For Orthodox Christians, August 15 is the Feast of the Dormition (falling asleep, death) of the Theotokos. The death of the Virgin Mary is not recorded in the canonical Scriptures of the Church. That she died is not in question in Orthodoxy; that her death became a major feast of the Church is not surprising. Piety toward the Blessed Virgin grew through history as the profundity of Christology came to be recognized in the life of the Church.
At the Liturgy for the Dormition, the Church did not replace the reading of Scriptures with the stories of the Virgin’s death from the non-canonical sources. Rather the Epistle for the Dormition from Philippians 2:5-11 is completely a Christological text and ancient hymn of the Church.
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
The Virgin Mary is Theotokos because Jesus is fully God who has become incarnate, born of the Virgin. The Dormition recognizes the interplay of love between the Lord Jesus Christ and His mother Mary, and understands this relationship in terms of soteriology. The event of her dormition is commemorated in terms of Christ’s resurrection from the dead; death cannot hold her captive either. The death of the Virgin does not separate her from the Church, which is the Body of Christ. Rather Mary continues to have a place of prominence in the Church as the Mother of God: the one through whom our salvation came into the world. Thus every Christian has a relationship with Mary through Jesus Christ our Lord.
In a sermon from 730 AD given on the Feast of the Dormition St. Germanus Patriarch of Constantinople has Christ speak to His Mother about her impending death. Christ says to her:
“Nor let it trouble thee, that thou must end thy care of earthly things. For thou art returning to a life that is more than life: to a rest of joy, to serene most perfect peace, to freedom from all care, to happiness without end, to light that never fades, to a day without evening, to Me, to thy Creator, and the Creator of all things…Entrust thy body to Me, as I once entrusted My Godhead to thy womb.” (The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, Vol. 4, pg. 419)
The Feast’s name, Dormition, uses the imagery which Christ Himself used for the death of His friend Lazarus: that of falling asleep (John 11). Our English word “cemetery” comes from a Greek word which means “a place for those who sleep.”
“Even if righteous people come to the end of their days, you see, they have not died but gone to sleep: the one who is on the point of passing on to a better life is going to sleep, whereas the one who is on the point of being carried off to undying death has come to the end, even if alive, and is already dead.” (St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Psalms, Vol 2, pg. 89)