In Praise of the Virgin Mary

She was a person of discernment, full of the love of God, 

because our Lord does not dwell where there is no love. 

When the Great King desired to come to our place, 

He dwelt in the purest shrine of all the earth because it pleased Him.

He dwelt in a spotless womb which was adorned with virginity, 

and with thoughts which were worthy of holiness. 

…Since a woman like her had never been seen, 

an amazing work was done in her which was the greatest of all. 

A daughter of men was sought among women;

she was chosen who was the fairest of all.

The holy Father wanted to make a mother for his Son, 

but He did not allow that she be his mother because of his choice. 

Maiden, full of beauty hidden in her and around her, 

and pure of heart that she might see the mysteries which had come to pass in her.

This is beauty, when one is beautiful of one’s own accord;

glorious graces of perfection are in her will.

However great be the beauty of something from God,

it is not acclaimed if freedom is not present. 

The sun is beautiful but is not praised by spectators, 

because it is known that its will does not give it light.

Whoever is beautiful of his own accord and possesses beauty,

on this account he is truly acclaimed if he is beautiful. 

Even God loves beauty which is from the will; 

He praises a good will whenever this has pleased Him.

(Jacob of Serug, On the Mother of God, pp. 24 & 25)

Mary: The Face of the World

The Son of God comes to earth, God appears in order to redeem the world, He becomes human to incorporate man into His Divine vocation, but humanity takes part in this. If it is understood that Christ’s ‘co-nature’ with us is Christianity’s greatest joy and depth, that He is a genuine human being and not some phantom or bodiless apparition, that he is one of us and forever united to us through his humanity, then devotion to Mary also becomes understandable, for she is the one who gave Him His human nature, His flesh and blood. She is the one through whom Christ can always call Himself ‘The Son of Man.’ 

…She is the New Eve because of God’s request that she answered, ‘I am the servant of the Lord, be it done to me according to his word.’ At that moment all human ‘structures’ which originated in man’s alienation from God -freedom and authority, rights and obligations, etc. – all this was transcended. The new life entered the world as life of communion and love, not of ‘authority’ and ‘submission.’ Thus, being the ‘icon’ of the Church, Mary is the image and the personification of the world. When God looks at his creation, the ‘face’ of the world is feminine, not masculine.”

(Alexander Schmemman, Celebration of Faith: Sermons Vol. 2, p. 23 & 65)

A Brief History of the Feast of the Dormition

The history of how the Dormition of the Theotokos became one of the Major Feasts of the Orthodox Church calendar year is an interesting one.  Historically,  fascination with and reverence for Mary as Theotokos grew as the theologians of the Church reflected on and marveled at the divinity of Christ.  The incarnation of God (which is the salvation of humanity!) is only possible through the Theotokos.  As the centuries passed, the Church emphasis on Christ’s divinity increased and His humanity was subsumed into His divinity,  Christ became revered ever more as the eternal pantocrator.    The focus on Jesus became of Him as Lord, God and Savior, a  heavenly person.  Mary too became more drawn into heaven as its queen.  As a consequence, Mary’s place in the Church grew and she became larger than life and took a unique place in the divine pantheon – More honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim.  As the Dionysian celestial hierarchy became the common cosmology, Mary’s role as beyond that celestial hierarchy grew.   The effect on piety was that  less and less could the theologians countenance that Mary’s death could have been an obscure and unrecorded event.  They assumed in later centuries the fact that there was no tomb with a body meant that something miraculous must have happened to her body.  It didn’t seem possible that such a great personage, an almost divine figure for them, could have been ignored by earlier generations.  So they were ready to accept stories of her miraculous death as being true.  The appearance of the Dionysian corpus in the 6th Century was the welcomed proof of the earliest origins of the Feast of the Dormition.

We learn a great deal about the history of the Feast of the Dormition in the book ON THE DORMITION OF MARY: EARLY PATRISTIC HOMILIES.

The story of Mary’s glorious end, which was to become common coin by the end of the 6th Century, appears in a variety of earlier forms that are difficult to date with certainty.  Most scholars agree that the oldest extant witness to the story is provided by a group of Syriac fragments … a narrative usually dated to the second half of the fifth Century.  The earliest Greek accounts… usually dated to the late fifth or early sixth century.”  (p 7)

By the second half of the sixth Century, it is clear that the story of Mary’s transition from earth to heaven had come to be accepted as part of Christian tradition in both the Chalcedonian and the non-Chalcedonian Churches of the East.”  (p 9)

The oldest known accounts of the Dormition come only from the second half of the Fifth Century (after 450AD).  This means many of the great Patristic writers of the 4th-5th Century would not have known of the story, which is why they don’t mention it.  Liturgically celebrating the stories of Mary’s death gain popularity rather late in Orthodox history becoming common in the Fifth and Sixth centuries.  The story of the Dormition seemed to be a crowning proof of the incarnation, resurrection and salvation of humanity which was understood as union with God.  There was some resistance to the rising popularity of the Dormition Feast as the Church was aware that most of the information about her death came from spurious sources that were not only non-canonical but in some cases suspected as heretical.

The Western Church did not accept the feast into its calendar until the end of the seventh century, and a Latin version of the narrative of the Mary’s Dormition had been listed among the apocrypha of heretical  origin in the Decretum Gelasianum, an official list of canonical and uncanonical  works composed either during or shortly after the time of Pope Gelasius 9 (492-496).  (p 68)

As early as Origen (d. 253AD), however, Christian scholars were aware of the mythical and often Gnostic character of many of the acts of the apostles.  (p 68)

For a conservative church that prided itself on keeping tradition, explanations had to be found for why earlier generations did not know of or keep the Feast of the Dormtion. Fourth Century Epiphanius of Salamis notes:

“one will find neither the death of Mary, nor whether she died or did not die, nor whether she was buried or was not buried … Scripture is silent, because of the exceeding greatness of the Mystery, so as not to overpower people’s minds with wonder.”  (p 5)

Epiphanius is struck by the complete lack of reliable witness to what happened to Mary at the end of her life.  Absolutely nothing is recorded in the official tradition which he knew in the 4th Century.  He will make an argument from silence about what it means: the mystery of her death is so great that people piously avoided writing about it as the faithful were not prepared to contemplate the mystery.  This explanation lends itself to then focusing on the miraculous elements of the story: the ancients were silent because of the great mystery, so the preachers decided to elucidate the greatness of the mystery so the faithful would understand why earlier generations didn’t even speak about it.  This was all compounded by the rhetorical tendency of the preachers to elaborate the theme and find new and greater ways to praise the mystery.  That is obvious throughout the book’s collection of sermons on the Dormition – each preacher wants to outdo all the previous ones in praising the amazing events, and so they embellish the praise, taking it to ever greater rhetorical heights.

John of Thessalonica (d. 649AD) puzzles over why the great Orthodox city of Thessalonica was only in his day (7th Century) beginning to celebrate the Dormition which he mistakenly believes was an event known in Christian antiquity.

“… some people committed to writing the wonderful things that happened in her regard at that time.  Practically every place under heaven celebrates every year the memory of her going to her rest, with the exception of only a few, including the region around this divinely protected city of Thessalonica. Why is this? … Our forebears, then, were neither heedless nor lazy; yet although those who were present then [at Mary’s death] described her end truthfully, we are told, mischievous heretics later corrupted their accounts by adding words of their own, and for this reason our ancestors distanced themselves from these accounts as not in accord with the catholic Church.  For this reason, the feast [of her Dormition] passed, among them, into oblivion.”     (p 47-48)

John has already come to accept as tradition that the stories of Mary’s Dormition were written about the time they actually happened.  He assumes the stories of her Dormition are historically accurate and reliable.  He either has heard or assumes that virtually all other cities in the Empire celebrate the Dormition except a very few and his own city is one that does not.  He doesn’t conclude that Thessalonica is thus keeping and defending the more ancient tradition, rather he has a very pious explanation – their city forefathers were aware that heretics had altered the stories of the Dormition and to protect the city from false teachings had decided to stop commemorating the Dormition.  Apparently he thought in his day they now had the true version of the Dormition story so they could celebrate the feast.

Whereas earlier generations of Christians shied away from the Dormition stories because they saw them coming from heretical, Gnostic or suspect sources,  John thinks the sources are true but later generations of heretics altered them and so by going back to the sources they are embracing the correct tradition.  It is a wonderful twist of logic.

Orthodox scholar Carrie Frederick Frost says that today, “The tales included in the Book of James are not considered by Orthodox to be historical and incontrovertible fact, but instead are understood as meaningful reflections on the life of Jesus and his mother.” (MATERNAL BODY, p 7)

St Andrew of Crete (d. ca 726AD) writing even later in history is still struggling with why the Dormition which by his day was a well established Feast throughout Orthodoxy is not found in the canonical scriptures or in the witness of many of the great Fathers of the Church.  It does strike him as unbelievable that the apostles and eyewitnesses of Christ didn’t write about such a great event as the Dormition.

“Someone truly eager for knowledge might well wonder why none of the sacred writers, as far as we know, wrote about the immaculate, supernatural passing of the Mother of God, or left us any account of it at all, in the way they composed the divine book of the Gospels or gave us other revelations of the mystery of God.

Truly for Andrew it is hard to believe no one in the ancient church bothered to record the spectacular events of the Dormition.  He will offer several possible explanations as to why this might be true, but he doesn’t commit himself to any of them.  Because the Feast has become so popular, he doesn’t even entertain the idea that maybe the ancients didn’t keep the Feast because they in fact didn’t know about it.  But he knows there are some serious questions about the veracity of the events being celebrated.   His mental dissonance is relieved by several different possible explanations, but then he has an ace card in the end which assures him of the truthfulness of the Feast.

Our answer is: she whom God took as his own fell asleep much later [then the events of the Gospels] – for it is said that she had reached extreme old age when she departed from this world.  Or perhaps the times may not then have favored a full account of these events; it was not appropriate for those sowing the seed of the news of God’s saving plan to speak in detail of these things, at the same time they were writing the Gospels, since these events needed another, specific and very deliberate kind of treatment, not possible at that moment.  If, on the other had, the reason for their silence is that the inspired writers were only telling the story of God’s plan of salvation up to the end of the Word’s presence among us in flesh, and that they simply did not [choose to] reveal anything that happened after Jesus was taken up from the earth, I can accept this as well.

Andrew does not fully embrace any one explanation for why the ancient tradition of the church is silent on the Dormition.  His comments – ‘or perhaps’ and “‘if the reason is’ and ‘I can accept this as well’ – seem to me to be an acknowledgment that none of the arguments in themselves convince him, but since there are several possibilities he is willing to accept that one of them probably is true.  He is comfortable enough with there being different possibilities, even it no one of them is completely convincing.  He is not completely sure which of the arguments actually settles the case. He goes on:

But lest some wonder why  we have so much to say, while tradition is completely silent about today’s mystery, I think it would be good to add to my own words what I have been able to find [in the tradition], to support and confirm what I propose for your reflection.  For even it the mystery appears only obscurely in the sacred literature, it has not remained completely unmentioned in their pages.    It was, in fact, referred to by a man learned in sacred doctrine, who, they say, investigated holy things with wisdom and erudition… The man was Dionysius.”    (pp 126-127)

The Byzantines were rhetorically profuse, Andrew recognizes this and reflects on the fact that “while tradition is completely(!) silent about today’s mystery [the Dormition]” he and others have plenty to say about the Dormition.   Interesting that he says the tradition is completely silent about the Dormition but then he brings forth that Dionysius, the supposed 1st Century bishop, is the witness from antiquity which makes the whole Dormition true, acceptable and believable.  What he probably is recognizing however is that the Fathers of the earlier centuries never mentioned Dionysius.  That was a mystery that was harder to solve in a church which loved to quote ancient sources to prove the authority of beliefs.   They were not into innovation and so needed tradition to prove the rightfulness of a doctrine or practice.   The early generation of holy patristic luminaries never quoted or mentioned this Dionysius.  The reason as is commonly believed among Orthodox scholars today is that the Dionysian corpus of writings was falsely ascribed to the First Century bishop while in reality it was written only in the 6th Century.  Thus we often see today it referenced as being written by the Psuedo-Dionysius.  As reported in Orthodoxwiki:

Bishop Alexander (Golitzin) of Toledo writes that it is “now recognized as indefensible” that the author of the Dionysian writings could be the first century disciple of St Paul. “The first clearly datable reference to the Dionysian corpus comes to us from …532….” Bishop Alexander’s own suggestion is that the real author of the works was the fifth-century theologian Peter the Iberian.

The Patristic writers of the 6-8th Centuries were true to their conservative nature that all theology needed to be supported by the writings of earlier Church Fathers.  They were handing on an ancient tradition not innovating new practices.  The absence of any recognized tradition related to the Dormition was a dilemma since the Feast fit in so well with the rest of established dogma and in many ways was a crowning of that doctrine of the incarnation and theosis.   The sudden appearance in the Sixth Century of documents claiming to be from a First Century witness, made it possible for the Dormition to be accepted as a traditional Feast in the Orthodox Church.  It proved to the bishops and theologians that the Feast was authentic and ancient.   Their own desire to be conservative and hold to tradition rather than innovation led them to accept as tradition something which was not.

The development through the 6th-8th Centuries of the Feast may show the dubious historical and factual truth of the events being celebrated.  However, they don’t change the theology of what is being celebrated.  The Dormition of the Theotokos is not needed to establish the truth of the incarnation or the resurrection or of theosis.  Rather the Dormition relies on the theological truth of Christ to have any meaning.  The Dormition of the Thetotokos is not foundational to the teachings about Christ, but just further pious meditation on them.

Honoring the Theotokos

Mary, Theotokos, we salute you. Precious vessel, worthy of the whole world’s reverence, you are an ever-shining light, the crown of virginity, the symbol of Orthodoxy, an indestructible temple ,the place that held Him whom no place can contain, Mother and Virgin. Because of you the Holy Gospels could say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”

We salute you, for in your holy womb was confined Him who is beyond all limitation. Because of you the Holy Trinity is glorified and adored; the Cross is called precious and is venerated throughout the world; the heavens exult; the angels and archangels make merry; demons are put to flight; the devil, that tempter, is thrust down from heaven; the fallen race of man is taken up on high; all creatures possessed by the madness of idolatry have attained knowledge of the Truth; believers receive Holy Baptism; the oil of gladness is poured out; the Church is established throughout the world; pagans are brought to repentance.

(St. Cyril of Alexandria, Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodian and Pentecostarion, p. 100)

The Feast of the Dormition (2018)

the Virgin’s pivotal role as the second Eve in the healing transformation of human nature damaged by the sins of the first Eve was already recognized by such Church fathers as St. Irenaeus as early as the second century. This recognition combined with the sifting of a very long oral tradition resulted by the late sixth to early seventh centuries in the establishment and celebration of the solemn Feast of her Dormition throughout the Christian Roman empire. With the addition of this feast to the Church calendar, later Church fathers began to offer rhetorical homage to Mary as the Theotokos in the form of sermons in honor of the Feast of her Dormition. Her death, after all, represented the completion of her mission as the second Eve. By grace, she experienced a reciprocal transformation, the deification of her humanity (and by extension, all human nature) as she offered her humanity to the divine presence within her womb.

In effect, her life and death represent the fullest flowering of the hope of all Christians: union with God in theosis. In contrast to the good thief, the second Eve, in the entirety of her life and death, is the confirmation of the very real possibility of an ever-expanding relationship between creature and Creator that transcends any conceivable earthly human hope, which can begin in this life well before the eleventh hour.

(Daniel B. Hinshaw, Touch and the Healing of the World, p. 126)

Is the Assumption of the Virgin Orthodox Dogma?

“Belief in the Assumption of the Mother of God is clearly and unambiguously affirmed in the hymns sung by the Church on 14 August, the Feast of the ‘Dormition’ or ‘Falling Asleep’. But Orthodoxy, unlike Rome, has never proclaimed the Assumption as a dogma, nor would it ever wish to do so. The doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation have been proclaimed as dogmas, for they belong to the public preaching of the Church; but the glorification of Our Lady belongs to the Church’s inner Tradition:

It is hard to speak and not less hard to think about the mysteries which the Church keeps in the hidden depths of her inner consciousness…The Mother of God was never a theme of the public preaching of the Apostles; while Christ was preached on the housetops, and proclaimed for all to know in an initiatory teaching addressed to the whole world, the mystery of his Mother was revealed only to those who were within the Church. . .

…It is not so much an object of faith as a foundation of our hope, a fruit of faith, ripened in Tradition. Let us therefore keep silence, and let us not try to dogmatize about the supreme glory of the Mother of God. (V. Lossky)”

(Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 253) 

The Theotokos: Icon of All That is Good

“For at present she is the only one who has a place in heaven with her divinely glorified body in the company of her Son.  Earth, the grave and death could not ultimately detain her life-giving body,  which has held God and been a more beloved habitation for Him than heaven and the heaven of heavens.  . . .

It is as though God wanted to set up an icon of everything good and in so doing, to display His own image clearly to angels and men, and thus He made her so truly beautiful.  Bringing together all the various means He had used to adorn all creation, He made her a world of everything good, both visible and invisible.  Or rather, He revealed her as the synthesis of divine, angelic and human loveliness, a nobler beauty to embellish both worlds, originating from the earth but reaching up, through her ascension now from the tomb to heaven, to the heavens beyond.  She untied things below with things above, and embraces the whole of creation with the wonders surrounding her.” 

(St Gregory Palamas, THE HOMILIES, pp 292-293)

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).