The first fortnight of August is a period of our ecclesiastical year, during which the Orthodox faithful turn their attention with deep compunction of heart to the All-Holy Theotokos. For fifteen days before the Feast of the Dormition, the Church bells sound in the afternoon, calling the multitudes of the faithful to come and chant the Great Paracletic Canon. Similarly the period of the Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos is full of appropriate feelings of contrition. However, while the doxological tone prevails in the Akathist Hymn, triumphantly praising the graces of the "One who became the Mother of God", the prevailing note of the Paracletic Canon in August is one of sorrow and grief for the painful soul of the faithful, who seek comfort and consolation from the Virgin.
Of course every one has heard with contrition the heart-rending verses of the Great Paracletic Canon, which speak about 'the illnesses of the soul and body". But here, it is not a matter of pain for despair, which usually leads to faithlessness and apostasy. The kind of pain a person suffers for God is pain for understanding, which becomes a purge and a step for elevation: because whilst it grieves and wounds him, it does not estrange him from God, but leads him to a deeper understanding of God. So grief comes to a peak and also to a pause in the following form of supplication: "0 All-praised Theotokos, look favourably upon the hard sufferings of my body and cure the pain of my soul".
Superficially hearing the verses of the Great Paracletic Canon, one gets the impression that a certain anonymous hymnographer plainly dramatises the sufferings of soul and body for all the faithful. Indeed, every Christian has repeatedly experienced "the raging of his passions" and at times has been "distressed" by many "temptations". However, a more careful reading and in depth study of these sacred verses makes clear that the Canon is not a description and narration of the general adventures of man in the daily struggle for his perfection. It rather presents heart-rending cries "from life itself" for grief and pain that comes to us "from first hand".
Therefore, we have before us an entirely personal drama, experienced by a certain historical and known person, who lived in real and concrete circumstances. How many of our unsuspecting faithful, who often chant the Canon, know who this person is? One might expect that the hymnographer of this Great Paracletic Canon would be a sensitive feminine person, like Kassiani, or a certain elder monk of the desert. Yet, neither the one nor the other is the case. The composer of this mournful hymnological text was a man in his prime and a king the Byzantine emperor of Nicaea, Theodoros Laskaris II (1222-1258), who was tonsured a monk just before his death and received the name of Theodosios.
According to his biographers, he was an especially delicate and polite person, and was blessed with great education for his time. However, he lived at a very difficult period.
The Latins had captured Constantinople; the Bulgarians and the Kingdom of Epirus had to be faced appropriately; and the Moslems in Asia Minor constituted an immediate and permanent threat. Possess-ing an artistic nature, this tragic Emperor could not possibly respond to such diff}cult responsibilities without endangering his health. It was for this reason that he died just at the age of 36 years.
His life was characterised with many antimonies that were neither unheard of in the Byzantine Palace nor in the surrounding higher society. Yet this was precisely the greatest achievement of Byzantium towards humanity, namely the fact that the antinomies of life never prevented the person's view of eternity and salvation, as long as there was repentance. People then committed horrible crimes, but with rivers of sincere tears they were purified before the eyes of God and people. The entire period of the Christian Middle Ages of the East and the West differs from contemporary times precisely by this characteristic feature: Allegedly for humanistic reason, the aim of our modern time is to form a law-abiding and honest citizen, without paying attention to his deeper convictions, his faith and his general spiritual wakefulness. Thus, such a citizen today may avoid more carefully committing a direct and primitive crime in his relations with his fellow men, which from at least a legal viewpoint proves him to be more righteous than the Christian of the Middle Ages; but this same citizen of modern times and of humanism, feeling numbed in his "autonomous" and self governed morality, has never come to know the contrition and purification, the repentance and sanctification, resulting from tears after sin. And the question is asked: What relation can citizens of this kind have with God's Kingdom? We know that Christ proclaimed "I have not come to call the righteous but the sinful people unto repentance" (Mark 2, 17); which means that God's Kingdom is not inhabited by the faultless narcissus, that displayed no flaw before God's unfathomable mysteries, but by people who are reborn through repentance.
Knowing precisely these saving truths, the Emperor Theodoros Laskaris II, although he describes himself as "having being wounded in many ways by grief and was still being wounded"; yet he does not despair, but believes and remains wakeful. He ex-presses the belief and the hope that despite all his misfortunes God works out his salvation: "Alas, what has not been inflicted on me! I can say no other than that certainly the purification of the soul and the humiliation of the flesh, so that the creator may bring salvation to both".
May the memory of the blessed Emperor Theodoros Laskaris II, who taught us the Paracletic Canon, be eternal!
Both the English and the Greek term figuratively refer to the anniversary of the death of the Virgin Mary. Only the feast of the Virgin Mary's Dormition will be dealt with here. The first clear evidence about this feast goes back to the years of the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus (421). However; this evidence refers to a pre-existing feast of Mary's Dormition. At the beginning of the 5th century an Armenian Anthology, for example, called the 15th of August 'the day of Mary the Mother of God'. But feasts of this kind in both East and West were devoted to the memory of Mary in general, not particularly to her Dormition. Gradually, though, these feasts began to converge on the believed day of her death, August 15, perhaps as an indirect result of the erection at Gesthemane of a church in her honour that included in it her very grave, according to tradition. Extensive celebrations were taking place there and a great number of pilgrims gathered to pay homage to the Mother of God. By the end of the 6th century, the feast of the Dormition on August 15 had been established by custom and was also decreed by emperor Mauricius to be observed throughout the Byzantine empire. A little later, the same date was adopted in the West and became the pre-eminent feast in honour of the Virgin Mary. And at least since the 10th century, a 15-day fasting has been observed preceding the feast day of the Dormition. Also a series of hymns in her honour invoking her prayers in favour of the faithful, known as the Paracletic Canon, is being sung every evening during this 15-day period. It should be noted in this connection that the medieval invocation of the Holy Mary 'All-holy Mother of God, save us', has been substituted with, 'All Holy Mother of God pray for us', thus preserving the Orthodox teaching by which there can be only one Saviour; our Lord Jesus Christ.
from The Orthodox Messenger, v.
8(7/8), July/Aug 1997
published bi-monthly by the SA Central Youth
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