for the ark of the Lord God, and the walls of Jericho will fall–I mean those grim fortifications of the hostile powers (Jos 6:20). With David, let us dance in the Spirit: for today the ark of the Lord comes to its rest. With Gabriel, the chief of the angels, let us cry out, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” (Lk 1:28) Hail, inexhaustible ocean of grace! Hail, our only salve for sorrow! Hail, medicine that banishes pain from every heart! Hail, you through whom death has been banished, and life made welcome!
17. And you, most holy of holy tombs, after the tomb of the Lord, which is the source of our life- the spring of our resurrection- I speak to you now as if you were alive! Where is that
unadulterated gold, which the hands of the Apostles confided to your keeping? Where is that inexhaustible wealth? Where is the treasure that received God? Where is the living tablet, where is the new book, in which God’s Word was ineffably written, without a hand? Where is the depth of grace? Where is the ocean of healing? Where is the life-giving spring? Where is the body of the Mother of God, that body we so love and long for?
<The tomb replies:> “Why do you seek in a tomb one who has been taken up to the tabernacle of heaven? (cf. Lk 24:5)
Why do you exact a reckoning from me about her disappear-ance? I have no power to resist the divine command. Her holy, sacred body left its wrapping cloth behind, and after sharing with me her holiness, after filling me with the fragrance of ointments and making of me a holy shrine, she was raised up and departed, escorted by angels and archangels and all the heavenly powers. Now angels take care of me; now divine grace dwells in me. I have been revealed as a source of healing, @ remedy for pain. I am a constant spring of health; I put demons to flight. I have become a city of refuge for those who flee to me (cf. Ex 21:13f; Num 35:9-34). Come to me in faith, you peoples, and draw from my river of blessings; keep your
faith above reproach (James 1:6), and come! ‘You who thirst, come to the water,’ Isaiah urges, ‘and you who have no money, come, buy without price.’ (Is 55:1) I have cried out to all, as the Gospel does: if anyone thirsts for the healing of illness, for release from the soul’s passions, for the cancellation of sin, for freedom from all kinds of assaults, for the repose of the Kingdom of Heaven, let him come to me in faith and draw from the stream of grace, so full of power and goodness (cf. Jn 7:37-39).
Just as the action of water, which like that of earth and air and the all-enlightening sun is simple and single, still adapts itself in a different way to each creature who shares in it, according to its nature, becoming wine in a grape and oil in an olive, so grace, which is simple and single, works for the good of those who share in it in various parallel ways, according to the need of each (cf. 1 Pet 4:10). I do not possess grace of my own nature. Every tomb is full of bad odors, a source of sadness, the enemy of joy; but I have been given precious ointment, I have shared in its fra-grance-an ointment so fragrant and powerful that even a tiny touch of it bestows a share in a gift that can never be lost. Truly,
‘God does not repent of his graces’ (Rom 11:29). For I have received into myself the spring of happiness, and I have been enriched with an ever-flowing well of joy.”
You see, dear fathers and brothers, what this illustrious tomb has to say to us.34
And what shall we answer to the tomb ourselves? Your grace is unceasing, ever-flowing; yet God’s power is not limited to places, nor are the gracious actions of the Mother of God. If they were restricted to her sepulcher, after all, God’s gift would inspire very few people! But in fact, it is given without measure in all corners of the world. Let us, then, make our own remembrance of her into a rich monument for the Mother of God. S How shall we do this?36 She is herself a virgin, and a lover of virgins; she is herself pure, and a lover of the pure. If we
consecrate her memory along with our own bodies, we will receive her grace to dwell within us. She avoids all impurity, and turns away from the morass of our passions. She loathes glut-tony, and is the foe of our base drive of sexual self-indulgence;
She flees from our impure thoughts like a “brood of vipers” (Mt 3:7; 12:34; etc.); she shuns wicked and frivolous talk and singing, and will have no contact with seductive perfumes.
She hates the swellings of pride, and will not accept inhumane behavior or quarreling. She rejects vainglory, that exerts itself to no purpose. She opposes puffed-up arrogance as a bitter en-emy. She loathes an unforgiving mind, as the enemy of salva-tion. She considers all vice as a deadly poison, but she rejoices in their opposites: for opposites are the cure for what they op-pose! She delights in fasting, in self-control, in the singing of psalms; she rejoices in the presence of purity, of virginity, of temperance. She bestows on these things unfailing peace, welcomes them with affection. She embraces the peaceful and gentle heart, she takes love and mercy and humility into her arms as her own children. To put it briefly, she is horrified and angered by any kind of wickedness, but rejoices in all goodness as if it were a gift bestowed on herself.
If, then, we bravely avoid the evils of our old way of life, and earnestly love the virtues and make friends with them, she will often come to visit her own servants, leading along with her the whole assembly of the just.
And she will also bring
with her Christ her Son, the King and Lord of all things. nog dwell in our hearts. To him be glory, honor, power, majesty and splendor, with the eternal Father and the Holy Spirit, now and always and for ages of ages.
Homily III: On the Dormition of the Holy Mother of God
A DISCOURSE ON THE DORMITION OF OUR LADY, THE MOTHER OF GOD
By John of Damascus, Monk and Presbyter
1. It is the way of those who are consumed with love for something to have it always on their tongue, to have an image of it in their mind night and day. Let no one pass judgment on me, then, if I have composed this third eulogy in honor of the Mother of my God, a kind of funeral gift, in addition to the two that have gone before. It is no great favor to her, but for myself and for you who are gathered here before me, O holy and sacred assembly, I mean to serve a nourishing meal for the soul’s health, appropriate for this holy night, and to provide spiritual joy for your hearts. We are usually faced with a dearth of nour-ishment, as you realize; so I am improvising a full-course ban-quet, and even if it is not very rich, or worthy of the invited company, at least it will have to be enough to satisfy our hun-ger. She, after all, stands in no need of our speeches of praise, but we do stand in need of the glory that comes from her (cf.
Rom 3:23). How shall what is already glorious be glorified fur-ther? How shall the source of light be illumined? By what we do here, we weave a crown rather for ourselves. “For I live,” says the Lord, “and I shall glorify those who glorify me.” (2
Wine is truly sweet to drink, and bread is a nourishing food. The one gladdens, the other strengthens the human heart (cf. Ps 104:15). But what is sweeter than the Mother of my God? She has captivated my mind; she has kidnapped my tongue! I gaze on her in my thoughts, waking or sleeping. She, who is the mother of the Word, has become the patron also of
my words; the offspring of a barren woman is the one who makes barren souls fruitful. Today we celebrate the sacred event of this woman’s holy departure for heaven!
Come, then, let us approach the mystical mountain. Passing beyond the images of living, material things and into the holy darkness of incomprehensible realities,’ let us enter the divine light and sing the praise of the power beyond all power.
How has he, who came down from his super-essential, immaterial height, beyond all things, into a virgin’s womb, without ever leaving the Father’s heart; who was conceived and made flesh and who willingly walked the way of suffering to death; who has returned again to the Father with a body whose origin is from this earth, winning imperishability by perishing him-self-_-how has he drawn his fleshly mother up to his own Fa-ther, and raised to the land of heaven the one who is called
“heaven on earth”?
2. Today the spiritual, living ladder, by which the Most High has appeared on earth to “walk among human beings” (Bar 3.37), has herself climbed the ladder of death, and gone up from earth to heaven.
Today the earthly table, which without marital experience bore the heavenly bread of life, the coal of divinity, was lifted up from earth to heaven; for her, God’s “gate towards the East” (Ezek 44:1f.; cf. Ps 24:7, 9), the gates of heaven are opened.
Today the living city of God is transported from the earthly Jerusalem to “the Jerusalem which is on high” (Heb 12:22); she who has brought forth, as her own first-born, “the firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15), the only-begotten of the Father (cf. In 1:14), now dwells in the “assembly of the first-born” (Heb 12:23). The living, spiritual ark of the Lord has
“gone up to the resting-place” of her Son (Ps 131:8 [LXX).
The gates of Paradise are opened, and welcome the field that bore God, where the tree of eternal life has grown, to put
an end to the disobedience of Eve and the death imposed on Adam. This Christ, the cause of life for all people, welcomes the cave that has <not been hollowed out the unquarried moun-tain, from whom, without help of human hands, that stone has been cut, which fills the universe (Dan 2:35, 45 [LXXI.
The bridal chamber of the Word’s holy Incarnation has come to rest in her glorious tomb, as in her mansion; when she ascended to the shrine of her heavenly nuptials, to reign in public splendor with her Son and her God, she left her tomb as a bridal chamber for those who live on earth.
? A tomb as a bri-
dal chamber? Yes, and one much more splendid than every other bridal chamber, for it is radiant not with flickering gold or shining silver or brilliant gems, not with silken threads or cloth of gold and spun purple, but with the divine glory of the Holy Spirit. It offers not bodily contact for earthly lovers, but to those linked by bonds of the Spirit it offers the life of holy souls–a state better and sweeter in God’s sight than any other.
This tomb is more lovely than Eden. I need not tell again what happened there_-the “kindness” of our worst enemy, his
“friendly advice” (if I may call it so!), his envy, his deceit, Eve’s weakness, his persuasiveness, the sweet but bitter bait by which her mind was captivated and she captivated her hus-band’s, their disobedience, their banishment, their death: if I tell the whole story, I shall turn our festival into a depressing occasion! But this tomb sent a mortal body from earth to heaven, while Eden brought the mother of our race down to the earth from on high. For was it not there that the one who had been made in God’s image heard the sentence, “You are earth, and to earth you shall return” (Gen 3: 19)?
This tomb is more precious than the tabernacle of old, for it contained the radiant, living lampstand, the table spread with life holding not the showbread but the bread of heaven, not earthly fire but the immaterial fire of God.
This tomb is more richly endowed than the ark of Moses, for its treasure was not shadows and types, but truth itself. For it has displayed to us the vessel of purest gold, which bore the heavenly manna (Ex 16:33; Heb 9:4); the living table of stone, written on by the all-powerful finger of the Spirit, which received God’s Word made flesh–the Word in his own sub-stance; and the golden censer, which gave birth to the divine coal, spreading his fragrance through all creation.
3. Let the demons flee; let the thrice-wretched Nestorians cry out in pain as the Egyptians did of old, and with them their leader, the new Pharaoh, the cruel scourge, the tyrant! For they are buried in the depths of blasphemy. But we, who have been saved with our feet dry, who have walked across the salty sea of impiety–let us sing our song of Exodus to the Mother of God! Let the Church, as Miriam, raise the tambourine in her hands and begin the festal hymn! And let the young maidens of the spiritual Israel cry out loudly “with tambourines and choral songs” (Ex 15:20)!
Let the “kings of the earth, the judges and rulers, the lads and maidens, the old with the young” (Ps 148:11-12), all sing in praise of the Mother of God! Let there be gatherings and speeches of all kinds, let the diverse tongues of the nations and peoples strike up “a new song” (Ps 40:4; 149:1). Let the air resound with the reeds and trumpets of the Spirit, and inaugurate the day of salvation with flashes of fire! Rejoice, O Heavens (Ps 95:11), and “let the heavens rain down rejoicing”(Is 45:8)!
Leap, O rams of God’s chosen flock, you holy Apostles, lifted like lofty mountain-tops by your sublime vision; and you, too, lambs of God, his holy people nourished by the Church and reaching up, in your desire, like foothills towards the mountains (cf. Ps 113:4, 6 [LXX])!
What a remarkable story! The source of life is dead, the mother of my Lord; for it was right that she who was formed of
earth should go home to the earth again, and so rise from there to heaven, taking from the earth the pure life entrusted to it when her body was laid there to rest. It was right that her flesh should rise from the tomb, pure and incorruptible, having cast off the earthy, lusterless mass of mortality like gold in the crucible of death, and that she should shine with the brilliance of incorruption.
4. Today she receives the beginning of a new existence from the one who gave her the beginning of her former exis-tence-she who gave the beginning of a second existence, in a body, to him who had no temporal beginning to his previous, eternal existence, even though he has the Father as the beginning and cause of his own divine being.
Rejoice, O Sion, holy mountain of God, where the living mountain of God dwelt: the new Bethel, where the stone of human nature was anointed by the oil of the divinity (cf. Gen
28:18). From you, she has been taken to the heights, as her Son went up from the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:9-12).4
Let a cloud
be made ready, to cover and embrace the whole world, and let the wings of the wind bring the Apostles from the ends of the earth to Sion. “Who are these, who fly like clouds” (Is 60:8) and eagles towards the corpse (cf. Mt 24:28) which, above all others, deserves to rise again? Who are these who come to venerate the Mother of God? “Who is this who goes up, as white as a flower,” “all beautiful,” resplendent “as the sun”.
(Cant 8:5; 4.7; 6:10) Let the lyres of the Spirit sing–the tongues of the Apostles! Let the cymbals shout the ringing bearers of God’s word! Let the chosen vessel Hierotheos, made holy by the Holy Spirit, who experienced and learned holy things by being united with the Holy One himself, be totally withdrawn from his own body in ecstasy; let him be Wholly transported in his devotion, and strike up the festal hymns! “Let all the nations clap their hands” (Ps 47:2), let all
sing the praise of the Mother of God! Let the angels bow in veneration before this mortal body! Daughters of Jerusalem, walk in procession behind the queen; virgins, young in the Spirit, come near her and be drawn with her towards the bridal chamber (cf. Ps 45:15), to place her “at the right hand of her Lord” (ibid. 10).
Come down, come down, O Lord, and pay your mother the debt you owe her, the return she deserves for having nourished you. Open your divine arms; receive your mother’s soul, you who on the cross entrusted your own spirit into your Father’s hands. Call to her in a gentle whisper, “Come, my beautiful one, my dear one (Cant 2:10; 4:7), you who in your virginity are more radiant than the sun. You gave me a share in what was yours; come, enjoy what is mine! Mother, come to your Son! Come, reign with him who became poor with you by being born from you!” (cf. 2 Cor 8:9) Go, mistress, go! Do not first go up, as Moses did, and then die (Deut 32:49f.), but die, and so go up! Place your soul in the hands of your own Son!
Give what is made of earth to the earth, since that, too, will be raised up with you.
Lift up your eyes, O people of God–lift them up! Look!
The ark of the Lord God of hosts is in Sion, and the Apostles stand bodily around her, paying final respects to the body that is our source of life, the vessel of God. Angels watch round her, too, in reverent fear, incorporeal, invisible, as servants assisting the Mother of their Lord. The Lord himself is there: he is present everywhere, he fills all things and watches over the universe, although no place is simply his, for all things are in him, as the cause who made and sustains them all. Behold the virgin, the daughter of Adam and Mother of God: because of Adam she commits her body to the earth, but because of her Son she gives her body to the heavenly tabernacle above. Let the holy city be blessed! Let it enjoy blessing upon blessing
forever! Let the angels go before the holy tent as it passes on; let them prepare her tomb carefully! Let the radiance of the Spirit beautify it! Let perfumes be made ready, to anoint that wholly spotless, wholly fragrant body. Let a pure wave come and bathe it in blessings from the pure spring of blessing. “Let the earth rejoice” (Ps 96:11), as her body is laid to rest; let the air leap as her spirit ascends! Let the breezes blow, filled with grace as soft as dew! Let all creation celebrate the ascent of the Mother of God! Let choirs of youths cry out, let the tongues of orators flow with lyric praises, let the hearts of the wise reflect on the meaning of this wonder, let the elders–revered for age’s white hairs–peacefully profit from what they have seen! Let every creature make its contribution to this festival, for even all of them together will not achieve a tiny fraction of the praise that is her due.
5. Come, let us all go forth from the world with her in spirit as she departs!” Come, let us go down into the tomb with her, in the love of our hearts! Let us, too, surround that holy bier!
Let us raise holy songs, in words such as these: “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you!” (Lk 1:28) Hail, you who were predestined to be Mother of God!’ Hail, you who were chosen before all ages by God’s will, most holy shoot of the earth, vessel of the divine fire, sacred image of the Holy Spirit, spring of the water of life, paradise for the tree of life, living branch of the holy vine that flows with nectar and ambrosia, river filled with the perfumes of the Spirit, field of divine wheat, rose glowing with virginity and breathing the fragrance of grace, lily robed like a queen, ewe who gave birth to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, workshop of our salva-tion, higher than the angelic powers, servant and mother!
Come, let us surround that spotless tomb and let us drink of God’s grace. Come, let us carry her ever-virgin body in the arms of our spirit, and let us, too, go within the sepulcher; let
us die with her, leaving behind the weaknesses of our bodies and living a pure and passionless life with her. Let us listen to those divine hymns, coming forth from the immaterial lips of angels. Let us bow low and enter that tomb, and let us recognize the wonder of this mystery: she has been raised, she has been lifted up, she has been taken to heaven, she stands by her Son, above all the ranks of angels. For there is nothing be. tween mother and Son!
I have now finished a third funeral oration for you, as well as the first two, O Mother of God, in reverence and love of the Trinity which you served, when through the Father’s pleasure and the Spirit’s power you received the Word without begin-ning, the wisdom and power of God which can do all things.
Receive my good will, then, which far surpasses my powers, and grant me salvation, freedom from my soul’s weaknesses and relief from my body’s ills, a solution to my crises, a peaceful state of life, and the enlightenment of the Spirit. Enkindle our love for your Son, make our lives pleasing to him, so that we may come to share in that blessedness on high, and may see you, radiant in the glory of your Son, and raise our holy songs in eternal rejoicing, in the assembly of those who keep a festival worthy of the Spirit for him who wrought our salvation through you: Christ, the Son of God and our God, to whom be glory and power, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and always and for ages of ages!