The Dormition of the Mother of God
Luke 10:38–42, 11:27–28
Today we celebrate the great feast of the Dormition and bodily Assumption of the Mother of God, often referred to as the summer Pascha. We see in the Gospel according to John that, after the Lord’s crucifixion, the beloved disciple of Christ, John, “took [the Blessed Virgin] into his own house” (John 19:27). The story of the Dormition, then, begins in the house of St John the Apostle in Jerusalem. When our Lady had reached the end of her earthly life, the Archangel Gabriel came to her and announced to her that, “In three days’ time the Lord will take you”. At the same time, the Holy Spirit brought all but one of the Apostles — who were then spread throughout the world on their missionary journeys, in Europe, Africa, and Asia — to Jerusalem. Only the Apostle Thomas, who was then in India, was not present. This is why the festal icon shows the apostles surrounding the Virgin’s bed. In the same icon, we also see the Lord, who holds in his arms a small child, symbolising the soul of his Mother. As you know, when a person dies, their soul is accompanied by angels as it journeys to its resting place. However, no angel could possibly accompany her who is more honourable than the Cherubim and incomparably more glorious than the Seraphim! The blessed Virgin, by giving birth to God the Word, had become the Birthgiver and Mother of God, and is higher than every angel, and every other created being. For this reason, only the Lord himself was in a position to accompany her soul to Paradise. After her bodily death — that is, the separation of her soul from her body — the Virgin’s body was placed in a tomb which still survives in Jerusalem as a site of Orthodox pilgrimage. After three days, the Apostle Thomas also arrived in Jerusalem, and all twelve Apostles went together to the grave in order for Thomas to bid farewell to the blessed Mother of God. But the tomb was empty. Empty because the body of the Virgin had risen — it was reunited to her body — and assumed into the heavens.
This is what the sacred tradition of the Orthodox Catholic Church of Christ teaches us. It goes without says that we won’t find any of these details in the Sacred Scripture, since these events took place long after the events described in the four Gospels and the other books of the New Testament. One could be forgiven for asking, however, why the Church, on this great feast of the Mother of God, chose a Gospel reading that not only has no immediate connection to the Dormition, but a Gospel reading in which the Virgin doesn’t feature at all. The Mary mentioned in the Gospel reading we just heard is not the Virgin, but the sister of Martha. The same Gospel passage is read on other feasts of the Mother of God, and at every Great Paraklisis. Why, then, do we read this particular passage, which at first sight might seem irrelevant? Of course, in the second part of the reading, which comes from a different chapter of the Gospel, we see a woman shouting, “blessed is the womb that bore Thee and the breasts which Thou didst suck”, but also here, the Lord doesn’t reply with reference to his Mother, but simply makes general reference to those who hear and keep the word of God.
Why didn’t the Church choose a passage that is directly related to the Virgin for today’s Divine Liturgy? I would say that the Church here wishes to emphasise the Virgin’s humanity. What do I mean by this? I mean that, all the various things we say to honour the blessed Virgin, we don’t say these simply because she’s the Mother of God — God didn’t just choose some girl, and then we honour that girl because of his choice. Quite the contrary, God chose her precisely because the blessed Virgin had the virtues and spiritual abilities that were needed in order for her to become the Mother of God. The blessed Virgin, more than any other human being in the world, had understood that “one thing is needful”, and the blessed Virgin “Mary chose this good part” (cf. Luke 10:42). In other words, today’s Gospel, despite the fact that it makes no direct reference to our Lady, describes the virtues by which she became Mother of God. Therefore, when the woman cries out — “blessed is the womb that bore thee, and the breasts which thou didst suck” — the Lord’s answer — “blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it” — does not mean that whoever hears the word of God is equal to his Mother. In no way! He means that our Lady, more than all others, was the one who heard the word of God, and by keeping this word in her heart, she became able to bear the pre-eternal Word of God in her womb. In other words, our Lady, as a human being, as a member of the human race, acquired the virtues, the faith, the humility, the love, avoided every sinful action, and became worthy of the indescribable work she was tasked with.
The Orthodox faith here differs from that of the Latin church. The Latins believe in the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, which is to say that she was born without the consequences of the ancestral sin and the fall. For this reason, many Latins don’t even believe in her Dormition. Since bodily death is a consequence of the fall, and our Lady was born without these consequences, she couldn’t die, but was assumed alive into heaven. I do not mention this heresy of the Immaculate Conception, which only recently became a dogma of the Latin church in 1854, in order to attack the other confessions, but to underline the importance of today’s feast.
Today, we are not simply celebrating some event in the life of the Virgin Mary, but we also celebrate our own salvation. When Christ rose from the dead, he opened the door of resurrection to all mankind, to every human person. And with the resurrection of our Lady, we have a proof of the truth of this promise. If our Lady was conceived and was born without the consequences of the ancestral sin, and was assumed alive into the heavens without tasting bodily death, those events would certainly constitute great miracles worthy of celebration, but it would have no relevance for us.
Both today’s Gospel reading and the fact that, despite believing in her Assumption, we focus today on her Dormition, shows us that our Lady, who now is higher than all of God’s creations, is not outside humanity, but belongs to our human race. Our Lady’s resurrection is a proof of the general resurrection and the eternal life which awaits us all, and for this reason we can without exaggeration refer to it as the summer Pascha.
Today, we all celebrate, all of humanity keeps festival. Let us ask our Lady to guide us with her example, to cover us with her love, and to pray unceasingly to her Son, so that our future resurrection will be a resurrection unto life and not unto judgment. Amen.
Fr Kristian Akselberg