In this Dormition Fast, we are given an opportunity to reflect on the life of Mary, the Mother of God, and therefore to reflect on the life of Jesus, God in the flesh.
We will focus on some Lukan texts, with some others.
But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afriad, Mary, for you have found favor with God. . . . Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:29, 36)
Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword willl pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Luke 1:33-35)
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magadalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:25-27)
Like Mother, like Son. Jesus will exemplify and fulfill that text from Job, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:15):
And He was withdrawn from them about a stone’s throw, and he knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done. Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. (Luke22:41-44)
The submission of the human will to the Divine will was full and complete in both the life of Mary and the life of her Son and our Lord. Such submission does not happen without struggle and suffering, for just as Mary’s soul was pierced by a sword, so her Son’s side was pierced by a spear. This is a world marred by sin, and the path of struggle and victory and loss cuts right through our souls. That is to say, we do not gain this submission without struggle, without spiritual violence.
And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. (Matthew 11:12)
The church has always understood this text in the context of the ascetical struggle. This is the struggle with sin and all our fallen and sinful thoughts and passions. Once we move from seeing sin as acts and deeds to seeing them as originating in our disordered thoughts and sinful desires, we begin to realize the depths and extent of our struggle. No sinful deed is accomplished without beginning with the thought–once we accept and dwell on thoughts of sin and hold on to desires that displease God, there is nothing left but the act. And when it dawns on us how deeply embedded and entwined are these thoughts and desires into our self-conceptions and self-identities, we begin to realize how hard and intensely we must struggle. This inward spiritual violence against these alien thoughts and desires is unbearably difficult. Because of the depths of the struggle and how closely it cuts into our hearts, this struggle may manifest itself physically.
This is the Christian man who kneels by himself in a room apart, arms spread to the skies, tears streaming down his face as he struggles within himself to submit a will marred and disordered by sin to the loving and light yoke of his Lord. And the struggle may be so intense for such a one, that he feels physically nauseous and may well almost collapse from the struggle. And why not? Is not such one a disciple of Him who sweat blood?
But such a victory of submission is not won in an instant, except from marvelous grace. Not even our Lord won such final submission of his human will to his divine will in one composed and serene decision as he knelt comfortably, hands folded out in front of him on a rock. No, not even our Lord fought this battle so serenely.
He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” . . . Again, a second time, He went away and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done.” . . . So He left them, went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words. (Matthew 26:39, 42, 44)
Whatever need our Savior had to win his “nevertheless” over repeated prayers, what blocks us from this “nevertheless”? Let us return to the visit of Gabriel to Our Lady: “Do not be afraid.” That is to say, unless I am mistaken, I think the thing that blocks us from this submission is fear. We fear pain and loss and death. And how do we deal with this fear? With love. “Perfect love casts out fear.”
What are the things most precious to us, the things we fear most to lose? Love and life.
He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it. (Matthew 10:37-39)
If we do not love God above all, it is because we fear; we fear loss and pain and death. But if we can attain to and receive the love of God above all–and it is an attainment and a gift we must continue to struggle to have–we are then free. Free in ways that cannot be imagined when we are still in the grip of fear.
But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)
This is why the saints and holy elders exhort us: Cast yourselves off into the dark abyss of his love. What fear can remain when one embraces his love?
But another aspect of this fear is a very strong illusion. It is the illusion that the things we fear to lose–our loves, our children, our possessions, our lives–truly are ours. When we realize that nothing we have, not even our own lives, are ours, and that we have no power over any of these things–except for our choice to let go the illusion–the fear loses its power and intensity. The fog lifts and the sun shines.
Make no mistake. The struggle is painful. Our Christ sweat drops of blood, indeed, he was whipped, beaten, and nailed to the Cross. He died. And one cannot escape the tears and the grief that comes. We may be free of fear, but we are not free of the consequences of sinful actions in a fallen world. Our fears may indeed very well be realized, whatever victory of loving submission we may attain. One cannot escape the Gethsemane struggle. If Christ struggled three times, our struggle is three hundred, three thousand, three hundred thousand times.
But there in that struggle is the release from fear. There is the grace of freedom. There in the loss of everything is the gift of everthing. Because we have let go of everything, even our own life and its disposition, we are then able to receive back whatever God gives, and to receive it all in thankfulness. There in that death, in those many deaths, is life and love, and life abundantly.
O Most Holy Theotokos, save us. Lord have mercy.