St. Gregory the Theologian says that as Christians we undergo three births. The first is our physical birth from our mother, when we are born into the life of this world. The second is our baptism, when we are reborn through water and the Holy Spirit as members of the body of Christ. The third birth is the resurrection, when all of us hope to be born anew into the Kingdom of Heaven.1 At this glorious feast we honor the most holy Mother of God and celebrate her new birth into the resurrection. We pray that by our Lord's grace, and through her prayers, we may one day be with her where she has gone before us.
The icon of the feast shows what happens in this remarkable moment. We know that the Theotokos carried our Lord Jesus Christ in her womb, which became "more spacious than the heavens," since it was the abode of God. We know that she held Him in her arms and fed Him with milk from her breasts; that she nurtured, protected, and cared for Him throughout His childhood. We know that she shared the horrible pain of His crucifixion and the glorious joy of His resurrection. He gave her as mother to His beloved disciple, St. John the Theologian, and she had an honored place at the heart of the earliest Church amidst all the apostles.
After her falling asleep, she is seated beside her Divine Son in heaven and shares His radiant life. She is "more honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim." She extends her motherly care, protection, and help to all of God's people as she intercedes for us continually before the Lord. She is always present with us, ready to listen with compassionate love. For all of this we are profoundly thankful.
But now at the time of her dormition, she has to face death, as even her Son did before her. It is an awesome and fearful time for her, as it is for every human being. She has to leap into the dark, to enter into a mode of existence that is hitherto unknown to her. She has to let go, to relinquish, to give up once and for all everything she has known of this world, everything good and beautiful that she has loved in God's earthly creation. Finally, she has to let go, to relinquish, to give up entirely her own life, that conscious control of one's own mind and body that none of us can imagine doing without. Even though she knows that her Son is risen from the dead and is always with her, even with the assurance of eternal life with Him, this must be daunting.
Even she enters the Kingdom of Heaven as a little child. We see this in the festal icon. In complete humility and complete trust she gives up her life into the hands of her Son. He stands at the center, in the glory of His resurrection, holds her in His arms as a baby girl, and enfolds her in His own risen life. In a remarkable way, their usual roles have been reversed. She gave birth to Him in the flesh, but He brings her to birth in the eternal Kingdom. Let us ponder what this tells us about both of them.
Like the Theotokos, all of us have to approach God as little children. However much we have achieved in human terms, however much we have achieved spiritually, we are still God's creatures. Like her, we have to face the unknown. Sooner or later we have to accept a radical loss of control over our own existence, to accept that our life is always a gift from God and does not belong to us. We need to prepare ourselves to offer our whole being and all of creation back to God in adoration at the time of our own death, thankful to Him for the life He has given us and the share He has given us in His earth. We have to entrust ourselves to the Lord who creates and sustains our life.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church. He is also the Nurturer and Life-giver. His love is a complete and all-encompassing love. At the end of the second century St. Clement of Alexandria said that as Christians we are children, and Christ Himself provides all the different kinds of care we need. He serves as the father, the caregiver, and guide, the teacher, and also the mother and the wet nurse. His agony on the cross is the labor pain by which He brings us forth into the resurrection. He also feeds us with His own Body and Blood, which St. Clement identifies with milk.2 When a mother nurses her baby, she gives it life from her own body. This is actually the closest human analogy to the way Christ gives us His own life as nourishment in the Eucharist.
Throughout history, many of the saints and fathers of the Church have recognized that Christ loves us with a mother's love as well as a father's love. One of the more recent examples is St. Silouan the Athonite, who was steeped in the soberest teachings of the ascetic tradition. St. Silouan sums up this strand of the Orthodox tradition when he says,
The Lord is a merciful Creator, having compassion for all. The Lord pities all sinners as a mother is compassionate with her children even when they take the wrong path. Where there is no love for enemies and sinners, the Spirit of the Lord is missing.3
The greatness of the Theotokos is that she is so much like her Son in character. If anybody can give fuller and more abundant nurturing than she can, it is the Lord Himself. She would be the first to admit that this does not in any way diminish her honor.
Inside each one of us there is a child who needs to be loved and nurtured. We need compassion because of our sins, but also because we live in a harsh world that often seems empty and virtually devoid of love. Some people have lost their mothers in childhood or have been separated from them, and some were never truly and abundantly loved by their mothers. Such losses leave deep wounds at the core of a child's being that continue to be painful in adulthood. In these situations especially, we need motherly care and nurturing from the Theotokos and from her Son. When we ask them and open our hearts to them, they are more than happy to grant us this priceless gift. This may be an important step toward wholeness and the abundant life that Christ promised.
So let us give thanks for God's love, honoring the ever-virgin Mother of God. Let us glorify the Most Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.