A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered.
It’s hard to believe we are almost at the Feast of the Dormition.
Always, the Dormition Fast seems to arrive unexpectedly, dropping into the hot summer sloth of barbecued chicken, flank steak, frozen margaritas, and big bowls of dip and queso. (I think of December and March as the time for beans and rice and coconut-tofu curry.)
And the little child in me finds it so-o-o-o hard to order the crispy quinoa salad at lunch rather than the pulled pork platter. There’s a reason why, of all the Church Fasts, the Fast for Kimisis Theotokou is undersubscribed—at least in the modern era. There have certainly been the years when I’ve drifted along with the current, and had the hamburger anyway—even as I’ve pushed through the heat at sunset to get to Paraklesis.
Some of my own bewilderment about veneration of the Theotokos doubtlessly comes from my Protestant background. But in the 21 years I’ve been Orthodox, I’ve noticed that many American Catholics these days seem to be less devoted to their own sacramental traditions about Mary—which are even more elaborate and complex than our own!—with a declining emphasis on the Rosary and other fasts and prayers. (That seems to be changing, though, with the growing prominence in the Roman Church of immigrants from African and Latin America, who mark Marian feasts such as Our Lady of Guadalupe with great zeal.)
But the Orthodox have never wavered in our honor of the Mother of God, even if the Panagia captured in our icons lacks the splendiferous romance of Catholic portrayals, in which the Panagia is almost always crowned with flowing hair and perpetually young.
I love those images of Mary, too—and because my husband is Roman Catholic, we have them in our house as well. They are teaching images and bearers of beauty. But in the icon I pray before, the Theotokos is the round, wise mother who looks out at me from her background of gold leaf, a sober expression that both looks at the royal baby in her arms, and out at me. Her purple robes notwithstanding, she is utterly unassuming and humble. But her expression lets me know that she Knows the Score.
This is our Panagia! “Whatever He tells you to do, do it,” she said to the servers at the Wedding at Cana.
I hear that admonition in my head when I look at her every day.
And in addition to her humility, our Orthodox images of the Theotokos offer a more diverse portrayal of Mary’s life that can be a touchstone for our requests for her intercession: As a child with older parents who had to set off in life alone, and as an older mother myself, I treasure the images of caring and shelter that the little Mary received in her Entry to the Temple (and my love of that feast was one reason we named our daughter Anna Maria—and our family celebrates her Name’s Day on November 21!)
Furthermore, although I never tire of telling people that the Theotokos is the image for all Christians to emulate—men, too!—the Feast of the Dormition can be especially poignant for women growing older. I know that it has been so for me: It is impossible for me to look at the icon of the Feast, with its image of Mary outstretched on her deathbed, without thinking of her ongoing surrender to God’s will for her, right to the end.
It is the image I want to follow, myself.
And it’s one I love to share with my Orthodox sisters: for the past couple of years, I have hosted a little Dormition party every year, drawing together a small group of friends across multiple parishes and jurisdictions. I don’t see some of these women all that often, for we are all thick in the heart of growing children, artistic vocations, nursing illnesses (sometimes our own), and praying for others.
We bless grapes earlier in August, at the Transfiguration, but because I’ve read that Mary is truly the first fruit of the Kingdom, I always have lots of fruit on this day, as well. We will have a toast of champagne, and one year, I painstakingly made Bellinis, filling the crystal flutes with champagne and then topping them with white peach puree.
For sweetness can be nourishment, too. That’s another lesson the Panagia teaches us.
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