August 15, 2014

Dormition of the Mother of God

Psalm 133: The Blessedness of Unity

1 Behold, how good and pleasant it is
  when brothers dwell in unity!
2 It is like the precious oil upon the head,
  running down upon the beard,
upon the beard of Aaron,
  running down on the collar of his robes!
3 It is like the dew of Hermon,
  which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
  life for evermore.

Dormition of the Mother of God

According to an ancient tradition, when Mary the Theotokos fell asleep in the Lord, the apostles came together “from the ends of the earth” to be with her. The Dormition icon and the hymns of the feast reflect this, showing a picture of apostolic brotherly unity around her. As we know from the gospels, Acts, the letters of Saint Paul and the others it wasn’t always like that. Before and after Jesus’ death and resurrection the apostles were often at loggerheads or competitive, jockeying for the closest positions to their Master (see Luke 22:24-27). In the early days of the mission Paul and Peter openly disagreed (see Galatians 2:11-21), so did Paul and Barnabas (see Acts 15:36-41). Church life generally in the first century was often contentious. Just read 1-2 Corinthians if you have doubts about that.

Bishops and priests recite Psalm 133:2 as they vest in their stole (epitrachilion) before the Divine Liturgy.

St John of Kronsdadt
St John of Kronstadt vested in stole (epitrachilion)

Blessed is God who pours out His grace upon His priests,
as myrrh upon the head,
that runs down the beard, the beard of Aaron,
that runs down the borders of his robe.

This is a constant reminder of God’s grace, and the gift of unity He gives, especially in the brotherhood of priests.

Psalm 133 is a beautiful response to the gift of brotherly unity, but unity is precisely a gift of God. Most of us recognize unity as a good thing, but working directly for unity is likely to provoke further divisions over who is the one undermining unity. Or we decide that this person or that group are not really brothers at all, so we can pull up stakes and forget about unity with them entirely. 

As Metropolitan Tikhon pointed out in his recent pastoral letter on violence in the Middle East, we ourselves are part of the problem inasmuch as our own passions keep us angry and full of enmity. When the Holy Apostle James posed the question: “What causes wars, and what causes fighting among you?”, he immediately answers with a challenge for us to consider: “Is it not your passions that are at war in your members?” (James 4:1).

The feast of Dormition points to what we can do to create the conditions for God’s gift of unity. We can gather around the Mother of God, and as she points to her Son, so we can keep bringing our focus back to Christ again and again.

An image frequently used by the fathers of the Church speaks of Christ as the center of a wheel, and we are the spokes. The closer we come to Christ, the closer we come at the same time to each other. By the prayers of the Mother of God, may we draw ever closer to Christ, and through Him, to each other.