Monday, August 23, 2010

Physically Significant - Sermon for the Afterfeast of Dormition

In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’m going to begin this sermon with a statement that will probably surprise most of you, because it is a statement that appears to be true, yet it is not. And that statement is this: We celebrated the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos last Sunday.

Why is this an untrue statement? Because it is put in the past tense, as something that is over and done with. The majority of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church, however, are not events that are commemorated and celebrated on one single day, then put on the shelf again until the following year. Rather, they are followed by a period - of varying length, depending on which Feast it is - called the Afterfeast, culminating on the day known as the Leavetaking (Apodosis) of the Feast. During the period of the Afterfeast, hymns for the Feast continue to be sung at the services: Vespers, Matins, and Liturgy. On the Apodosis, pretty much all of the hymns which were sung on the day of the Feast itself - with a few exceptions - are repeated, causing the commemoration of the saint who is set in the calendar for that day to be bumped to another.

The Feast of the Dormition has a particularly long period of Afterfeast... not counting the day of the Feast itself, it is a period of eight days, so that the Church will be celebrating the Leavetaking tomorrow. In a very real sense, then, we are still celebrating the Dormition of the Theotokos even now.

This is an especially long period of Afterfeast, over a week, and particularly so when it is measured against the preparatory period which preceded it. There must be meaning in this, something especially significant about this Feast which has much importance for us.

There are several significant points that can be discerned from this, but one of the most significant lies in what was found, or rather not found, in the grave of the Mother of God. At the time of her death, all the apostles were gathered on clouds from all the ends of the earth where they were preaching the gospel and evangelizing the nations. All, that is, save Thomas. He arrived a week late and, sorrowful at having missed her funeral, asked to see the body. When they opened the tomb, however, there was no body. It was gone, taken up from the earth into heaven. That this is an extremely significant point is made by the fact that the following hymn is repeated on three separate occasions during the Afterfeast: In the aposticha for Vespers on August 17th and August 21st, and in the aposticha for Matins for August 22, that is, today. And this hymn goes: “Your body was not touched by the dust of the tomb; although it was buried in keeping with nature and its laws, nevertheless it remains incorruptible.”

When we all recite the Creed we confess that we believe “in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.” That her body was taken up from the grave is an assurance of this. It shows that she partakes of the first-fruits of theosis, of deification which encompasses the whole human person, both soul and body. In the Feast of the Transfiguration we are shown the reality of the hypostatic – that is, personal - union of the divine nature and the human nature in the one Christ which makes this possible, the glorification of our human nature and bodies through intimate communion with the divine. The post-Resurrection appearances of our Savior Christ recounted in the Matins gospels show us what our glorified bodies will be like, that is, truly physical... He could eat fish, could be touched... “A spirit has not flesh and bones, as you see I have.” He said.

The absence of her physical body from the tomb, then, is a great sign to us, the promise to us that this selfsame physical flesh and bone and body which we have now will not remain dead; we too will have such glorified physical bodies, in the transfigured New Creation after the final judgment, that we may live the life humanity was intended to live in Eden, ever growing into the likeness of God as human persons, soul-body unities. Amen.