The first fifteen days of August the Orthodox Church dedicates to Mary, the Mother of God. There is a fast, the Dormition fast, that lasts from the first of the month to the fifteenth, which is the Feast of the Falling Asleep of the Most Holy Mother of God. On this day, the 15th of August, we celebrate the death of the Mother of God, and the translation of her body into Paradise to be with her Son. I do not know whether the Roman Catholic Church teaches that she died before being translated, but we do. I think this one of the bones of contention between us. So we fast for 15 days.
Even though the Dormition Fast is not as extended or as severe as Great Lent, it is a beautiful and restful season in the time of the Church, and it comes at a time when there isn’t much going on in the secular calendar. Summer is winding down, and schoolchildren are preparing to return to their studies. There is little to distract from the precious person of the Mother of God. Extra services are scheduled. For some reason unknown to me, the Orthodox Church uses the Fast of the Dormition for her most concentrated efforts at intercession. Parishioners are encouraged to bring all the concerns of their families and friends, great and small, to the attention of the priest and the deacons, or in my case the president of the Parish Council. A list is drawn up, and in the middle of the Paraklesis Service, we pause and read off this list of petitions.
The list is very long, and it takes a lot of resolution to force myself to be volitional about praying for the endless repetitions of Costases and Nicks and Panayiotas and Dafnis and Helens and Georges and their bouts of arthritis, their broken legs, their throat infections, their struggles with college, but there are more serious concerns as well. One couple is facing divorce, another has a grandson on heroin, another has a husband and father soon to be deployed to Afghanistan, a priest is struggling with same-sex attraction. By the time we arrive to my fine Anglo-Saxon and North European gene stream, I realize that “many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord” has promised to deliver “him from them all”. All of these concerns are tied up with liturgical strings at the end and are presented to the Most Holy Mother of God for her consideration.
For some reason, no one seems to provoke more booklordery, logomachy, or biblechuffing than Mary, our Lord’s mother. In the interest of the irenic tone of this board, and invoking the spirit of Michael Spencer the most ecumenical of Baptists, I would like to preempt some of the gurgling I can already hear in some of your guts when I say that we pray to the Mother of God. If you invite an Orthodox Christian to write for you, he is eventually going to tell you he prays to the Mother of God. It’s inevitable. Please keep this one thing firmly in mind: As a Christian gentleman I do not view arguments against the Theotokos’ role in our salvation as right or wrong as much as I consider them deeply discourteous, an affront against a very great lady.
That said, I believe it would be highly salutatory for Protestants to have an intramural discussion among themselves about the role of the Theotokos in their church life. As a former Protestant, and especially as a former Calvinist, it hasn’t been easy for me to appreciate or properly honor Jesus’ mother, from whom alone He acquired our nature and united it to His Divine nature. There is always the memory of the bearded jealous fiend who rent Jesus on the cross to satisfy his inflated sense of honor, and who, having by creating created an ontological abyss even He cannot bridge, flies into paroxysms of rage if one iota of that honor is appropriated by another. Nevertheless, most of this disappeared like a morning fog at midday when I began to learn something of the Orthodox tradition of the Mother of God, who in her own person recapitulated the career of Israel and became the tabernacle of God, the dwelling place of His glory. “Of thy body a throne He made; He made thy womb more spacious than the heavens. All creation rejoiceth in thee, O Full of Grace: glory be to Thee!”
The story that convinced me was the beautiful story of when St Joachim and St Anna took her to the Temple when she was three years old. The Protoevangelium of James reports that “he [St. Joachim her father, I imagine] made her to sit upon the third step of the altar. And the Lord put grace upon her and she danced with her feet and all the house of Israel loved her.” Upon hearing that, the image of a tiny dark-haired girl dancing for joy before a row of solemn, bearded priests leapt unbidden to my mind and I too loved her. I loved not the Booklordish concept of the Mother of God, which title really speaks more about Her great Son, but I loved her, the tiny joy-filled girl she was, the tender and obedient mother she became, the church matron beyond and behind all church matrons for whom she served as the first and greatest; the archtype of all the yiayias, matushkas, abuelitas, nanas and grandmuttis who pray so ardently for the salvation of their children and grandchildren, and finally, the ancient, wizened old lady St. John cared for, demanding as all aging parents are demanding.
So, enjoy the Lady Days, as I have come to call them for myself. Give your hearts and your stomachs a rest, and rejoice in her whose obedience reversed the disobedience of Eve, whose candor brought to completion the deceptions of Tamar and Rahab, whose perseverance crowned the loyalty and patience of Ruth.
Thou who art truly the Mother of God, we magnify you.