August 15 was the Last “Great Feast” of the Byzantine Church year, the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos, called The Assumption in the West. Today we are still in the Afterfeast.
The Transfiguration of Our Lord on August 6, and this feast on August 15, are at the end of the Church year (which begins on September 1) for a reason. They teach that the goal of life it the Theosis (Divinization) of all that is. We see Christ revealed as Divine and Human by nature on August 6, but then, He is special, right?
But the Transfiguration is there to show us that there is NOTHING AT ALL incompatible between Humanity and Divinity. To be fully Human is to take on Divinity. The Disciples see the Uncreated Light (the Divine Energies) flowing from the Transfigured Christ.
The Orphics knew this when they declared on one of their gold funerary tablets:
Θεὸς ἐγένου ἐξ ἀνθρώπου. Through being a Mortal, you have become God.
2 Peter 1:4 says:
… ἵνα διὰ τούτων γένησθε θείας κοινωνοὶ φύσεως…
… and you may become participants of the divine nature.
And from the Fathers:
The language of II Peter is taken up by St Irenaeus, in his famous phrase, ‘if the Word has been made man, it is so that men may be made gods’ (Adv. Haer V, Pref.), and becomes the standard in Greek theology. In the fourth century, St. Athanasius repeats Irenaeus almost word for word, and in the fifth century St Cyril of Alexandria says that we shall become sons ‘by participation’ (Greek methexis). Deification is the central idea in the spirituality of St. Maximus the Confessor, for whom the doctrine is the corollary of the Incarnation: ‘Deification, briefly, is the encompassing and fulfillment of all times and ages,’ … and St. Symeon the New Theologian at the end of the tenth century writes, ‘He who is God by nature converses with those whom he has made gods by grace, as a friend converses with his friends, face to face.’ … (Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology)
The final Great Feast, of the Dormition, is meant to show that this reality is true for all, beginning with the Theotokos.
In Eastern Christianity, she is not the great exception (as in the West), but the great example. This is because of a difference in the understanding of Original Sin.
In the West, through Augustine, Original Sin is understood to be an inheritance by subsequent humans of the Sin of Adam (and Eve). It’s like everyone is born with an inevitable spiritual blemish. With this understanding, it is clear why the Roman Church had to create the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, as Mary had to be conceived without that spiritual blemish to be worthy to bear the Incarnate Word.
In the East, however, Original Sin is not an inherited blemish. Rather, it is just a term for the fact that the Cosmos doesn’t work entirely right. There are conflicts between all kinds of players. In Tolkien’s terms, it is “Arda Marred.” The cosmos has been damaged by the disharmonious treachery of Melkor/Morgoth, Sauron’s master during the First Age of Arda. So there is no spiritual blemish to be excepted from. The Theotokos, like all people, is born without sin. And it is her grace never to sin, giving herself completely to the Divine. That’s why the East has no doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, or rather, that we are all Immaculately Conceived.
Therefore, we Easterners celebrate that the Theotokos is in the vanguard of where we are all meant to be, and with us (not just humans, but all sentient beings in the Multiverse), the whole Multiverse. It is Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point, which is Christ. We are approaching the Omega Point asymptotically, since the Ground of Being is infinite. Martinists call this Reintegration. Judaism would call it Tikun Olam. In Hinduism, it is union with Atman, which is Brahman. And so on throughout human spiritualities.
St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica (1296–1359) gave a marvelous homily on this Feast. Here are excerpts describing the role of the Theotokos:
Willing to set up an image of all goodness and beauty and to make clearly manifest His own therein to both angels and men, God fashioned a being supremely good and beautiful, uniting in her all good, seen and unseen, which when He made the world He distributed to each thing and thereby adorned all; or rather one might say, He showed her forth as a universal mixing bowl of all divine, angelic and human things good and beautiful and the supreme beauty which embellished both worlds. By her ascension now from the tomb, she is taken from the earth and attains to Heaven and this also she surpasses, uniting those on high with those below, and encompassing all with the wondrous deed wrought in her. In this manner she was in the beginning “a little lower than the angels” (Ps. 8:6), as it is said, referring to her mortality, yet this only served to magnify her pre-eminence as regards all creatures. Thus all things today fittingly gather and commune for the festival….
Hence, as it was through the Theotokos alone that the Lord came to us, appeared upon earth and lived among men, being invisible to all before this time, so likewise in the endless age to come, without her mediation, every emanation of illuminating divine light, every revelation of the mysteries of the Godhead, every form of spiritual gift, will exceed the capacity of every created being. She alone has received the all-pervading fulness of Him that filleth all things, and through her all may now contain it, for she dispenses it according to the power of each, in proportion and to the degree of the purity of each. Hence she is the treasury and overseer of the riches of the Godhead. For it is an everlasting ordinance in the heavens that the inferior partake of what lies beyond being, by the mediation of the superior, and the Virgin Mother is incomparably superior to all. It is through her that as many as partake of God do partake, and as many as know God understand her to be the enclosure of the Uncontainable One, and as many as hymn God praise her together with Him. She is the cause of what came before her, the champion of what came after her and the agent of things eternal. She is the substance of the prophets, the principle of the apostles, the firm foundation of the martyrs and the premise of the teachers of the Church . She is the glory of those upon earth, the joy of celestial beings, the adornment of all creation. She is the beginning and the source and root of unutterable good things; she is the summit and consummation of everything holy.
Thus the Cycle of the Great Feasts comes to a close…the goal is seen.
It is, of course, no coincidence that these two Feasts, the Transfiguration and the Dormition, come at this time of year. In the Old European Calendar, August 1 is Lughnasadh, Lúnasa, or Lammas, the beginning of Autumn. Lughnasadh is named for the Celtic God Lugh, a light deity, and inventor of culture. And the Feast itself involves the funeral of Lugh’s mother. Lughnasadh (in its many spellings) is also the name of the whole month. It is also the first of the Harvest Festivals, and thus, we can link the Transfiguration and the Dormition as the final Harvesting of Humanity in Divinization:
ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐὰν μὴ ὁ κόκκος τοῦ σίτου πεσὼν εἰς τὴν γῆν ἀποθάνῃ, αὐτὸς μόνος μένει· ἐὰν δὲ ἀποθάνῃ, πολὺν καρπὸν φέρει.
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)
I am living this truth out by the experience of our backyard garden: one radish produces many radish seeds, etc.:
One can read this connection in several ways. For example, it could be seen as the ancient ways being filtered through the newer faith. Also, it could be a Divine preparation for what was to come. Either way, the connection is clear.
Thank you for reading!
Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant
PS: Thank you to Pat Coffey for pointing me Eastward so many years ago at Yale!