On Sunday, August 28, 2011, the feast day of the Dormition of the Mother of God, the President of the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, His Eminence Metropolitan Ilarion of Volokolamsk, celebrated Divine Liturgy at St Mary Magdalene Church at Gethsemane Convent in Jerusalem.
Metropolitan Ilarion was joined in the service by His Grace Bishop Theodosius of Seattle of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia; Archimandrite Isidor (Minaev), Head of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission of the Moscow Patriarchate; Archimandrite Tikhon (Amelchenya), Chief of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission of the Church Abroad; Protopriest Nikolai Balashov, Vice President of the DECR; Hierodeacon Ioann (Kopeikin), Assistant to the President of the DECR; and a host of clergymen from the Moscow Patriarchate and abroad.
After the Liturgy, Vladyka Ilarion was greeted by Vladyka Theodosius from the ambo:
We are thankful to the Lord and His Most-Pure Mother that on the feast of the Dormition, you were able to head divine services in our convent. This convent is the closest one to the site of the tomb of the Most-Pure Virgin Mary. We are happy to have been able to pray with you on this holiday. The feast of the Dormition is called the Pascha of the Theotokos in the Holy Land, because many pilgrims come who were unable to come during Holy Pascha itself. They come to venerate the burial site of the Mother of God, and pray at the places which are connected with her life and her departure to the other world.”
Vladyka Theodosius then gave Metropolitan Ilarion a gift of an icon of the Veil of the Mother of God on behalf of the convent’s nuns and pious worshipers.
The President of the DECR thanked the archpastor for his warm words and addressed those in attendance:
“Your Grace, dear Vladyka Theodosius:
“It is a great joy for us pilgrims from the Russian Orthodox Church to celebrate Divine Liturgy in Gethsemane, the places where our Lord Jesus Christ lifted His prayers to His Heavenly Father before His sufferings on the Cross, and where our Most-Holy Queen, the Mother of God, found a place of rest for her earthly body, although for only a short time before she was taken bodily up to Heaven by her Divine Son, as the Holy Orthodox Church believes.
“As we celebrate the Dormition of the Most-Holy Mother of God, we think about the saintliness a person who lives with God can attain. We think about how close a person can approach God if he devotes his entire life to serving the Lord, if all of his thoughts are infused with the Divine, all of his life is as a prayer, standing before God and walking alongside Him. The Most-Holy Theotokos from the beginning of her life until her repose traveled the path of sainthood to its highest degree, which not one mortal had every done, so that even the angels of God cannot compare to her saintliness.
“As we ponder her end, our hearts are filled with gratitude to God, for the Dormition of the Mother of God was not the usual death of a human being, the kind of death that people fear, of which no one wishes to speak, or think, which they would rather eliminate from their existence if only possible. The Dormition of the Mother of God was the crowning moment of her entire life. This was indeed a ‘dormition,’ a falling asleep: her body fell asleep, but her soul went to the Heavenly abode. On the threshold of death, the Most-Holy Mother of God was met by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, when he took her soul into His hands, as one would take a newborn child.
“This remarkable image of the Dormition of the Mother of God, which we see on many icons of this holiday, reminds us of what should happen to us if we live according to Divine commandments and devote ourselves to God, if we do not falter in our prayers and walk upon the path of salvation. For the Lord awaits each one of us beyond the threshold of death, and for us, death should be just the same kind of ‘falling asleep’ as it was for the Most-Holy Theotokos. And the soul of every one of us—if only we remain true to God, if we tend to ourselves, selflessly work towards the glory of God and the benefit of our neighbors—will be received by the Lord in the same way, met in the Kingdom of Heaven, and will reside in the haven prepared for each one of us from before the world even began. This is Divine Providence for each one of us: the Lord never abandons a person, nor desires his doom. Man himself can distance himself from God, but God will never distance Himself from us. Man can fail to love God, but God will always love man.
“St Isaac the Syrian reminds us of this in his writings, saying that the Lord loves both the righteous and the sinner equally, and that He sends rain upon the innocent and upon the guilty, and that the Sun shines upon the one who does good and the one who works wickedness. The Lord never changes in His love, never turns His gaze away from man. Only human sinfulness is repulsive to God, but the Lord continues to love the sinner.
“We must remember God’s love: the Lord always, at any moment of our lives, is prepared to accept us in His embrace, but we must turn to Him, we must address words of repentance to Him and tears of sorrow, that we turn off of the path of sin, onto the path of righteousness.
“The Lord loves each one of us, He loves all of mankind, which He created. All people are His children. Not one of them can He ever forget, or cease loving, not one person can He in His Divine will wish to send to the place of suffering, the Gehenna of fire. Only man can throw himself into the eternal fire through his works, his resistance to the will of God, through his sinful life and sinful intentions. The Lord prepared the Kingdom of Heaven for each person. Such abodes are so numerous, so many people have lived, live now and have yet to come into existence! There is plenty of room for each person in the Kingdom of Heaven, if only they all desired to be with God for eternity.
“The repose of the Most-Holy Theotokos, her dormition, reminds us that man was created for eternal life. All will resurrect from the dead, but some will have eternal life and eternal happiness, while others will suffer, not because God so desired, not because He predestined some for salvation and others for doom, as some Protestant and other theologians think. God predestined all for salvation. The Holy Fathers remind us of this, such as St John Chrysostom, St Isaac of Syria and many others.
“God destined each and every person for salvation, for each and all did the Lord prepare His abode in the Kingdom of Heaven. Now it depends upon each one of us, will we reply to this beckoning of God, will we follow Divine call for a virtuous life, will we desire to be with God?
“Let us ask the Most-Holy Theotokos, that, having herself traveled the path of humanity and of human sanctity, having ascended upon this path to the highest of the high, having in her earthly life surpassed the holiness of the angels, would help us follow the path of salvation, that she be our Heavenly Mother and Intercessor. Let us ask that the Lord give us strength every day, and every hour, to feel God’s proximity, as we feel it here in the Holy Land.
“It is a particular joy to live and labor spiritually in this place, but the Lord has placed us each where we are to live and struggle. If we happen to be far from Jerusalem, yet Golgotha and Gethsemane, Bethlehem and the Mount of Olives, Mount Tabor and Mount Hermon, and all the holy places taken together can still be in our hearts. For if the Lord is with us, and we sense the closeness of God through the Liturgy, divine services and prayers, then Jerusalem will be in our hearts, and we will be in Jerusalem.
“I would like to thank Mother Abbess Elizabeth and the nuns of this holy convent for their hospitality, for the opportunity to celebrate Divine Liturgy on the Dormition of the Mother of God in Gethsemane, where the relics of two great saints celebrated by all, St Elizabeth and St Barbara. I thank Fr Tikhon, the Chief of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission of the Church Abroad, and Fr Isidor, the Head of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission, for their hospitality. I ask for your prayers on behalf of all of us who live far from Jerusalem.”
In memory of this divine service, Metropolitan Ilarion gave Abbess Elizabeth and the nuns an icon of St Isaac of Syria with a memorial inscription.
Press Service of the DECR