The Dormtion of the Mother of God-Fast and Feast
The Dormition Fast and Feast-the Fast begins this Monday (14th August-civil calendar/1st August-church calendar) for the two weeks leading up to the Feast itself.
On August 15/28, as Orthodox Christians we then celebrate the greatest of all the religious festivals which the Church established in honour of the All-Holy Virgin Mary (Panagia), the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God.
The feasts of the Virgin Mary are second in importance to those of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the annual cycle of festivals observed by the Orthodox Church because, after our Lord Himself, the All-Holy Virgin is the most blessed person in our Church.
If the Lord’s greatest Feast is that of Pascha, the Feast of His Redemptive Death and Resurrection, then His Mother’s greatest feast is also associated with her death and transposition to Heaven. The reason for this is to be found in the basic Christian perception of salvation, which is none other than the re-entry of human beings into God’s eternal kingdom, transcending death and regaining the gift of eternal life.
In the Orthodox Church, the blessed person of the Theotokos is inseparable from the blessed person of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. This is exactly what the name, Theotokos (i.e., the God-bearer, Mother of God, Birth-giver of God) constantly declares: namely that the place and significance of the Virgin Mary in the Church cannot be understood apart from her relationship to Our Lord.
What is declared by the name Theotokos is most tangibly depicted on the iconostasis (the
icon screen before the sanctuary) of any Orthodox Church. The icon of the Lord’s is always on the right of the Beautiful Gate-the Royal Doors, and the icon of the Theotokos is
always on the left. This particular icon, depicting the All-Holy Virgin Mary holding our Lord and Saviour as a child in her arms, is the most characteristic of all icons associated with her blessed person.
The hymns of this feast, which are among the most significant of the Orthodox liturgical year, bring out not only this basic Christian perception of salvation but also the important place that the blessed person of the All-Holy Theotokos has in this perspective.
The Feast of the Dormition was established in the 6th century, although its roots go back to earlier centuries, especially the 5th century, following the dogmatic decision of the 3rd Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431) to accept and use the term, Theotokos as the most important and defining description of the All-Holy Mother of our Lord in the Church.
Dr. Ioannis Fountoulis, (Professor of Liturgics at the University of Thessaloniki)says this :
“This feast was joined to an earlier feast in honour of the Theotokos at the famous church
of the All-Holy Virgin Mary in Gethsemane, which had been erected by the Byzantine
Emperor Maurice over her tomb.”
The details of the celebration of the feast of the Dormition, especially those revealed in its hymns, are based on an apocryphal narrative concerning the circumstances of the death of the Theotokos, which goes back to Saint John the Theologian, the beloved disciple of the Lord in whose care the All-Holy Theotokos had been entrusted.-it is NOT in the Bible, but is called the Proto-Evangelium of James.
The narrative tells us the story, which is shown on the holy icon of the Dormition. It tells us that the Mother of God was visited by the Archangel Gabriel and foretold about her approaching death; that at which point the Theotokos returned to her home and prepared for this event, praying at the same time that the Apostles should be notified accordingly.
John is said to be the first to arrive in a miraculous way, and then all the rest follow. Finally,
the Lord Himself appears in His dazzling divine glory, escorted by a myriad of angels, and
takes her all-holy soul, which is wrapped up like a newborn babe in swaddling clothes, into
His arms in order to transport it to Heaven.
This world and the next
Before she departs, the Mother of God greets the Holy Apostles and the people, promising that
“whichever soul is to call her name will not be put to shame, but will find mercy and consolation, understanding and boldness in this world and the next.”
Her funeral follows. The holy body of the Mother of God is then taken to a tomb in Gethsemane where it is buried. Yet according to the narrative, on the third day after the funeral, the holy body of the Theotokos was translated to Heaven. According to the Tradition, Thomas arrived late-three days late!! He wished to see the body of the Mother of God, the tomb was opened and the body was not there! .
The first hymn of the Great Vespers of the Feast sums it all up:
“O marvellous wonder. The source of life is laid in the tomb, and the tomb itself becomes a
ladder to Heaven. Be glad, O Gethsemane, thou sacred abode of the Mother of God.
Come, o ye faithful, and with Gabriel to lead us, let us all cry out: Hail, thou who art full of
grace, the Lord is with Thee, granting the world through thee great mercy.”
Orthodox Christians honour the All-Holy Theotokos as the supreme living icon of the Church, the Mother of all Christians because, as the holy fathers explain in their writings, she is the “New Eve,” the new Mother of Humanity who, through her obedience, reversed the curse, which followed Eve’s disobedience, and brought to the world the “New Adam,” our Saviour Jesus Christ, Who restored mankind’s communion with God the Creator.
Orthodox Christians also believe in the ancient doctrine of the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God. That is to say, that she was a Virgin before and during the Birth of Christ, and that she remained a Virgin afterwards. This is depicted in her icon by means of three stars appearing on the veil on her forehead and shoulders and also represents the grace of the Holy Trinity, Which was in her and made her “full of grace .
In line with this, Orthodox Christians disagree with the Protestants, who believe that the All-Holy Virgin had other children besides the Lord, and maintain that the brothers and sisters of Jesus mentioned in the Gospel are most likely children of Joseph from an earlier
marriage or cousins of Christ who were under the protection of Joseph, their uncle. Indeed, Joseph was betrothed, but not married, to the All-Holy Virgin.
Orthodox Christians also believe that the Theotokos is all-holy and immaculate, not because of her “immaculate conception” by her parents Joachim and Anna, but because she became such by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, Who “came upon her; the Divine Power, which overshadowed her; and the uncorrupted conception of Christ in her womb.
The Roman Catholic dogma of the “Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was declared in 1854, is also unacceptable to the Orthodox.
Orthodox Christians believe that the All-Holy Theotokos fell asleep, that the Lord took up her soul to heaven, and that her body was most possibly transposed to Heaven afterwards
as some of the fathers teach. They find unacceptable the dogma of the “Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” which the Roman Catholic Church declared in 1950 and which not only suggests that the Theotokos’ death or dormition not real, but also that she is Coredeemer (co-redemptrix) and co-mediator (co-mediatrix) with the Lord. The Roman Catholic position gives priority to Mary rather than to Christ, inasmuch it suggests that He
is immaculate because of her, instead of her being immaculate because of Him.
Orthodox Christians do not share the Protestant objections to the sinlessness of the Theotokos, however, which are based on false premises. Protestant Christians, by and large, basically identify the Virgin Mary with the rest of humanity and fail to see the distinct qualities, and the Grace that abides in her, which make her the New Eve.
Orthodox Christians believe in the all-holiness or sinlessness of the Theotokos, not in the absolute sense, which belongs to God Alone, but in the relative sense, which is the gift of Pentecost (i.e., the gift of the abiding grace of the Holy Spirit in the Mother of God, the Holy Apostles and the Church in general. Which, by definition, makes all of them holy).
We sin because we choose to sin, the Mother of God chose not to sin.
Finally Orthodox Christians pray to the All-Holy Theotokos for salvation, not in the sense that she is the primary cause of salvation, for this belongs to Christ Alone, but in the sense
that she mediates through her maternal boldness and prayers to the Lord for Christians as
her spiritual children.
Protestant objections to such Orthodox prayers to the All-Holy Theotokos and to the Saints
are based on a misunderstanding of the above position.
The Fast and Feast of the Dormition looks forward to the Second Coming of Christ-Mary represents the Church and Christ comes and takes her body-her spirit has already gone to God-to be with Him and to reign with Him in Heaven.
The dismissal hymn of her greatest feast, the feast of the Dormition, sums up all these
points of Orthodox belief presented briefly in this article:
“In giving birth, O Theotokos, thou has retained thy virginity, and in falling asleep, thou has
not forsaken the world. Thou who art the Mother of Life has passed over into Life, and by
thy prayers, thou has delivered our souls from death”
How do we prepare to celebrate this Feast?
The Dormition Feast is the end of the Church Year-again it has eschatalogical implications and points to the Feast we will enjoy when Christ’s Kingdom has come. The Byzantine Church since at least the 5th century has practised a period of fasting prior to the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. Christians of the East have always recognized the mystery of Our Lady’s Dormition, her ‘falling asleep’ at the end of her natural life when in a miraculous way she was assumed into heaven to sit with her Lord and our Lord.
Recognized in the West as Our Lady’s ‘Assumption’ into heaven (althought with the different emphases already noted), the passage of Mary the Virgin Mother of God from this life to life eternal is a cause for reflection for Christians.
Mary, the God-bearing Mother of God, was the first Christian and is a model for the followers of her Son, Jesus Christ. The Church venerates Mary for being the chosen vessel of the New Covenant, preserved from sin from the very moment of her natural conception to the very end of her days. Since God is perfect and will not countenance sin, afterall, how could He be incarnated in a woman wherein resided any kind of sin?
Mary’s life was totally consecrated from its very beginning to God and so it was she was chosen out of all women to bear the Incarnate Word into the world.
Any Christian’s calling does not differ from Mary’s. We too are to bear Christ into the world and bring his Light to dark places. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we are to serve the Lord in whatever task we are assigned. It is on the journey or pilgrimage that is life that we are called at waystations such as the Feast of the Dormition to reflect on our vocation and the paths we have taken. Just as we come to the end of secular year with resolutions and hopes for renewal, the Fast of the Dormition comes at the end of the church year provides a time for change in our spiritual and eternal lives.
The fast begins on August 1 and continues until August 15 at which time is celebrated the vigil of the Feast. We are called upon to solemnly fast not for bodily benefits but as a spiritual medicine that serves to remind us of our total dependence on God. A fast in the summer, as autumn approaches, is indeed a tonic for our souls. The Universal Church, the
hospital for sinners wherein Jesus Christ is the ultimate Physician, prescribes the fast for our eternal benefit. On August 1 the Lesser Blessing of Waters usually begins the Fast of the Dormition and thus recalling our baptism and cleansing of our souls.
The Dormition of our Most Holy Lady the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary
Already in the 2nd century, we hear St. Justin Martyr, one of the Fathers of the Church,
refer to the Virgin Mary as the “new Eve.
” The book of Genesis recounts that the first Eve received her name because she was the “mother of all the living.” (Genesis 3:20).
In this Old Testament framework, Eve’s motherhood begets generations of disobedience and selfishness. If we continue reading the Old Testament, the progeny of Eve – such as Cain– certainly reflect these vices.
In the New Testament, Mary as the new Eve becomes the Mother of all those who choose to live in Christ. She counters Eve’s disobedience with her obediences – the ‘fiat’ of the “Let it be done according to thy Word” recounted in the Gospel of St. Luke and recalled in the prayers of millions. She was always prepared to do the Lord’s will (Luke 1:38). Mary as
our Mother becomes our example of Christian living. We walk with her throughout the liturgical year from her birth on September 1st to her Dormtion on August 15. Her death is a foreshadowing of every Christian death, not as a finite ending but as a passing over into the next world and an encounter with God.
The story of Jacob’s ladder, a vision recorded in Genesis 28, is read at the vespers for the feast and offers us the image of a ladder extending from earth to heaven. Traditionally, the Fathers of the Church considered this passage as an image of Mary herself. In a particular way, in light of the feast of the Dormition, Mary’s tomb is not a locked grave but a stairway to heaven. Indeed, there is no tomb known for Mary, even though she was the Mother of God. In her modesty and devotion to our Lord she would have forbidden any memorial after death, as surely there would have been since the Apostles recognized her unique holiness that surpasses all the saints.
Her Dormition is in a sense a second Pascha and one that shows to us the life that awaits us faithless servants who at the end of our earthly trials seek the face of God for mercy. As
“groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies,” (Romans 8:23)
we see in Mary’s passing a foretelling of the flight of our human nature to rest securely in the divine life of God. In this way, we are assured that every Christian death is not a descent into a cold grave, but an ascent on a ladder to heaven.
On this feast, we bring flowers in the church to be blessed. We do this to pay homage to the Mother of God, who is the first flowering of redemption in Christ. As she was taken up bodily and preserved from corruption, she shows us what is to come to every Christian. Just as the first budded rose hints at what is to come in spring for the rest of the flowers, so too does the Dormition hint at our heavenly future in the celestial Garden.
From the Dogmatikon of Vespers:
“The Holy Apostles were taken up from every corner of the world and carried upon clouds
by the command of God. They gathered around your pure body, O source of Life, and
kissed it with reverence. As for the most sublime powers of heaven, they came with their
own leader to escort and to pay their last respects to the most honourable body that had
contained Life itself.”