A Reflection On The Dormition of the Mother of God
The years of life seem to pass so quickly, the pace of time quickening as the years advance, and no person can escape the relentless currents that carry each of us to life’s twilight and to the inevitable encounter with the specter of our own mortality. This is our common lot in this fallen world ravaged by sin. This world, this life that progresses ruthlessly towards the grave, has been conditioned by the sin of Adam and Eve, that Original Fall with its dark consequences of pain and death. And no one can detour this sojourn through the valley of the shadow of death. We must all traverse the fearful crags of ageing, sickness and the ultimate separation of soul and body – even the Most Holy Theotokos, the Birthgiver of God and the Ever-Virgin Mary was subject to the ravages of time and the destiny of mortal flesh. As St. John of Damascus notes in his Second Sermon on the Dormition:
“Today the life-giving treasury and abyss of charity is hidden in immortal death. She meets it without fear, who conceived death's destroyer, if indeed we may call her holy and vivifying departure by the name of death. For how could she, who brought life to all, be under the dominion of death? But she obeys the law of her own Son, and inherits this chastisement as a daughter of the first Adam, since her Son, who is the Life, did not refuse it. As the Mother of the living God, she goes through death to Him.”
In her advanced years, the holy Theotokos was in the care of St. John the Theologian, that same Beloved Apostle who stood with her during her darkest hours when a sword pierced her heart at the foot of the Cross. Only a mother who has lost a child could even begin to comprehend the pain and anguish she experienced as she beheld her Son and her God nailed to the tree, waging that cosmic warfare between life and death. And even in those moments of unimaginable pain, the Lord Jesus was concerned for His mother and commended her to the care of His Beloved Apostle: “He said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother!’ And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home” (John 19:26-27). The Apostle John was committed to faithfully fulfilling this sacred trust from his Lord and diligently cared for the Holy Virgin to the end of her earthly life.
None of us wants to get old, for old age does not come alone. It is menacing to realize that we have reached a point in life when we can no longer do the things we used to do, want to do, enjoy to do. There are aching bones and sore muscles, pain and weakness where there was once vitality and strength. Then there is the brooding fear of prolonged sickness and suffering, the potential loss of personal independence, and the dread of some day becoming a burden to the ones we love the most. And ultimately we are forced to face our greatest fear and enemy: death itself. “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” asks the Apostle Paul. His answer: “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57). Truly, the Mother of God was the first to taste the fullness of this victory.
The living memory of the Church, Her Sacred Tradition, sketches for us the events surrounding the repose of the Mother of God. Three days before her Dormition, as she prayed on the Mount of Olives, the Archangel Gabriel, the same messenger of God who announced that she would be the vessel of the Incarnation, appeared and revealed that within three days time, according to the will of her Son and God, she would be called into the blessed repose of the righteous. As a symbol of the victory won by Jesus Christ over the grave, and of the promised inheritance soon to be hers, the Archangel presented the Theotokos with a palm branch, reminiscent of the emblems of victory with which the children of Israel welcomed their King as He made His Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.
At the home of St. John the Theologian the Mother of God prepared for her repose and imminent reunion with her Son and God. Though scattered throughout the known world, carrying out their commission to preach the Gospel to all nations, all of the Apostles, save Thomas, were miraculously brought to be at her side as she approached the end of her earthly life and to oversee her solemn burial. At the time of her departure all lamented and wept as she commended her soul to the hands of the Lord Jesus.
The icon of the Feast beautifully shows the Mother of God laying in repose, peaceful as if asleep, with her delicate hands crossed gracefully over her chest. The holy Apostles are in attendance at her bedside, weeping and distraught over the loss of the Mother of Life. Especially anguished and grief-stricken is St. John, the Beloved Apostle, who loved and cared for the Virgin Mary through her waning years as if she were his own mother. Also present are the ranks of angels and Saints, those multitudes who accompanied the Lord Jesus Christ as He came to receive the soul of His adored Mother. He stands in the glory of His divinity, escorted by the heavenly hosts, holding what appears to be an infant, clothed in white. In truth He holds the pure, radiant soul of His holy Mother, newly born and received into the Kingdom of Light. How accustomed we are to seeing the Mother holding the infant Christ. Now we see the Son and Lord embracing the soul of His Mother, ushering her into the fullness of life.
With great reverence and awe, the Holy Apostles carried the body of the Theotokos in solemn procession to her burial place in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is said that a particular persecutor of the Church by the name of Athonios, because of his hatred for the Mother of God, attempted to topple the bier during the procession. However, as depicted in some icons of the Dormition, an angel came to defend the body of the Virgin Mary and cut off the hands of Athonios. He quickly repented and confessed his faith in Christ, whereupon his wounds were healed.
Placing her sacred body in the tomb, the Apostles paid their final respects to the Mother of God. As they reverenced her body, the tomb was filled with a sweet perfume, a heavenly fragrance of sanctity. Having sealed the tomb, the Apostles and faithful kept a sober vigil for three days, offering psalms and prayers and hymns to the glory of God and praising His Most-Pure Mother.
On the third day the Apostle Thomas arrived at the tomb by the power of the Holy Spirit. He was overcome with grief and, weeping at the entrance to the tomb, requested that he might see the body of the Holy Virgin one last time and bid his final farewell. Having mercy on St. Thomas, the Apostles opened the entrance to the tomb, and great wonder, discovered that the tomb was empty. The only things that remained were the grave clothes and that sweet heavenly fragrance that surpasses the bouquet of multitudes of flowers in full bloom. They knew that she had been raised by the power of her Son and God, our Lord Jesus Christ. They were filled with great rejoicing at the dawn of a Second Pascha. Indeed, Holy Mary has made that great passover from death to life. The Mother of Life has been raised to life, body and soul reunited, and translated into Paradise. Listen again to the words of our Holy Father, St. John of Damascus:
“Today the living ladder, through whom the Most High descended and was seen on earth, and conversed with men, was assumed into heaven by death. Today the heavenly table, she, who contained the bread of life, the fire of the Godhead, without knowing man, was assumed from earth to heaven, and the gates of heaven opened wide to receive the gate of God from the East. Today the living city of God is transferred from the earthly to the heavenly Jerusalem, and she, who, conceived her first-born and only Son, the first-born of all creation, the only begotten of the Father, rests in the Church of the first-born: the true and living Ark of the Lord is taken to the peace of her Son. The gates of heaven are opened to receive the receptacle of God, who, bringing forth the tree of life, destroyed Eve's disobedience and Adam's penalty of death” (St. John of Damascus, Sermon III on the Dormition).
Having given birth to the Saviour of the world, she is our hope, the model for our piety, the pledge of our regeneration, the promise of things to come. She is our intercessoress before the very Throne of Grace, strengthening us, encouraging us, calling us to repentance and purity of heart that we too may be so blessed as to see God. We proclaim in the Kondak of the Dormition:
“The tomb and death had no power over the Birthgiver of God, who is ever watchful in her prayers and in whose intercession lies unfailing hope. For as the Mother of Life she has been transported into life by Him who dwelt in her ever-virgin womb.”
We know not what the progress of time will bring to each of us in terms of physical and spiritual trials. This all rests in the hands of our merciful God who orders all things for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). Whatever His will, we take courage and find strength in the Most-Holy Theotokos who is the “comfort of the sick, protectress and patroness of the weak, staff of the elderly.”
As we journey together toward that inevitable encounter, that point in time when we cross the threshold between time and eternity, we cling to our faith and our hope of resurrection to eternal life, remembering, as the Holy Apostle Paul instructs us, that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). And we rejoice in her Holy Dormition as a preview of our own regeneration.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5).
We conclude with these words from a prayer of St. Nilus to the Mother of God:
“Wherefore, at the time also of my death, stand before me, O my helper, and be not then ashamed of me. For I know, O Virgin, that I am guilty of many sins, and I, the wretched one, tremble, contemplating that hour. But you, my Joy, reveal unto me then your presence, work your mercy marvelously upon me, O Intercessoress for my salvation. Rescue me, O Mistress, from the cruelty of the demons, and from the fearsome and terrible trial of the spirits of the air, and deliver me from their malice, and transform all that grief and sorrow into joy by your enlightenment and grant me to pass unharmed through the principalities and powers of darkness and to attain to worship at the throne of glory before Christ our God Who reigns there with His Eternal Father and All-Holy Spirit. Amen”
(From the Prayers to the Most Holy Theotokos for Every Day of the Week by St. Nilus).