[The following are excerpts, slightly edited, from a homily I gave on the feast of the Dormition (Assumption) of the Mother of God in 2007.]
St. Paul mightily proclaims in the epistle for this feast (Phil. 2:5-11): “Jesus Christ is Lord!” We say today: “And Mary is his Mother!” There is a text in the Office of Matins which was worded powerfully as it called Mary the “Mother of the Master of the Universe.” That’s incredible: you can’t really get higher than the Master of the Universe; yet, the Master of the Universe has a mother! And today we’re celebrating her exaltation into the kingdom of her beloved Son, the Master of the Universe.
Jesus is spoken of by St. Paul as the one who had humbled Himself, who had become obedient to the Father’s will, obedient even unto suffering and death. What did the Father do? The Father highly exalted Him, and gave Him the name above all names. Mary is a parallel to this, too—not that she was in the form of God and all the rest, but in how she did what Jesus did, in her own way, in her own life, according to her own vocation; how she also humbled herself; how she effaced herself, surrendered herself to God’s will; was obedient in all things, even unto suffering at the foot of the Cross, standing there and bearing it all with Him, insofar as she could. And so what happens? The Son, whom the Father exalted before, comes and exalts his Mother. When it’s time for her to die, He comes and says, “You, like me, were also humble; you were obedient; you accepted the hardships of your vocation, even unto suffering; and you gave up your life, you gave your soul back to the One who gave it to you. So now I come to you and lift you up; as my Father exalted Me, so I exalt you!”—we can perhaps hear Him saying that to his Mother. That’s the pattern that we also should follow.
On this feast there is so much theology of the mystery of the Mother of God in this celebration, but I decided I’m not going to talk to you about it. There is a great mystery there: the mystery of the glorified body, assumed into Heaven; the mystery of Mary as the first-fruits of redeemed and resurrected humanity, and as the icon, the personal embodiment, of that pure and undefiled Bride of Christ which she anticipates in herself, in the Kingdom to come. Sometimes the theological profundity of something like this either escapes us or it holds our attention just long enough for us to give our nod of approval during the Liturgy, and then we go back to our petty, selfish, mediocre little lives—totally unaffected by it. If you’re lucky, it stays in your head, and doesn’t go in one ear and out the other.
We’re not going to really know the Mother of God just by knowing the theology of her life, although that helps, and can help very much. But for many people, to know her is a very different experience, and in order to know the Mother of God, we don’t have to just read the catechism: that’s only the very beginning. What we have to do is to welcome her into our lives; we have to give her a place in our lives. Only then we will come to know her, then everything else will come to make more sense, because it will be something that comes from inside. It will be something that resonates with the truth that is expressed in theology. “Oh, yes, that makes perfect sense to me, because I know her, and everything fits together now.”
So we have to open ourselves to her, and realize, whether we are aware of it or not, that she is there—she is with us! She is walking with us; she is praying for us; she is protecting us; she is blessing us. She is with us just as a mother is, and we have to somehow come to that realization—that for your whole life she has been there, with you and for you, as a mother, as somebody who loves you and whom God has given to you to be a companion, a friend, a guide, a protectress, an intercessor, for your life. And when we give her that place in our life, things begin to change.
I remember a couple years ago when we celebrated the Office of the Paraclisis at Matins, as part of the pre-feast; it’s an Office that’s dedicated to the Mother of God. There was something very special about that Office—it was very peaceful, and very pleasant, and there was a spirit about it that was unusual. I am usually like Martha: anxious, stressed out about many things, and I’m always running around doing stuff and not having the time or the presence of mind to sit at the feet of Jesus, but during that Office something was happening, something sweet and different; the spiritual “environment” had somehow been enhanced. I was thinking, “What is going on here?” Then I said, “I know! The Mother of God must be here!” It’s something one can’t put into words: a feeling, an experience through which, all of a sudden, something’s different, something’s better, and you know what? She’s there! This is the gift of God to us—and we should receive it and allow ourselves to be blessed by that and to come to her as children—not gurgling infants or bratty five-year-olds, but as simple people who love her and have no “baggage” (whether emotional or theological) to get in the way of a simple, loving, childlike relationship.
I think she wants us to be like that with her. It’s not enough to just offer her perfunctory obeisances and make your dutiful bows and sing the prescribed hymns—so there, that means you’re devoted to the Mother of God. Well, those things can be a vehicle of devotion, but if there’s no inner devotion, those things are just an empty shell. There has to be something that moves you in your heart to her, to run to her. She wants that from us, too: she doesn’t need all this incense and stuff. That’s nice, but it doesn’t connect us to her personally. What mother would want her little child to just honor her from across the room? She wants the child to come and run into her arms, and she doesn’t care if the kid slobbers all over her, because it’s her child, and she loves him or her, and so we should do the same! Not slobber all over her, but go to her like children, just run to her and wrap our little arms around her neck like Jesus in the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir: be close to her.
Even though the icons are rather stiff and stylized in their presentation, they are still a means for us to connect to her. What do we do to the icon? We kiss it! A kiss is something that’s very precious: it’s meaningful, it’s personal. And so, since we don’t see the Mother of God face-to-face and have to live by faith, the image that the Church offers to us is something that says, “Here: this is your mother—kiss her.” We should do that. It should be something that comes not just from the rubrics, but from our heart, that we should just come to her like that.
Once you have that relationship, all the other stuff doesn’t really matter. There is so much “stuff” in all the polemics, all these people who don’t accept the Mother of God, and they’re always saying, “Where is that in the Bible?” and all the rest. We don’t need to get into all those arguments. But if you do want to have one little argument that covers them all, here it is. If they say something like, “Where in the Bible does it say…,” first you have to ask them, “Is the Bible the pillar of truth?” And they will say, “Of course!” And you ask, “Where in the Bible does the Bible say that the Bible is the pillar of truth?” “Well, nowhere.” “What does the Bible say? The pillar of truth is: the Church!” (1Timothy 3:15).
So, the Bible has just given us permission to venerate the Mother of God! Because the Bible tells us that the Church is the pillar of truth, and when the Church—especially speaking as Church, as the Body, the Bride, of Christ, with the authority of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and defining something solemnly, that this is the revelation of God—well then, the pillar of divine truth has spoken! And we can, gladly and joyfully, believe and accept and live in that mystery.
We don’t have to give in to polemics or controversies, and all the stuff that unfortunately in so many places surrounds the Mother of God. Let’s just love her! Let’s just open our hearts to her. Let’s be like children before her. There’s a kind of paradox in Christianity that we’re called to be children, without being immature; we’re called to be sweet, without being sappy and sentimental; and we’re called also to endure suffering and hardship for the sake of the Gospel, without becoming bitter, angry, and resentful for what life is doing to us.
So, let us celebrate this feast, this mystery, with joy, and with thanksgiving, that God has given us such a Mother. And let us choose the good part, the best part, which is sitting at the feet of Jesus—and know that the good part is not often the easy part. Sometimes it may be, because God is generous with his grace and his gifts, but we have to realize that sitting at the feet of Jesus is not only sitting there and listening to him speak about the Heavenly Banquet and all of the other sweet, beautiful things of the Gospel—his easy yoke and light burden. It’s also sitting at the foot of the Cross of Jesus, when He’s saying, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” That’s another place we have to be at the feet of Jesus. But it’s all part of the same mystery. Mary was with Him in Bethlehem, and in the peace and joy of the home of Nazareth, and she was also with Him at the Cross. Where she is, she’s going to carry us with her, and when we entrust ourselves to her, we’re going to know the joy of Bethlehem, and the joy of Nazareth, and we’re going to know the agony of the Cross, but in the end we will know the glory of the Resurrection and the Kingdom of Heaven—the ultimate “good portion” that no one will ever take away from us.