FROM ARCHBISHOP ANTHONY
August 15, A. D. 2017
The Dormition of our Most Holy Lady the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary
To the Most Reverend and Right Reverend Hierarchs, Very Reverend and Reverend Clergy, Monastics, and Faithful of The Orthodox Archdiocese of America (New York)
Dearly Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for God has been gracious to you.” (Also translated) “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” Luke 1:30
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Dormition. This festival has been part of Christian devotion for most of the history of Christianity. It is strange, however, how much STILL many well-meaning Christians fight any attempt to honor her whom the Council of Chalcedon called Theotokos or “God-bearer”. Even if one chooses not to accept the Council, Mary is a Bible person indeed.
She is named in two Gospels and in Acts. She is referred to in the other two gospels as the mother of Jesus. After all, my friends, without Mary, we would not be Christians!
It is useful to see how the Bible uses Mary and her Old Testament predecessors.
First of all, it is important at least to note that the name “Mary” is used only in Matthew and Luke/Acts. Further, her name is used only in the Nativity sections of the Gospels, and the Nativity is NEVER, ever mentioned again either in the New Testament or in the earliest Christian documents -- including Paul’s letters.
There is one other oblique reference to her. Very early in the ministry of Jesus, when he is, so to speak, just getting started, he preaches in local synagogues; he does healings; he reinterprets the received version of Scripture. Once, when he is near home, the embarrassed family of Jesus comes to get him. “He must be nuts!,” is clearly what they think. “Poor child, we will bring him home, and care for him.” When Jesus is told “Your mother and brothers and sisters” are here to bring you home, Jesus explodes his family into his whole mission: “Who is my family?” he cries; “those who hear the word of God and do it.”
Now, generally speaking, John’s Gospel is not a place to look for facts, even though there are facts that underlie it. John’s gospel is written to “do theology” the way Jews of Jesus’ time did theology: show forth God’s Truth by telling a story.
The nativity stories of Jesus are important; but we tend to place the wrong importance on them. Both Matthew and Luke are very clear what they mean if you are a first century Jew. Salvation; the redemption of humanity; the renewal of God’s Creation; freedom from slavery; establishment of the Kingdom of God; fulfillment of God’s love. These things are longed for by all thinking Jews, Sadducee, Pharisee or whatever: indeed, adds Luke, by all thinking people. There had been many failed attempts to accomplish this kingdom: Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Babylon, Greece, Syria, Rome. All these failed, because human force and human use of power is in total opposition to the fact of God’s creation. No world super power can ever succeed, even with religion strongly behind it.
Constantine’s empire failed, the Holy Roman Empire failed; the Papal Empire failed; the Reformation failed; revolutions; civil wars; world wars; other conflagrations: all failed or will fail.
“Why?” asks the gospels. Because they arise from human effort; not from the work of God. Humans cannot -- because of sin -- create the necessary methods and patterns needed for God’s creation to be fulfilled. The Image of God has been soooo obscured.
“BUT,” Matthew and Luke scream as best they can, “BUT God can do this: God can make it possible for the Image to shine again; God can do it: because God is the great Creator.” Redemption has been hinted at all through the Old Testament: Abraham and Sarah; Manoah and wife; Ruth and Boaz; Elkanah and Hannah; David and Bathsheba. But even these foreshadowings of the messiah were insufficient. They could not show the fulfillment of God’s loving power. In each case, there was a human desire to have a child, a child who in fact would do something significant and became a great personal leader -- a national hero.
“No!” Matthew and Luke exclaim. Redemption can only come from God. How could God accomplish that? Clearly, God always worked through human messengers bringing God’s Truth. Only a real human being could restore/bring God’s life to the whole of Creation. Yet Messiah could not originate with humans; even though he HAD to be a human. Therefore, Messiah had to be born of a virgin, a girl who was not yet mature enough even to want to have physical desire for a child. Thus Matthew and Luke indicate that Mary is a virgin.
John the theologian states it this way: “born not of human stock, by the physical desire of a human father, but of GOD.”
Thus Jesus is born to the world by the pure act of God. Humans are in no way responsible for the means of salvation. However, Mary is integral to God’s redemption of the world. God’s love is so great that there can be no force whatever from God’s side; thus Mary’s agreement in Luke’s gospel. “Force” of any kind “is NOT of God,” as the great 2nd century hymn states. Jesus then comes as any child; but he needs to respond to God in the context of human life family. He needs to face all the issues that face every human, as Hebrews teaches; he needs to do it by facing down the great Anti-Christ, human power and force, seen in the Roman Empire on the world stage; and on the local stage in the Jerusalem City Council! But the origin is God; not “human attempts” to be God through the use of power and force. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary says.
That is why we need to venerate Mary.
But there is more. John’s Gospel sums up the wholeness of God’s love, using “the mother of Jesus.” The mother of Jesus appears twice in John: at the wedding in Cana and at the triumph on the Cross.
Weddings are the beginning of new life, of new faith; the wedding in Cana was exactly that: exciting and joyous; happy and filled with anticipation; dancing to music with a strong beat; partying in every sense of the word. Motherhood and sexuality are also strongly present. And then they run out of fuel; the wine is all gone!
The mother of Jesus, the vehicle of God’s salvation, asks Jesus/God to act. “Do whatever He asks,” she says to the servants. And Jesus asks humans to use water to create the marvelous wine of God. Just as promised in Isaiah, this is the beginning of the Great Party of God. THIS is the beginning of the NEW FAMILY that God is creating to replace the old families that war and fight. “Do as He asks,” says the Mother of Jesus.
On the Cross in John’s Gospel, Jesus is seen in theological triumph. The marvelous redemption promised by God and foretold at Cana has been completed in the life of Jesus. But the mother of Jesus, the vehicle of God’s love has one more act. On the Cross, reigning in Triumph, Jesus is King of the Jews God’s Chosen People. But it is not the Jews as a national group, important as they have been in making God’s action in Messiah possible. National groups are the problem. It is those who have Abraham’s faith in God’s love, revealed in loving life: that life hinted at in Cana. The Cross is the moment of Triumph for both sides: The Romans had got rid of this thorn; and Jesus Reigns from the Cross. “Mother,” he says, “Mother; there is your child, your heart love;” “My friend, you are my heart love; look, there is our mother.” Jesus then sips the party wine he didn’t drink in Cana, and the New Family, the Church, is created. “It is fulfilled!” he shouts in triumph. His final act gives his Spirit, his life, to this new entity, the Church, created on the Cross with his own life.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and forever.”
Faithfully in Christ,
Archbishop of New York
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Over the years, some have asked to have a copy of Archbishop Anthony’s Prayer. Here it is: