"Homilies on the Dormition of Our Most Holy Lady, the Mother of God"
by St. Andrew of Crete
Source Used: On the Dormition of Our Most Holy Lady, the Mother of God, by Andrew of Crete. 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 Our Most Holy Lady, the Mother of God
ON THE DORMITION OF OUR MOST HOLY
LADY, THE MOTHER OF GOD
By St. Andrew of Crete
[1.] The present feast celebrates a mystery that we refer to as
“the falling asleep (dormition; koiunous) of the Mother of
God,” a mystery that exceeds the power of speech. It is a mystery that has not, in the past, been celebrated by many people, but that today is honored and welcomed by all. And this is the
point of our feast: to reveal, to expound the mystery. Even
though this day might choose, if it could, silence over words, it is driven by longing, and so yields to language- in however small a way-the opportunity to speak. Our words, for their part, have little confidence and are not unaware of their weakness, or of how, in all modesty, one ought to avoid saying the unsayable by keeping a deep silence. But the gift must be celebrated, not buried in silence: not because it is some new discovery, but because it has now come to its fitting outward form.
For we ought not to consider this mystery worthy of silence today, just because some in the past were unaware of it; rather, it
is a holy duty to proclaim it now, because it has not escaped our
knowledge altogether. Therefore today let there be one common feast for the dwellers in heaven and on earth, let human beings rejoice along with the angels, and let every tongue join in the chorus and sing “Hail!” to the Mother of God.
Gabriel, after all, did this before us, he proclaimed the preface to this mystery, when the most brilliant moment of God’s self-revelation, the divine formation of Jesus as one like us, took place by an unprecedented and indescribable act of God’s providence, in the workshop of a virgin’s human nature. So we, once again, must offer this gift of thanks and principal honor to the Queen of our race: it is right to say “Hail!” to her, now that she is removed from our midst! She alone has made joy her possession, for all our sakes, and has put to flight the sadness of our first mother.
“Let us blow the trumpet in Sion; let us take up psaltery
and harp!” (Ps 80:3 [LXX]) Let us sing to the Mother of God- sing not a bridal song (ET(a)áuov), but strike up a funeral melody (ÉTUTápLOv). Someone who prides himself on accurate speech will no doubt want to ask, “Why do you recall Sion, you who sing the glory of this holy feast?” Not without purpose, I would say to him. My friend, I recalled holy Sion, for in that mountain we are introduced into the great mystery of the Mother of God.? There marble slabs, laid out as a floor, resounded far and wide under the bending knees of the holy body. For this was her dwelling for the whole time of her presence on earth; there she obeyed the laws of nature, and reached the end of life; there she escaped the Prince of Darkness [at death], just as in giving birth she escaped the pains of motherhood. Her name is holy, her title divine; she is above all stain, she has filled heaven and earth with glory and grace by the greatness of her divine journey.
[2.] If I wished to narrate all her glories in order, I would not find sufficient time to tell of her life, her conception, her birth, nor would I find a power of words equal to those realities. It is impossible to compress all her privileges into a single moment: her noble ancestry, renowned on both sides (for her parents were of priestly rank on one side, of royal on the other); her parents’
childlessness, her mother’s barrenness, their prayers and constant sacrifices for a child, by which they begged and entreated and besought God to release them from the bonds of sterility, to show that the childless can be made fertile and that the barren can bear fruit. Then their release from sterility, the fulfillment of the message–and shortly before that, the visions in dreams, the hearing of voices in the night by her parents, together and singly, in which those saints were enlightened with heavenly knowledge, their prayers answered, in a wisdom that surpassed human sight.
And then, after this, her conception, her development until birth, her infancy, her arrival at God’s Temple; how she was offered as a sacrifice to God, how she traversed its sanctuaries as if they were bridal chambers of gold, and was fed not on common food,
but on ambrosia. Then her return from there, her growing-up,
her change from childhood to youth, and all the signs of human
perfection with which she approached maturity and which corresponded to her supernatural state. I will not mention the mysteries of her utterly unfathomable conception (of Jesus), which was realized in secrecy, nor the supernatural, indescribable theophany of the birth of Jesus which followed- including its freedom from corruption and the pains of childbirth, the stainless
inviolability of her virginal treasure. I will not speak of her strange, miraculous way of nursing, her purification according to the Law, the prophecies given in the Temple, in which the future was foretold by Simeon, a prophet governed both by the Law and by God’s Spirit. Then her persecution, her flight into Egypt, her return from Egypt, her long journeys, her life in the open country, her suffering at the insults that preceded the crucifixion, her grief at the foot of the cross, her lamentation after the crucifixion–all that she said and did, in a word, in the course of such a life. It was a life without spot or stain, utterly filled with every pure and holy quality, a life such as the world cannot grasp, since it cannot interpret it with words or bring it to the light–a life that the world had to respect, until the end, as “the King’s mystery.” Only to those who had been divinely taught to discern divine realities, who had been purified by nearness to the divine, only to them did the Most Holy One make known an offprint, as it were, of this mystery, lifting the intellectual curtain in a silence and an unknowing far above speech, to reveal some portion of the hidden, secret glory within.
[3.] If only we, too, illumined by this present feast of light, could be found worthy of the supernal glory of that light above all light, and could see the mystery clearly for ourselves! If only we could receive at least a modest ray of mystical initiation and express ourselves clearly, even if we are incapable of doing justice to that ineffable life of hers! These are unknowable realities. But at least we can learn, as far as we are able, the meaning of the rites we attend today. Come then, dear initiates of the Word, fellow lovers and gazers after Beauty! I appeal to you, with a great, exalted cry: let me spread out its meaning, still hidden in its symbolic wrappings, for your contemplation! Let me show you all its inner loveliness, surpassing the rays of the sun in its brilliant beauty! Since I have reached this point in my sermon, I think it would be good to warn some of you here, so that I do not throw holy things, as they say, before unwashed or unholy feet:’ the choir of the saints is not accessible or receptive to everyone equally. It is only open to those who have moved beyond all material things in purity of mind, who have crossed the boundary of the world of perception; to those whose “setting sail” is favored by the holy tent of God, and whose “coming home” is honorably prepared there “to those on whom the supplies for this spiritual banquet, at which we feast, have been generously bestowed. For if they who dared to approach Mount Sinai on their own, not worthily, were overwhelmed with lightning and thunder and terrible sights and trumpet-blasts and dreadful threats, and if it was unsafe for the ordinary folk to touch the walls of the tabernacle, so that a second, outer ring of walls was necessary;” and if one had to go to great lengths to purify oneself before touching sacred objects, and to make lengthy preparations before sacrificing; and if all this was for those who worshiped in shadow and had symbolic curtains hung around them, light of truth dwelling within them show care in attempting to approach this glorious and surpassingly great tabernacle of God’s grace! He came to her in a way beyond knowledge, beyond mind and speech, emptying himself. He who is containable in no place made his dwelling in a virgin’s womb without being constricted–a womb that utterly surpassed all mutable nature in purity; and from there, as from the recesses of a temple, he entered the world of flesh. Who did this? He who needs nothing, yet clothed himself with the full wretchedness of human nature. In this tabernacle, formed by God, all the law and the prophets are concretely fulfilled. Here the shadowy forms of things meant only as types fade away, the mirror is dissolved by the truth.
[4.] But we have said enough now by way of preparation. Come, let us put aside figures and run towards truth itself; let us enter the sanctuary! How long, after all, should we tarry in the vestibule of our discourse, admiring the beauty of the entrance, when it is possible to enter with the Mother of the Word, to pull aside the curtain and gaze into the Holy of Holies, to be initiated into greater and more perfect mysteries? If the forecourts of the Temple are so beautiful, the gates so grand and so massive that they dazzle the mind’s eye with their surpassing beauty, what must the inner sanctuary itself be like, the recesses that may never be entered or seen- or that can only be seen by those eyes and mentioned by those lips that clearly mirror the Lord’s glory, have been purified by the coal in the Seraph’s tongs, have attained the highest degree of freedom from passion? If you trust me, as a friendly counselor, you will bid farewell to the lusts of the flesh, you will purge yourself as far as possible from all friendship and commerce with this material world below; you
will put on the blessed and holy light which shines from above,
and walk with the Mother of God.
Once we have begun to shine with radiance in deed and word, brilliant with the beauty of every kind of virtue, then Christ himself-the pure sacrifice, the ever-living light who shines forth from the Father like a sun from the sun, a ray gleaming out without beginning and without motion in distance. -Christ wishes to gather us together as our host. He shows this clearly by taking up his ever-virgin mother from this earth today as Queen of human nature- that mother in whose womb he who is God took our form in a way totally beyond our power to describe. The manner [of her assumption] cannot be told, yet he has not left the meaning of this mystery totally inaccessible to us. For the most holy Virgin did not walk this earth in a way contrary to the laws laid down for us from above; she was not born, nor did she live by rules foreign to those of our nature, even though she received a supernatural pattern of life that was different from ours–in its end as in other respects. She lived, after all, and she gave birth, and finally she left this world, in a way superior to our normal way; so she really surpassed, in greatness of nature, all who live in this world of change.
[5.] Come, then, let us celebrate now in a way that befits her: everything conspires to make this feast more beautiful, to increase our joy! For look, all of you who hear my words, look at what is now before our eyes: the Queen of the nations–I mean the Church of the faithful–today leads the solemn procession for the Queen of our race, who today is received royally into the Kingdom of Heaven by God, the King who rules over all. The Church brings in tribute today her most beautiful and festive possessions. She who turned dust into heaven [i.e., Mary] today strips the dust away, lays aside the veil of this world of change, and gives back to the earth what belongs to it. She who bestowed life ascends to the transformation which is rebirth, and enters the place where life begins and never ends, a place far from all the conditions and complications of matter and the passions. Now, finally, her visible frame rises up from the visible world and is joined to the spiritual in a spiritual way: something only he understands who first joined matter and spirit together, then separated them to rejoin them again–if I may speak boldly and touch upon the intangible! Let no one doubt this, who
thinks of Elijah or Enoch, who both appeared above the visible
world, having put sensation to rest and been released from this
world of flesh-the one carried off in a chariot, the other raised up in the air. Their human parts were not separated, did not decay; but the limits of their lives were set in this world, where Providence places them for all of us- that Providence which arranges all things wisely, and by which past and present are together shaped and led in a consistent, fitting way. If these two men are too modest a parallel to her whom we celebrate today, she herself must suffice as her own criterion and model. Consider, then, if there is any greater miracle on record than what has been accomplished so astonishingly in her. The law of nature has at last grown weak, and slowly falls away. The bitter sentence of death has passed into utter uselessness and is overturned, the power of the curse is destroyed. Yet no one has overturned God’s ancient decrees–least of all he who is himself God by nature, and who transforms us and re-creates all things by his own kindly will. It fully befits him to work this new wonder in his Mother; for thus he not only shows her to be his mother by nature, but gives credibility to the saving plan he has realized through her, which we have extolled so much in our more explicitly spiritual discourses. In this plan of salvation, the Word who is the source of our life burst into our world and incomprehensibly entered her womb, took up our human nature, and supported it, for our sakes, in a supernatural way. Therefore what was once accomplished in her, what we now celebrate, even if it seems to be strange and far beyond the bounds of our nature, still has its ready and understandable explanation in her case, because of the supernatural character of her indescribable childbearing. For (that child] was, after all, the Word, who came to be with us, and who by his law put an end to the relentless law of death.
[6.] It is truly a new spectacle, never before conceived of: a woman who surpasses the heavens in purity of nature enters the holy tabernacle of the heavenly sanctuary; a virgin, who surpasses the very nature of the Seraphim by the miracle of giving birth to God, draws near to God, the first of natures and begetter of all things; a mother, who has brought forth life itself, produces an ending of her own life to match that of her Son. It is a miracle worthy both of God and of our faith! For as her womb was not corrupted in giving birth, so her flesh did not perish in dying. What a miracle! The child put corruption to flight, and the tomb did not admit of corruption- for it has no claim on holy things. What proof is there, you want to know? Let no one here ask in ridicule how her tomb could have been empty. For I will ask you in return: how has her body disappeared? Why was there no shroud in her sarcophagus, if what was laid in the tomb did not escape corruption–if the treasure was not carried away? And if these facts are correct, why was her passing over to heaven not genuine, when the rest of the details were: the separation of her soul from her body, her putting-off of flesh, the end of her incarnate existence, the separation of her parts, their dissolution, their rejoining, their rehabilitation, their removal to the invisible realm? For her sepulcher remains empty until today, as a continuing witness to her passing. I do not know if the parts of her body were all immediately joined to form a single, composite whole–for I shall make little philosophical speculation on these things, since the Creator apparently saw fit, in his inscrutable mind, to honor his mother this way of if each part emerged over the other, one taking its new position on the outside, the other on the inside, after they had all been separated from each other; of if the sequence [of reconstitution] which supernaturally ran its course in her was strange and different, and all happened in a truly new way in her, as she received beyond her own nature a supernatural structure that lies beyond all words and all knowledge of ours.
[7.] To this perfect spiritual banquet of minds, the fleshly mother of the eternal Mind invites us. The royal table is ready, and the subject of our discourse today is enlivened and swelled by God’s mysterious action. All this radiant beauty, shining beyond the power of words in the faces of the guests at the banquet, suffuses our surroundings today. I, too, am a reveller here, though a stranger and a newcomer. Unworthy though I am, I am to lead our exalted contemplation. Let no one refuse to join this feast, on seeing our shabby wretchedness; the mystic story behind these inspired reflections was not prepared by us, but by the Mother of God herself. Since, then, the table is covered with such riches to allure its spiritual guests, let us go, as befits the Spirit, into the Spirit’s depths. Already she, who begot Wisdom itself in the flesh, has imitated Wisdom in her own being and has offered herself completely as a mystical, heavenly banquet-table, prepared for those who are spiritually initiated in divine realities, and she invites us generously to the east. We are not offered slaughtered victims of sacrifices or drinks from a mixing-bowl-not that blessed sacrifice from days gone by, nor that cup filled with God’s own nectar -but meditations on her mysteries, supernatural and truly divine. She who presides at the feast, who invites us to share in it, shows us from her own experience how great the house is which Wisdom has built. She shows us herself as the holy table, bearing in her womb, through God’s dispensation, our Lord and God Jesus Christ, who is nothing other than our life-giving bread- him who is eternal life, holding all creation together, made bread from the leaven of Adam’s dough. Those who approach him in a holy way he leads to new life and transforms into divine reality, cleansing them and making them immortal by making them his own, through participation in a totally new kind of fellowship with him. This, surely, is what refreshes those who love him, what constitutes their very life. It is an excellent, indescribable life; nothing we know in this creation is more exalted than this! He who is beyond all theology, by an incomprehensible self-emptying, bent down in pity for the human race, though he was the source of creation, and chose to come down a second time to share in our poverty, to be mixed into the dough of our race, “‘to share in flesh and blood like us” (Heb 2:14). He who needs nothing, who is full beyond measure, who is rich, did not choose to dwell in this realm of existence by leaving the divinity which is above all essence, but kept unmingled within himself, even after the ineffable union, the natural structures of what had come together, with neither confusion nor separation as the key to the relationship between them. He did not even reveal what he was accomplishing to the angels, nor to the generals of those battalions ranked in the highest heaven- only to one of the chief angels, who served to advance the saving progress of the new mystery. So the Incorporeal One took on a body and joined himself with us in mind and flesh, so that, wholly mingled with our whole substance, he might renew the whole of what he had taken from us.
[8.] This, as far as I can understand it and put it into ready words, is the spiritual table of Wisdom to which God draws us. These are the “orgies” mystically celebrated around her–sacred rites given by God! To these mysteries we must rightfully add the mystery of today, in which the Mother of God, without altering anything of the laws of our nature, obeyed the law laid upon us and completed her life in the flesh under the same conditions as we do, though she entered and left this life in a wonderful way. Let no one be surprised if any privileges above our lot have been given her by the divine nature. Let him simply consider the ineffable, unprecedented mystery realized in her, a mystery infinitely exalted, in an infinite number of ways, beyond all infinity! Certainly all these things are veiled, unspeakable; their rhyme and their reason remain unchanged, but also unuttered. Let us simply celebrate, with shining hearts and splendid rites, the memory of the holy entombment of that tabernacle where our life began. Together with this visible world, let all intelligent creatures, all in heaven and all on earth, who have gathered for the feast, honor the Queen and lead the procession that will involve our whole race. The body which became the altar of propitiation for us all he took from her body, and it became a temple not made by hands, lordly and rich in salvation, sharing in all our natural and spiritual activity except sin alone. O, the wonder of it! She who supernaturally received the infinitely great God, to whom all limit is foreign, into the small space of her womb, today is borne on the small space of a bier, tended by holy hands. She who enthroned in her bosom the one who rides on the backs of Cherubim, is laid in the bosom of a tomb carved from the rock. She at whose child the angels sang in wonder, today is sent on her way, in her earthly tabernacle, accompanied by the solemn chorus of the Apostles. Who can explain what happened there? Who is worthy to be a match for this mystery? Who can so fit his mind with wings that he can soar up to the miracle and experience communion with it? Who, to speak of more modest things-~-who, even among those writers second only to the Apostles, could describe for us the ebb and flow of our material composite? Our nature is powerless for this; it is struck dumb by the incomprehensibility of its own structure. When it turns its energy to consider this wonder, it cries out the inspired words of David towards the God of all things: “Your knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is overpowering -I cannot attain it!” (Ps 138:6 [LXX) Our mind does not only wonder at our own construction, our human composite, or even our dissolution into the elements; now it also speaks out a baffling oracle about this our Queen, his immaculate and illustrious Mother–reports a miracle that we know is common to us all, yet proper to her, and understood completely, for all ages, only by him who is alone creator of all things and worker of this mystery.
[9.] This is our frame that we celebrate today- our formation, our disintegration. So I gather my forces, I honor the mystery in fear, and I join in the cry of Isaiah, the most outspoken of the prophets, as he says: “Woe is me! I am finished! For I am a man of unclean lips!” (Is 6:5) And yet I have dared to speak about the pure and spotless one, who is filled with all holiness; I have tried to utter her praise in a funeral oration, though clouds cover her ascent from view, though a spiritual mist swirls around any logical explanation of her mystery and does not allow us to express clearly the understanding which that mystery conceals. God alone can praise her worthily; in ways that he alone understands, he has “done great things to her” (Lk 1:49). This is not in my power–I lie on the ground, and do not fully understand even the earth under my feet, for lack of moral virtue. Shall I not, then, be ashamed to speak of what is beyond my worth, if I cannot even speak of what corresponds to it? But since even the little that lies within our power is never wholly contemptible, I have used my speech to shatter the silence, and I offer my discourse to God, to whom be glory and power for all the ages of ages!
Homily II: On the Dormition of Our Most Holy Lady, the Mother of God
ON THE DORMITION OF OUR MOST HOLY LADY, THE MOTHER OF GOD. By St. Andrew of Crete
[1.] All you who have come to this venerable sanctuary of the Mother of God, draw near me, I beg you, and help me today as I struggle to speak, overpowered by the loftiness and the profundity of this wonderful occasion. Let us ascend the summit of the heights, so to speak, and let us hesitantly peer from there into the mysteries of God. Let us listen to a funeral oration!
The saving Word, who is good beyond all goodness, who subsists in himself above all being yet has lived out on earth, in flesh, the whole of God’s plan for our sakes-who fulfilled the ancient prophecies about himself by revealing our reality in himself and his whole reality in us–has now filled heaven and earth with glory, and has made all creation rich with his sacred splendor. He has conquered the author of evil, after grappling with him on the cross, and by his own struggle with death he has destroyed its tyranny over us. He has devastated the unspeakable regions of the underworld and all their domination, sealing up hell’s voracious belly so that it might never again hold the godlike souls of his holy ones in its power.
It was right, in my judgment, that the lawful claims marked out by the ancient curse should not simply be declared void.
For it was God’s voice that ordered those once formed from earth to return there, so that human nature might not be freed from its bondage to growth and decay until it had first been made earth again. And it was necessary that “he who was made like his brothers and sisters in all things except sin” (Heb
2:17) should show in himself all the marks of our nature.
Though he was God, he became human out of love for human-ity, and tasted our sufferings for one reason only: to show how close he had drawn to us, so that by the passion of the impassible one we might be placed outside passion’s power. For this same reason, he accepted even the experience of corruption, he mingled with the dead and entered the cheerless realm of the underworld, so that we might escape the bonds that awaited us there and might pass over to the world of incorrup-tion. Nevertheless, we shall not escape bodily death as a result, since we have received our immortal being and have been created anew not in our nature, but only by the gift of grace.
[2.] Why do I say all this, my brothers and sisters? What has led me to speak of these things? Simply this: if we are to touch on the mysteries of [Mary’s] supernatural departure, we must, at least briefly, turn our attention in the direction of our Lord and God Jesus Christ, and then, in proper order, link what we say about him to our subject of today. For since it is the necessary lot of all human beings to die once (cf. Heb 9:27), since this is simply the inescapable fate of our nature–indeed, at the start of our history we received this sentence from our creator, because of our disobedience for this reason the Lord died once and for all, becoming the ransom for the one death that faces us all, in order to free us all, in a single act, from death’s bitter tyranny: to free “those,” as the sacred writer says, “who all their lives were held fast in slavery by fear of death” (Heb 2:15). “What?”, some may ask; “shall we, then, not die that death?” Indeed, we shall die; but we shall not remain enslaved by death, as once we did when we were bound by it through the legal bond of sin. “If that is true,” someone may reply, “then death is not really death!” There are indeed some, in fact, who will escape it; but “they shall be changed,” according to divine revelation (1 Cor 15:51). It is death’s tyr-anny, real death, when we who die are not to be allowed to return to life again. But if we die and then live again after death–indeed, live a better life–then clearly that is not so much a death as a sleep (koíunous; “dormition”), a passage into a second life, which brings us as migrants from here to there and sends us on our way by giving us complete release from earthly cares. The author of Proverbs expressed this more clearly than I when he said, “Death, for a man, is rest” (cf. Sir 38:23). For by death God puts an end to his labor, so that he no longer has to act in the way that his nature requires. What else can we understand death to be, but the separation of soul from body, which calls forth our hope for resurrection by so separating our bodily parts that they must be joined together again?
This leads us to believe, in hope, that we will be brought to share in incorruption and enjoy a better lot, since we are no longer enslaved to sin by a life caught up in the desires of the flesh–a life, in other words, directed towards sensible things.
[3.]If, then, he is Lord of life and death, the life of all people and the resurrection of the dead–if he is “the light of the world” (In 8:42), who “with his own death annihilated the one who had power over death” (Heb 2:14)-then surely, in the love for humanity that constrained him (cf. 2 Cor 5:14f), he would not have thought it right to bypass even this law of death and leave it unfulfilled. Intending, rather, to be like us in all things, and to prove that he had strictly followed the same path that we do, even down into the earth, he chose to be held by the same bonds that hold us, “walking in the midst of the shadow of death,” as Scripture says (Ps 22:4 [LXX]). So he spent three days in the depths of the earth, where the souls of those who died before him lay wrapped in unbreakable chains. He proclaimed the good news to them, as St. Peter tells us: “Going also to the spirits in prison, he preached to them” (1 Pet 3:19).
How, then, can it be anything but completely and undeniably Clear that the souls of all people, even those of the saints, enter into that place of darkness but are not detained there: none, that is, but those who have brought death on themselves by sinful self-indulgence in this life? (see Lk 16:19, 25) For surely the souls of all who submit to God’s law and show, in the Holy Spirit, a heavenly pattern of life while they are still in the flesh, will be taken from there to a place of light that more befits the holy state of the saints–a place over which the Lord keeps watch, and which his eyes and his word guard forever (cf. Zach 4:10 [LXX]). As for the beauty and greatness of that place, its infinite blessedness and its loveliness that exceeds even the mind’s power to comprehend, they will doubtless see all these things more clearly and more profoundly who have drawn closer to God than we have; when they have come to the end of this life’s course, they will receive the rest that is reserved for them by the Providence that so wisely guides all things.
So the souls of the saints will go through the gates of the underworld, as we have explained, “for the disciple is not above his master” (Mt 10:24). But I do not believe they will be detained there as souls were once, when, as Scripture says,
“sin ruled along with death” (Rom 5:21). They shall pass through [those gates]-listen carefully! -not to be destroyed, but to be examined and to be initiated there into the strange mystery of God’s plan of salvation: I mean the descent into the underworld which Jesus, the source of our life, willingly accomplished for our sakes, having undergone death on a cross even though he was himself above both suffering and destruc-tion. In addition, souls will be taught the supernatural meaning of what he accomplished there: how great and wonderful a victory the Savior won in that battle, when he destroyed the everlasting gates [of the enemy].
[4.] All of this, then, we recall from sacred Scripture; and what has just been explained to you is not beside the point of what we are about to say. In fact, it now flows most fittingly from this, I think, for us also to try and grasp the hidden, glorious mystery of the dormition of her who was holy from her birth and always remained a virgin: to discourse also of these things before a people who love what is good, and who long to gaze on the good more deeply. Indeed, if I must speak the truth, the death that is natural to the human race even reached as far as Mary: not that it held her captive as it holds us, or that it overcame her–far from it! But it touched her enough to let her experience that sleep that is for us, if I may put it this way, a kind of ecstatic movement towards the things we only hope for during this life, a passage that leads us on towards transformation into a state like that of God. Mary’s death was, we might say, a parallel to that first sleep, which fell upon the first human being when his rib was removed to complete the creation of our race, and he received flesh to take the place of what had been taken away. In the same way, I think, she fell into a natural sleep and tasted death, but did not remain held by it; she simply followed the laws of nature and fulfilled God’s plan, which the Providence that guides all things laid down for us from the beginning. Her role, surely, was to show us clearly the way she has moved through transformation from a corruptible state to an incorruptible one- something that is only thinkable if a natural dissolution of these elements of our body should take place first, and if then the life that has melted away should be forged anew.
If, as the saying goes, “there is no one who will live and not see death,” then she whose praises we sing today is clearly both human and more than human, since she kept the same law of nature that we must keep, yet in a way not like us but beyond us, it seems, and beyond the reason for which we are forced to suffer it. This, then, is how I suggest you understand her descent into the underworld: the period of time for which death and bodily decay held power over ner-in my judgment, at least–was only as long as was necessary for her to move, at natural speed, through unknown regions and to come to know them first-hand, regions where she had never set foot before and which she was now crossing as in a journey through foreign, uncharted territory.
[5.] Be gracious towards us, O Virgin, vessel of God and bearer of life; forgive us as we dare to penetrate the unknown, as we search the hidden mysteries of your life, as we struggle to understand what God has determined to accomplish in you, the unsearchable abyss of his judgments. The attempt to gaze at these mysteries with the mind’s eye puts fear even into those blessed with the highest intellectual gifts; how much more frightening, then, is it to us who are fleshly in mind, who can only cover the wild beast within us in sheep’s clothing! All we have tried to show thus far, with great timidity, is that you shared with us in the laws of nature. But the higher wonders achieved in you, O most blessed one-wonders that you also share by first-hand experience-are too pure and too divine, as you know better than we, to be expressed in our human words.
Your only-begotten Son, who brought all the ages into being, has clothed you with fitting glory and radiance before all oth-ers, because he was conceived and given human substance in flesh that you provided. Your glory is such that none of us, perhaps not even one of the higher angels, can grasp it with our minds. Let it all remain honorably wrapped in the mysterious obscurity of God, and preserve its reality and its truth un-shaken, until the final restoration of all things.?
[6.] But that you might not send us away without some share, at least, in the story of the marvels God has worked in you, speak a word to us, as Mother of the Word, and tell us how you finally did depart from this world. For now every hearer of God’s word, past and present, stands and turns his ear towards you, hoping to hear your voice, just as once Israel longed to hear the voice of God. And your voice, now sounding from on high more powerfully than any trumpet (cf. Ex 19:9-16), proclaims, “I broke none of the laws of human nature, but having accomplished all in a new, yet fully appropriate way, ‘I magnify the Lord in my soul, and rejoice in my spirit’ (cf. Lk 1:46), while in my body I am changed and take on a new form, sharing by grace in God’s own being. And the source and final form of that transformation into God, I confess, is the form taken by him who is God above all, and who became flesh in an indescribable way in my womb, when he remade his own humanity into something divine. Through a share in the Spirit, he bestowed this grace on us, whom he had never abandoned, when he ascended from earth to heaven along with that body.
Moved by his care for the human race, he looked upon the lowliness of his handmaiden’ (Lk 1:47) and decreed an end to the curse of the first Eve. By his appearing in the flesh, he has overshadowed ‘those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death’ (Lk 1:78; cf. 1:35), rising ‘like the dawn from on high’ (Lk 1:78), and he has ‘guided our feet into the way of peace’ (ibid.). Though he is truly God, he became human in me, in a spiritual way, from a virgin’s blood,’ bringing about a conception and growth that were unknown to our nature. So, by a new relationship of both natures, he destroyed the old order and brought in the new order that will never grow old, so that all things might become new–in truth, a new creation–through this new, most praiseworthy incarnation of the Word.
“When was it ever heard, after all, before our time, that a woman had become Mother of God? Or that God called himself a woman’s son? Or that a human form was revealed, by a divine birth, as being above the cherubim and as ruling all things? Who ever taught God’s worshippers, both in heaven and on earth, to worship as Lord, in one indivisible act of adoration, clay made divine, earth raised on high? Who ever raised the farthest bounds of humble, earth-bound humanity to heaven, letting it float upwards, by divine gift, past the limits of its nature? Who ever made the inaccessible seem accessible, blazing a new and unknown path for the inhabitants of the earth, so that human beings might be revealed as fellow-citizens with the angels? These were the ‘great things’ that so clearly came to pass in me; these were the reasons I received such glory and brilliance as my lot. Therefore, with good rea-son, ‘henceforth all generations shall call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name’ (Lk 1:48f.). What, after all, is greater than to be called-and to be – the Mother of God?
[7.] “As for my departure from human company, you may derive a clearer understanding of it by considering that place from which my material, earthly dwelling- I mean my virgin body, of which God took hold to form, from different elements, the one Jesus”-was transported to its new home. Anyone who chooses can confirm what I am saying with his own eyes. For before the gaze of those who look on holy things with faith, there stand here clear images (ElkóvES), eloquent representations of my passing.’ This tomb [which you see in the icon] is that one carved out of rock, which stands intact even today, proclaiming with soundless voice the evidence of my burial. The hollows of that rock are incontrovertible witnesses that my body lay within it, showing -in sacred art- the gracious form of my limbs. And this foremost of torrents, Kedron, by which the whole scene is surrounded, trumpets forth these miracles loud and clear: it is the Valley of Weeping (cf. Jg 2:5; 2 Kg 5:23 [LXXJ), I tell you, where the tomb of Josa-phat, king of Judah, was erected (but cf. 1 Kg 22:57), and where the blessed passion of the impassible one had its beginning. There the Savior often met with his disciples (In 18:2); there he prayed on his knees to his Father in heaven, asking that the cup, which in accord with God’s ineffable plan he had previously desired, be taken away (Mk 14:36 par). There he was kissed by his betrayer, and became the prisoner of those who murdered God. Those who have visited the place will know all of this more reliably from their own experience.’
Let anyone who doubts what I say go there himself, and learn my meaning first hand; but let the believer be content with what I say, and learn from images about what he has not seen, so that he may come to marvel at marvelous things!
“This, at any rate, is how my burial took place. As for the manner of my passing over [to heaven], it had its own peculiar dignity, above the lot of every other mortal, even though the change itself will be common to you all. My passing was greater than words can say or ears can hear, even though it resembled the pattern of earlier events. What is this place of my rest? Is it a place perceptible by the sense, or graspable by the to form, fre mind? Not at all! Who, then, can see it, who shall understand it? No creature, except those who have come here by that freedom from passion that only limitless grace can supply, and who have been found worthy to enjoy in this place the delights of being made like God. As my ancestor David said, ‘[I will go] into the place of the wonderful tabernacle, as far as the house of God, with cries of rejoicing and praise, and the sound of celebration’ (Ps 41:5f. [LXX).”
[8.] So speaks the Mother of God, from whose tongue drips the sweet nectar of the Spirit, for “grace has been poured out upon her lips” (Ps 44:3 [LXXI). What may we say beyond this, brothers and sisters? We can only marvel at the immensity of God’s provident care, which guides all things so wisely; we can only say, “O depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inexorable are his judgments, how unsearchable his ways,” and all the words that follow (Rom 11:33f.). These things are certainly the work of God’s hand, and are above human understanding. Even to turn one’s mind to such things brings fear to the most noble and purified heart; how much more, then, to me, whose lowly mind creeps along the ground and can think of nothing but matter and clay and the other things that change and pass away! For this reason, I tremble and reel at the thought that the greatness of this day might be spoiled or made trivial by the sordid efforts of my brazen yet ineffectual oratory.
Someone truly eager for knowledge might well wonder why none of the sacred writers, as far as we know, wrote about the immaculate, supernatural passing of the Mother of God, or left us any account of it at all, in the way they composed the divine book of the Gospels or gave us other revelations of the mystery of God. Our answer is: she whom God took as his own fell asleep much later [then the events of the Gospels]for it is said that she had reached extreme old age when she departed from this world. Or perhaps the times may not then have favored a full account of these events; it was not appropriate for those sowing the seed of the news of God’s saving plan to speak in detail of these things, at the same time they were writing the Gospels, since these events needed another, specific and very deliberate kind of treatment, not possible at that mo-ment. If, on the other hand, the reason for their silence is that the inspired writers were only telling the story of God’s plan of salvation up to the end of the Word’s presence among us in flesh, and that they simply did not [choose to] reveal anything that happened after Jesus was taken up from the earth, I can accept this as well. But lest some wonder why we have so much to say, while tradition is completely silent about today’s mys-tery, I think it would be good to add to my own words what have been able to find [in the tradition], to support and confirm what I propose for your reflection. For even if the mystery appears only obscurely in sacred literature, it has not remained completely unmentioned in their pages.
19.] It was, in fact, referred to by a man learned in sacred doctrine, who, they say, investigated holy things with wisdom and erudition, and to whom hints of the mysterious representations of super-celestial minds were revealed, in a way worthy of the angels. In addition, the indescribable revelations that were made to Saint Paul were passed on to him, because of his outstanding purity: revelations that included the divine names–names more radiant than light, names the very universe cannot contain, because they lie beyond all obscurity and ineffability. “Who was this?” you ask me. Should I omit his name, and let the man be known to you simply by the characteristics that mark him, as the lion is known by his claws? I think the man is not wholly unknown to anyone even somewhat aware of his great gifts; so let us mention his name, in the hope that will make his word more credible.
The man was Dionysius. He knew much about divine reali-ties, heard great secrets about heaven and about the many forms and shapes of the unspeakable names of God. In his holy book On the Divine Names, in the third chapter-where he is writing about what power there is in prayer, and about the blessed Hierotheos, and about reverence and the way one should write of God- he digresses to tell us various things about that holy man [Hierotheos]. He writes to Timothy [the addressee of the book] as follows:
“We have observed this rule very carefully, that we would not attempt to paraphrase what the divine guide [i.e., Hi-erotheos] himself said clearly, or give in explanation the same thing as his own words. Once he was with our inspired hierarchs, a time when, as you know, we and you and many of our holy brethren had come together to gaze at the body that was our source of life, the vessel of God.
James, God’s brother, was there, and Peter, our leader, the senior and most outstanding among those who spoke of God. After we had seen her, it seemed right to all the hi-erarchs, as each was able, to sing the praises of the limitless power and goodness of that weakness that gave birth to God. Hierotheos, as you can imagine, surpassed all the other participants in this sacred event, except for the divine spokesmen [- the Apostles] themselves. He was wholly in ecstasy, rapt completely beyond himself; he experienced a union with the realities he was praising. Because of all he heard and saw, because of what he knew and of what exceeded his knowledge, he was recognized to be an inspired man–a singer of God’s praises.”
[10.] O truly divine mind and tongue, to be initiated into such mysteries and to utter such sounds! Who will provide my ears even with distant echoes of these heavenly songs of praise? If those who lived on such an exalted plane, whose minds’ contemplation was so unmingled with lowly things, admired his hymns so greatly, what must the objects- -or more precisely, the object–of that praise be? Dionysius’ words continue:
“But what shall I tell you about what they said there of God? Unless my memory deceives me, I know I often heard from your own lips phrases from those inspired songs–such is your care not to approach divine things in a careless way. Let us, then pass over those sacred events, because they cannot be communicated to the masses and because you know about them yourself already.”
So writes Dionysius, the exalted interpreter of our knowledge of God, the soaring eagle, the one mind most adept at depicting the divine. It is right, I think, not to rush hastily past what he has written, but to stay with it as long as we can, and to penetrate the depth of his thought;” the knowledge we long for will be revealed to us there more vividly, and more clearly, too. And you, my venerable audience~-you must consider the meaning of what I am about to say, so that you may grasp the point of these mysteries we are celebrating, and know what a great multitude has gathered here [i.e., in the icon of the Dormition], and who they are. Let the holy seer lead us on, proclaiming this wonder as a prophet proclaims his oracles!
[11.] Come, then, let us descend the steps of unforgettable Sion (cf. Ps 137:1)for there we had gathered in my dis-course, a short while ago, there where the Mother of God had her earthly dwelling. It is time now to accompany her virgin body on its way from there, in a funeral procession. The Mother of God has committed her soul to him in whose hands all our souls rest; she has finished her life in the flesh. So, having begun the solemn cortege, let us join to our opening hymn a commemorative ode fitting for a funeral; in that way our words will flow in abundance, and what we have said already will reach full clarity in explanation. To do this each of you must come with me, dear friends–walk on to that holy place, Gethsemane, and see it with the radiant, joyful eyes of your mind; imagine these marvels clearly for yourself, and join what I have already said with the story’s end. If you gaze on the events themselves, you will not need long speeches to lead you to true knowledge; 2 «for all things are clear to those who understand, all paths straight for those who have discovered knowledge” (Prov 8:9 [LXXJ).
There [in Gethsemane] you will find a splendidly decorated Church, and rich, shining ornaments will surround you.
Beneath this superbly constructed house of God, recognize the bridal chamber, the tomb of the virgin Mother of God. Gaze with eyes of faith at the reclining limbs of that royal lady, as she is painted by the sacred artist. The chamber, hollowed out of the rock by other-than-human hands, has been dug at no great distance from the place of her funeral rites; there her holy tabernacle [i.e., her body] has been carried. You will find there
the assembly of holy teachers, all gathered together at the right moment and recognized by the mysterious working of the contemplative mind. The sacred seer tells us that they had arrived at the same time, in God’s inexplicable providence a gather. ing of holy men beyond easy counting.
112.] In order to grasp more easily the meaning of what they said, come, let us be drawn into the mysteries by the Holy Spirit, and let us make the Mother of the Word the patroness of our words, too. As giver of good gifts, she is nearby, teaching us and explaining the things that are beyond our comprehension. And come to my aid as well, O teacher initiated into the vision of the incomprehensible, O priest of the true tabernacle!!
Be a guide
for one who longs to linger with you; lead my understanding directly to the meaning of what I seek, and let me grasp it in mystical contemplation.
The divine author shows us in his own words that nearly the whole company of holy apostles was gathered for that great and venerable event, that climactic spectacle in the life of the Mother of God. All the disciples, scattered over the whole earth, were brought together then at once; he himself was with them, along with the wise and holy Timothy and Hierotheos.
For he writes, “When we, as you know, and you and many of our holy brothers had come together to gaze at the body that was the source of life, the vessel of God…” The “body that was the source of life” we understand as none other than the virginal tabernacle that received God, from which the one who exists beyond all essence took the humanity that he made di-vine. Coming in truth to [share in our essence, he made it his own in a super-essential way. The phrase here [of Dionysius] does not refer to the Lord’s body, since those who after his passion believed in him were not all present with him before his passion. And by “inspired hierarchs,” I understand him to be referring clearly to the members of the company of disci
ples, as the principal spokesmen of the Word. It is nothing to wonder at, if the Spirit that once raised Elijah and carried him off in heaven’s fiery chariot now brought them together all at once, in the Spirit, through the clouds. All things are easy for God, as we know from the story of Habakkuk and Daniel.14
[13.] How many do you imagine there were then, dear friend, gathered from all points of the compass to be with her?
Dionysius speaks of “many of our holy brethren,” so it seems clear that the seventy, those appointed disciples of Christ in second place, were also present in that divinely chosen gather-ing. For it was right both that [the Twelve], the protagonists and willing witnesses of the mystery [of Christ] should be there, and that some others, too, should be brought together by the Holy Spirit in that moment- -others who stood next to them in rank, because they shared after them in the responsibility of speaking divine things. Dionysius makes this clear when he adds, “James, brother of God, was there, and Peter, the leader and first in seniority among those who spoke of God.” One is struck with wonder at the thought that all of them arrived at the same time!
What happened then, what events followed when they all had arrived in Jerusalem, accompanied by an immense crowd, Dionysius’s next statement makes clear. “After we had seen her,” he says, “it seemed right to all the hierarchs, as each was able, to sing the praises of the limitless power and goodness of the weakness that gave birth to God.” Let us consider, then, what they had seen-_-what this beauty was, and what godly language they used to praise the loveliness in which the Lord delights–if the eyes of our minds can conjure up such things!
The sight that then appeared so radiant and beautiful to those inspired men would have been, I imagine, the splendid, shining vision of the Virgin’s earthly frame: the condition in which the Mother of God’s body appeared, radiating life and all light,
far above us and yet a body like our own. Jesus, the author of our life, has made available to us, from this body, the source of divine life; he transformed the first springing-forth (drapxn) of our redemption into a spring of life (Guns dpxnv),’ shaping it anew for his own purpose in a supernatural way, from the Virgin’s womb. “If the first-fruits (dnapx”) are holy,” the Apostle says, “then the whole mass is so as well; and if the root is holy, then the branches are also” (Rom 11:16).
- ] The body of the Mother of God, then, is a source of life [for us], because it received into itself the whole life-giving fulness of the Godhead; it is the precious bridal-chamber of virginity, the heaven above us, the earth that brings forth God, the first-fruits of Adam’s mass made divine in Christ, exact image of [creation’s] original beauty, divinely confirmed guardian of God’s unspeakable judgments, dwelling-place of human perfection, spiritual book of God’s words of redemption, inexplicable depth of the endless “full-ness that fills all things” (Eph 4:10), impregnable fortress of our hidden hopes, treasury of a purity beyond our understand-ing, royal robe of the Word who is beyond all beginnings and who became a human being, earthly palace of the heavenly King, celebrated workshop for God’s dealings with us, utterly suitable material for the divine embodiment, divine and perfect clay for the sculptor of all creation–from whom he who is above all substance came to share, wholly and truly, in our substance, and took on a substance like ours, for our sake. 16
] Oh, truly blessed were those eyes, and the lips that praised these things! Who could interpret these mysterious sights with the tongue? Who is the most shining vessel of spiritual light? She was the lamp, by which our nature supernaturally received the sun of justice.! She is the spiritual mirror for the ray that shines forth from the Father. By her ra-diance, we are illuminated with the God who is, before the
morning star (cf. Ps 110:3). She is the throne exalted on high, on which the Lord of Hosts is seated, in the vision of that most far-seeing of all the prophets, Isaiah (Is 6:1). She is the standard of royalty for the heavenly race, the sanctuary where all sacred worship and sacrifice takes place, the spiritual altar for the divine holocaust, the tongs for the purging coal (Is 6:6f.), the Levites’ staff (cf. Num 17:16-26), the root of Jesse (cf. Is
11:10), the sceptre of David (cf. Ps 89:44?)-mother of him who formed us, nurse of him who nourishes us, gate for the rising Christ, who ascends from the depths of dawn (cf. Lk 1:78), narrow bosom sheltering the one who contains all things, spotless vestment of the lamb who is shepherd (cf. Apoc 7:1417), unyoked heifer of the fatted calf, pure fleece drenched by the heavenly dew (cf. Jg 6:36-40), virgin earth for Adam’s re-creator (cf. Gen 2:7), heaven for him who made earth into heaven, great vision of the prophets: vision which the saints [of old] saw “in many patterns and many modes” (cf. Heb 1:1), when they taught us in symbols of their mystic conceptions of God and prefigured the great mystery of God’s plan of re-demption. She is the great world in miniature, the world containing him who brought the world from nothingness into being, that it might be the messenger of his own greatness.
[16.] How could they fail to wonder as they saw her, lying on her funeral couch with her bodily powers now at rest-_-her who had been so honored and graced by the God who creates and contains all things? This, I believe, is what the sacred seer means when he speaks of “the limitless power and goodness of the weakness that gave birth to God.” What they all saw surely filled them with fear: the bearer of life, now borne away by death; her who spoke with God, now voiceless; her who bore life in her womb as in an ark, now dead, breathless, lying on a couch. If these things are <not foreign to our nature, still they are no less wonderful.!
There are spiritual mysteries here, for
one who can see God’s work in a spiritual way: childbirth and virginity (cf. Lk 1:34f.); words that speak of divine care and judgment, exaltation and submission, greatness and humility (cf. Lk 1:46f., 52). Here the form of her body obscured the brilliant rays of the sun. Here mortality becomes immortal, blinding the eyes of the beholders. Here are riches that fill all heaven and earth. It is a new spectacle, the most spectacular of all we have witnessed. What is this but the Mother of God, his tabernacle, lying on the ground: she from whom God came forth, manfully bearing our humanity as his trophy Christ the head, in whom the mass of our nature, formed from the earth, was transformed and made divine?
This was what they saw; this is the story–and greater, in all likelihood, than what we have so poorly narrated here!
What was their song? What did they celebrate? May Christ be with us, and give us words to recount this, for he is Word and Wisdom and Power; may he guide our minds on his way, towards the shining splendor of the heavenly anthems.’ And may our minds always be able to see these things clearly; may we be illumined and strengthened by them in him, Christ our Lord, to whom be glory and power, with the almighty Father and the life-giving Spirit, now and always and for ages of ages.
Homily III: On the Dormition of Our Most Holy Lady, the Mother of God
ON THE DORMITION OF OUR MOST HOLY LADY, THE MOTHER OF GOD
By St. Andrew of Crete
1. ] The continuity of what we have to say calls us back, once again, to the festival. Indeed, we must add what is still missing to all we have said, so that our discourse may be complete and unbroken, free of all gaps and disjunctions. In the earlier sections we spoke briefly, as best we could, about the [disciples”] vision of that life-giving body, the virginal tabernacle that was the Mother of God. What remains is to describe the hymn that then was sung, and the message that it conveyed. Let no one blame me now for boldness or rashness, if I attempt such a lofty theme; I did not rely on the powers of my own speech when I composed the oration now in my hands, but only on the assurance of your prayers; and I was constantly concerned to keep the tone of what I am about to say, as far as possible, modest and lowly. Even so, my address is not meant to trivialize this mystery, although it is an attempt–rather brash, perhaps–to deal for the first time with an unconventional theme, to speak of what has not been addressed before. So if our present discourse should contain, perhaps, notions few people have reflected on, let no one wonder; we have considered them our-selves, in a speculative way, to the extent that our mind could reach them–but even the angels could hardly grasp them with precision!
2.] That countless company of inspired human witnesses is gathered together, as we have already said, and all the spiritual orders of heavenly powers, perhaps, are hovering invisibly above, gathered for this wonderful spectacle. The holy
souls of the saints are there, too, I think, drawn together by clod around her bed: these are the ones the Book of Canticles, in its spiritual meaning, called “the young men” (Cant 1:61. It is fitting, after all, that the souls of those who have finished their lives and are now made like God should gather near the queen of our nature, to go before her on her way- to lead her and be her escort, and to begin the final hymns in her honor. In the midst of them, before the gaze of them all, lies the body of the Mother of God: three cubits in height, radiant with light–the body that received the complete fullness of God’s Word, who rules all things. You can see it lying on a couch: that body that has filled all creation with the fragrant myrrh of holiness.
[3.] What mind, what tongue could find adequate words for what they see there? Everything exceeds the bounds of our ignorance, the limitations of our sight, in more than infinite measure. For this reason, those chosen ones, whom God inspired with a share in his Holy Spirit, found the abundance of light within them transformed into ecstasy, from the sheer gladness and joy God gave them to revel in; so they began to sing–gone in response to the other, as each best was able_-divinely inspired hymns that were poetic evocations of her falling asleep. These were not hymns such as we ourselves could understand, or such as one of us might compose; but they were hymns that the Spirit taught these men to sing, and enabled them to hear.
This was the hymn, these were the themes sung and heard by those singers, limitlessly soaring above our lowly human harmony and concord. It lacked little or nothing by comparison to the song of the angels feasting in heaven, whose height and depth, whose limitless beauty is not for us rashly to de-scribe; we have, after all, never tasted such sweetness our-selves, and should rather honor it by silence’ as something
incomprehensible, unutterable. The only subjects safe for us to consider are those “in which success is pleasant and failure is not dangerous,”?
subiects that neither offend the learned nor
bore the ignorant. Still, even though that hymn and what it celebrated were beyond our comprehension, it might yet be possible, within our own limitations, to give an impression of it all by speaking as follows:
[4.] “This is the final goal of the covenants God has made with us; this is the revelation of the hidden depths of God’s in-comprehensibility. This is the realization intended before all the ages; this is the crown of God’s oracles, the inexplicable, supremely unknowable will of him who has cared for humanity since before creation began. This is the first-fruit of God’s communion with his creation, of his identification, as maker of all things, with what he has made. This is the concrete, personal pledge of God’s reconciliation with humanity, the surpassing beauty of God’s own sculpture, the perfectly-drawn portrait of the divine model. This is the first step to all ascent, to all con-templation; the holy tabernacle of him who made the world; the vessel that received the inexhaustible wisdom of God; the inviolate treasury of life. This is the spring of divine radiance, which can never be drunk dry; the impregnable stronghold, raised so high over all of us in its purity that it can never be conquered by passion. Through this woman, the pledge of our salvation has been made and kept, in that this marvelous creature has both reached the limits of our lot and has paid the common debt proper to our nature. And if not all the features of her life were the same as ours, that is due simply to her nearness to God.
[S.]”It is easy to show her supreme freedom from passion.
Which of the qualities that we consider truly great did she not acquire, with virtues enough and to spare? What remarkable gift was not hers, in order to reveal God’s wonders? She was, quite clearly, the repository of all the miraculous things that
have either come to pass before our time or are still being achieved; this present miracle is simply the latest in the series, even though it was decreed before all time–so it is that God’s will decides in advance the end of each of our lives. O Provi-dence, whose final purpose no mortal has ever plumbed, whose path none has ever traced! The mystery of the Virgin, now being accomplished, is your work! For it is a mystery, even if we consider our own end: this is our lot, after all, set aside for human nature from the beginning!’ But how has the wall been broken down–the wall built by sin? How have the fetters woven by transgression been loosed? How has death come to be regarded simply as an everyday sleep? Fear is gone, no longer haunting the little ones in Christ. Yet if it were not God’s own dwelling-place who died, would the corruption sowed by disobedience be dispelled? Yes–it has been dis-pelled, since Christ died before her! Nature itself has been called forth from the condemnation of corruption, has taken on a new state, rooted in incorruption. What a transformation!
What newness! What a divine exchange!* Nature brought forth a will that produced only thorns (cf. Is 5:1-7); but she, in contrast, has brought forth the one who fulfilled his father’s will. Nature gave painful birth to the death we freely chose in our disobedience; but she, instead, has brought forth the one who destroyed death by his obedience. She, she alone has been chosen for the renewal of our nature, beyond nature’s powers; she alone subjected herself fully to the one who formed all nature from nothing.
The tent of God’s presence lies here before
us as God’s vessel of prophecy, a generous benefactor urging onwards all who love what is right, so that no one may be excluded from the gathering.’
The gift calls for no labor on our part, except for our free choice. Let each one go forward boldly, then, whose faith is free of doubt: let him go forward to the place of the Virgin’s oracle, and learn there by experience
where to find his heart’s desires. Our common altar of reconciliation is ready: come, all of you, and be reconciled with God! (cf. 2 Cor 5:21)
16.] “See here the inexhaustible spring of immortality; come, you who are dead, and drink! (cf. Is 55:1) See here the ever-flowing river of life; come, everyone, and be made immor-tal! O daughter of Adam and Mother of God! O Mother without a husband, and Virgin who bore a child! O creature of him who was created in you- created in time, without leaving his own eternity! All the Spirit’s spokesmen bore witness to you in ancient times.
Moses was the first, for when seeing the bush he
said of you, ‘I will go over and look at this wonderful sight’ (Ex
3:3). God’s ancestor David prayed to Christ on your behalf, say-ing, ‘Arise, Lord, you and the ark of your holiness’ (Ps 131:8 [LXXJ. He also referred by anticipation to your death when he sang prophetically, “The rich among the people will make supplication before your face’ (Ps 44:13 [LXX]). ‘Behold all the glory of the king’s daughter within; she is robed and ora-mented in cloth fringed with gold’ (ibid. 14). The holy book of Canticles described you in advance, when it made this hidden allusion: ‘Who is this who comes up from the desert like a column of smoke, breathing myrrh and incense made from all the merchant’s powders?’ (Cant 3:6) the same holy book also foretold you when its author wrote, ‘Here is Solomon’s resting-place; he has made its posts of silver, its base of gold, its steps of porphyry. Within it is paved with stone, [a gift of] love from the daughters of Jerusalem’ (ibid. 7, 10). And further: “Come out, daughters of Sion, [and gaze] on King Solomon. He is wearing the crown with which his mother crowned him on his wedding day, on the day of his heart’s delight (ibid. 11). See her, daughters of Sion, and call her blessed; queens and concubines, praise her, for the fragrance of her garments is beyond all perfume. (cf. Cant 3:6; 4:10f.)
“Isaiah foresaw you in the Lord, and cried: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive’ (Is 7:14), and “The root of Jesse shall sur. vive’ (ibid. 11:10)-‘blessed is the root of Jesse’-and ‘A shoot will spring forth from the root of Jesse, and a flower will rise from the root’ (ibid. 11:1). On your account, the great Ezekiel prophesied, ‘Behold, the eastern gate; it shall be a locked gate, and no one shall enter through it. The Lord God, he alone, will go in and come out; and this gate shall be locked’ (Ezek
44:2). And that ‘man of desires” [= Daniel: cf Dan 9:23; 10:11,
19] called you, in prophecy, a ‘mountain,’ when he said: “A stone’ will be taken from you, ‘not cut by any human hand’ (Dan 2:34)- removed, but not divided, in the conception of a humanity like our own.
[7.] “You are the great achievement of God’s awe-inspiring plan, ‘into which the angels long to look’ (1 Pet
1:12). You are the ‘lovely dwelling-place’ (Ps 83:1 [LXX), where God has consented to be with us, the truly desirable land. ‘For the King has desired the glory of your beauty; he has fallen in love’ with the riches of your virginity (cf. Ps 44:11 [LXX]; Wisd 8:2). And he has dwelt in you, ‘and pitched his tent among us’ (John 1:14); he has reconciled us, through you, with God the Father. You are the eternal treasure, ” the mystery hidden for all ages’ (Eph 3:9). You are, in truth, the living book in which the spiritual word has been silently inscribed by the living pen of the Spirit. You alone are the text of the new covenant, unerringly written by God, which he promised the human race in former times (cf. Jer 31:31-33). You are the manifold “chariot of God,’ leading those ‘countless thousands who life has been transformed’ by his incarnation (cf. Ps 67:18 [LXX)). ‘You are Mount Sion, the fat mountain, full and solid as a cheese, where God dwells’ (Ps 67:17; Ps 73:1f. [LXX); there he who is above our substance took solid flesh from you, giving body and firmness to a rational soul like ours.
“O divine temple, and woman of earth! O lifeless monu-ment, and life-giving pillar! You did not lead the fleshly Israel on its wandering by your light, but you were enkindled by the divine fire to light the spiritual [Israel] on the way towards unfailing knowledge. O radiant cloud, and ‘shaded mountain’ (Hab 3:3 [LXX]), overshadowing not the ignorant Jewish people but God’s “chosen people, the holy race’ (Ex 19:6; 1 Pet
2:9), leading them through the darkness by the beacon of your maternal light. O woman purer than all gold–purer than all creation, both sensible and immaterial! O virgin earth, from which the second Adam came forth, who was the model for that Adam of old!
[8.] “What tomb shall cover you, what earth receive you, who exceed heaven and the whole heavenly realm in holiness?
What kind of shroud can we offer you? What kind of wrappings and robes for burial? What unguents shall anoint your body_-that body so fragrant, so spotless, so full of goodness, so rich in forgiveness, so flowing with incorruptible power; that body from which we draw divine life, in which we find our perfection, through which we receive our salvation? You are truly the one who is ‘beautiful, and there is no stain in you’ (Cant 4:7). Let holy Solomon sing to you yet another verse:
‘You are as lovely as Jerusalem, and the fragrance of your garments is as the fragrance of Lebanon’ (Cant 6:3; 4:11). You are the new flask of inexhaustible myrrh; you are the gladness in the oil that anoints us (cf. Ps 44:8 [LXXI). You are the incense full of spiritual aromas. You are the flower of immortal-ity, the earth that brings forth perfume, the treasure-chest of life, the shining lamp, the purple garment woven by God, the royal vestment, the robe that God has embroidered, the lined cloak made of gold; beyond all our power of telling, you are the seam of that royal robe that makes the Word intelligible.
You are the crown of kingly power, woven by the high priest;
you are the ‘throne on high’ (of Is 6:1), the gate that stands high above the heaven of heavens; you are the queen of all hu-manity, a title as well deserved as it is commonly used. Aside from God alone, you are higher than all beings.
“What hands shall lay you to rest? What arms shall carry you, who carried in your arms the Uncontainable One? What funeral prayers shall we make at your grave? With what songs shall we send you on your way? What lips may sing of your passing? What voice? What words shall express with appropriate grace the great things done for you (Lk 1:49)? There-fore, in place of all others, we shall use these words of you:
‘Blessed are you among women’ (Lk 1:42), for all generations (cf. ibid. 1:48). Blessed are you in heaven and glorified on earth. Every tongue shall praise you gratefully, and proclaim you Mother of Life. All creation is full of your glory (cf. Is
6:3); all things are made holy by your myrrh-like fragrance.
Because of you, sin’s aggression is over; the curse of our first mother has been turned to grace. Because of you, all (angels) sing with us, ‘Glory in heaven, peace on earth’ (Lk 2:14). No tomb can contain you, for corruptible things cannot hide the body of a queen. Hades has no power to hold you, for the forces of slavery cannot capture a royal soul.
[9.] “Go, then- go in peace! Depart from your dwelling-place within creation; be an intercessor with the Lord on behalf of the corporeal reality we share. As long as you dwelt among the people of this earth, only a small part of the earth contained you. But since you have been taken from the earth to your new home, all the universe owns you as its common altar of cleansing sacrifice. Be magnified beyond Enoch in your happiness, in your indescribable joy, in your eternal light; you are in the place of true life, in the kingdom of pure light, in the incomprehensible dance of the angels. Beyond these bless-ings, enjoy the beauty of your Son, delight in his inexhaustible
joy and in the beatitude that never grows old. You live by the orents of eternal delight, in the meadows of incorruptibility, near the spring of life that is always new, near the streams of light that bubble forth from God, near the rivers of that radiance that never dies. There is the goal of all our past and present hopes, the sum of all good things, the revelation of ali that is hidden and will only be seen in days to come, the final end, beyond which nothing exists at all. There the Father is wor-shipped, the Son is glorified, the Holy Spirit is praised in song–all as the unified nature of one God in three Persons.”
. Such things as this, I think, those inspired men must have said and sung–and loftier things than these. For I do not know how to say more, being myself earth and dust, wholly cor-ruption, crawling on my belly like the snakes. Yet I have paid the debt of speech sufficiently, I think, within the limits of my powers; nothing relevant to the present celebration has been overlooked. If anyone should wish to add some more exalted word, to round out what we have said, that will only add to the festival. After saying a few words more, then, I will rest my oars in this verbal regatta! For as far as speaking worthily is con-cerned, all of us fall equally short; as far as wanting to display our powers goes, each is equally eager. But she who gave birth to the Word, I know, will also receive this insignificant word from us, and will give us, in return, not what we ask for, per-haps, but at least what we deserve to receive. For the all-holy one, as giver of many good things, loves to repay little gifts with greater ones. But enough of this! Come, all of you here at this brilliant, illustrious festal gathering: I call you together again to hear the conclusion of my discourse! Come, let us lead on the sacred funeral procession for the Virgin’s body; let us sing a song in her memory, and let us crown her, who gave rise to this celebration, with all the honors in our power. And that this may still more splendidly come to pass, let the whole festal company
of heaven and earth join with us today, and complete for me the funeral hymn, which I can only fashion in words like these:
[11.] The camp of God has left, has left the tents of Kedar (cf. Ps 119:5 [LXX]) for the incorporeal tents of a new life. The [true] tabernacle, the archetype of the one in the Law (cf. Hebr
8:5), has received the heavenly ark which the ark in the Law prefigured. “The lintel above the gates has been raised” (Is 6:4; cf. Ps 23:7 [LXX1), that the kingdom may give a royal embrace to that gate of God which reaches above heaven. Receive her, angels robed in white! Sing, O heavens! Give praise, you who are born of earth! Exalt “the city of God, the great King” (Ps
47:3 [LXX]). Clap your hands, O earth! Sing her praise, tell the glorious story of the Virgin–the swaddling-bands of her child-bearing, the miracle of her burial; how she was buried and how she was transported elsewhere; how her tomb was seen to be empty and how it came to be reverenced as a shrine.
Judea, bring your sons together!’ Proclaim the news of the queen who comes from the tribe of Judah- -have courage, do not be afraid! Celebrate your festival, Jerusalem; cry out, shout, walk in procession with the mother-city (unpótrolts) of God! Sing with David’s words, and say clearly, “As Israel came forth from Egypt..” (Ps 113:1 [LXX]). 1° Mother Sion, in whom the Lord delights and whom he has chosen, call your daughters together- -the Church of the Gentiles. Sing a serious song (cf. Ps 136:4), but nothing tragic; a lament, but not a cry of misery. This present celebration is a happy one, not a day of grief! Gethsemane, receive your new queen; prepare her tomb, begin the burial rites, sprinkle her coffin with unguents. Let her sarcophagus be a treasure-chest for you, to guard her holy body in safety. If that body should remain in its tomb, let it be a common object of reverence for angels and human beings. But if something strange should happen, and that spotless body should be taken away, stay here and proclaim the miracle- tell
of that removal to the generations to come. Give the spirit of God’s mother to the spirits above, and give the holiness of her body to us, like myrrh flowing from an unfailing spring.
[12.] Let us run, then, all together, to the Mother of God; choirs of fathers and patriarchs, spirits of the prophets and companies of priests, the band of Apostles, the nation of mar-tyrs, the gathering of doctors, the souls of the just, the company of the saints in every age and every rank, kings and potentates, rulers and the ruled. “Lads and maidens, old with the young, praise (her)” (Ps 148:12 [LXXI), beg for her help.
Say, say to the Mother of God, “How blessed is the house of David, from whose loins you, O Mother of God, have sprung.” Mothers and virgins, praise the one who alone was both mother and always virgin. Brides, go before her who remained an unmarried maiden, the incorrupt one who, uniquely free from the pangs of childbirth, brought forth the incomprehensible one. Childless people and widows, applaud her who “did not know man” (Lk 1:34), but who changed the laws of infer-tility. Maidens, dance joyfully before the incorruptibility that gave birth to a child. All nations, bless her; all tongues, call her blessed (cf. Lk 1:48); sing to the Mother of God, all tribes of the earth–sing! Begin to sing and sound the cymbals, raise a joyful cry, magnify her, sing her praises! Take up the tambou-rine, O Miriam–take it up, and lead the virgins on their way!
David, play your lyre, lift up your voice, sing to your queen; lead the dance, strike out chords on your harp; call out the young maidens, summon the singers, arrange them in choirs, lead them behind her couch, let them stand before it and on each side of it; let them sing their song all around her tomb!
[13.] Behold, the new ark of God’s glory, containing “the golden vase, Aaron’s rod that blossomed, and the tablets of the covenant” (Heb 9:4). Behold, the summation of all the things which the oracles of the prophets foretold. Behold, the ladder
that Jacob saw in a moment of divine revelation, on which he saw God’s angels moving up and down (Gen 28:12; cf. In
1:51)-whatever that ascent and descent signified. This is the gate of heaven, of which Jacob said, “How awe-inspiring is this place! It is nothing other than God’s dwelling- it is itself the gate of heaven!” (Gen 28:17)
Behold, the altar of expiation in the Holy of Holies, set up in the sanctuary of the tent of God’s presence (cf. Ex 40:6). At some times, she is covered over with the Seraphs’ wings; at others, she is the place where our sins are expiated through the mystery of Jesus’ own initiation. The yoke of slavery to the Law no longer rests on the true Israel, since Christ has written for us a bill of liberation, of free and spiritual worship, using as his parchment” the body he took from the Virgin. The priests” yearly procession into the holy place is no longer practiced, for
“the great high priest, Christ Jesus, has passed through the heavens” (Heb 4:14), with the flesh he took on and with its ra-tional, intellectual soul, in order to offer his mystical sacrifice in the virgin’s sanctuary as in a temple, always interceding for us. He offers sacrifice and is himself offered; bringing his holocaust forward, he becomes the sacrifice; sanctifying himself for our sakes, he sanctifies those who have sacrificed him.
[14.]This, O Mother of God, is the hidden meaning of your supernatural dormition. This is the funeral oration that shall accompany the sacred procession of the tent God raised as his tabernacle; the hymn for your passing, the record of the events both proceeding and following your burial, the memorial ode for that transition that surpasses all knowledge. These are but oblique, blurred images of the divine mysteries, the blessed revelations given us about you. Our mind can go no further, can come no closer to the mark than what we have said; this little discourse, fashioned with all our powers in your honor, is finished- dedicated to you in gratitude and supplication. If it
contains anything worthy of your greatness, my thanks are due to you, who gave it to me and who now welcome my eagerness so graciously. If, however, it seems to fall short of your dig-nity-something most likely to happen to anyone who tries to speak of you–you will surely be understanding, since compassion is your nature, by your very closeness to your son and protector. I am sure, too, that you will accept this as the most beautiful of gifts, even though it is produced by my shabby la-bors; I had, after all, nothing greater to offer the Mother of the Word, who stands so far above all other creatures, than words of my own: words that simply gush from the plentiful springs of grace within you, the one so blessed by God. As for that awe-inspiring, totally incomprehensible state of divine and ageless beatitude that you now enjoy, let us honor it, as something wholly unknowable and unspeakable, by our silence!” That is only right; for it is not for us to try and explain what is above us, what is proof against all investigation by being simply beyond our grasp.
[15.] Now, O blessed, thrice-royal Mother of God, we have spelled out–modestly, but as best we could- an account of the hidden truth concerning you that we have learned, in its basic outlines, and which this occasion demands of us. We have been instructed by you, and helped by your prayers, which find such easy access to God. Who shall implant in us a voice adequate to proclaim the height and greatness of the glorious things we know of you? Who shall give us strength to speak? O mistress of all men and women, you who received the living Word who is wisdom in person, the first and original cause of all things! O provider of life, life of the living, part of the cause of our life!” O holy one, holier than all the saints, supremely holy treasury of all that makes us holy! O woman who as one individual, without division or dissolution, united humanity to God! O kingdom of those formed from earth, drawing your invincible power from
the glory on high! O outer bulwark of Christian faith, powerful fighter for those who put their hope in you! Receive from us, who have received the light of truth through you, our solemn ur terances formed, as far as we were capable, from murky images pregnant with divine meaning. And give us, who glory in you, Mother of God, this recompense for our little offering: intercede for us with your Son, our Master and King, our God and Lord–a gift more precious and more splendid than all treasures and endless wealth. When we sin, let us be reconciled to God by your prayers, and when we do what is right, let us be confirmed within ourselves still more firmly in goodness. By your prayers, we will look on the arms of savages as if they were children’s arrows; by them, the spear, the helmet, the shot of the bow remain ineffectual, fall short of their mark; 14 by them, finally, all good things are obtained for Christians, even likeness to God.
Here, in a word, is the mystery, dear friend; though it falls far short of our hopes, still nothing is missing from our enthusiasm.
A more mystical and lofty word you may seek from the Word who, for your sake, emptied himself and took on the cruder fullness of flesh, who united you wholly to himself in his love for hu-manity. It is no less accurate to say: he became human in order to make you wholly divine in the Spirit, to consume the worse in the better, to raise you up to himself from the earth and to enthrone you among your ancestors. Be drawn up to him, always, in your way of life and in your pure contemplation; live out a pattern of holy words and habits; see God, as far as that is possible, and let him see you. Press on always to see him clearly in flashes of prayerful insight and in the upward climb of virtue, so that you might be mature and solid on both sides–in action, that is, and in contemplation and that you might come, in the end, “to full manhood, to the full measure of the maturity of Christ” (Eph 4:13). To him be glory and power for ages of ages!