Beloved brethren, this Wednesday, our All-Merciful Lord Jesus Christ will once again bestow upon us the privilege of glorifying the Falling Asleep of His Most Blessed Mother, the All-Holy Lady Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. This extremely beautiful and beloved feast, the “Pascha of the Mother of God,” is our consolation in the midst of sorrows and a pledge of our own future resurrection and eternal life.
We do not know precisely how old Panagia was at the time of her repose – some say around sixty years of age – but we do know from Holy Tradition that at the time of her death she was living in the home of her adopted son, St. John the Theologian, on Mt. Sion in Jerusalem. Our Lord Himself, doing the duty of a son, had provided for His mother in the moments before His death on the cross, when He indicated St. John to the Holy Virgin and said, “Woman, behold thy son,” and said to St. John, “Behold thy mother”; and from that day, the apostle took Panagia into his home as his own mother.
Shortly before her holy repose, the Archangel Gabriel came to Panagia and announced that she would enter into eternal rest after three days, and he brought her a palm branch from Paradise to be carried in her burial procession. The Holy Virgin greeted this news with great joy, and yet at the same time begged the Lord to shield her, at the time of her repose, from the filthy demons who come at the hour of death to snatch away, if possible, the souls of the faithful. Her Son, naturally, fulfilled her request, and at the moment of her repose came Himself to take her most pure soul from her body which was falling asleep. This is depicted in the icon of the Feast, which shows Christ standing above the reposed body of the Theotokos while holding her soul in His hands in the form of a swaddled infant.
The Holy Apostles, who at that time were scattered around the world preaching the Gospel, were mysteriously gathered together in Jerusalem by the power of God, to be present when the Holy Virgin breathed her last. After bidding her farewell and beholding her glorious departure from the body, they took her body in procession from Sion to a tomb in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives. Today, then, if you wish to venerate the sites of Our Lady’s death and burial, you will go to two places: To venerate the place of her repose, you must go to a Roman Catholic monastery called Dormition Abbey, on Mt. Sion. There, in the crypt of the church, is the site of the house of St. John and of Panagia’s repose. Then, to venerate the place of her burial, you will find her holy tomb situated in the great church in the Garden of Gethsemane, now underground, which is under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem.
As St. Thomas had not been present in the Upper Room on the night of Christ’s Resurrection, and so came to testify to the reality of the Resurrection by demanding to touch the Risen Lord, so also he was not present at the repose of the Theotokos, and his disappointment at not seeing the Holy Virgin before she died brought about the revelation of her final mystery – her bodily resurrection and translation into heaven. Arriving after the Virgin’s burial, Thomas begged the other Apostles to open her tomb, so that he could gaze upon her holy face one last time and bid her farewell. When they opened the grave, her body was gone – according to some traditions, there remained only the winding sheet, and according to others, the grave was full of flowers. That evening, Panagia appeared to the apostles in heavenly glory announcing that her Son had resurrected her body ahead of the general resurrection, and saying to them, «Rejoice, I will be with you always!»
One could reflect for hours on the meaning of this wonderful event, so full of joy, so full of the fragrance of the love of the Church for the Holy Virgin – and her love for us. Today, though I cannot ask you to stay for hours I would like nonetheless to speak briefly of three matters: the love of Christ for His mother, her preparation for death, and the power of her intercession.
Regarding the love of Jesus Christ for His mother: On Mt. Sinai, the Lord gave through Moses the commandment, «Honor thy father and thy mother.» Now, in the flesh, we see him, hanging on the Cross, fulfilling as a man the command He gave as God: in His final agony, He did not forget His mother, but arranged for her care, by entrusting her to His friend, the Beloved Disciple. Thus it was that she came to live with St. John the Theologian, and thus it was that in his house she passed from this life. In our day, when the forces of evil are doing everything in their power to destroy the family, to destroy the love of husband and wife, of parents for children, of children for parents, we must beg Panagia with all our hearts to preserve our families in faith, in piety, in duty, and in mutual love. We must pray to her to keep our children and grandchildren chaste in soul and body, and to lead them into the haven of monastic life, or to send them pious and chaste spouses. We must entreat her to spread over us her holy veil to protect us from the demons and men who wish to do us evil. She loves us as her own children, and she will hear our prayer!
Regarding Panagia’s preparation for death: Of course, her entire life - from her miraculous conception and birth from St. Anna, through her life in the Temple as a child, through her virginal conception and giving birth to the God-Man, and all that she did and suffered on behalf of Her Son before His Passion, and on behalf of the Church after His Resurrection – all of this was preparation for her holy death. But, I should like to point out that, specifically, we see that in the time immediately before her death, she begged her Divine Son to shield her eyes from the sight of the demons who come at the hour of death. My brothers and sisters, if even the holiest and most exalted human person who ever lived, she who is «more honorable than the Cherubim» because of the extreme perfection of her purity and sinlessness, demonstrated this sober caution at the hour of her death, how much more should we – sinners as we are – prepare daily with fear and trembling, with tears, with profound humility, for the dread trial at the hour of our death? The Holy Fathers say that if a man thought about death constantly, he would never sin. Let us take this to heart and strive to live our every hour as if it were our last on earth. Let us beg the Holy Virgin to intercede for us, so that we can see our sins, confess them, truly repent of them, and so live that we are always prepared to leave the body and face God’s judgment.
And let us remember that her intercession is all-powerful. Her Son commanded His disciples to ask in His Name, and He would grant their prayers. How much more will He grant the prayer of His mother, whose will is perfectly conformed to His in all things, whose faith, hope, and love are utterly perfected beyond our comprehension, who - before and above every other rational being who has ever lived - has come to possess by grace that which God Himself possesses by His nature? Imagine an earthly Christian king who is kind, just, and merciful, and who is very close to his mother, who holds her in great honor as a good son should. If she came to him and begged him, for her sake, to have mercy on a condemned criminal, would he not be most eager to grant her request? How much more will the Lord, the Lover of Mankind (ο φιλάνθρωπος) hearken to His mother’s prayers for us, sinful and condemned as we are, and He will pardon our sins by her intercessions.
O Most Pure Virgin, dwelling now in thy glorified body, in the light of the All-Holy Trinity, co-reigning with Thy Divine Son over all creation, visible and invisible, hear our prayer ! O Most Holy Theotokos, save us!