This last Sunday, Fr. Paul told us of a restless little girl who, during her baptism, took the first opportunity free from the arms of an adult to run up the steps of the altar and dance before the royal doors. A shocking moment since in the Orthodox Church no one but the priest and deacon ever stand on the step before the royal doors. Yet, as Fr. Paul reminded us, our surprise is not because we have never seen such behavior, but because we don’t remember it. Miriam led the women in a dance across the hot sands of the Sinai Desert, calling the people to “‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea’” (Ex. 15:20-21) Judith, after using her wisdom and beauty to single-handedly bring about the triumph of a small and weak Hebrew army faced with a mighty Persian commander, leads the women and men in celebratory song and dance, feasting before the sanctuary in Jerusalem for three months (Judith 15-16). Presented to the temple at the age of three, the Theotokos was welcomed by the arms of the priest. “Kissing her, he blessed her and said, ‘The Lord God has magnified your name for all generations; through you the Lord will reveal deliverance to the children of Israel in the last days.’ And he set her down on the third step of the altar and the Lord God poured grace upon her. She danced triumphantly with her feet and every house in Israel loved her” (Proto. James 7.7-10).1 In the oral tradition of the Orthodox Church, Mary does not stop on the third step, but enters the Holy of Holies itself, a place reserved for the High Priest alone.
The Orthodox church often interprets Mary’s entrance into this most sacred of spaces as something that she alone can do. She alone is pure enough to both enter the Holy of Holies in which God dwells, and she is the womb through which God enters the world. In practice, this argument is sometimes used to justify the contemporary (NOT historicaL) exclusion of women from entrance into the altar. Its application to only women and not men is dubious to say the least. Yet this interpretation misses the Feast of the Dormition which follows so quickly on the Feast of the Transfiguration. At the Transfiguration, we see a glimpse of our deification in the God who became human so that we might become gods (if you missed my recent post, read a GREAT sermon here). At the Dormition, we celebrate the first human who enters, body and soul, into God. The Theotokos not only bears the One who enables our deification, she herself is the first fully deified human being. She precedes us, going where we too will go, becoming what we too will become. This theology does not exclude us from dancing with Mary on the altar steps, or entering ourselves into the Holy of Holies, but invites us to do so. As Fr. Paul noted, our canons do not exclude women from the altar, but restricts entrance to those who are called to serve the church in capacities that both men and women have held at various points in our history.
There is however, another aspect to the Dormition that until I spent a week at New Skete a few years ago, I simply never noticed. The Dormition is a feast of liberation, in the vein of the best of liberation theology. This liberation is not merely celebrated by women, but at times led by women. Miriam’s song celebrates the destruction of Pharoah, the triumph of the Exodus, an event of freedom from slavery and oppression which still stands at the heart of Jewish theology and practice. Judith, combining deadly seduction and skilled battle tactics, saves the Hebrews from destruction by Holofernes and the Persian army. The beautiful Esther prevents genocide, a feat marked each year by Purim, a celebration in which everything is topsy-turvey (Esther 9:18-22). The Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1.39-55), read and sung during Dormition, echos the Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10).
In each one of these moments, the powerful are brought down, the lowly are lifted, the hungry are fed, the barren are made fruitful. These songs celebrate rescue from destruction and the restoration of justice. Justice here is not only retribution (though in the Egyptians and Persians certainly experienced violent retribution), but a (albeit brief) restoration of creation as it is should be, as it will be. The restoration of a place in which the hungry are fed, in which the needy are cared for, where women as well as men dance and celebrate in the Holy of Holies. Symeon the New Theologian reminds us, both women and men, that like Mary each one of us birth the Holy Spirit in the wombs of our hearts, and by doing so, become a Holy of Holies, birthing through our life and actions the One who grants mercy and restores justice.2.