A Sermon for the Dormition by David Armstrong (with Brief Commentary)

If you have not yet read “You Did Not Forsake the World: A Sermon for the Dormition” by David Armstrong at A Perennial Digression, please leave this page and do so. With David’s permission, I’m reposting much of it here with two brief connections of my own afterward (in hopes that another few readers might find David’s sermon and also so that my mind can benefit from writing out the two simple links that I note).

She goes to heaven, which, to be clear, is always a form of cosmic promotion and accession to rule: it is not what we think of it, as a kind of cosmic Disney World (though that sounds fun for other reasons, I’m sure). Heaven comes with responsibilities, duties, officia, and ongoing education we cannot now imagine (unless, of course, we are Origen of Alexandria, who did exactly that in the most influential form in De Principiis II.11). And now, the second entity in all of creation to enjoy not just some measure of such power, but plenipotentiary, absolute power over creation? A bereaved mother, essentially a non-person in the eyes of wealthy well-to-dos, aristocratic priestly elites, and Roman occupiers alike.

. . .Perhaps then the ultimate Eastern theology of the Theotokos comes through in the Eastern hymn to her on this Dormition feast:

In giving birth you retained your virginity;
and in Dormition you did not forsake the world, O Theotokos.
You were translated unto life, being the Mother of Life.
And thus by virtue of your intercessions,
You deliver our souls from death.

“In Dormition you did not forsake the world”: like your Son, Jesus, O Mother of God, your departure from the world made you more present to it, not less, by the power of the Spirit in whom you now are fully alive by having died to this world.

. . .One believes into the Dormition less by historical testimony (which again is quite lacking) and more by the experience of Mary’s maternal presence to the Christian life, in liturgy, at prayer, in the small niches of grace that she has filled with herself throughout the cosmos just as Christ in ascending has filled all things with himself. She is the sweetness of May air, and the early hints of autumnal relief from summer heat as August wanes, as though gentler winds promising the Fall were some of her last breaths gone out like zephyrs into the air, returned each year at her leisure. She is now the creaturely beauty of everything, even as Christ is the Divine Wisdom of everything (and even Christ’s summation in his human nature of all creation is really her presence to the universe, since it is after all her humanity). She is bride to God, but she has also been the true love of every poet and knight, every woman or man seeking God in the bedroom, for what point is there in her perennial virginity if it is not that by dedicating her body to God her soul might become the very beacon of the eros of God and self for the world? She is every lovely thing. She is mother to God as well, and so therefore mother to all of us. But she is also daughter, the daughter: anyone who has daughters venerate her in loving all of their preciousness, tenacity, intelligence, and power. All of this we experience and name by her daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly in ways that we never would have had she not departed, just as had Christ not departed there would be no Spirit to facilitate her presence to us and ours to her in the first place.

And this very mode and manner of being present to the world is also the paradigm of our own departure from this life. Early Christians debated if death was the doorway to a waiting room or the wedding feast itself, that is, if the Kingdom for which Christ labored would indeed be realized in this world with apocalyptic theater and pageantry or if, already being realized in the heavens, it was simply a matter of cosmic progression towards it. Irenaeus represented the first view, Origen the second, Augustine something of a via media between the two with his Two Cities and amillenialism. But whatever the case ultimately with the cosmos, it is clear that death begins a profound journey for us, one in which we shall need all kinds of help we cannot now guess, and through which we shall come to places and states far beyond our ken, perhaps by circuits we could not have imagined. Christ and Mary have gone ahead of us; so too have the other saints. They both help us along the way and stand as hope that we too can make it where they now are. It is, after all, our souls that we praise Mary for saving from death, not simply our bodies: embodiment only ever reflects what is going on in the soul anyway. And Mary will accompany our souls: in the grand reversal, she will take us into her own from that day forward (Jn 19:27). And so, as she closes her eyes in this world for the final time, as the year begins to turn its face towards the long decline into autumn and winter, we must train ourselves to hear above tears and mourning Christ’s own voice of reassurance: “It is good for you that I should go away…”

Two simple connections:

  • With “she is the sweetness of May air,” I was reminded of “The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89) and more generally of much from the book The Meaning of Blue: Recovering a Contemplative Spirit by Luke Bell which I have reflected on here.
  • With “she is now the creaturely beauty of everything, even as Christ is the Divine Wisdom of everything (and even Christ’s summation in his human nature of all creation is really her presence to the universe, since it is after all her humanity),” I find helpful connections to the visions found within the tradition of Sophiology.

There would be much more to say, of course, with all that David drew out so wonderfully. However, that seems enough.

Plaque with the Death of the Virgin, early 16th century French, from Workshop of Jean Pénicaud (as named by the The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

11 thoughts on “A Sermon for the Dormition by David Armstrong (with Brief Commentary)

  1. I like how Christians yanked universal and broadly pagan concepts and then arbitrarily bolted them on to some poor Jewish peasant girl so they could claim universal experiences of beauty are akshually Christian and their cult totally doesn’t hate the material world and all the good things in it. Newsflash: if holiness is equated to sexlessness (“virginity”) and monasticism, then sex, beauty, and passion are bad things and you have no theological warrant, let alone right, to claim them.


      1. The fact that anyone would thing to declare a life of perpetual sexlessness holy, let alone superior to a married state, says otherwise. That a woman passed her life by in perpetual virginity is indicative of genetic failure and probably some sort of hormonal disorder, not any sort of superior state.

        But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. What does the Apostle Paul have to say on the matter again? I forget.


      2. Paul says that “a man …shall cling to his wife, and the two shall be one flesh” and that “this mystery is a great one because I am speaking about Christ and the church.” Paul is clearly speaking with reverence regarding the divine eros of marriage in the tradition of Song of Songs.


      3. I was more thinking of this:

        “Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. […] Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment. For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that.”

        Paul rather clearly thinks celibacy is not only good, but superior to being hitched. The only paradigm under which this makes sense is if one declares sex to be defiling or otherwise impure.


      4. Even if Paul considers single life superior to married life (which he doesn’t say here), it’s absurd to say that this must be because he considers sex defiling. In the passage that you cite, he is explicitly telling married couples to have sex regularly and not to think it more holy to abstain.


      5. I mean how plain does he need to be? Is this straightforward enough for you?

        “So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.”

        Marriage is, expressly, inferior to allowing your line, survived since the beginning of life on earth, to die out in the name of God.


      6. You can make a case that Paul considers singleness a higher vocation than marriage in service of Christ (given the particular time of persecution and witness by martyrdom faced by the church), but Paul obviously still considers marriage a good and holy way of displaying the union of Christ and his bride to the world. If Paul does consider singleness superior for that age, this doesn’t at all support your repeated claims that Paul thinks negatively of marriage or eros. Paul makes it clear that marriage is a sacred icon of God’s eternal love for creation.


      7. Ok, if Paul isn’t enough to convince you, how about Jesus?

        “Not everyone can accept this word,” He replied, “but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way; others were made that way by men; and still others live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

        If you can live like an emasculated eunuch, do it.


      8. It’s the same idea as Paul. If you will take up your cross and follow Christ to martyrdom, it is best not to be married. Later, when Christ’s church was facing less and less persecution, they formally made marriage into a sacrament. When they did this, they placed the crowns of martyrdom on the heads of the bride and groom as a part of the wedding ceremony because marriage itself was recognized as a way to devote your entire life to the love of God.


      9. Ok, if you want to pretend that Christianity hasn’t bristled with hatred for sexuality since the beginning, you can go right on doing so, but I suggest you actually examine both the theory and practice of the earliest fathers, running right down through the monastics to the present day. Genetic dead ends, virtually to a man.


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