The Dormition of the Theotokos: We are in God’s Hands

“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Thessalonians 4:14-15)

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The Feast of the Dormition is our commemoration of the death of Jesus Christ‘s own Mother.   The Holy Trinity entrusted the incarnation of the Word of God to Mary: God becomes human and entrusts His human life to this very special woman.  At her death, Mary entrusts herself to her Son, the incarnate God.

Because this Feast does deal with death, it is a good time for us to reflect on death.  Oftentimes we avoid thinking about death until we are forced to face it at a funeral, and then our emotions can be so stirred that we cannot think rationally about it.  This Feast allows to think about death in a Christian way.  We pray in our liturgies for a Christian ending to our life – Mary, the Theotokos, experiences a truly Christian death, commending her soul and body to Her Son.

When someone dies –  we often comfort ourselves or others by saying that the deceased “is in God’s hands NOW.”  That is true, but only because we, our lives, are ALWAYS in God’s hands.  God doesn’t just take an interest in us at our death. But our popular belief seems to indicate that we are in control of our life until death and only then do we have to rely completely on God.  Our Christian life though is lived in God always and everywhere.  “… for ‘In him we live and move and have our being'”  (Acts 17:28).

God is love, God is not reacting to us, but always acting for us in love – throughout our life and in our death.  God receives our soul at death, not in reaction to our death, but because He carried us in love throughout our life.  We are never far from God, never separated from Him.

At the Feast of the Dormition we sing the Kontakion:

Neither 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.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death.  The Feast of the Dormition is the celebration of this Good News:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:35-39)

Death no longer can separate us from God because Jesus Christ died, descended to the place of the dead, and conquered death raising us all to eternal life.  The Feast of the Dormition is a celebration of our belonging to Christ, and sharing in His victory over death.

None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.  (Romans 14:7-9)

The Dormition of the Virgin is a celebration of Christ’s resurrection – and of His extending the resurrection to His Church.

The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him …  (2 Timothy 2:11-12)

In Praise of Our Lady, Mary

On August 15 we in the Orthodox Church remember the Dormition of the Theotokos.

There is a great deal of beautiful poetic reflection on Mary’s role in our salvation.  The poem below is from the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition:

My Lady Mary–

Consecrated to virginity from your earliest years,

Whose heart gave no entry to the desires of this world,

There is none among men or angels that can compare with you.

You are the thorn bush that bore the flames of fire,

Out of which God himself spoke

About how he would deliver the tent of his people Jacob from it.

You are the Cloud of Manna raining down at the time dew descends

All manner of delightful food, flavored according to each one’s taste.

(Enzira Sebhat, Harp of Glory, p. 81).

Mary Opens Heaven to Us

“This hymn sums up the entire body of hymnography for the feast. Mary, the chosen dwelling-place of God, is offered as a pure and blameless sacrifice. She is preordained as the one who brings salvation to mankind. It is precisely at this point, however, that we may ask whether the hymnography has passed into the realm of hyperbole. If, as we have already noted, the hymnography of this period presupposes an understanding of salvation (theosis) in which God alone can save man, how can it be said that Mary “has opened the Kingdom of Heaven to us”? Or, how can it be affirmed that Mary is the “restoration of all who dwell on earth: for through thee we are reconciled to God”?

It is precisely because salvation is defined in terms of theosis that these hymnographers can make such statements about the Virgin without encroaching upon the uniqueness of Christ. God alone can redeem man and deify human nature, but man must be able to receive that gift. This is the role of the Virgin Mary. She is the pure and blameless sacrifice that mankind offers to God as the one who is able to receive the salvation that God has prepared for the human race. It is important to note here, however, that while this hymnography often refers to Mary as reconciler and mediatrix, she is never referred to as redemptrix or co-redemptrix. Mary is the necessary human component in the reconciliation of man with God, but in no way is she said to redeem or deify man.”  (C. Clark Carlton, “The Temple that Held God”, from St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly Vol 50, No 1-2   2006 , p. 112).

The Virgin Mary and the Robe of Glory

“In her virginity, Eve put on

leaves of shame, but your mother has put on,

in her virginity, a garment of glory

that encompasses all, while to Him who covers all

she gave a body as a tiny garment.”

(Ephrem the Syrian)

The imagery of the Robe of Glory, deeply embedded in the Syriac tradition, is used to describe the various stages of salvation history: Adam and Eve are originally clothed in it in Paradise, but lose it at the Fall; Christ, the Divine Word who “put on the body,” deposits humanity’s lost Robe of Glory in the River Jordan at his baptism, and at each Christian baptism it is received in potential from the Font (often described both as the Jordan and as a womb; …); finally, at the Last Judgement, it becomes the clothing of the Righteous in reality ….

Since Christ’s presence in the Jordan makes the Robe of Glory available again to humanity, his presence in Mary’s womb is understood as constituting her baptism, thus providing her with her Robe of Glory …. Mary’s giving Christ “a body as a tiny garment” and receiving in return a “Robe of Glory” is one of the ways in which Ephrem brings out the idea of exchanged involved in the incarnation; this is expressed in epigrammatic form: “He gave us divinity, we gave Him humanity” (Sebastian P. Brock & George A. Kiraz, Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, p. 51).

The Dormition of the Theotokos (2016)

In the Orthodox Church, Mary, the Virgin Mother of Christ and Theotokos, suffers death like all of us.   We remember that event in the Feast of her Dormition on August 15 each year.

In Orthodoxy, all of humanity falls under the power of death – we are mortal beings as a result of sin – ancestral as well as our own.  In the theological reflection of the Church, Mary is viewed as the most unique and special human – the one whom God chose to be the mother of His Son.  What she must have been to be favored and chosen by God is what causes Orthodox theologians to elevate her status among humans.  She is not thought of as being some interchangeable part in God’s mechanical universe.  Orthodoxy does not believe if not Mary, than God would have chose Susanna or Elizabeth or someone else.  Mary was a unique human who lived a godly life and is recognized by God and favored by God because of the choices Mary herself made.  Mary is essential for our salvation.  In human terms, she is the pinnacle of the entire salvation history recorded in the Jewish scriptures, our Old Testament.  She represents the best fruit of what humanity was capable of producing.  God works with her for our salvation.  Thus she becomes Theotokos when the Word becomes flesh in her womb at the Annunication.  Her role in salvation is indispensable.  But she is still human, and so she dies, even though in her the incarnation, and thus salvation, has occurred.  It is not because she is sinful that she dies, but because she is human and thus mortal.

Orthodox theologian Vigen Guroian writes:

“Orthodox Christianity has not embraced a doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. It seems more consistent with the Gospel story that Mary, like the rest of humanity, was born into the sin of the first Eve. Otherwise, the importance of her humanity is diminished; she becomes merely a predestined instrument of grace, and the exemplary character of her achievements of humility and purity and freely pronounced willingness to be of service to God is less compelling. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate, if not also necessary, to add that by her birth-giving and motherly relationship to Jesus through the Holy Spirit, Mary overcame our sinful condition and became, by virtue of her special holiness, the mother of our salvation.

Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, raised two important lasting Marian themes: the one of the New or Second Eve, and the other of the Virgin’s fiat. In these, especially, rest the church’s claims about her centrality to the Christian understanding of holiness. Irenaeus writes,

‘And just as it was through a virgin who disobeyed that man was stricken and fell and died, so too it was through the Virgin, who obeyed the word of God, that man resuscitated by life received life. For the Lord came to seek back the lost sheep, and it was lost; and therefore he did not become some other formation, but he likewise, of her that was descended from Adam, preserved the likeness of formation; for Adam had necessarily to be restored in Christ, that mortality be absorbed in immortality, and Eve in Mary, that a virgin, become the advocate of a virgin, should undo and destroy virginal disobedience by virginal obedience.’”  (The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key, Kindle Loc. 681-85)

Adam and Eve at heaven’s altar

Mary: Greater than Heaven

“Even the sky is small for You, my Lord, if You will it,

but the womb of Mary is big for You because You so willed.

Because You so willed, a womb has contained You; unless

You so willed, all the ages would not suffice You, Son of the Lord of the universe.

Because it pleased You to dwell in the womb, in spite of your

greatness, on this account, You are a marvel to the one who knew You.

Even when the womb of Mary bore You, because it pleased You,

all the ages were filled with You, because such You are.

Even if there was no place within the ends <of the earth>that

was not filled with You, You were dwelling in a span of flesh because You so willed.

For a great place, indeed, was not sufficient to contain You,

nor are You straitened by a little place if You stay there.

Heaven is small but the maiden is great according to your will,

for that one is inadequate but this one is fruitful because

You strengthened her.”

(Jacob of Serug, On the Mother of God, pp 66-67)

The Dormition Fast (2016)

August 1 each year marks the beginning of the Dormition Fast.  This 14 day summer fast prepares us for the Feast of the Dormition which is the last of the 12 Great Feasts in the Orthodox church year calendar. In Orthodoxy, the human problem is often understood to be an issue of the human will.  In order for God to heal the fallen will, humans have to learn to control their own will and even to deny it. It is our own will and self-centered demand to have our own way which separates us from God.   By denying our self, we open our heart and mind to seeking God’s will.  This opens us up to the healing and saving action of Christ.   Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes:

“An essential aspect of guarding the heart is warfare against the passions. By ‘passion’ here is meant not just sexual lust, but any disordered appetite or longing that violently takes possession of the soul: anger, jealousy, gluttony, avarice, lust for power, pride, and the rest. Many of the Fathers treat the passions as something intrinsically evil, that is to say, as inward diseases alien to man’s true nature. Some of them, however, adopt a more positive standpoint, regarding the passions as dynamic impulses originally placed in man by God, and so fundamentally good, although at present distorted by sin. On this second and more subtle view, our aim is not to eliminate the passions but to redirect their energy.

Uncontrolled rage must be turned into righteous indignation,

spiteful jealousy into zeal for the truth,

sexual lust into an eros that is pure in its fervor.

The passions, then, are to be purified, not killed; to be educated, not eradicated; to be used positively, not negatively. To ourselves and to others we say, not ‘Suppress’, but “Transfigure’. This effort to purify the passions needs to be carried out on the level of both soul and body. On the level of the soul they are purified through prayer, through the regular use of the sacraments of Confession and Communion, through daily reading of Scripture, through feeding our mind with the thought of what is good, through practical acts of loving service to others.

On the level of the body they are purified above all through fasting and abstinence, and through frequent prostrations during time of prayer. Knowing that man is not an angel but a unity of body and soul, the Orthodox Church insists upon the spiritual value of bodily fasting. We do not fast because there is anything in itself unclean about the act of eating and drinking. Food and drink are on the contrary God’s gift, from which we are to partake with enjoyment and gratitude. We fast, not because we despise the divine gift, but so as to make ourselves aware that it is indeed a gift – so as to purify our eating and drinking, and to make them, no longer a concession to greed, but a sacrament and means of communion with the Giver. Understood in this way, ascetic fasting is directed, not against the body, but against the flesh. Its aim is not destructively to weaken the body, but creatively to render the body more spiritual.” (The Orthodox Way, pp 155-156)

God Created Humanity to Find a Mother

“The Church, after all, has never ceased saying that humanity reaches its highest fulfillment in a woman, Mary, ‘mother in all truth, of all those who live according to the Gospel’ (Evagrius, Psuedo-Nilus, Letter 1). Only the Virgin’s assent made the incarnation possible. And [St.] Nicholas Cabasilas went so far as to say that God created humanity in order to find a mother.” (Oliver Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p 293)

 

Dormition of the Theotokos (2015)

Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.

(Luke 2:19)

“True theology is the narration of an event lived in the heart.” (Archimandrite Zacharias, Remember Thy First Love, p 179)

As we celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos, we are reminded of the very unique role that Mary played in the history of Salvation.  Vigen Guroian writes:

“God gave us these growing things as signs and symbols of his redeeming love for the whole of creation.   ‘The fruit of righteousness is a tree of life,’ says the author of the proverb (Proverbs 11:30, REB).  The Feast of the Assumption is a harvest of wellness and of fullness of life.

Hail Mary, Mother of God!  ‘Hail, for through thee joy shall shine forth:

Hail,  for through thee the curse shall cease.’

Hail Mary,  Mother of Light, ‘earth yielding a rich harvest of  compassion; . . . for through thee the fields of Eden  flower again’ (Byzantine Akathistos Hymn).”

(Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening, Kindle Loc. 393-96)

Keeping the Dormition Fast

St. John Chrysostom reminds us that keeping a fast is not mostly about diet – it is about how we live.  It is about turning away from sin with all our soul, heart, mind and strength.  It is doing good works with our entire bodies – eyes, mouth, ears, hands and feet.    We can keep the fast he describes even if we feel we can’t keep the prescribed dietary regulations.  In fact St. John’s attitude in this quote seems to challenge any thought that fasting is mostly about dietary regulations.  Chrysostom wants to see some change in behavior before he is willing to recognize a person is fasting.   He wants to know that the person is living according to Gospel commandments, otherwise the fasting is not really accomplishing the purpose of a fast. The true fast is fasting from sin not just from food.  That is what we should be concentrating on during every fasting season.  Instead of producing more Lenten recipes, we should be practicing overcoming sin in our lives and living virtuous lives.

“Do You Fast?

Give me proof of it by your works.

If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him.

Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye,

and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and

all the members of our bodies.

Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice.

Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin.

Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare

at that which is sinful…..

Let the ear fast…by not listening to evil talk

and gossip…

Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism.

For what good is it if we abstain from birds and

fishes, but bite and devour our brothers?”

(Daily Readings From the Writings of St. John Chrysostom, Edited by Anthony M. Coniaris, p 37)