Glory to Jesus Christ! It is good to be here to celebrate this most special feast. This feast of the Dormition is special for many reasons. Our Byzantine Tradition actually provides the foundation of the historical event that we celebrate in the Universal Church today. When the Church wanted to demonstrate the truth that the Mother of God, after completing the course of her life, was bodily assumed into heaven by God, it was our Byzantine tradition that was used by Pope Pius XII to show this truth. He would quote Eastern Fathers like St. John of Damascus to drive home the point that we believe that after Christ ascended, He would not leave His mother’s body in her grave. No, her falling asleep (which is what Dormition means) was followed with her Body being assumed into heaven. In the Church year which ends at the end of this month, this is the last big feast that we have. We have the tradition of fasting from August 1st until today, which makes one of four fasts that follow the feasts of Pascha, the Nativity, and the Holy First Apostles Peter and Paul. Today is perhaps the peak of our year, as our church year ends this month and a new Byzantine year begins in September. But there is more than the Church year and the joy of this last solemn feast of the Church year. Because the Theotokos’ body was assumed into heaven to be united with her soul, and because the apostles found fragrant flowers in the tomb, we have the joy of having flowers and herbs to be blessed on this joyful day. This is our final feast of the year but from an even more mystical angle, we could say that this feast is the final feast period in all of our life in Christ. This is the feast that testifies to the Completion of salvation history. Let’s take a journey through the icons in our church to see how that is true.
Let’s start up to your left, and what do we see? The fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. What is under the tree? A skull. Death. But who else do we also see in the icon? It’s an image of the Theotokos. This brings our minds to the words of God after the fall. In speaking to the hardships that befell mankind after the sin in the garden, there is a promise of hope. A promise of salvation. In Genesis 3:15 we hear what scholars call the “protoevangelion”, the first Gospel. The first good news to us from God after the ancestral sin was: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” That’s right, in the first book of the Bible we are told that the offspring of Eve will vanquish the head of the serpent. The main icons along the sides of our church are even more clear in telling the continual story of salvation as a long thread. What is the first one that we see? The nativity of the Theotokos, which we celebrate on September 8th, and is just at the beginning of our Byzantine Church year. Let’s continue from there to her Entrance into the Temple, to the Annunciation, to the Visitation of Elizabeth, to the Nativity of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, to His Holy Theophany, and we continue to the account of Christ’s life of ministry that crosses all of the way to the back of our nave and across to the “south side” of the nave as we call it. The icons on this side of the Church brings us closer to the Holy Passion of our Lord with his entry into Jerusalem, and eventual crucifixion (note the skull is here yet again) and resurrection. But that is not the end of the chain of salvation history, and it’s not the end of the icons on the south side of our nave. No, let us continue to see the story of Christ from resurrection to Ascension, we see the story of the Apostles, the splendor of Pentecost, and what do we find at the bottom, at the very end of this chain of history? It is the icon of our feast today. This is such a beautiful story that we see right before our eyes every time we come to worship, which I hope we can grow to appreciate more and more as we grow in our faith which is so deeply linked to things like icons and blessings. After the Feast of Pentecost our eyes move to the icon in the bottom left from my view, as the completion of this chain of events. Christ is truly Risen but at the same time this is the proof that it’s not just his ascension. It’s not just the power of the spirit at Pentecost. No. Our journey through salvation history ends with a woman who is both lying at her tomb, and resting safely in the arms of her son. But now in an almost mirror image of the Icon of the Nativity, she is the little one held in His arms, because her soul is home. She is restored as her body is eventually raised and the angels and Apostles who look on are in awe, because she has fallen asleep. The next time they will come back to the tomb with the Apostle Thomas and there will only be the aroma of flowers, and there will be no body. That is the sign that our salvation is seen most clearly in this special feast. And this is also why in our tradition that we say “O Most Holy Theotokos, Save us.” She is the first one saved by Christ in terms of priority, and like anyone who is filled with love, this salvation is shared to those who cry out to her. We say the words “O most holy Theotokos, save us” to attest to this beautiful chain of redemption that comes to us on this feast. Her Dormition is a sign that when we die united to Christ and His Church, we will have that same salvation which is manifested to her.
Scripturally, our Old Testament readings, apostolic reading and Gospel passage speak in harmony to this same fact. The readings from Genesis tell us that the Theotokos is the ladder from heaven that allows heaven and earth to meet. She is also the unopened door leading into the holy temple of God. She is full of the wisdom of God, who is in His presence listening to His words and keeping his commandments, which is the highest blessing of all. Perhaps even more striking is our reading from the letter of the Holy Apostle Paul to the Philippians. Here he speaks of how Christ humbles Himself in becoming Man, and that in this same humility it allows him to come to the Cross, but that God the Father exalts him so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. When I hear the words of Christ on the Cross and being exalted, I tend to think of Pascha as opposed to some Marian feast. Did the Church make a typo in pointing us to these words from St. Paul on this Feast, which is also the Apostolic reading for the Birth of the Theotokos? I argue NO, this is very intentional to think of Christ’s humility and exaltation on this feast. There is a genius here, for if Christ is to be humbled and live, he would have to come down to earth from the ladder, this door to heaven, who is His mother. And if he were to be risen from the dead but she were to live a normal course of life and not be with him in paradise in body AND soul, he would be of all sons the most sad.
Liturgically, our last day of the Church year speaks to this same fact. August 31st commemorates the deposition of the cincture of the Holy Theotokos. We remember the clothing that the Theotokos wore because there are no claims to having relics of the body of the Virgin Mary’s body, unlike many saints. That’s right, there are no remains of the Theotokos’ body on earth claimed from the over 2000 years of Church history, so don’t let the date of the dogma deceive you. The Dormition has been upheld throughout the centuries because of the importance of this feast. More importantly, this demonstrates that God’s love for her is a sign of love for us. But what about you and me? Will we fall asleep in the Lord and be assumed? Is that true of the graves that we visit, that the bodies have been assumed into heaven? After all, we should be visiting the faithful departed, praying for them both in Church particularly at anniversaries and on all souls Saturday’s. Is this beautiful promise only for the select few who are assumed? No, because we know that their souls will dwell among the good, as the prokeimenon for the faithful departed tells us. We also know that at the final resurrection, all of us will be integrally human, with our souls and bodies united just as is the case in this feast. This feast attests to the words of Christ who said that if one believes in Him, that person will not die. The Theotokos shows us that these words are not speaking of our physical hearts stopping to beat. This tragically befalls all of us, but in stark contrast to this tragedy we have the reality of life in Christ. We have the firm conviction that Christ trampled death by death. One of the most beautiful ways to see this is not just with special callings like that of Elijah who passed over physical death. No, the most beautiful way to see the victory of Christ over death is to see the story of His Mother. Her life on earth ended not as a bow of defeat, but as an affirmation and entrance into the eternal life of the presence of Her Son who trampled death. Her son, holding his Mother in his arms, calls us all to our destiny. He invites us to a deeper faith in His call to salvation by showing us that He loved His mother so deeply that He welcomed her to that life in the kingdom that he inaugurated.
So let us take this occasion of the Feast of the Dormition to see how deeply Christ loves us. He loved us enough to suffer crucifixion and to let His all pure mother pass from this earthly life, because this fleeting existence pales in comparison to the divine light of union with the Holy life-creating Trinity that never ends. May we journey ever more deeply into it so that we may one day be held by Him as we see Him with His Mother in this occasion of her Falling asleep in the Lord. She intercedes for the whole Church and so let us say together with these words, “O Most Holy Theotokos, Save Us.”
Hi J. Andrew! What a beautiful post. This is Gaelan Gilbert, from St. Katherine College. Remember me? Frank gave me the link to your blog as I doubt your @stkath.org email is working anymore and I wanted to contact you. I was pleased to find many rich theological reflections! I’m reaching out to inquire if you’re still in the SD area – might you be? I ask partly because there’s a student at the College whose Senior Thesis will be on the health/spiritual benefits of fasting and I remember your great lecture on fasting and cancer. More generally, how are you? How has life been since we last met at the Pannikin in Leucadia and contemplated a common grant proposal to Templeton? Time flies. I pray you are well – and I look forward to hearing from you.