Homily on the Dormition of the Theotokos, by Metropolitan Avgoustinos Kantiotes (+2010)
The Most-Holy Theotokos is she who is hymned by the generations of generations. It is she who was praised by Gregory Palamas, one of the greatest of the hymnists of the Most-holy Theotokos. The Most-Holy Theotokos is the golden link between the visible and invisible creation. It is she who is the bridge which unites earth with the things of heaven. It is she who is the "throne touched by the sun", she is "more pure than the radiance of the sun". It is she through whom "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). Only angelic tongues could hymn the grandeur of the Most-holy Theotokos.
Our Orthodox Church differs from the heretics, who do not offer any honor to the Most-Holy Theotokos, but perceive her to be a woman like the many others. Our holy Church, with hymns, supplications, and feasts, hastens to praise and honor her. And the first feast, the beginning of the feasts is the Nativity of the Theotokos, which as you know, we celebrate September 8th. After her Nativity, we celebrate another feast on November 21st, the Entrance of the Most-holy Theotokos [into the Temple]. And after this comes another feast, which deeply moves all of Greece, for it is linked with our national feast, March 25th, the Annunciation of the Theotokos. And after this comes the end. For everyone in this world has an end. The end is coming, the dormition is coming, of the Most-holy Theotokos. In honor of the Most-holy Theotokos, this church is celebrating a vigil.
We will search and see which teachings we can gather from the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. Because I think that it is not enough to come here to church to kiss this holy icon, it is not enough to simply light the vigil lamp and the candles, but we must enter deeply into the mysteries of the feast, and to partake of teachings which are beneficial to ourselves, beneficial to our homes, beneficial to our community. I want to hope that this homily will be useful to your hearing.
Beloved, from the Gospels, we know that the Most-holy Theotokos was present at the Crucifixion of Christ. She was furthermore present at the Resurrection and the Ascension of the Lord, and also at Pentecost. She was furthermore present on that very day on which the band of the Disciples, the first Church, chose Matthias to replace Judas the betrayer. From then on, the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles and the other ancient documents of the Church of the New Testament are silent. What I will tell you from here on, we don't receive from the New Testament, but we receive it from another source of our Orthodoxy, from holy tradition. In this way we differ from the heretics. They only have the Gospel, but we, besides the Gospel, have the holy tradition. Our holy tradition, which we Orthodox have unshakable trust in, completes where the account of the Gospel left off. What does our holy tradition say therefore regarding the Dormition of the Theotokos? It says this, that after the Ascension of Christ, the Theotokos had beautiful habit. What habit was this?
The first Christians, in those ancient, blessed years, like those who now fill the city squares to take a walk like a river of hades, those Christians of the first centuries knew where to take their walks to breathe fresh air. They took their walks in the cemeteries, in the tombs, especially on Sundays and great feasts. Like those who now run to soccer tournaments and to the ocean, those Christians of the first centuries had as a delightful place, as a place full of thoughts and heroic ideas, as a place of true philosophy and translation to the things on high, had the cemeteries, the tombs of the dead.
The Most-Holy Theotokos therefore, had this custom. For after the Ascension of Christ, within her heart was only one person. It was Him Whom she nursed from infancy. It was Him Whom she served throughout the course of her earthly life. Within her heart was the Beloved of the beloved, was our Lord Jesus Christ. If every mother loves her child, who has so many faults, and despite all of the faults that he has is loved by the mother's heart, imagine how much love, to what height, to what breadth, and what holy sensations did the Most-holy Theotokos have with respect to her love towards her only-begotten Son. Her only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Saints and the Angels, the Most-honored Word, the surpassingly-divine Word, the Lord was the axis, the mystical axis, around which the entire sensible world rotates, the richly-sensible world of the Most-Holy Theotokos. The Lord was the alpha and the omega of her life. The Lord, as we chant in the Lamentation hymns, was her "sweet springtime", the sweet spring of her life.
The Theotokos lived after the Ascension with the memories of her only-begotten Son. She lived with His teaching and with the whole aroma which He poured forth from His super-worldly character. Because of this, with her steps, she had the habit of visiting that holy place, the place where the Lord prayed in agony, that place in which He shed tears, the place that was watered by His sweat, which fell like drops of blood. She would visit Gethsemane.
Many times she visited Gethsemane. But one day, which was the last time that she was visiting Gethsemane, something occurred there, an astonishing and unique event. Let the unbelievers doubt it. We believe in the holy tradition, we believe that which was granted to us by the Fathers, we believe in our Orthodoxy. Our Orthodoxy says that, when the Theotokos visited Gethsemane for the last time, something astonishing and unique occurred: the trees, the tops of the trees, at the passing-by of the Theotokos, and when the Most-holy Theotokos knelt and lifted up her hands to heaven and prayed with tears to the Lord, her Son and God, when she knelt, then the tops of the trees, bent towards the ground. As if to do a metanoia (prostration), as if they wished to venerate the Queen of the world, the Queen of Heaven.
Do you see, my beloved, what power prayer has? What kind of woman this was, who knelt and at the hour of prayer with faith, this woman causes the stars of heaven to shake! This is not a small example of the Most-holy Theotokos, who went to Gethsemane, and prayed on behalf of the world for salvation and redemption.
She prayed, therefore. And when the trees bent down, tradition says that Gabriel again appeared to her. Again, that Angel appeared, the Archangel who brought her the joyous news of the centuries, the joyous knowledge that she would give birth to the Savior of the world. But the first time that the Archangel appeared to her, according to the tradition of the Church and as it is depicted in precious icons, the Archangel carried a lily, a lily from heaven, a spiritual lily, a lily which symbolized her virginity, her incorrupt, spotless virginity. The second time that he appeared before her, he was no longer holding a lily, but holding a palm, a branch of a palm tree. And this was so, because palms are a symbol of victory, a symbol of the triumph against trials and against death. And he greeted her, the Most-holy Theotokos, anew, as the fathers say, and informed her that in a short time, she would travel from earth to heaven to meet her only-begotten Son.
Filled with sacred emotion, the Theotokos descended from the hill of Gethsemane, and traveled to her poor house. It was not a great hall, and it was not at all like any of the houses today, which shine like lightning. It was a poor little house below the summit of Gethsemane, and there she remained with the memories of the Lord. The Theotokos entered the house. She did not have servants, like those ladies of the aristocracy whose servants they often times misuse and in many ways are unjust to. I am saying that the Most-holy Theotokos, who is served by the ranks of the holy Angels and Archangels, did not have servants. She was not a prideful or egotistical woman, like those who after they are married, have the power from her husband to command the poor servants and to burden them, only to show that they have power. The Most-holy Theotokos, as soon as she returned to her poor house, and understood that the end of her earthly life was coming to an end, the tradition says, that she took a broom in her hands--which modern women are ashamed of today, those who do not wish to do any house work--, and she went and swept her whole house. She prepared her whole house, made it ready to receive the Lord Who would come to receive her pure spirit. And having swept and prepared her house with her own hands, she immediately called two neighbors, who were widows and had orphans, and called them and distributed among them her poor garments. And after this, she announced to this friendly environment which always surrounded the Most-holy Theotokos, that in three days, se would depart from the earth to heaven. And after, she lied down on her bed, crossed her holy hands, and from that hour was deep in thought and deep emotion, because in a short time she would depart from this world.
Brethren! Let us stop here. This event, that the Most-holy Theotokos prepared for her death, this should inform us what manner we should use to radio heaven, to travel from earth to the heavens. This event should teach us!
Brethren! It is a gift of Christ and a blessing of the chosen of God for a man to sense his death beforehand. In the old, blessed years, when people lived with purity, with love and with dedication to God, people sensed their death ahead of time, and they told their children: "My child, I am dying." "But Father, what's wrong? Mother, what do you have?" "I will die, my child, my end has come." They understood it. They prepared ahead of time. An internal voice, some mystical and invisible link between eternity, some winged and anonymous angel informed the soul and said: "You will die!" Holy abbots, venerable ascetics who lived in caves, and holy characters who lived the married life in the world, precious men and women, foresaw their death and prepared for the eternal journey. And like him who is going to take a journey does not wait until the last instant himself, but days before prepares for his journey, thus those pious souls prepared ahead for the eternal journey.
Sudden death is a sign of the times and a curse. Do you hear what the Church says in the Artoklasia (the Blessing of the Five Loaves)? That God might preserve us from many dangers. What dangers? "From pestilence, famine, earthquake..." and... "from sudden death." Our Church perceives sudden death like pestilence, like earthquake... And it is a sign of evil that within our generations that sudden deaths are continuously increasing. Sudden death is evil, because it does not give a person even a minute. It resembles a hawk...the chickens sit and graze in the meadow, and think that they will return to the coop. But they will not return to their coop. From above, suddenly, the hawk descends with momentum and seizes the bird, and with its wings takes it to its nest. Like the hawk strikes and seizes the chicken in the field and takes it up, thus the hawk, death, with momentum flies and descends. On the road, on the sidewalk, on the airplane, in the office...wherever you may be. It seizes man and tells him...Here you go! It does not give him even a minute to say, "Remember me, [O Lord, when You come into Your kingdom...]"
Sudden death is something very bad. And because of this, the Church prays to be delivered from sudden death. O, my God, my God!... Through the intercessions of Your All-spotless [Mother], I pray that none of us here might be found to die by a sudden death, but that God might give all of us a sign that we are leaving from this vain world, and that we prepare ahead of time for eternity, for the journey to heaven.
But pay attention to something else also. The Christian, sensing his death beforehand, whether he is a father, a mother, listen to me, he should do this. He should not leave things this way. Do you see that, the older one gets, the more snow falls upon your head. St. Kosmas Aitolos (a saint that I love, and who celebrates on August 24th, especially in Ioannina), St. Kosmas said that, when the crops turn white, what are they expecting? They are expecting the sickle. And when the hair turns white, what does it expect, my brethren? The sickle of the Archangel. Before the sickle of the Archangel comes, women and men, mothers and fathers who have children, who see snow falling upon their heads, whoever is a father or mother should prepare his house. He should prepare what he has. He should distribute to his children with justice. He should not leave things hanging. If you love your homes, imitate the example of the Most-holy Theotokos, who distributed her things while alive to her neighbors. Thus, don't leave things hanging within your home, but prepare beforehand and distribute them. Because after your death, if you leave things hanging, your children will run to the courts. I know of a family that has been fighting for 15 years and even reaching Areos Pagos (i.e. like the Supreme Court) and the children fight among themselves, because their parents did not plan ahead of time and prepare their house, but left things hanging.
But the Most-holy Theotokos teaches us something else regarding almsgiving. Don't [wait to] do almsgiving after your death. While you are alive, when these hands can move and dip into your portfolio, while you are alive, then almsgiving has great value. For after death, it is no longer almsgiving, but it is money which no longer belongs to you. I, when I have the ability, would go to great philanthropic institutions, which were built by foundations, and I would note the names engraved outside them that say, built by this or that person. If it was built while he was alive, I make a prostration and venerate it. If it was built after death, I doubt the almsgiving after death. I don't doubt it myself, but it is doubted by the Holy Fathers. Have you heard of the philanthropic foundations that were built after the death of someone and which perform almsgiving? Those people partook of their money during their lives, and they partied as long as they lived, and after death they do almsgiving. If I had the right, I would write outside: "This foundation was built by the death of the benefactor." Because of this, the person who senses his death beforehand, should give almsgiving, like was done by the Most-holy Theotokos.
Let's continue. Death also came for the Mother of God. The Most-holy Theotokos was now dead, dead on her bed. She was dead who gave birth to the Author of life. How could they bury her? Where were her children? The children bury the parents. But did she have children? She did. Which children? Her spiritual children, who loved her more than natural children. Who were they? Parents, you who are without children, don't worry. You can give birth to children who love you more than fleshly children. The Most-holy Theotokos had spiritual children. She only had one Son according to the flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ, and we don't accept the filthy and unholy thought of the heretics that she had other children besides the Lord. But while she did not have [other] physical children, she had spiritual sons who loved her even more. And her spiritual children were the Twelve Apostles.
Where were the Apostles at the time of her Dormition, however? They were far away. Peter was in Rome, Paul in Macedonia, Andrew in Patras, Thomas in India, John in Ephesos, Titus in Crete, Timothy in Ephesos... They were all in the diaspora. How were they informed of this? How would she have informed them, have you wondered this? Believe it. And if you believe, then you will believe what occurred at the Dormition of the Theotokos. If a man with his mind which God gave him, was able to find a way to inform someone in Chicago, or London, or another corner of the world (i.e. with a telegraph, telephone, etc.), can't the Creator find a way to inform the others through His heavenly telegraph? My, my my! The ranks of the Holy Angels fly here and there "sent in service" (Hebrews 1:14). The winged angels flew to all the corners of this planet to inform the Apostles.
And...above the sky like doves, on bright clouds like on chariots, came Peter, came Paul, John and the other Apostles. And last of them all, delayed as he always was, came the Apostle Thomas. They came near her. And based on this tradition is that most-beautiful and sweetest hymn which we hear, "O ye Apostles from afar...", which is one of the most-beautiful and sweetest hymns which our Holy Church has.
Yes, the Apostles gathered. And what does this teach us? That when some friend of our dies, we should stop everything that we are doing. Our first responsibility should be to go to the dead person. We should go to the dead person to fulfill a sacred duty. First of all, this is for the dead person, who has fled from this vain earth and traveling towards the heavens, to the world of the bodiless spirits. And secondly, this is for the relatives, who are consoled by our presence. But also, this is to fulfill above all another duty to ourselves. What duty? To remind ourselves of eternity. If I would ask you, who is the greatest preacher in Athens, no one would be able to tell me. But if I asked you who is the greatest preacher of the whole world, the greatest preacher is death. There is no greater preacher. when you see him who was yesterday with you, who was conversing with you and saying whatever, and then see him laid out dead, then you cry out: "Vanity!..." (Ecclesiastes 1:2) Because of this, St. Kosmas Aitolos said that when someone dies, that you should not bury him immediately, but for 24 hours, gather around him and don't speak, but pray. Because there is no greater preacher than death in the whole world... Every dead person, whether he is poor or rich, whether a general or a soldier, whether a king or politician or a vagrant of the street, teaches. And if every dead person reminded us of eternity, of repentance and of return to Christ, if every dead person becomes a spring of teaching for man, imagine what teaching is offered to us by the body of the Most-holy Theotokos!
The Apostles gathered, therefore, holding in their hands the bier and brought it outside of the city. There, however, at that instant, something happened. What happened? At that hour, when the branches bowed down, and the demons trembled, and everyone offered up a funeral hymn, what did a Hebrew man do? He extended his filthy hand to the bier [in order to push it over]. And immediately, like a flash of lightning, his hand was cut by [by the hand of an Angel], as it appears in icons. This filth and sin the Hebrew man did at the hour when the holy body was being carried by the hands of the Apostles, heading outside the city. [He later repented and was healed, according to tradition.]
Brethren, I am finishing. I won't go any further. These are a few words regarding the historic frame of the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. At the end of this homily, where we are, a voice from heaven cries out to us and says:
You mothers, come near the Prototype of mothers, to learn how to love your children. All those who are children, and especially orphans, come near the sweet Mother of the world, to find refuge. All those who are spotless and pure virgins, come near the Virgin, and preserve this lily of virginity, "the beauty of virginity." All those who are unlearned, come to the Panagia to learn the greatest philosophy of the world. All those who are wise, come to Panagia to learn that wisdom is the depth of humility. All of us who are sinners, let us come to the Theotokos, that she might lead us near to Christ. I think that this will be tomorrow's lesson.
However, beyond all of the individual lessons which we gather from the various details of the story of the Dormition of the Theotokos, the most important lesson which the Most-Holy Theotokos offers is that the name of death has changed. Death, from the hour when Christ was crucified, from the hour that He descended to hades and shattered the gates of brass and triumphed, from that hour, it is no longer something fearsome or abominable, like it was to be feared and hated in the world before Christianity. From the time that Christ rose as a victor from the pits of hades, from that hour, death changed from its fearsome and abominable character. On this point, we speak of, for those before Christ, the death of Socrates, of Aristotle, of Plato. But what do we say? From [the time o Christ] on, if you believe, death is falling asleep. Because of this, we say the Dormition of the Theotokos. Man does not perish. That which remains in the earth, that which goes in the tomb, is not man. The primary man is the soul. Man lives and reigns in the world of the bodiless spirits, amidst eternity. Death does not exist. For the Christian who believes in Christ Who said "I am the Resurrection and the Life" (John 11:25), death is falling asleep.
As soon as it is evening, the mother takes her child and places him in the cradle to sleep. Is there a mother who, when she places her child in the cradle, cries? Have you ever seen this? Never. Because she hears the child's breath and says: "Sleep, my child, sleep." She knows that when morning comes, the child will awaken alive, like the flower that comes from the dew. Like the mother who doesn't cry, therefore, when her child is sleeping in her arms, because she knows that he will awake again, thus Christians do not wail for the dead, according to the advice of the Apostle Paul: "Do not mourn." (1st Thessalonians 4:13).
It is not a lie--our religion is true--it is a fact that, above the graves, above the tombs, there will come the sound of a trumpet. As certain as we are that tomorrow morning is Monday, be so certain that the day will come, the great day, when above the graves will be heard the heavenly trumpet, and the dead will arise. Because of this, when we pray, it is not "on behalf of the dead", but "on behalf of our beloved who have fallen asleep". And because of this, in the ancient years, those people who believed expressed themselves with faith. What would I do today with degrees, what would I do with universities and diplomas, when there is no faith? Give me a letter from one of the faithful, and I will give you all the diplomas of the world. Faith is above everything. Therefore, in the ancient years, when there was faith, the places where the dead were buried were not called nekrotaphia (or burial place of the dead), but cemeteries [i.e. the place where they are sleeping]. And above the crosses they did not write "died", but "reposed".
This is the lesson given us by today's feast. And something else: that we might prepare ourselves ahead of time.
(old homily, before 1967, offered in Athens at a vigil the day before the feast of the Dormition, which was on a Sunday, amateur translation of text from source)