Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
We enjoyed a truly wonderful celebration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos this year. Attendance was very strong, there was a full choir, and the Vesperal Liturgy both lively and prayerful. The decorated tomb which contains an icon of the Virgin Mary in blessed repose, was surrounded by flowers brought to church for that purpose and then blessed at the end of the service to be taken back home. As always, it was good to see some of our parish children and young adults present and worshiping. This "summer pascha" has steadily become an integral event of our parish life. And this is "meet and right."
American Christianity has been shaped by the Protestant ethos, and that basically means that there is no real place for the veneration of the Mother of God. This was primarily based upon a reaction against the perceived excesses of the medieval West's Marian piety by the early Protestant reformers. In a short time, this reaction became a thorough rejection - at times quite vehement - in many Protestant circles. So the Virgin Mary pretty much disappeared from Protestant worship and piety. Perhaps the classic example within Church history of "throwing out the baby with the bath water."
Orthodox Christians cannot succumb to any such truncated form of the Church's living Tradition. (However, there have been clear signs recently of a "recovery" of the role of the Virgin Mary in some Evangelical circles). One of my beloved professors from seminary always used to say that a sign of a spiritually strong parish is that parish's devotion to the Mother of God. For she is the personal image of the Church - warm, embracing, nurturing, protecting.
Since the Dormition has no biblical source, this feast slowly developed over the course of the first five centuries of the Church's history on the basis of a wide variety of sources - primarily narratives, rhetorical homilies and theological poetry/hymnography. (Much of this material now exists in English translation). There is no one authoritative text or document.
However, though details may differ, a tradition emerged that tells of how the apostles were miraculously brought back to Jerusalem in order to surround the bedside of the Virgin Mary as she lay dying. Upon commending her holy soul to her Son and Savior, she peacefully "fell asleep" in death (the meaning of the word dormition) in the presence of the apostles who stood weeping and grief-stricken by her bedside. With great solemnity they buried her pure body which had itself been the "tabernacle" of the King. The traditional place of her burial is a tomb close to Gethsemane. When the tomb was opened on the third day so that the Apostle Thomas, who arrived late, could venerate the body of the Theotokos, it was found to be empty. The "Mother of Life" was thus "translated to life!"
Archbishop Kallistos Ware summarizes the Church's understanding of this tradition in the following manner:
Without insisting on the literal truth of every element in this account, Orthodox tradition is clear and unwavering in regard to the central point: the Holy Virgin underwent, as did her Son, a physical death, but her body - like His - was afterwards raised from the dead and she was taken up into heaven, in her body as well as in her soul. She has passed beyond death and judgement, and lives wholly in the Age to Come.The Resurrection of the Body, which all Christians await, has in her case been anticipated and is already an accomplished fact. That does not mean, however, that she is dissociated from the rest of humanity and placed in a wholly different category: for we all hope to share one day in that same glory of the Resurrection of the Body which she enjoys even now. (The Festal Menaion, p. 64)
Fr. Thomas Hopko further elaborates on the meaning of this beautiful Feast and how it "relates" to every generation of Christians:
Thus, the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos is the celebration of the fact that all men are "highly exalted" in the blessedness of the victorious Christ, and that this high exaltation has already been accomplished in Mary the Theotokos.The feast of the Dormition is the sign, the guarantee, and the celebration that Mary's fate is the destiny of all those of "low estate" whose souls magnify the Lord, whose spirits rejoice in God the Savior, whose lives are totally dedicated to hearing and keeping the Word of God which is given to men in Mary's child, the Savior and Redeemer of the world.
Dormition, of course, means "falling asleep," the Christian term par excellence for how we approach the mystery of death. And here we further approach the paradox, from a Christian perspective, of death itself - the "last enemy" that causes great anguish and grief; but yet which now serves as a passage to life everlasting, and thus a cause for festal celebration in the death of the Mother of God. For the Virgin Mary truly died, as is the fate of all human beings; and yet "neither the tomb nor death could hold the Theotokos" who has been "translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!" Without for a moment losing sight of the reality of death (notice the weeping apostles around the body of the Theotokos on the Dormition icon), from within the Church we can actually celebrate death during this "summer pascha" because of the Resurrection of Christ.
Thus, the Feast of the Dormition clearly raises the issue of death and dying, and what we mean by a “Christian ending to our life.” For the moment, though, here is a challenging paragraph from Fr. Thomas Hopko about some of our own misconceptions – basically our fears – that often find us wandering far from an Orthodox approach to death and dying:
I believe that the issue of death and dying is in need of serious attention in contemporary Orthodoxy, especially in the West, where most members of the Church seem to be “pagan” before people die and “Platonists” afterwards. By this I mean that they beg the Church to keep people alive, healthy, and happy as long as possible, and then demand that the Church assure them after people die that their immortal souls are “in a better place, basking in heavenly bliss” no matter what they may have done in their earthly lives. — From Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attractions, p. 89, note 2.
To add a bit more to this, here is a passage from Bp. Ilarion Alfeyev, that reinforces the Christian understanding – and hope – that accompanies us at the moment of death:
For the non-believing person, death is a catastrophe and a tragedy, a rupture and a break. For the Christian, though, death is neither a catastrophe nor something evil. Death is a “falling asleep,” a temporary condition of separation from the body until the final unification with it. As Isaac the Syrian emphasizes, the sleep of death is short in comparison with the expectant eternity of a person. — From Orthodox Christianity, Vol. 2, p. 496.
St. Gregory of Nyssa states this Christian hope with clarity:
By the divine Providence death has been introduced as a dispensation into the nature of man, so that, sin having flowed away at the dissolution of the union of soul and body, man, through the resurrection, might be refashioned, sound, passionless, stainless, and removed from any touch of evil. – Great Catechetical Oration, 35.
This is precisely why we can call the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, “pascha in the summer!” The Virgin Mary and Theotokos died a “deathless death.” Now we have the opportunity to participate in this mystery in the celebration of this event as nothing less than a Feast. The Leave-taking of the Feast is on August 23. That means that we continue to sing and chant the troparion and kontakion of the Feast in our liturgical services until then, in addition to other hymnography of the Feast. I would strongly urge everyone to incorporate these hymns into your daily rule of prayer, including their use when you bless your meals as a family, replacing the Lord's Prayer up until the Leave-taking. If you can't sing these hymns, you can certainly recite them! The troparia and kontakia or the major Feasts are included in many Orthodox Prayer Books, but if you do not have the texts available at home, I am including them here:
Troparion of the DormitionIn giving birth, you preserved your virginity!
In falling asleep you did not
forsake the world, O Theotokos!
You were translated to life, O Mother of Life,
and by your prayers you deliver our souls from death!
Kontakion of the DormitionNeither the tomb, nor death, could hold the Theotokos,
who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions.
For being the Mother of Life, she was translated to life
by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!
The decorated tomb of the Theotokos, containing an icon of her sacred body in blessed repose, will be back in its usual place and open for our veneration whenever we enter the church. The great Feasts extend in time, giving us the opportunity of integrating them into our lives in a meaningful way.