Reverend Fathers, Families, Teachers, and Students,
It is a beautiful day to begin our new school year. As many of you know, August 15th in the Orthodox Church is the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. Theotokos is the Greek name for the Mother of God. This feast is known in the West as the Assumption. It commemorates the death or falling asleep the Ever-Virgin Mary, likely in or near Ephesus, where she was living with the Apostle John the Theologian, whom Christ had designated as her caretaker (John 19:26-27).
But as the paragon of humility that Mary was, this was not her first death, so to speak. She was someone who throughout her life consistently put to death her own self-will through obedience and openness to God’s economy of salvation. “Let it be unto me according to Thy word” – these are her words of assent to Archangel Gabriel.
These words of Mary’s echo the creating words “Let it be” in Genesis, and they open the way for the birth of the Creator in mortal flesh; but they are also an expression of trusting assent and self-surrender, and thus a sort of death. Yet death, paradoxically, gives life: “if a seed fall in the ground and die, it brings forth much fruit” (John 12:24). The same is true here.
Mary’s words “Let it be unto me” represent and embody the free cooperation of humanity in God’s saving work. But they also enable Mary’s specific participation in that work in a unique way, and the Church honors her as being not just the Mother of the Incarnate Lord, but the first partaker in the fruits of her Son’s rising. This feast celebrates Christ’s raising of His Mother as a joyous witness to and result of Christ’s own resurrection, giving her the eternal life that we also look forward to in hope.
This movement from death to life, from hardship to joy, in the life of the Theotokos is reflected in this year’s Verse of the Year at CSA, which is Romans 5:3-5. Read carefully and see how the order of one thing leads to another:
3 And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; 4 and perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
We are led, St Paul writes, from tribulations to perseverance, and then to character, and then to hope – and then to the love of God! Is there any better model for the sorts of milestones that an Orthodox Christian classical education should provide? This verse sets before us the path that we will be taking at CSA, through the grace of God.
Our 2019-20 Charge for the Year at CSA echoes and distills this same idea of a journey, a procession we could say, from tribulation and hard work through perseverance to character and hope and ultimately to the love of God.
A charge is a word of challenge and yet inspiration that we as a school will remember each day as we embark afresh in another year. It is the imperative placed before each of us, students and teachers. That charge this year is: Excelsior! In Latin, this means, ‘Ever higher!’ The best Greek translation would probably be ston ourano! (To the heavens!) It sees learning and the Christian life as an ascent, a climb to the peaks where heaven and earth come nearer together. From the peak of a mountain, much can be seen that is not evident from below. And knowledge is a sort of sight.
This charge to go “ever higher” is meant to be an encouragement, yes, for seeking to fulfill our God-given potential, but also a challenge. It is a message that at the simplest level suggests the place of work before play; of labor before rest, and fellowship; of fasting, and then feasting. And the feast is all the more sweet because of the fast that comes before it, the hard work of preparation that is done in love and anticipation.
So let us embrace the climb this year, just as St Eustathius did on his hunt for the golden stag. Christ leaps on ahead of us, like the stag through which He revealed Himself to the saint, leading us further up and further in. But take heart, for – in the words of one recently reposed Athonite elder, Archimandrite Aimilianos – Christ never gets too far out of sight. Our Lord always strengthens us and, at times, He even leans down beside us as we catch our breath. If we listen we can hear Him saying, “Come, take hold of me; can’t you see how near I am? And how far I have come to find you? Let us go together.”
And so today we begin our climb together; with each other and also with Him. Excelsior! I wish you all a beautiful feast today.