August 28 marked the Great Feast of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, according to the Julian calendar. Most of the world’s autocephalous, or self-governing, Orthodox Churches celebrate the feast along with Roman Catholics and some Protestants on August 15th. However, the majority of the world’s Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians celebrate the Dormition according to the Julian calendar, which is currently 13 days behind both the Revised Julian and Gregorian calendars. Thus, for these communities, including the Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, and Serbian Orthodox Churches, the feast falls on what is August 28 on the Gregorian calendar. Western Christians usually refer to the feast as the Assumption. While Orthodox Christians equally believe in the Mother of God’s bodily assumption into heaven, we use the term ‘Dormition’ to emphasize the reality that the Theotokos (“she who brought forth God”) truly shared in the mortality common to all men and women, and was then assumed in glory into the heavenly Kingdom.
What exactly is the meaning of this feast for us? It is one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Church’s liturgical calendar, ranked among the holiest of holy days such as the Lord’s Resurrection, Nativity, and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The feast is thus of immense importance in the liturgical and communal life of the Body of Christ. Such was the Virgin Mary’s importance to her Son that upon the Cross, His only instructions to his attendant apostle, St. John the Beloved, were for St. John to care lovingly for her as if she were his own mother. This command of Christ’s only make sense if one believes the Church Tradition that Jesus had no earthly brothers or sisters—that Jesus was Mary’s only child. Church Tradition holds that the Mother of God lived into old age, dying peacefully as a beloved pillar of the early Church community. Sharing in the mystery of death with her Son, she shared also with Him the transfiguring glory of resurrection, as the feast celebrates her passage unto eternal life with Christ, and her glorification and sitting at His right hand. All of the revered Fathers of the Church have praised her Holy life and death from time immemorial, and one may easily find online their homilies for this and all the great feasts. In his catechetical homily on the occasion of the Dormition, St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) urges the faithful to remember that.
If, then, “death of the righteous man is honorable” (cf. Ps. 115:6) and the “memory of the just man is celebrated with songs of praise” (Prov. 10:7), how much more ought we to honor with great praises the memory of the holiest of the saints, she by whom all holiness is afforded to the saints, I mean the Ever-Virgin Mother of God! Even so we celebrate today her holy Dormition or translation to another life, whereby, while being “a little lower than angels” (Ps. 8:6), by her proximity to the God of all, and in the wondrous deeds which from the beginning of time were written down and accomplished with respect to her, she has ascended incomparably higher than the angels and the archangels and all the super-celestial hosts that are found beyond them. For her sake the God-possessed prophets pronounce prophecies, and miracles are wrought to foreshow that future Marvel of the whole world, the Ever-Virgin Mother!
The Love of Truth and Family
What we know of the Virgin Mary’s life after her Son’s Ascension into heaven is provided not by Scripture, but the universal consensus of early Church Tradition, of which Scripture is one vital part. Mary was so beloved by the earliest Christians that, as word spread of her impending death, the Tradition holds that all the apostles hurried from throughout the Near East to be at her bedside. The central icon of the feast vividly depicts this reality: the icon revolves around none other than Christ Himself, who has come down from His heavenly throne to receive His mother in His arms. He is depicted holding His mother in miniature, swaddled in white cloth: this represents her immaculate, uncorrupted soul, which He holds in His hands as He reunites her to Himself. The Virgin Mary lays serene on her bed, having already reposed, with the apostles and angels gathered lovingly around her. To the right, St. Peter, as the protos (first in honor) among the apostles, censes her body reverently, while to the left, the great evangelist St. Paul prostrates himself in reverence before her.
This icon is unique in the Church in that it depicts the apostles profoundly reverencing and humbling themselves before a woman. By depicting her preeminent role as a woman so important that the male apostles of the Church bow before her, the Church is thus illustrating, literally and figuratively, that the Virgin Mary is first among the Saints. She is honored as the “Mother of our Life” before the pillars of the Church, Sts. Peter and Paul, and the other apostles who always gave her the highest honor and reverence, though not the worship fit only for the uncreated God. As the most pure and sinless woman who ever lived, deemed worthy by God the Father to bear His eternal Son, the Virgin Mary is the very archetype and personification of that to which the Christian life calls us. In terms of her authority, we believe she is the first of the Saints, the first before the throne of God in the heavenly Kingdom, and yet, the paradox is that she is first in honor because of her humble submission to God. Orthodox monastics traditionally see her as the first nun, in that she was throughout her life a devout ascetic who, from her childhood, revered and loved God above all the things of this world.
A Continuing Feast
So on this great feast, Christians around the world remember and honor the departure unto eternal life of Christ’s own mother, who became, out of her immense love for all of humanity, our own mother. The Church lauds her in special hymns for the Feast today as the “Steadfast Protectress of Christians” and “constant advocate before the Creator”, reminding us that we can always turn to her, for Christ our God always listens to His beloved mother. His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America reflects on the Dormition’s significance for families in his 2014 encyclical for the feast here, while His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah, former primate of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), reflects on the feast’s theme of resurrection here in his 2011 encyclical.
The Dormition marks not only the Mother of God’s departure from this earthly life—a thing of somberness—but, joyfully, her radiant entry into eternal life with her Son and the Father. We can only imagine Mary’s rejoicing at entering at last into that life spent in unending union with Jesus, and Jesus’s rejoicing at being reunited with His mother. Her day of earthly death is thus her first birthday in heaven.
In remembering the Virgin Mary’s death and resurrection, we are reminded of our own inevitable death, and our somberness mixes with joy at the hope of our own bodily rising from the grave. In Christ, our fear of death becomes, though a natural part of our mortality, a temporary obstacle to the greater whole of our eternal life with Him. The veil of death ultimately transfigures us into eternal members of Christ’s Body, united with the Mother of God, the choirs of angels, and all the Saints in praising God unto the ages of ages. Thus, while to some this feast may seem sad, it is in fact a feast of great rejoicing and profound hope, for in recalling the death of the holy woman whose great “yes” to God made her a New Eve, and made possible our own redemption and resurrection, we look with hope to the reality of our own resurrection and eternal life with Christ. As St. Gregory Palamas writes in his same homily as above, let us remember with joy that
…it was through the Theotokos alone that the Lord came to us, appeared upon earth and lived among men, being invisible to all before this time, so likewise in the endless age to come, without her mediation, every emanation of illuminating divine light, every revelation of the mysteries of the Godhead, every form of spiritual gift, will exceed the capacity of every created being. She alone has received the all-pervading fullness of Him that fills all things, and through her all may now contain it, for she dispenses it according to the power of each, in proportion and to the degree of the purity of each. Hence she is the treasury and overseer of the riches of the Godhead.
For it is an everlasting ordinance in the heavens that the inferior partake of what lies beyond being, by the mediation of the superior, and the Virgin Mother is incomparably superior to all. It is through her that as many as partake of God do partake, and as many as know God understand her to be the enclosure of the Uncontainable One, and as many as hymn God praise her together with Him. She is the cause of what came before her, the champion of what came after her and the agent of things eternal. She is the substance of the prophets, the principle of the apostles, the firm foundation of the martyrs and the premise of the teachers of the Church. She is the glory of those upon earth, the joy of celestial beings, the adornment of all creation. She is the beginning and the source and root of unutterable good things; she is the summit and consummation of everything holy!
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