Sermon on the Dormition & Matthew 19:16-26
All things in sacred scripture and holy tradition are interrelated. This makes sense because all of revelation is revealed by one revealer – our one God. And so, I really believe that it is possible to preach a good sermon on almost any topic using almost any Scripture. The connections are usually there if you look deeply enough, I find. However, sometimes they are quite plain.
So it is with the gospel for this Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost and the theme of Mary’s holy death, her dormition which we celebrate today. There is in Holy Scripture not a single word that directly and literally references this holy tradition. But, as I say, all of scripture can be brought in to reflect upon it.
Consider this: the rich young man asks Jesus, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” The young man is seeking eternal life, as are we all, though he may have been seeking a way to avoid death altogether. In fact, I think that is likely. But Jesus teaches us and exemplifies for us that in fact eternal life is available to us only through death. Take up your cross, he teaches us and then he does just that himself. There is no crossless Christianity nor any way out of death except through it.
Jesus himself is our life and our way. And the way to life he shows us is through death. But death for us, as for Mary, is a dormition, that is, a falling asleep. Both Jesus and Paul refer to death as a sleep (eg. 1 Thess 4:13-16).
This can be misunderstood, however. Understand that death is not sleep in the sense of unconsciousness. Consider Moses, who has died, speaking with Jesus on Mt. Tabor. Or the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, from which it’s clear that those who have died remain conscious and aware of what goes on in the world. No, death is sleep not in the sense of unconsciousness, but in the sense that, as with sleep, it is a state that leaves us. It is something from which we rise again. And if we are in Christ, even though we die, we rise again to live eternally.
Mary shows us this first. Mary is the perfect model of Christians. She shows us how best to follow her son Jesus Christ. She follows in his way. She, like him, embraces death and she, like him, awakes from the sleep of death and lives on eternally. Mary, in other words, knows by experience the answer to the question of the rich young man. She has actually entered into that eternal life that he seeks and she has done it through her holy death.
She follows him in everything, even death, and bids us to do the same. At a wedding in Cana in Galilee, Mary commands, “Do whatever he tells you.” She says this to the servants at the wedding, and she says it today to you and to me. And what does Jesus tell us to do? Again, we can turn to today’s Gospel and read, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Matt 19:17)
And, when pressed, Jesus then indicates a selection of which commandments in particular we are to keep. I don’t think this is meant in an exclusionary way. Rather, I think the commandments he names here are meant to point toward the whole. All the other commandments also remain divine and worthy of our observance, but nonetheless he does particularly highlight certain commandments. It must be said, he does include here the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, which he elsewhere includes in the greatest commandment. But let’s look also at another one he felt particularly worthy of mention.
He says, as did his Father before him, honor your father and mother. Now this commandment is of particular significance today on this feast of God’s own mother, Mary the Theotokos. I have to ask you; can you imagine that Jesus Christ would have disobeyed this commandment? That would be a blasphemous suggestion. Jesus Christ is perfect God and perfect man. And so, both the perfect giver of this commandment and its perfect follower.
Note also that the commandant is not merely to obey your father and mother, as it is sometimes recalled. Certainly, obedience to our parents has an important place in the following of this commandment, but such obedience does not exhaust it. The commandment is to honor your father and your mother. Which we are to do first of all by living a holy and loving life. Every act of love we do honors those through whom we came into the world. And no good we do would have been done were it not for our father and mother. Even if we don’t like them or even if they weren’t good parents, we honor them by living well – for example, by being good parents ourselves to our children.
Well, Jesus Christ has a father and a mother too, of course, and he couldn’t have asked for better parents. His father, of course, is God. And he honors his father more perfectly than any other son ever has. Causing his father to say, more than once, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” But the commandant carries on to say honor also your mother. And the mother of Jesus Christ is Mary. Being both God and man gives Jesus Christ the capacity to honor his human mother more completely and perfectly than any other son can.
Jesus Christ alone, in his divinity, is the creator of his own mother and so he can begin to honor her from the moment that he forms her in her mother’s womb. The rest of us don’t have that opportunity. But Jesus does. And so he honors her from the moment of her conception. She is filled with grace, which is the life of God from the moment her conception, because Jesus Christ is honoring his mother.
But today we are reflecting not upon her conception, but upon her death. And Jesus not only has the power to honor his mother from the moment of her birth, but also continues to honor her at the moment of her death, even after his own death. And so he is with her. We see him with her in the holy icon of this great feast holding her newborn soul in his arms – she is born again from above in spirit. He holds her now just as she held him when he was a baby. He repays her that kindness, and so honors her. This is an image worth remembering when it comes time for some of us to care for our elderly parents just as they cared for us when we could not care for ourselves.
Just as God is with Mary in a unique way from the moment of her conception, so he is also with her in a unique way at the moment of her death. And he empties her tomb and raises her up just as he will raise up all in Christ, but his mother first of all, whom he honors in sublime fulfillment of revelation.