The Fast of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin (Part III)
By Father Leonidas Contos
During the first fortnight of August, culminating in the Feast of the Dormition, or the Falling Asleep, of the Virgin Mary, there is sung each night in Orthodox churches a very beautiful office of supplication. In this service we alternate between two selections from the Gospel of Luke. In the one we read of the encounter between Mary and her elder cousin Elizabeth who is soon to bear a son in her old age who will be the Forerunner. In the other we read of a visit Jesus makes to the home of close friends in Bethany; and we hear a fragment of a conversation between one of the sisters of that household and the Master.
In a way the two readings complement each other. In the one we are given a portrait sketch of the Holy Maiden, pure and calm in her submission to God’s will. In the other we are given an insight, albeit indirect, into part of the secret of that inner calm which all Christians find so attractive and so difficult to achieve. By way of explanation let me read you that fragment:
“While they were on their way Jesus came to a village where a woman named Martha made him welcome in her home. She had a sister, Mary, who seated herself at the Lord’s feet and stayed there listening to his words. Now Martha was distracted by her many tasks, so she came to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to get on with the work by myself? Tell her to come and lend a hand.’ But the Lord answered, ‘Martha, Martha, you are fretting and fussing about so many things; but one thing is necessary. The part that Mary has chosen is best; and it shall not be taken away from her’ ” (Luke 10:38-42 NEB).
Sunday School fashion, we tend to fill in this familiar Bible picture with primary colors, making Martha out to be the practical type, Mary the spiritual type; Mary the one to be imitated, Martha the one to be pitied. Obviously, like most familiar Bible pictures, this is badly oversimplified. Moreover, it does an injustice to Martha with whom, after all, most of us identify. Nor should we take Jesus’ words as a rebuke to her for the effort she was pulling into the meal, or an excuse for Mary’s apparent unconcern. One can almost hear Him adding: “All right, Mary, more of this later. Now go and give your sister a hand; I’m famished.” In other words, out of a rather typical household situation, with its familiar conflict of interests and desires, Jesus took occasion to put in plainer and more personal terms the “doctrine” of the wholeness of the person which He so often articulated in other ways: “Set your mind on God’s kingdom and his justice before everything else, and all the rest will come to you as well” (Matthew 6:33 NEB); ” . . . don’t worry about life, wondering what you are going to eat. And stop bothering about what clothes you will need. Life is much more important than food, and the body more important than clothes” (Luke 12:22, 23 Phillips); “For where your wealth is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21 NEB).
The profoundly simple truths that echoed over the slopes of the Mount of Olives are given a certain immediacy within the welcoming walls of this friendly house—that many things in life are important, but they are not all equally important; that when we fix our minds and hearts on life’s good, it is surprising how naturally the catalogue of life’s goods rearranges itself in a truer order of importance. The tension comes in trying to define for ourselves the essentials of our content, in matching the real against the not-so-real, ranking the tangible and the intangible, the known with the possible.
~Adapted from Leonidas Contos, In Season and Out of Season: A Collection of Sermons by Father Leonidas Contos