Admiring the Theotokos at Her Dormition
It is a privilege to share the Dormition of the Theotokos with you,* especially since the Orthodox manner of regarding the Virgin Mary is in some ways, as on this happy feast-day, perhaps more evolved than in my own church. Mary is so deeply embedded in Orthodox devotion that she is praised in the Divine Liturgy as “more honored than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim;” she is venerated as “the Holy Theotokos, most blessed and glorious Mother of God and Blessed Virgin Mary.” In the experience of the Church Year, the Summer fast for Dormition of the Theotokos in these past weeks is one of the four great fasts of the year—and the Feast itself is at once mystical, eschatological, even Paschal in nature.
The Dormition Gospel from St. Luke demonstrates how Mary’s life has become for us an important keystone in God’s Salvation history. For in contemplating the Virgin Mary, “the first of the faithful,” through the lens of the Martha and Mary story (Luke 10:38-42), we receive resolution to the tension which always presents itself between the two ways—the archetypal way of Martha and the archetypal way of Mary. Yet, rather than choosing which one is right and which one is wrong, in Mary the Mother of Jesus we see revealed the embodiment of both: on the one hand authoritative and outspoken action in faith, such as her handling of the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11), and on the other hand, serene prayerful stillness, such as the Shepherds saw at the Nativity, when Mary treasured all these things “and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
The Prayers and the Hymns for the Dormition of the Theotokos witness to the new Christian hope that Christ’s Resurrection has transformed the experience of death for all of us, from any sense of fearful demise into a joyful threshold toward eternal life. Since the Mother of God is present with her Son, we can ask her intercession in prayer, for comfort in our mortal challenges, day by day, and to help prepare the way for our own forthcoming death into the bosom of Christ’s presence. A festal Troparion for the Feast proclaims this most clearly: “In giving birth you retained your virginity. In falling asleep you did not abandon the world, O Mother of God. You passed over into life, for you are the Mother of Life, and by your prayer you deliver our souls from death.” (Tone 1; Menaion, August, 1993, 195).
Thus, the Dormition of the Theotokos is often called the “Summer Pascha,” because the Mother of God herself “passed-over” from this earthly pilgrimage into life eternal. Having truly died, the Mother of God was raised by her Son, and is indeed the “Mother of Life.” She already participates in the eternal life of Paradise which is prepared for all those who “hear the Word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:27-28). In her death, the Virgin Mary has gone before us toward her Son Our Savior, demonstrating the truth of the divine promise of Christ Himself: that we will enjoy life eternal in everlasting communion with God.
Remember that the arc of Mary’s life extends on both sides beyond the life and death of Jesus, completely embracing it, end to end. She is there with the Angel Gabriel from the moment of being overshadowed by the power of the Holy Spirit and bearing the Son of God; and she is there after Jesus has suffered Crucifixion and returned from death to teach and minister. The Holy Theotokos is there even after the Ascension. Scripture confirms that the Mother of God was present at the time of the Pentecost and in the days leading up to it. She is witnessed among the disciples in the first community of the Post-Resurrection Church; for she was among those gathered in the Upper Room “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14). The tradition of the Church holds that, in obedience to the outcry of Jesus from the Cross (John 19:26-27), Mary remained, then, in the household of the Apostle John in Jerusalem, and continued to serve in a ministry of word and deed.
Therefore, the Theotokos is the matchless example of cooperation between the work of God and the gift of human freedom. She models for the faithful the best use of human will in saying “Yes” to the Lord. By her “Yes,” she became an active participant in the Mystery of God, one which requires that God be born of a woman—truly, then, she gave birth to God—she is the God-bearer, the Theotokos. O ineffable Beauty, born to us through you, O Holy Theotokas! Now, Mary’s answer to the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation “resolves the tragedy of fallen humanity,” as Vladimir Lossky puts it (The Image and Likeness of God , 202). “So, the knot of Eve’s disobedience,” Irenaeus teaches us, “was loosed through the obedience of Mary” (Against the Heresies, III.22.4.) For she has yielded up her all-radiant soul into the hands of Him who without seed was born incarnate within her, and her surpassing virtue exceeds all our understanding. So, even if the implications of her death transcend history, we are blessed with the gift of ancient tradition about the Mother of God and the seeds of sacred truth hidden in it.
The tradition of the Dormition of the Theotokas—the compelling story of the Apostles appearing at her death bed with incense rising, and Christ reaching to draw up the soul of Blessed Mary—the seeds of that story probably began in the fifth century, a time of “meteoric rise for the figure of Mary in popular devotion;” and its original details and intent “undoubtedly remain embedded in the Christological debates of that time” (Brian Daley, “‘At the Hour of our Death:’ Mary’s Dormition and Christian Dying in Late Patristic and Early Byzantine Literature,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 55 , 72). As the faithful, we are lucky to see this icon type, because it is located inside the Sanctuary, over the west door—inside and over the entrance to the Royal Doors. One sacred Patristic root that often authenticates the story is the very early Dionysian tradition about this feast-day. In his mystical explanation of the Divine Names, in a section on the attribute “Good,” he reports a luminous vision of the Mother of God, “of that mortal body, that source of life which bore God,” with Apostles gathered there ecstatically praising the “omnipotent goodness of that divine frailty” (PG 3.681D).
A good indication that the Dormition was emerging as a liturgical celebration is the first Greek homily written for it that still survives, by John of Thessaloniki, from the mid 600’s. He preaches that Mary offers us a paradigm of holy dying; for an Angel of the Lord promises to “receive the souls of those who humble themselves before God,” and “bring them to the place of the just.” And the Theotokos urges us to light lamps of faith in honor of her, and to burn incense, and to pray the Psalms constantly. “The light of her lamp fills the world, and will not be quenched until the end of time, so that all who wish to be saved may take courage from her” (“Homily on the Dormition,” 5,9).
Numerous celebrated preachers contributed to the continuing development of the Dormition feast. John of Damascus taught that: “She has won for us and brought us all good things; for she pours out pure and inexhaustible streams of light, rivers of grace, and fountains of everlasting Blessing” (“On the Dormition of the Theotokos,” PG 96.744C). And Gregory Palamas preached that God has “made Mary all beautiful and, gathering together all the ways in which he had embellished Creation, he made her a fragrant bouquet of everything, both visible and invisible…uniting things below with things above, embracing the whole of Creation with the wonders surrounding her” (“Homily on the Dormition,” Oration 35.10.404).
As St. Andrew of Crete said in a Sermon on the Dormition, Mary is: “the first-fruit of God’s communion with creation…the first step to all spiritual ascent…the spring of radiance divine.”
In the mystery of the Virgin, “fear is gone, no longer haunting us little ones of Christ.” (St. Andrew of Crete, “Third Homily on the Dormition”). Were she not welcomed before the throne of God, body and soul, neither could any of us her children stand before Him in the age to come. St. Theodore the Studite preached: “As we are appareled with virtue, we celebrate the Feast of Translation of the Mother of God into the heavens, where she is appareled in eternity. Today the Holy Theotokos who shuts her eyes offers us sacred and radiant light by protecting the world and interceding for it before the face of God” (“Encomium on the Dormition of the Theotokos”).
Now, when you venerate icons of the Mother of God enthroned in Heaven with the cherubim, remember that this is how we got there; this Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos celebrates the transformative moment, offering us participation as we pray in one of the greatest mysteries of God’s saving love for mankind. Know then, that this feast provides us with an important road-sign about Christian eschatological hope, for Mary the Mother of God now dwells with her Son, “as a living witness to the reward that awaits all of us at the end of time” (Stephen J. Shoemacher, Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption , 3). So, as we reverence the memory this day of Mary the Mother of God returning to the Father at the end of her days:
I exhort you, O beloved of Christ, unworthy as I am,
Let us then enter into the light of this sacred feast of the Dormition.
Let us put aside the worldly restrictions of this pandemic time and enter into joy.
Let us be comforted by the tenderness and humility of the Mother of God.
Let us bless her who is more honored than the cherubim, more glorious than the Seraphim. Let us praise her holy and life-giving Son; may he receive our un-masked joy this day.
* John of Damascus, Exposito Fideo 56.37-38. This meditation, presented at St. Gregory the Theologian Mission, is dedicated to Judith Scott, with thanks for her faithful ministry.
V.K. McCarty is an Anglican theologian whose published writing for the Institute of Studies in Eastern Christianity specializes in Early Christian women. She is a graduate of General Theological Seminary, where she lectures in Ascetical Theology, and served as Acquisitions Librarian 2000-2015.