August 19 (August 6 according to the Julian calendar) the Church celebrates the Transfiguration of the Lord and August 28 (August 15) the Church celebrates the Dormition of the Virgin
Augustine Sokolovski, Doctor of Theology, Priest
According to the church liturgical calendar, August is the last month of the year. It is interesting that this archaic tradition is preserved both in the Orthodox and in the Catholic Church. This Church New Year has almost no effect on the divine service itself. Nevertheless, for every person, to some extent connected with the church or biblical tradition of perceiving time, as the uniqueness of the chronological advancement of each life into each new moment, any such end of the annual period is important.
The year in the Russian church language is literally called the “Summer of the Lord”, “the summer of goodness” or simply “summer”. That is why the great Russian writer Ivan Shmelev (1873-1950) called his amazing novel “The Year of the Lord” (literally in Russian: “Summer of the Lord”).
This very coincidence of the words summer in relation to the year and to the season in different registers – church and secular – of the Russian language could become an occasion for us to think about the holidays of the end of August. These holidays – the Transfiguration of the Lord and the Assumption of the Most Holy Theotokos – are like celebrations of the end of summer. Let’s look at each of them in order of celebration.
Transfiguration of the Lord
August 19, August 6 according to the Julian calendar, the Church celebrates the Transfiguration of the Lord. The Day of the Transfiguration is an important occasion for the Church, as a Society of Believers, to reflect on the meaning of this Event. According to the Gospel, the Lord Jesus ascended the Mountain with the apostles Peter, James, and John, and was transfigured before them. Jesus of Nazareth was accompanied by the prophets Moses and Elijah. The voice of God and the Father testified that “Goodwill” rests on Jesus. The subsequent development of the redemptive mystery showed that the Favor of God is Jesus the Lord Himself. This event is described in the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Mt.17:1-6; Mk.9:1-8; Lk.9:28-36).
The end of the description of the Event of the Transfiguration in the Gospel testifies that the Transfiguration Itself is directly connected with the Cross of Christ. The Lord reveals His glory, after which He announces to the Apostles about the coming Suffering. “And as they were descending from the mountain, Jesus rebuked them, saying, Tell no one about this vision until the Son of Man has risen from the dead. For the Son of Man will suffer” (cf. Matt. 17; 9.12). In the context of the sequence of liturgical celebrations of the Church, it is important that the celebration in honor of the Cross of Christ, the Day of the Exaltation, takes place on September 27, that is, on the fortieth day after the Transfiguration.
The Transfiguration of the Lord was a historical event, that is, it took place once in history. In turn, the early Christian communities that stood at the origins of the gospel texts, and, after them, the patristic theology, gave the event of the Transfiguration a dogmatical meaning. This means that the Transfiguration has a special place in the history of salvation, and, most importantly, in the divine economy, that is, His administration of the world.It is worth knowing that later Byzantine theology in the 14th century, in the person of the Thessalonian Archbishop Gregory Palamas (1296–1359), made a grandiose attempt at a complete rethinking of the Event of the Transfiguration. Recall that the traditions of Western Christianity are characterized by the so-called “ideological holidays”. In them, instead of, or along with specific events, there is a recollection of certain doctrinal truths: “The Body of Christ”, “Christ is the King”, “The Name of Jesus: The Lord Jesus Christ” etc. The Orthodox East of that time actually turned the Transfiguration into an ideological celebration in honor of the “divine light”, “uncreated energies” and the prayer practice of hesychasm. That is, the Transfiguration as a historical fact, and, most importantly, its direct connection with the Cross of Christ, were, if not forgotten, then, in any case, “relegated” to a secondary plane.
A paradoxical response to this “theologization” of the Transfiguration was the popularly pious identification of the liturgy of the feast with the blessing of the new fruit harvest. Transfiguration like apples and grapes: symbols of the fall of the first people and washing away the sins of all, “given for many” (Mt; 26.28), Eucharistic Wine. “God, our Savior, who deigned to call Your Only Begotten Son, the Lord God and our Savior Jesus, “grapes,” and thereby gave us the fruit of immortality,” says the prayer for the blessing of the fruits on the Day of the Transfiguration. Through this the Lord Jesus became the Blessing of the fruit harvest of the Lord’s Summer.
So, we are dealing with two, or even three meanings of the Event of the Transfiguration: 1. Biblical and historical; 2. Theoretical, ideological, and scholastic; 3. Folk and pious, which sums up a period of time. But the Transfiguration also has a special, fourth meaning. Until now, he almost always eluded the attention of the Orthodox Tradition.
At the moment of the culmination of the Eucharistic Prayer, the Church, through the mouth of a priest the Church pronounces the following words: “Remembering this saving commandment and everything that happened for us: the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, ascending into heaven, sitting on the right hand, the second and glorious second coming”. This is the key phrase of the Eucharistic prayer of the Church. For it precedes the double epiclesis of the simultaneous Transubstantiation of the Bread and Wine, and the Community into the Body and Blood of Christ. That is, bread and wine become the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus. The praying Congregation itself also becomes the Body and Blood of the Lord! “Take what He is – the Body of Christ, in order to become what You are – the Body of Christ,” urges the greatest Father of the Church of all time, Saint Bishop Augustine of Hippo (354-430) in his sermon on the Eucharist.
So, according to the literal meaning of the words of this prayer, the Second Coming of the Lord is itself the subject of Remembrance. It has already happened. The Second Coming, or, in the language of theology, the Parousia, is part of the remembrance of the Praying Community of the Church.
The true meaning of the Transfiguration is not in the past, that one-time manifestation of the glory of the Lord on Mount Tabor in Palestine, but in the future. In fact, the event of the Transfiguration will only be. It is the Feast of the Future, which marks an eschatological accomplishment. The Transfiguration is the memory of the Second Coming of Jesus.
“We no longer know Christ in the flesh,” writes the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 5:16). These words mean the following: unlike the Apostles, none of the subsequent generations of Christians, saw the Lord before His Cross. None of the Christians did not see Him until the Resurrection! The Lord Jesus available to us is the Lord Reigning over the Universe, the Lord Resurrected and the Master of History.The Lord available to us is the Lord of the Second Coming. Available “already and not yet”. We will talk about this expression a little later. Therefore, and here it is important to return to the Transfiguration Event, we contemplate Him in Glory with our mind’s eye. As it is said in the Gospel about the Transfiguration itself: “Jesus was transfigured before them: and His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became white as snow” (Matthew 17; 1-2).
The Day of the Transfiguration at the end of the church liturgical year is an important occasion for the church community and secular society to reflect on the new meaning of this event. After all, in a very definite sense, this event becomes a farewell. For it is celebrated at the end of the church year. For next time the Church will celebrate the Transfiguration only in a year. Will celebrate if God prolongs the existence of this world. After all, according to Jesus in the Apocalypse, “Whoever witnesses this says: Yea, I am coming soon!” (Rev. 22:20). The dogma of the Church about the Second Coming means the conviction that our Lord longs to return again in order to transform the Universe and complete History.
Dormition of the Virgin
Nine days after the Transfiguration, August 28 – August 15 in the Western liturgical tradition – the Church celebrates the Dormition of the Virgin. Dormition is death. However, the faith of the Church is convinced that the death of Mary – the Mother of Jesus – was not ordinary. Unlike any other human death, it was not, or, better, did not become for Mary the farewell to life. Hence the name Dormition. Let us note that in the Catholic Church the Dormition is called “Assumption”. Knowledge about God is made up of theology and economy. This is how the Ancient Church divided knowledge about God. Within this logic, theology is what God is in Himself. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Even if the world had not been created, God would always be and always remain, being Himself. One and only God. Christianity has always been, is and will be the confession of the strictest monotheism. “I believe in the One God,” begins the Creed.
The Divine Economy is the implementation of His saving plan in relation to the world created from non-existence. And most importantly, this is the redemptive work of God, the salvation of his beloved creation, whose name is man. Redemption and salvation, the raising of a person from the abyss of death, deliverance from sin, damnation, and death. Sin is a lost glory, and therefore deliverance from sin becomes for a person an introduction to the glory of the Lord Jesus.
According to the Creed, the beginning of the economic mystery lies in the the Incarnation of God. “I believe in the One Lord Jesus… incarnated from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary” says the Creed. God enters History, and, according to biblical texts, the Mother of God becomes the place of contact, the topos, or the threshold of the Coming of the Lord.
During the year, which is poetically referred to in Russian liturgical texts as the “Summer of the Lord”, the Church repeatedly celebrates in honor of the Mother of Jesus (cf. Acts 1:14). All feasts of Mary somehow connected with the divine economy of salvation: the Conception of the Virgin by Joachim and Anna, the Nativity of the Virgin, the Entry into the Temple, the Annunciation, the Presentation. All these feasts, in one way or another, relate to the mystery of salvation. They are directly connected with the Earthly Life of the Lord Jesus, his Death on the Cross and Resurrection. But what about Assumption?
Paradoxically, it turns out that the Dormition is the only feast of the Mother of God that is apparently no longer related to the divine economy, since the latter has already been completed. The Cross, and the Resurrection, and the Second and Glorious Coming again of the Lord Jesus – as it is said in the Eucharistic Prayer of the Church, are already, once and for all, inscribed in the history of the salvation of the Universe. According to the logic of linear dogmatic thinking, the Assumption is, as it were, taken out “outside of the divine economy”.
But God judged otherwise. And this mystery of the Truth about the Dormition, prepared by Himself, is directly connected both with human existence and with the dogma of the Second Coming. After all, as we have already noted in relation to the Feast of the Transfiguration, the Parousia of the Lord Jesus is mentioned in the liturgy in the past tense but has not yet happened!
In this sense, the exegetes of the last century are right when they said that the truth about the Second Coming is the only dogma that follows the logic of the simultaneous fulfillment of “already and not yet.” Those who reproach those who forget about this truth of dogma and history are also right. One of them, in his critical inspiration, proclaimed: “The eschatological shop of the Church has closed.” Recall that eschatology is the theology about the end of history, the end times and, most importantly, the Second Coming of the Lord.
Unlike all other Mother of God feasts, in the Event of the Dormition the Church, as the Society of the Faithful, becomes predominantly a contemporary of the Blessed Virgin. In order to realize this contemporaneity of it in the liturgical prayer of the Church, we must turn again to the Eucharistic prayer. After the transubstantiation of the Bread and Wine, the priest says: “We also bring you this service for all those who have died in the faith: forefathers, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, Evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and for every righteous spirit who has died in faith, and especially in the first place – about the Most Holy, Most Pure, Blessed Glorious Lady of Our Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary”.
From these words, uttered by the Community after the Transubstantiation, it becomes obvious that the commemoration of the liturgy that unites all the living – the living Before the Throne of God and the living here before the Throne of the Temple – reflects the worldview of the contemporaries of the Blessed Virgin. Her contemporaries were those who were directly connected with the Apostolic Circle, with the first generations of apostolic disciples, who personally remembered and knew the Blessed Virgin, Mother of Jesus, who lived here on earth.
It is extremely important that for these first, holy people – Christians in the true sense of the word – there was in principle no difference between those who are still before God in the prayer of the Eucharist, and those who, like the Blessed Virgin, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, and all The Infinite Cloud of Witnesses (Heb. 12:1), intercede before God in the communion of saints. These texts, in their meaning, go back to the contemporaries of the Blessed Virgin. They are worthy of perception with attention, fear, and awe. It is the living Words of the Ecclesia – the Assembly of the Church – and they enroll us among the Contemporaries of God by the Holy Spirit.
According to the Faith of the Church, the Mother of God, whom the Church glorifies as the Most Honorable of the Cherubim and the Most Glorious of the Seraphim, nevertheless had to die. And this is the great and incomprehensible mystery about the Dormition of the Mother of Jesus. Becoming contemporaries of the apostolic community, and therefore of the Blessed Virgin, in liturgical prayer, the Community becomes a contemporary of the Apostles. So the Church is given an understanding of how those who saw and knew her perceived her. She always lived in the Presence of the Son. According to Tradition, it was to Mary herself that the Risen Lord was the first to appear. Mary lived by the appearance of the Resurrected Glorified Messiah Savior.
The Apostolic Community waited for the Return of the Lord Jesus, lived for His Second Coming. She directly experienced His approach as if He had already knocked on the door, stood outside the threshold, inexorably walked towards the world, history, and His Church. The apostles and Mary looked forward to the coming of the Lord Jesus in a real and immediate way.
Perhaps it is precisely in this “too strong”, great and amazing expectation that the reason lies why in Scripture and Tradition, so little has been written down and said about the circumstances of the earthly life of the Most Holy Theotokos. Thus, the seeming unimportance of circumstances not connected with the preaching and proclaiming of the Coming was manifested. The Lord was approaching and the Community, together with Mary, proclaimed: “Our Lord is coming, Maran Afa!”
Perhaps it is this “too strong”, great and amazing expectation that is the reason why so little is written and said in Scripture and Tradition about the circumstances of the earthly life of Mary. Thus, the seeming unimportance of circumstances was manifested before the Truth about the Second Coming. The Lord was approaching, and the Community together with Mary proclaimed: “Our Lord is coming, Maran Afa!”
In the symbolism of the icon of the Assumption, much becomes obvious: the childish soul of Mary is in the hands of the Lord; the body – already Resurrected by Him – in the Kingdom of God and the Father. So in Mary and her Assumption is the Great Mystery of what awaits a person. The mystery, not noticed by theology, lies in the fact that the Completion of the Economy of Salvation – in a different, human, life perspective – is visibly contained in the Mystery of the Dormition. The mystery of life for those who left us, the mystery of life for us.
The Lord resurrected the Most Holy Virgin, already approaching in the Transfiguration of the Parousia. Dormition means that after the Summer of the Lord comes the Autumn of History. After all, Jesus is returning, He has already crossed the threshold.