The Dormition of the Theotokos: Our Promise and Hope
The Dormition of the Theotokos was not celebrated for the first five centuries of Christianity. There was silence regarding the holy mystery of the Mother of God’s “falling asleep”. In the beginning, God willed that the details of His mother’s death and glorified, or resurrected, state remain veiled from the world. In the centuries to follow, Christians would revere the Theotokos’s (God-bearer’s) transition from this life to the next. In the beginning, silence served its place, perhaps covering the details of her passing. Later, the reality of the Theotokos’ already glorified state suggests to me that no matter what the situational details of dying might be, the end result for those who love and serve God is like the mother of God’s: we will be resurrected, glorified with the Christ.
Recently, a 93 year-old woman in our parish fell asleep in the Lord. She had been a firecracker up until the end: her mouth was at times shocking, and her generosity broke rules. Before the end of service, my child and I would often follow the lead of this foundress of our parish.
“Yes, honey, bring Baba a cookie and some more coffee; grab something for yourself, too. Father can bless it whenever he wants to.”
She wore beads and perfume, and her red-dark hair defied her 90-plus years.
“Orthodoxy is the original Church; any fool knows that,” she’d state with a challenging smile in her eye.
She outlived the other elderly founders of our parish, and it was easy to accept her as a loving boss. We sort of trusted that she was on God’s side. She had the years, the experiences, and the attitude.
“She didn’t go ‘quietly into the night’,” her grand-daughter said to me in the restroom shortly after Baba passed. “It may have been easier for me if she hadn’t seemed…”
The word was missing. Was it painful? Afraid? Unwilling? In the wordless mystery, death was freed from a given image. Perhaps the passing had seemed more than what a word might express.
“Maybe that was just her way,” she offered.
A fighter, strong-willed, determined, these are characteristics that do not always allow a quiet night to remain at ease. No matter what the experience may have seemed and indeed been, the end is a promise from our Lord: “asleep,” in the bosom of Abraham, and awaiting resurrection and a glorified state. The Dormition of the Theotokos shows us this promise, and not having the details of her passing, at least not exactly (as there were centuries before the feast was commemorated) enables a wordless mystery to live alongside our experiences with dying.
Birth and death are both experiences of transitioning between the temporal and eternal, the militant and triumphant. The day before I gave birth, I did not feel the weight of my body. I felt a silent peace, a sensation deep in my soul that drew me to another realm of being. During delivery, I went inside myself, looking hard for God. “Jesus Christ,” was in my mind and flooded my whole body. I was strong and able to submit. My face tensed and fingers wrapped tightly around steel. “Release.” I moaned, deep and loud. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. Wordless Word. Raging silence.
In the experience of birth, it seems as though one leaves this world and is very close with God, the Giver of Life. The intense pain is a myriad of emotions, and the expressions are many. Birth and death allow us to meet God in silent, though sometimes loud, spaces that exist beyond earthly cares. Life and death is rebirth through which one passes over.
Each liturgy is celebrated with those who have fallen asleep in Christ and those who have yet to pass over and remain on earth. The Church is always together, risen in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. The Dormition of the Mother of God reminds us that the mystery of death and life is related in the holy mystery of her own glorified body. The Church will prevail—despite the sting of death—because the Lord has saved the Theotokos and has promised to save each who becomes a part of His Body.
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