Dormition of the Theotokos
Fr. Thomas Hopko · August 10, 2010
On August 15, the Church celebrates the Dormition of the Mother of God. Fr.Tom explores the theology associated with this Feast and the implications on our own resurrection.
On the 15th of August every year, the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, the Church in the West; I’m not sure about the Anglican and certainly not the Protestant churches, but in any case, certainly the ancient Christian Church already in the times towards the end of the first millennium, there was a celebration of the falling asleep of the mother of Christ, the mother of God – the Holy Theotokos.
Traditionally, the feast was called Koímēsis in Greek and Domitio in Latin, which literally means to sleep, to fall asleep. You know. Frère Jacques, Dormez vous? Are you sleeping, Brother John? Dormitory is a place where you sleep. So Dormition and Koímēsis, it means to fall asleep or to be sleeping. And of course, this is referring to Mary’s actual death.
So what is celebrated is the death of Christ’s mother, the Virgin Mary; traditionally called from even before the 4th Century the Holy Theotokos, meaning the one who gave birth to God, because her Son is divine. He is God before the ages, and He’s born from her as man on the earth.
And so the Church celebrates Mary’s death, which is celebrated as a passing into life. And it’s celebrated in a way that affirms the resurrection of Mary, the same way Jesus would speak about the resurrection of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Gospels when the Sadducees opposed the resurrection. He said, “Of course, there’s a resurrection of the dead. The God is the God of the living not of the dead. He is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”
And so it is the teaching, of course, that those who die in God and are in Sheol, in the place of the death, they are liberated; redeemed; saved; brought into glory at the right hand of the Father in Jesus Christ Himself, since Christ is risen from the dead. So the festival is really a celebration not only of Mary’s death but of her resurrection; of her glorification; of her enthronement in and with and together with her Son Jesus Christ at the right hand of the Father, which is the expectation of all Christians.
All Christians definitely expect to be glorified together with Christ before God the Father; filled with the Holy Spirit, and to reign with Him in the coming Kingdom when He comes again in glory. Now, of course, for us, this has not yet happened, but for the dead in Christ, it has already happened. They enter a different temporal and spatial reality.
And in St. Matthew’s Gospel, it even says that on the day that Jesus was crucified, the bodies of many of the saints arose and were seen walking around the holy city of Jerusalem. So there’s a sense in which the resurrection, from our perspective, hasn’t yet happened. But we contemplate it as already happening in all of the holy people, who have died in Christ; who are saved by faith and by grace; who believed Jesus; and who will reign with Him forever in the coming Kingdom of God, which for Him is already established and for us is not yet here.
So the festival of Mary is a festival about her as the chief disciple, the first Christian, the greatest of all mere mortal people together with John the Baptist actually, because her Son is the Son of God. He’s divine and human by nature; by both natures. But Mary is a mere mortal. Nevertheless, we celebrate her as the first fruits of the mere mortals together with the first fruits of all human beings, Jesus Christ, in the resurrection from the dead – the firstborn from among the dead.
So the celebration is about her death and about her resurrection and her glorification together with her Son. Sometimes this festival is called a Summer Pascha, a Pascha in the summer, and it’s actually liturgically patterned after the Passion celebration of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
On this particular festival day, the services pattern Holy Week. The same way that there’s a tomb for Jesus for Holy Week, there’s a tomb for Mary at the celebration of her death and glorification with Christ. Actually, there’s even a winding sheet, an epitaphios, an iconographic painting usually on cloth; sometimes it’s embroidered that shows her lying in the tomb the same way Jesus was lying in the tomb.
And in Mary’s Dormition, in her lying asleep in the grave, her funeral as it were, you have over her body lying there in the iconography, you have the Lord Jesus Christ holding her little glorified body in His arms in a mandorla, in that almond-shaped and splendid thing that you find on icons that show that you’re not celebrating anything that could be observed historically. No one could see this. No one saw this, just like no one saw the Resurrection of Christ either. They saw the Risen Christ, but they didn’t see the Resurrection of Christ.
And even Mary has appeared to people in her glory. There’s no doubt about it. People through history have had visions like St. Sergius, St. Seraphim of Marian in resurrected and radiated glory together with some of the Apostles like John and Peter and so on. But in any case, on the icon, which is what is liturgically celebrated, she’s held in Christ’s arms.
And it’s so interesting that in the icon of the Incarnation, in the Orthodox Church, shows Mary holding in her arms, as on a throne, her Son Jesus. And that’s always on the icon screen in the Orthodox Church. It’s next to the Royal Doors. It’s the icon of the Incarnation. It’s not an icon of Mary or the Theotokos. It’s an icon of Incarnation that the Son of God becomes the Son of Man, and He’s held in the arms of His mother.
And of course, on the other side of the Royal Gates would be Jesus in glory. And those are the two comings – the first coming and the second coming. And everything in the Church takes place between the two comings.
But on the icon of Mary’s death and her glorification, you have her lying dead in the tomb, surrounded by various people, which we’ll get to in a minute. And then you have her in this mandorla in the arms of Christ in exactly the reverse way of the Incarnation. On the Incarnation icon, she is holding Jesus as small being who looks like an adult in her arms.
And in the icon of the falling asleep or the Dormition of Mary, on the 15th of August, you have Jesus holding her in exactly the same way. It’s a kind of reverse. And the Holy Fathers have said many different ways that Jesus became human so that we could become divine. Or, the Son of God became human as Jesus, more accurately, so that in and through Him, we could become divine.
St. Iranaeus said in the 3rd Century, “Christ became everything that we are, so that we could be everything that He is.” St. Athanasius the Great said, “God became human, so human beings could be made God, could be made divine by grace.” St. Basil said, “A human being is a creature with a commandment to become divine by faith and by grace;” to be what Christ is.
Even in both His natures, Christ is both fully divine and fully human. We are fully human, but we come divine by grace. We’re not God. We’re mere mortals just like Mary is. She’s a mere mortal, but she shows that that’s what our destiny is. Our future is exactly that, to be deified with Christ.
And then of course St. Maximus says, “The human being is a creature with a commandment to be kata charin by grace, kat’ evdokion by God’s good will, by God’s power to be everything that God is by nature; to be by grace what God is kat’ ousion, by nature.” And this is what we celebrate in the festival on the 15th of August. It’s the death of Mary, her resurrection, her glorification in the arms of Christ at the right hand of the Father.
Now, on this icon, it is very clear that she is dead. And the whole service insists that she has fallen asleep. Now, the whole service calls it a deathless death – a death which is a sheer passage into life. It’s a translation into life. That is what is sung on the festival, and this is what the main hymn of the festival is.
In giving birth you preserved your virginity,
In falling asleep you did not forsake the world, O Theotokos.
You were translated to life, O Mother of Life,
And by your prayers, you deliver our souls from death.
So she’s the Mother of Life, because Christ is our life. But she’s translated together with Him and into the presence of God, because she’s totally with Him; never separated from Him. And for us Orthodox, she’s the quintessential Christian. She’s the perfect disciple. She’s the one who’s soul magnified the Lord, whose spirit rejoiced in God her savior.
And God is her savior. Mary would be dead, in Sheol in the realm of the dead, if Christ did not come and lift her up and take her with him into the presence of God; into Heaven, as we say in our everyday language. So she’s translated to life. And even in the presence of her virginity, she’s kept intact. She’s wholly integrated. If you would examine her, it would be like as if she was a virgin.
That’s the Church’s piety definitely, even though the Scriptures talk about her womb being opened when she is purified. It’s one of the hard things to understand there. But definitely we contemplate her in the full integrity of her virginity and her motherhood. That’s our contemplation of Mary.
And even the book of Apocalypse or Revelation, the Bible says, “Only virgins enter the Kingdom of God;” only those who are totally faithful to God and have never fornicated with idols; who have never worshiped and gave themselves in adultery to false gods. That’s all Biblical language. The Kontakion, the second great hym, of the festival of Mary says the following:
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.
So the tomb and death can’t hold her. And in fact, the tomb of the death can’t hold anybody if they are in Christ. And in fact, everybody is already freed from the tombs in Christ, at least as far as God is concerned. John Chrysostom has us say on Holy Pascha, “Christ is risen and not one dead remains in the tomb.”
We contemplate the departed as already standing and going through the Judgment of God; through the process of entering into the Kingdom, or they are being lost and being cast into the outer darkness of Hell if they do not love the Lord and do not obey Him and adore Him; if they do not bow to Him with full-hearted adoration.
Now, Mary is the adorer par excellence. And that’s why in the iconographic tradition of the Church also, the main icon is Christ seated and enthroned in glory. The Lord says to my Lord sit at my right hand, sitting on the throne of God, and then on either side of him, you have the Theotokos and John the Baptist.
John the Baptist is the greatest born of woman, but the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he. And then, the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is Mary. So you have those two great figures without which Jesus could not have come. Jesus needed a mother. He needed a forerunner. And they appeared exactly at the fullness of time so that the Logos could become flesh and be born on earth of the Virgin Mary and have one to prepare His way, like the Forerunner John. And of course to even have the Apostles like Peter and James and John and all of the Holy Apostles.
Now, on the icon of Mary, it’s also very, very clear that she dies. She really has to die. Now, that’s an important dogmatic point. It’s a falling asleep, a death. It’s a real death. It’s a trampling down death by death. Christ tramples down death by His own death. And all the saints trample down death by Christ’s death through faith and love in Him.
So every saint is called to trample down death by death by the death of Jesus. And that’s what we’re all called to do, and that’s what she does. That’s why she’s translated into life together with Him and is glorified as fully deified in the Church. She’s sung about and hymned as fully deified.
But the fact that she dies is really important. In the Western Church there was a period of time, and I’m not sure exactly how it’s held now. I believe in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church it says clearly that she died. However, it’s important to know that there was some ambiguity in the Western Tradition about whether or not she died.
And some of their Western Latin teachers don’t say clearly whether or not she really died. And there were some that held that she really died, and there were others who said no. If there was this Immaculate Conception where the ancestral sin and stain was washed away, some people claim that she would not have died.
Now, our Eastern Orthodox and ancient Church says this: No matter how holy you are in this world, you’re going to die. Even if it could be by God’s grace and faith that you never sinned at all, you’re still a mortal, and you’re going to die. We’re all caught in this together, and the whole human race has to be raised and glorified. It can’t be done individually one by one.
Maybe Elijah could be taken up for some dispensational reason, so that he could forerun the Messiah when He comes in glory at the end of the world; so that at the Transfiguration Jesus could be shown to be not only the Lord of the Law and the Prophets but of Heaven and Life, because Elijah stands for Heaven and Life and never dying.
But in any case, even Elijah himself could not have the fullness of the Kingdom of God unless the dead were all raised and changed and glorified like it says in the Corinthian letter. “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” In other words, whoever is left at the coming of the Christ will be transfigured together with those who have already died. And those who already died will not have preceded us at that last moment.
But in any case, it’s clearly the teaching that she dies. Now, in the Latin Church however, especially when the Roman Catholic Church made an official dogma by an infallible decree of the Pope of Rome in 1950 I believe, that the Pope of Rome proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. And they called it Assumption, Assumptio.
The old Latin name Dormitio was not used. The term Assumptio was used. Assumption means being taken up. Now, Dormition is almost always used after Vatican II when the tradition was recovered to some degree. But before that, it was Assumption. And in the paintings, unlike the ancient icons, which are also in the West like Milan, showing the Virgin Mary lying dead on her death bed, her couch, but the new paintings of the Assumption were not patterned on Jesus’ death, but on His Ascension into Heaven.
So you have paintings of Mary kind of in the clouds, as if it were parallel to the Ascension of Jesus. But that’s not traditional at all, and that’s not the teaching of the early Church. The 15th of August is not a feast of Mary’s ascension similar to the Ascension of Jesus 40 days after Pascha. The 15th of August is a celebration of Mary’s passion and death and resurrection from the dead in Jesus.
That’s why it shows that she is dead, lying on the death bed. And that’s why it’s called Koímēsis or Domitio, because she fell asleep. Now, there’s a theological reason also why she has to die. We’ve already mentioned it. It’s because she has to trample down death by death. You can’t enter into God’s Kingdom except by dying or by being transfigured, if you’re still alive when Christ comes.
But you’ve got to have that passage. There’s got to be a passage from bearing the body of Adam to bearing the risen body of Christ. It’s 1 Corinthians 15.
The first man Adam was a living soul; the second man Adam is a life-creating spirit. The first Adam is from the earth, thus the second man is the Man from heaven. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, so we have to bear the image of the Man of heaven.
We’ve got to put on Christ. And you put on Christ, normally, by dying. So Mary has to die, and she has to show that to be a saint, you have to be able to destroy death by your faith and your grace. You have to show that you can do what Christ did. And Jesus says this by His power, not alone of course.
But Jesus said, “Those that believe in me will do the work that I do, and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father.” And some people think that the greater work that the mere mortals do will be to trample down death by death by the Holy Spirit that comes to us from God the Father after Christ goes to the Father.
So He says, the work that we do that will be greater is done because He goes to the Father. Because He goes to the Father and sends the Spirit to us, we can do the work that He did. And in some sense, it’s kind of “greater,” because we’re not God. We’re not Jesus. We’re not sons of God. We’re mere mortals, so is Mary.
But by faith and grace, by the power of Christ, by the power from on high, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can actually do what He did. We can destroy death by death. And that’s what we celebrate on the 15th of August in the person of Mary.
Now, on that icon also, in the contemplation of the Church, you have the Apostles gathered. And they’re in that mandorla too. You have the hymns that say they came from the ends of the earth. Sometimes on the icon, it shows them riding on clouds. But my own opinion is that this is symbolic, mystical, and theological.
I don’t think it’s all necessary to believe that historically that the eleven Apostles plus Paul, (Poor Matthias is excluded again, because Paul always bumps him.) were surrounding the tomb of Mary when she died. We don’t even know where she died, and there are several conflicting theories in the earliest Church.
The one that seems to have won out is that she died in Gethsemane and is buried there, and then Thomas comes and so on. That’s from the Protoevangelium and early Christian traditions. It’s not in the Bible. It’s not in Holy Scripture. But at the same time, one thing is for sure. Even if we can say that we don’t know much at all about what happened she died, there are several things that we can say for absolute certain.
One is that she died. She definitely died. That is what we are celebrating. But she was raised and glorified with the risen Christ too, because she cannot be separated from her Son who is risen from the dead, as any saint cannot be separated from Him. As St. Paul says, “Neither height, nor depth, nor breadth, nor width, nor angels, nor demons, nor life, nor death, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
And we are raised and glorified once we pass into the age to come, which the saints already have done. In fact, everybody who has died has already done, but we who are still alive on this Planet Earth have not yet done. So all the Apostles are there. Now who are there? Well, the Eleven plus Paul. And Peter and Paul are right next to her. Sometimes, they’re even holding incensers , which is of course a much later touch. There were no incensers at that time.
But it’s interesting that Paul is there. Could you even say that even if it was historical that Paul would have been there? When did she die? It’s very hard to figure this all out. There’s some traditions that say that she was in Ephesus with John, and that she actually died in Ephesus. That’s an ancient tradition too, but we do not know. But one thing we know for sure is that she died.
That is a clear dogma of our Church. She died and is glorified. Those are dogmas, and that is what we celebrate. Now interestingly enough, on the icon, the Eleven Apostles are there and Paul in the place of Judas, rather than Matthias. I always felt a little sorry for Matthias that every time they want to put the Twelve, they put Paul in Judas’ place rather than Matthias.
But I’m sure Matthias can handle it. God knows. And this is all for our edification and instruction in any case. It wants to show that Paul is as much an Apostle as the Twelve. That is what it is trying to tell us.
But there’s also other figures on this icon in that same mandorla with the angels, and they’re dressed as bishops. Who are they? Well, when there’s only two, one is Dionysius of Athens and the other is James, the brother of the Lord; the bishop of Jerusalem. And they stand for the whole Church of Jews and Gentiles, because they are the first bishops.
Jerusalem stands for the Jews of course and the first bishop is James, the Lord’s brother who was not one of the Twelve. And the first bishop of Athens; that symbolizes the Gentiles, the Greeks is Dionysius. Sometimes it’s Hieronymus. And I’ve seen icons; we have one in our chapel in Canada where I will serve this festival again, God willing, on the 15th of August, they have both Dionysius and Hieronymus – the two first bishops of Athens.
But what that icon wants to tell us theologically is that the whole Church is gathered around her death bed. Everybody is there – the Apostles, the foundation, with Christ the cornerstone; plus the first bishops of the Church; the Church of the Jews; the Church of the Gentiles. Everyone is there around the tomb of Mary; singing her praises in glory as the one who gave birth to Christ; as the mother of God in the flesh; as the mother of Christ the Savior; as the mother of Life; the mother of Truth; the mother of the Way; and the first and quintessential Christian disciple, the best and most glorious of all the Christians.
So what we’re celebrating here is first and foremost something about Mary herself. We’re celebrating an event in Mary’s life, because she’s died and is taken to Heaven. She’s taken to be with Christ. We’re celebrating the fact that the whole Church is with her in this, all through the ages. We’re celebrating the fact that she is the leader of all the Christian people, as we say in Church – the mother of the Christian race.
By the way, we never call her the mother of the Church, as the Roman Catholics do. Because she’s a member of the Church, and the Church itself is our mother. And in that sense, she symbolizes even the Church itself. She’s like the personal icon of the Church, meaning the assembly of people filled with the Holy Spirit, clothed with Christ, and in communion with God the Father as the people of God. So she’s the icon. She’s the symbol of the Church itself. But the Church itself has to die to itself in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Now, one thing about Mary is that there is no record, tradition, or legend of any kind that she was a martyr and got killed for Jesus. There’s no teaching about John in that way either. There is about the Apostles and most of the early Christian bishops, including James and Hieronymus and Dionysius of Jerusalem and Athens.
But there’s no record of her being killed. There’s no record of any kind of sickness. There’s no record of suffering or pain physically. There’s no record of disease. But, it is a clear teaching of Orthodox Christian tradition from the ancient Christianity that no one suffered like Mary.
It was probably formulated the best by St. Silouan of Mount Athos in the last century. He died in 1938. St. Silouan said this, “The greater the love, the greater the knowledge. The greater the knowledge, the greater the love, the greater the suffering.” And so it is a tradition of Orthodoxy and ancient Christianity that no one suffered like the Virgin. No one suffered like Christ’s mother.
In fact, in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, there’s a saying, I believe it’s Macarius, who was in ecstasy in prayer one day, and when he kind of returned to normal, his disciple had great boldness and asked him, “Where were you, Father?” And he said, “Tell no man, but I was standing with the mother of Christ by the Cross. O, if only I could weep that way.” Because the greater the love, the greater the tears, the greater the knowledge.
And so the teaching would be that no one loved Christ more than His mother. No one knew Him better than His mother. And therefore, no one suffered more with Him than His mother. And she suffered with Him, not only at the Christ, and according to John’s Gospel, she stands by the cross and Jesus from the Cross, gives her to John and forms the new community of faith, which is the Christian Church.
And so she’s the mother of that Church. She’s the mother of those people, you should say, symbolizing the very Church, which is the bride of Christ in all of those people. So she symbolizes the bride of Christ, which we all are. We are all the bride of Jesus.
In other words, as Father Alexander Schmemann used to say, “Mary is not the great exception.”
You know, exceptionally conceived, exceptionally ending her human life, bypassing original sin, bypassing death. No, no, that is not the teaching at all. It’s just the opposite. She’s the great example. She exemplifies and patterns the Christian life.
She’s born from Joachim and Anna, just the way we are, and she dies just the way we do. She’s a mortal human being who does everything together with us. And she does it so that her Son can save us, who is really a human being, but not only a human being; who is divine and who is the Son of God, which she is not, except by faith and grace.
Now, when people say we are saved by faith through grace, there’s no greater example of that than Mary. Mary is nothing but faith and nothing but grace. When the angel comes to her, he calls her Kecharitomene, highly graced or as they say in Latin Gratia Plena, full of grace. She’s nothing but grace.
But she’s also faith, and nothing but faith. Elizabeth says about Mary, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of that which was spoken to her by the Lord.” And then Mary says to the angel, “Let it be to me, according to your word.” So she’s a perfect disciple and absolutely obedient and absolutely faithful and totally full of grace. She’s nothing but obedience, grace, faith and love.
But therefore also, she’s nothing else but suffering too. And so the suffering is not only in and with and together with her Son Jesus. And by the way, here Orthodoxy would never go with some of the Latins who tried to declare Mary some type of Co-Redemptrix; that her suffering was also necessary for the salvation of the world. We would never hold that, and for us that would be blasphemous. It’s only the suffering of the Son of God in human flesh that redeems and saves and glorifies the world.
Nevertheless, the Apostle Paul himself said about himself, “I complete what is lacking in the suffering of Christ for the sake of the Church, which is his body, of which I have been appointed a minister.” So the Virgin Mary could also say, “And I complete in my flesh the suffering which is lacking in the person of Christ for the sake of the Church, which is His body, of which I have become the quintessential example in the Christian world.” Any person can say that.
And I once asked my professor of dogmatic theology, what in Heaven’s name can that sentence in Colossians mean? “I complete in my body what is lacking in the suffering of Christ.” What could possibly be lacking in the suffering of Christ? Nothing! Well, my professor said, “Yes dear, you’re right. Nothing is lacking in the suffering of Christ for the sake of the salvation of the world, except our participation in that suffering and our realization and actualization of that suffering in our own life.”
And here, the Scripture is clear. If we have not suffered with Him, we will not reign with Him. If we have not died with Him, we will not live with Him. If we have not taken up our Cross, as he took up His for us, we take up ours for Him, we are not saved. We cannot destroy death by death. Our death will not be an entrance into life. It will be an entrance into Gehenna; into outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth.
So, there has to be this suffering. And nobody suffered like Mary, because nobody was closer to Christ than she was. But we also have to say that her suffering is not simply limited or confined to her suffering together with Jesus when he was actually on the cross on earth. I think that we can actually dare to say that she continues to suffer in and for the Church.
She suffers with everyone who suffers, just like her Son Jesus Christ does. And Christ is suffering with us until the end of ages. He Himself is glorified on the throne of the Father, but He continues to be incarnate in us by grace, and our suffering is His suffering. He suffers in us, and we suffer in Him, because He is in us, and we are in Him.
And therefore, we can definitely say that our suffering is included in the suffering of Christ. And His suffering embraces our suffering. And Mary suffers in and with and for the Church. She may even suffer from the Church institutionally. There’s a saying in Christian tradition, “You have not yet suffered with Jesus until you’ve suffered from the institutional Church;” the ecclesiastical bureaucracy.
After all, it was the bishops, the presbyters, canon lawyers, and theologians who killed Jesus. So there is an institutional element that is not faithful to the Lord always until the end of the world. And you have that already in the New Testament in the persons of the leader of the Sanhedrin and of the people of Israel of the church of God at the time of Christ. And it goes forever after that. Almost all of the great heretics in history were bishops or ascetical monks or something.
So there’s this suffering that goes on forever and ever and until the end of the ages, bearing witness to Christ and His glory within the Church. So you could actually say that Mary not only suffers with Christ, she suffers with every Christian and every human being. She’s close to every human being on the Planet Earth interceding, praying, suffering, bearing, and showing compassion.
And we even sing in our Church, “There’s no mere mortal that’s more compassionate, more prayerful, more interceding, and more caring about us than Christ’s own mother, Mary.” And she has for us the same care that she had for her own divine Son, who was born as a man from her. So the Dormition shows that she does not abandon the world, and that’s even what is said in the Troparion; the Apolytikion.
In giving birth you preserved your virginity,
In falling asleep you did not forsake the world, O Theotokos.
“And as God so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son,” and as Christ loved the world and came to save it, not to judge or condemn it, so is the same in all of His saints, the first one of whom is Mary – the greatest of all the Saints. So Mary suffers, in some sense, the whole tragedy of humanity.
And Elder Sophrony, commenting on the teaching of St. Silouan says that any saint, especially those who intercede for the whole world and love their enemies, you can’t even describe the suffering that they endure. If we really love one another and really love everyone without exception, whether that everyone would be Osama bin Laden or Dick Cheney or George Bush or Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi or whether it would be the worst enemy of yours that you could possibly think of, if we don’t love that person, we’re not loving with Christ, and we don’t know God.
But when you love everyone and everything without exception, for me, it would be if I could love the newly consecrated lesbian bishop in the Episcopal Church, that’s the kind of love that we have to have. That’s the kind of love God in Christ has, and that’s the kind of love His mother Mary has, and that’s the kind of love every saint has.
Chrysostom says it. Maximus says it. In his Centuries on Love, St. Maximus says, “Our love knows no discrimination whatsoever.” We don’t only love believers but nonbelievers. We not only love the orthodox; we love the heretics. We not only love Christians; we love Jews and everybody. We even love those who persecute the Church. We desire everyone to be saved, like Christ and His mother do – and Christ quintessentially and we by example and we by imitation and we by faith in grace.
But that’s what Mary does. And so in her death, if we can’t imagine what it must have been like for Christ to die, we can also say in another way, you can’t imagine what it really is for any saint to go through death, except now the saint can do it in a blaze of glory, because Christ is risen from the dead.
And that is our teaching. Mary sails right through the so-called tollbooths, enters into the Kingdom of God, and her death is sheer, complete, total, unconditional, unhampered, unobstructed transition into life. And the more holy any person is, the more their death becomes a transition into life, because of the Lord Jesus.
It’s not that souls go to Heaven naturally, but it’s that human beings enter into the life of God in Christ by being raised and glorified by the One who was crucified for us. But if we are going to reign with Him, we have to be crucified with Him. And we believe that no one was crucified with Him more deeply, more fully, more perfectly than His own mother, Mary. And that’s what we’re celebrating also on this festival of the 15th of August.
Now this festival is liturgically prepared by a fifteen day fasting period. It’s somehow kind of a little Lent, just like the Great Lent before the Passion of Christ. That was probably established because it was the time of disease and suffering in Constantinople. It was a time of preparation always; of prayer and fasting; of intercession.
People made pilgrimages to Constantinople on that day. We know that the day after the Dormition, the 16th of August, the Icon Not Made by Hands was shown to the people who came to the great city and the great church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Most likely, that was the Shroud of Turin – the face of which was shown to the pilgrims who came. The festival was called the Icon Not Made by Hands.
So this Dormition of Mary was a huge festival. And like I said, to this day in Orthodoxy, it’s celebrated like the Passion of Christ. You sing the songs with the same melodies. You sing the entire 118/119 Psalm. You have praises over the tomb of Mary, just like praises over Christ on Great Friday. And you have a paschal celebrative liturgy of the victory over death in the person of the perfect Christian, the first among Christians, Christ’s own mother Mary.
And this is what we celebrate on the 15th of August. It’s something about her. In a sense, it’s everything about her, but it is also everything about us. Because to quote Father Alexander Schmemann again, “Mary’s not the great exception. She’s the great example.” And what we celebrate in her, we expect for ourselves.
And whatever we say that God has given to her, making her more honorable than Cherubim, beyond compare more glorious than Seraphim, we expect that will be for everyone, who by faith and grace dies with Christ, is co-crucified with Him, is co-raised with Him, is co-enthroned with Him, and co-glorified with Him.
So she shows us our destiny, and in some sense, she’s the living proof of the Gospel. I said once to the nuns here at the monastery, “The Gospel is not at all about Mary. Mary is not part of the preaching of the Gospel. The Gospel is the preaching of Christ crucified.” So the Gospel is not about Mary at all, but Mary is about the Gospel. Everything in Mary is about the Gospel. She’s the great living proclaimer of the Gospel. She’s the most perfect evangelist that ever lived.
But she’s also the perfect martyr, the perfect confessor, the perfect theologian, the perfect hesychast, the one who has the greatest knowledge of God through Christ, the one who has the greatest love for Him, the one who is closest to Him that anyone could possibly be and patterns and images the closeness and intimacy and the communion that we are supposed to have with Christ and with God Almighty our Father in and through Him by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
So what we celebrate in her is about her, but it’s also about us. It’s about everyone’s soul who magnifies the Lord; whose spirit rejoices in God their Savior. It’s about everyone who believes that there would be a fulfillment of that which was spoken. It’s about everyone who says to God, “Let it be to me according to your Word,” and that Word is Jesus Christ Himself.
So this festival is about everyone and everything. It’s about the whole of reality. It’s a celebration of the proof that the Gospel is real and true. It’s a celebration of the victory of God in Christ for the sake of us mere mortal human beings. And this is given to us on the 15th of August when we celebrate the Dormition, the falling asleep in Christ, and her glorification in Christ, held in His arms in the presence of God of His own mother, and in a sense our mother since the cross, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Theotokos, our sister in Christ, our co-Christian in Him and in many ways because of Him also our Mother together with the Church itself and the Holy Spirit itself in which we enter into communion with God our Father through the Son Jesus Christ by the intercession and by the example of his own mother, Mary. This is our celebration and the Dormition of Mary on the 15th of August.