Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
Neither the tomb, nor death, could hold the Theotokos…
(Kontakion of the Dormition)
Yesterday evening, we celebrated the Feast of the Falling Asleep of the Most Holy Theotokos, often referred to as the Dormition. The service was a Vesperal Liturgy, and we must have had the best attendance to date for this wonderful Feast. Just how good was our attendance? With the exception of the Christmas day Liturgy, this is the first time we have ever had to cut up two large prosphora loaves for a non-Sunday Liturgy in order to have enough blessed bread for post-Communion and post-Liturgy distribution. And not a single piece remained! That is how good our attendance was. Of course, this is only “meet and right,” as the Feast is the culmination of two-week period of preparation through the Dormition fast. This was, then, a truly fitting completion to the cycle of Great Feasts that begins in September and ends in August. As one of our beloved professors – “Prof” to many of his students - from seminary once said: The inner strength of a parish is determined by its veneration and love of the Mother of God. Through “our firm hope in her intercessions,” (Kontakion) this is becoming an integral part of our parish’s inner life.
This Feast is observed by the Roman Catholic Church on this same day of August 15, but entitled The Assumption of the Virgin Mary. And in the Roman Catholic Church, the Assumption has been recently promulgated as a dogma (1950); an official status, at least, that this Feast does not have in the Orthodox Church. You will find many Orthodox Churches in North America using that title of the Assumption, but the Feast is actually entitled the Koimesis (Gk.) or Dormition of the Theotokos. What does that mean? The actual word “Dormition” is not found in my dictionary, the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, tenth edition! However, the more prestigious Oxford English Dictionary defines it thus:
Noun: (in the Orthodox Church) the passing of the Virgin Mary from earthly life. Origin: late 15th c. from French, from Latin dormitio(n-) ‘falling asleep,’ from dormire ‘to sleep’
As stated above, the actual Greek term for the Feast is koimesis, also a word deriving from the verb “to sleep.” (A koimeterion, or cemetery, is a place where people are “sleeping”). Thus, we commemorate the death of the Theotokos, but death within the reality of the Church is a “falling asleep” from which the believing Christian will be awakened by resurrection. Though not proclaimed as an “official” dogma, the Orthodox Church’s Tradition teaches that this eschatological (“end-time”) hope has already been fulfilled in the life and death of the Mother of God. This is what is meant when we sing in the troparion that the Theotokos has been “translated to life;” and in the kontakion that “she was translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!” As Archbishop Kallistos Ware explains:
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)
Since the Virgin Mary is not the “great exception,” but the “great example” as Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to say, perhaps we could say that the Feast of her falling asleep is the prototypical funeral service for all Christians. In other words, her “funeral service” as commemorated and actualized in the Feast, serves as the great example for all Christian funeral services: a “falling asleep” in the Lord in anticipation of being fully “translated” into the Kingdom of God, soul and body, at the end of time. So when we celebrate the Feast of the Dormition, we are anticipating our own deaths as a “falling asleep” in the hope that the Lord will in turn come for our soul (as depicted in the icon of the Feast) as our body is consigned to the earth in a koimeterion as we await the “resurrection of the dead.” This is magnificently described by St. Paul:
“For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall all be changed.” (I COR. 15:52)
In the life, death and destiny of the Virgin Mary, we witness one of the most basic revelations of the entire New Testament: that “all things are possible with God” (MK 10:27). To further “meditate” on that actuality, the special hymn to the Theotokos in the Liturgy of the Feast, replacing the usual “It is Meet and Right,” presents us with a series of “impossibilities” rendered “possible” by the grace of God in the life of the Theotokos:
The limits of nature are overcome in you, O Pure Virgin: for birthgiving remains virginal and life is united to death! A virgin after childbearing and alive after death! You ever save your inheritance, O Theotokos.