Orthodox Christians commemorate the Dormition of the Virgin Mary

“We commemorate this blessed Feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, honoring and celebrating her faith in God and the witness of the miraculous power of grace in her life through her willing obedience to His will. As a result of her amazing level of personal holiness and her abundance of grace, the Theotokos offers us a superb example of a relationship with God and a deep connection with Him that is essential for our lives and the sacred institution of the family.”

His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and Exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and New Rome., in his 2014 archpastoral encyclical for the Feast.

 

“Ultimately, the dignity of the human body is fully realized in the Resurrection of Christ – in the very flesh He shares with us. He has already translated His Mother to the glory of this Resurrection, but our bodies too will be imbued with this glory after His second and glorious Coming. Today, as we celebrate this joyful summer Pascha of the Mother of God, let us anticipate our own coming resurrection – with fear, with faith, and with love, knowing that we are stewards of a great mystery.”

-His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah, former Primate of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), retired Archbishop of Washington, in his 2011 archpastoral encyclical  for the Feast.

Today, August 15, marks the Great Feast of the Dormition (“falling asleep” or bodily death) of the Virgin Mary according to the Revised Julian and Gregorian ecclesiastical calendars. Most of the world’s local Orthodox Churches celebrate the feast today along with Latin Rite Roman Catholics and some high church Protestants. Western Christians usually refer to the feast as the Assumption, and while Orthodox Christians equally affirm and believe in the Mother of God’s bodily assumption into heaven by her glorified Son, the term ‘Dormition’ is used to emphasize the reality that the Theotokos, she who gave birth to God Incarnate, truly shared in the mortality common to all men and women, and was then assumed in glory into the heavenly Kingdom by her Son’s love and grace.

In Greek, the liturgical language used by most local Orthodox Churches, the feast is called Kimisis tis Theotokou (Κοίμησησ της Θεοτόκου, translated “Dormition of the Theotokos”). Many Greek Orthodox parish churches bear the name of the feast. In Slavonic, the liturgical language used by most Orthodox Christians worldwide, the feast is called Uspenie Bogoroditsi (Успение Богородицы, translated as “Dormition of the Theotokos”). Russia historically bore a great love for the Mother of God, and this is exemplified by the fact that Russia’s rulers were always crowned in the Moscow Kremlin’s Uspenskiy Sobor (Успенский Собор, translated “Dormition Cathedral”).

While most western Christians and some eastern Christians commemorate the feast today, the majority of the world’s Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians celebrate the Dormition according to the unrevised, 2,000 year old Julian calendar, which is currently 13 days behind the Revised Julian/Gregorian. Thus, for these communities, including the Russian Orthodox Church and the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the feast falls on August 28. Interestingly, on the Julian calendar used by most Orthodox Christians, an early Pope of Rome, the Great Martyr Stephen (d. 257) is commemorated today.

What exactly is the meaning of this feast? It is one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Church, ranked with crucial theological and historical realities such as the Lord’s Resurrection (Pascha/Easter), Nativity (Christmas), Pentecost, and the Annunciation. Therefore, it is of immense importance in the liturgical and communal life of the Body of Christ. Such was the Virgin Mary’s importance to her Son, our Lord, 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. 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 in and with Christ her Son, and her glorification and sitting at His right hand.

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 part. So beloved was she by the earliest Christians that, as word spread of her impeding death, all the apostles of the Church, the first bishops, 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 immaculately pure, 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, the chief of the apostles, St. Peter, as the protos, the first among them, censes her body reverently, while to the left, the great evangelist St. Paul prostrates himself in reverence before her.

The Feast of the Dormition is celebrated with the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom which is conducted on the morning of the Feast and preceded by a Matins (Orthros) service. A Great Vespers is conducted on the evening before the day of the Feast. Scripture readings for the Feast of the Dormition are the following: At Vespers: Genesis 28:10-17; Ezekiel 43:27-44:4; Proverbs 9:1-11. At the Matins: Luke 1:39-49, 56. At the Divine Liturgy: Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 10:38-42; 11:27-28.

This icon is unique in the Church in that it alone depicts the apostles reverencing and humbling themselves before a woman; in depicting her central, preeminent role as the Mother of the Lord, a woman so important the male leaders of the Church physically reverence her, the Church is thus illustrating, literally and figuratively, that the Virgin Mary is first among the Saints, honored as the “Mother of our Life” before the pillars of the Church, Sts Peter and Paul, and the other male apostles. 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, she is the first of the Saints, the first in the heavenly Kingdom, and yet she is first in honor because she was the humblest woman who ever lived. Orthodox monastics, both monks and nuns, 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 else.

So today, 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 mother. The Church lauds her in special hymns for the Feast today as the “Steadfast Protectress of Christians, constant advocate before the Creator”, reminding us that we can always turn to her, for Christ our God always listens to her.

The Dormition marks not only the Mother of God’s departure from this earthly life — a thing of somberness and some sadness– but, joyfully, her radiant entry into eternal life. We can only imagine Mary’s rejoicing at entering into that life which is eternal, that life spent in unending union with her beloved Son. Her day of earthly death is thus her birthday in heaven, reminding us that death is simply the gateway to the life beyond this transitory one. In remembering the Virgin Mary’s death and resurrection, we are reminded of our own inevitable death, and the somberness mixes with joy at the hope of our own resurrection unto eternal life. In Christ, our fear of death becomes, though a natural part of our mortality, a temporary obstacle, and the veil of death transfigures us into eternal members of Christ’s Body, united with the Mother of God, the choirs of angels and 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 hope, for in recalling the death of the holy woman whose “yes” to God made possible our own redemption and resurrection, we look with hope to our own resurrection and eternal life with Christ.