Dear Parish Faithful,
"A Christian ending to our lives, painless, blameless and peaceful ... let us ask of the Lord."
We just completed our celebration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos with Great Vespers yesterday evening and the Divine Liturgy this morning. "All things considered" - meaning that this year the cycle took place from Sunday evening to Monday morning - we had good participation for the Feast and two wonderful services.
In the center of the church was the tomb with a beautiful icon of the Mother of God in blessed repose to be venerated by the faithful. (This icon will remain in the tomb which will be put back in its new normal spot in the back of the church, where everyone can venerate the image until the leave-taking of the Feast on August 23). We also blessed flowers at the end of the Liturgy, adding beauty to the Feast as we did last week with our fruit baskets at Transfiguration.
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.