Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
When Christ our God wanted to take to Himself his own Mother [to be] with him, then three days before, through an angel, He informer [her] of her departure from Earth. “[It is] time,” he said, “to bring my Mother to me. So do not be disturbed about this but accept the word with joy for you will receive eternal life.” And through [her] desire about departing to Sion, she went up to the Mountain of Olives to pray with sincerity in [her] usual way…1 (St. Andrew of Crete, 8th Century)
On August 15 in the Orthodox Church, we commemorate the final Great Feast of the liturgical year, which began on September 1, and whose first Great Feast was the Nativity of the Theotokos,2 with Falling Asleep of the Most Holy Theotokos. This is more commonly called The Dormition of Mary, since “dormition” is a Latin-derived word that means “the falling asleep.” In Greek this is called “Koimesis.”3 In the Roman Catholic Church this same day is observed as “The Assumption of Mary,” and frankly quite a lot of Orthodox may refer to the feast by the same name. There are subtle differences in the meanings and theology between Assumption and Dormition, but these are fairly minor.
The Dormition, as the last of the Great Feasts, is also the last of the Marian feasts, during which we commemorated not only her Nativity (her birth) but her Presentation at the Temple,4 and the greatest of all her feasts, the Annunciation.5 We have also been with her at Jesus’s Nativity6 (Christmas), Jesus’s own Presentation at the Temple (Candlemass),7 His Crucifixion,8 and his Ascension,9 as well as at Pentecost.10 Mary is the mother of the Church. Jesus, on the cross, put her in the care of the apostle John, and tradition tells us that John cared for her to the end of her days. And while Luke may not have written an account of her death, many believe that the personal touches and remarks of Mary in Luke’s gospel may have been directly due to Luke know her. It is fitting that we honor her death.
We’ve come back to the church on a weeknight in August. It’s hot outside, the jumbled tail end of rush hour, and the tired old sun is sliding down another late-summer day. Inside the church it’s cooler, and the window light is starting to fade. As we go up to the iconostasis and stand for a moment before the icon of the Virgin… we notice a few flowers laid along the wooden frame below her image. Some of these look like they’re a few days old and starting to get shriveled. It doesn’t look like an organized effort, not like something put on by the ladies of the flower guild.11
Alone among the Great Feasts of the church, we actually have neither any formal sources or historical records, nor even any quasi-formal (pious, but perhaps a bit unreliable) records like the Protoevangelium of James. For both the Orthodox and Catholic churches, the accounts of this day come solely from tradition.12 Yet this tradition is very old by the time of Saint Ephrem of Syria (4th century), for he was composing hymns.13 Other 3rd and 4th century church fathers take the tradition as fact as well. Perhaps this makes the story of the Dormition an example of what Fr. Alexander Schmemann called “liturgical piety” (to be clear: Fr. Schmemann did not use the Dormition as such an example), or perhaps this is an event whose memory was kept alive through oral tradition, out of fear that Mary’s tomb would be desecrated as the Romans had done to Christ’s. At this remove, we cannot say but only note that there was much in early Christianity that was not formally written down for many centuries, specifically so as to keep it sacred and secret.
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then he said to the disciple “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home. John 19: 25-27 (NKJV)
Tradition tells us, and iconography shows us that Mary continued to be present with the apostles in the events that followed: Christ’s Ascension and Pentecost. Early church histories, such as Eusebius of Caesarea, say that John eventually moved north into Anatolia, to the city of Ephesus (Saints Polycarp and Ignatius, who were from this region were known to have been disciples of John), and so if Mary remained in John’s care, some thought she must have traveled north with him. Indeed, well into modern times some in the local populace maintained that Mary had lived and died near Ephesus. In the early 1800s, a Catholic nun, now canonized as St. Anne Emmerich,14 had visions of a stone house near Ephesus, which she claimed was Mary’s final home. Such a house was later identified and is a pilgrimage site to this day.
And yet the claims of Ephesus were questioned in antiquity by St. Epiphanius,15 as there is in Jerusalem16 a tomb long claimed as Mary’s. Epiphanius, while understanding that Mary was committed into John’s care, did not find credible the idea that Mary would have accompanied John on his travels, and would instead have been looked after by the Church in Jerusalem17. And in the hymns of Vespers and Orthos it is clearly sung that in Jerusalem Mary did indeed repose, and was buried.
According to the traditional accounts, Mary lived to be a fairly advanced age, possibly into her 80s, was well looked after not just by John, but by the other apostles as well, who would visit with her during respites from her travels. According to the traditions, Mary was forewarned that her time on Earth was coming to an end, and her Son, Jesus Christ, would be coming to meet her (many of deep faith even to this day have expressed similar experiences – forewarnings of their final days). And even though the apostles were spread far afield, they too were forewarned, and so were all able, by divine grace, to be present with Mary at her end, and receive her final blessing. All, that is, save for Thomas.
Mary reposed in peace and prayer, and the apostles conducted her funeral, burying her, according to tradition, in a new tomb in the sepulcher of her parents, Joachim and Anna, in the Garden of Gethsemane. According to some traditions, some local Jews, still scandalized and offended at Mary and the claims of Jesus and his followers, attacked and attempted to disrupt the funeral, but when they touched her pallet in an attempt to knock it to the ground found that their hands were withered, or even severed by unseen means. This shocked them into belief, and their hands were miraculously restored. After the funeral, the tomb was sealed.
But what of Thomas? Thomas arrived three days late, and if the arrival of the other apostles was divinely assisted, then Thomas’s must have been divinely delayed. In an echo of Thomas’s absence from Christ’s first appearance in the upper room, after which Thomas proclaimed he would not believe he had seen Christ unless he put his hands in Christ’s wounds, Thomas begged that the apostles would unseal Mary’s tomb so that he could properly venerate her body. Yet when the tomb was unsealed it was found to be empty! Says Father Lawrence Farley:
The Church thus concluded that her divine Son had raised and translated His Mother to life with Him in the Kingdom. She is the first to share, in advance, the resurrection glory, even as she was the first to believe. In her falling asleep, she was not abandoned to the grave, and even now has not forsaken the world, but assists us by her invincible intercession.18
In the Dormition Canon chanted at Orthros on the Feast Day:
The bounds of nature are overcome in thee, O immaculate Virgin; for thy childbirth is virginal, and thy death is the espousal of life. O thou who after childbirth art virgin, and who after death art living, do thou, O Theotokos, ever save thine inheritance.19
And this is really the heart of the matter. Death is not eternal for the faithful, we are promised the resurrection of all the dead at the Second Coming, and for the faithful that will be a joyous celebration. The Theotokos (the God-Bearer), the divine ark who carried the Incarnation of God in her womb, who contained the uncontainable, though she did indeed fall asleep as all mankind must do, was assumed body and soul alike into Heaven, where she prays and intercedes for us all, and was the first to receive this grace. To this day, many are those who have encountered her here on Earth. I know of two such directly, and others at various removes, truly testimonies to the work she does on behalf of her son.
During the two weeks leading up to the Dormition, the Orthodox Church participates in the Dormition Fast, and churches, if they are able, hold daily Paraklesis services where either the Great or the Little Supplicatory Canons are sung.
I profess thee, O Lady, as the true Mother of God: thee, who hast both banished and triumphed over the might of death; for as the source of Life, thou hast freed me from Hades’ bonds, raising me to life, though to earth was I fallen down.20
The icon of the Dormition has many different things being depicted all at once. At its center is Mary’s funereal bier, and surrounding the bier are the gathered apostles. Depending on the size of icon panel, one may see women gathered in the background. Sometimes these are simply Mary’s attendants from her household, but sometimes these women have the golden nimbus one sees around the faces of saints – in such cases these must be women such as Thekla, Phontini, Mary Magdalene, or other saintly women of the apostolic age. In front of the bier we see (usually) Saint Peter with a censer, censing the funeral procession (sometimes another saint is holding the censer). Paul, with his bald head, is often included among the apostles too. In the background we see buildings, and usually a red cloth – these both echo the Temple, and signify that by carrying Christ, Mary became the new Temple.
But aside from the Theotokos, what our eye is most drawn to is the figure of Jesus Christ behind her bier, surrounded in a mandorla (literally “shape of an almond”) of radiant glory, with angels of different ranks accompanying Him. And Christ is holding what appears to be a baby, but in funeral wrappings. We have seen something like this before: in the icon of the Nativity of Christ, but there it was the baby Jesus who was in wrappings and laid in a stone manger that looked very much like a sarcophagus. This is a deliberate mirroring of the earlier imagery, for Christ has come to carry off his mother’s soul to heaven. Of course, the mourning apostles are incapable of seeing this, but icons are attempting to show us the spiritual reality of the world, not merely the material.
Many of the icons of the Great Feasts have certain traditions about where they are to be located in a church. In the case of the Dormition icon, it is almost always placed at the western end of the church, at the opposite end from the altar. This way it is seen by all the faithful as they depart the church – a reminder that we all do fall asleep eventually. If the icon is not placed there, it will likely instead be placed near that of the Nativity of Christ, for the two events are closely linked.
There are two variations one might encounter. In one variation, in front of the bier one sees an angel striking the hands off a man. This is the Archangel Michael striking the hands of one of the locals who attempted to disrupt the funeral and throw Mary’s bier to the ground.
In another variation, one that seems to have emerged in the late 12th century, only to fade away within a few decades, one will see the figure of a bishop standing behind the bier and holding another censer. Unlike Peter, he is not censing the funeral, and unlike the apostles he alone perceives Christ and the angels. What is the significance?
And it was the presence of God in the Virgin’s womb (of which the censer was a symbol) that led to the Incarnation and Passion of the Logos for the salvation of the world and which predetermined the presence of Christ at her Dormition in order to receive his mother’s soul and translate her to heaven, where she was received as an intercessor for mankind. Thus the censer to which the hierarch is pointing also revers to the Virgin’s mediatory and salvatory role after her Assumption: the incense contained in the vessel accompanies the prayers of the faithful to God, just ast he intercessions of the Virgin accompany their invocation.21
Of all of the matters that separate different Christian groups, Mary, Miryam as she is called in the Middle East, is perhaps the most controversial. I have addressed this here and there in the prior feasts in her honor, as well as in two posts22 just about her icons23 and veneration quite apart from the festal observances. I cannot help but wonder if the Dormition (or Assumption) is, quite apart from all else, the most controversial aspect of all. It is not as though there is (or should be) controversy over the honoring of Mary, for any number of theologians since the start of the Reformation honored her deeply.
Mary is the Mother of Jesus and the Mother of all of us even though it was Christ alone who reposed on her knees. If he is ours, we ought to be in his situation; there where he is, we ought also to be and all that he has ought to be ours, and his mother is also our mother. Martin Luther, Christmas Sermon, 152924
And yet there is a divide that also lies at the heart of the veneration of the saints in general, and it is this: can there really be any prayerful intercessions to God by those who have already reposed? If we pull back a moment and instead look at how Jesus appeared to His disciples after the Resurrection, we see that He appeared bodily. He ate with them. Thomas put his hand in Jesus’s wounds. But the way Jesus appeared was often unexpected or unnoticed until He revealed Himself. We all understand this to be telling us something about what the general resurrection must look like.
Consider also: of all of the apostles, none ever doubted they died, and their graves often became places of pilgrimage. Many sites have since been relocated or destroyed, but we do have the tombs of Peter and Paul still in Rome. Yet there was never a tomb claimed for Moses, or Elijah, and the tombs of Jesus and Mary are empty. Other relics of Mary were kept for many centuries, and surely her remains would have been too. But there is nothing. And if God took up Moses and Elijah both, why not also Mary, the Theotokos, she who bore the incarnation?
Those who have claimed to have encountered Mary do not describe the encounters as being with a shade, but as someone with form. It is the same with those who have encountered the other saints – they, like Jesus after the Resurrection, have form and life, even if it not like our own (St. Spyridon is rather famous in that regard).25 How much moreso must that be for the mother of Jesus?
Call out, O David. “What is this present feast?” he said. Verily, she whom I praised in the Psalms as daughter, Maiden of God and Virgin, hath been translated by Christ, Who was born of her without seed, to yonder abodes. Wherefore, mothers, daughters, and brides of Christ shout in joy, Rejoice, O thou who hast been translated to the heavenly kingdom. (Kathisma of the Festal Orthros)
1 Kimball, Virginia. Liturgical Illuminations: Discovering Received Tradition in the Eastern Orthos of Feasts of the Theotokos, Doctoral Dissertation, International Marian Research Institute, University of Dayton, Bloomington, IN, 2010. page 366.
Cited from Discovering the Way of Joy…, c.f. below.
3 Kimball, Virginia. Discovering the Way of Joy in Icons of the Mother of Christ, Joy in God Press, Westford, MA,
11 Matthews-Green, Frederica. The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer. Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA, 2003. page 27
12 Poulos, George. Orthodox Saints: Volume 3. Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline, MA, 1991. Page 117.
13 Shanbour, Rev. Michael. Know the Faith: A Handbook for Orthodox Christians. Ancient Faith Ministries, Chesterton, IN, 2016. page 335.
17 Alfeyev, Met. Hilarion. Orthodox Christianity, Volume IV: The Worship and Liturgical Life of the Orthodox Church. Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Yonkers, NY, 2016. pages 376-377
18 Farley, Fr. Lawrence. A Daily Calendar of Saints. Ancient Faith Publishing, Chesterton, IN, 2018. page 101
19 All liturgical quotations are taken from the Antiochian Archdiocese liturgics. www.antiochian.org
20 Ibid. Great Supplicatory Canon, 3rd Ode, final stanza.
21 Evangelatou, Mary. “The symbolism of the Censer in Byzantine representations of the Dormition of the Virgin”. From Vassilaki, Maria, ed. Images of the Mother of God: Perceptions of the Theotokos in Byzantium. Ashgate Publishing, Burlington, VT, 2005. pages 122-123
24 As cited in Know the Faith, page 341
25 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_SpyridonPublished in