Saturday, August 15, 2009
Thoughts on the Dormition
Orthodox Christians often talk a lot about icons. And why shouldn't they? Most Orthodox Christians, practicing Orthodox Christians, that is, have one or maybe several icons in their home of Christ, the Theotokos, various saints as well as scenes from Scriptures. When they go to their church, they see even more on the walls, in the dome of the Church (if they have one), on the icon screen which separates the nave from the sanctuary, during processions. In short, icons are very much a very visual representation of the Orthodox faith. For the most part, I think, a great many of other confessions of Christianity who do not actually have or use icons in their own liturgical/prayer life will not see anything wrong with them, but will limit their praise to regarding them simply as works of art. For us they are so much more.
An icon, from the Greek, means image. We depict Christ and the saints in icons not only for visual stimulation (since why shouldn't worship of God make use of all of our senses?) but icons are also how we (should) regard each and every person. We are obligated by Christ's commands to see in each and every person, even if that person wrongs us, an image of Christ Himself. After all, did not Christ say that "whatsoever you do to the least of these, my brethren, you also do unto me?" Thus, we are all living icons of our Lord and God and Saviour and Creator. And, as such, we honor icons. We do not show reverence to the wood or the paints but to that who is depicted. When dealing with our fellow men, we show respect not to their clothes, their hair, their flesh, but to the fact that the whole is created in the image of God.
Today, in the Holy Orthodox Church (new revised Julian Calendar) we observe the Dormition of the Theotokos. Catholics also celebrate this day and call it the Assumption. Some Protestant traditions, such as some Lutherans, celebrate this day as St. Mary's Day when they honor her generally. Of course, the feast itself and what it celebrates has no Scriptural basis. That is why Protestants overwhelmingly shudder at the possibility of honoring her. No Scriptural basis=no celebration. Of course, Scriptural proof or lack thereof, did not stop St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great, St. Augustine, St. John Damascene and a whole host of other great thinkers and theologians of the Church, who are shared between the Eastern Church and the various western confessions, from celebrating and honoring Mary's falling asleep. Now, there are particulars which even the Catholics and Orthodox disagree on. I do not wish to go into that here because that would require much more time to write. However, I will simply say that the Orthdox do not regard Mary as having been immaculately conceived (a dogma which was first promulgated back in 1854). Mary inherited the same mortal corruption which all of us do and thus was in need of Christ's cross and resurrection as the rest of us as well and was subject to death as the rest of us are. Whether she actually sinned is another matter and will not touch that here.
Now, what does this have to do with icons? Simply this. Mary is the icon of creation, but not the creation which was corrupted by sin, but the icon of creation that has been renewed by Christ and His saving work. After all, she carried Christ in her womb, she carried the uncontainable God in her. And though, despite all of this, she died, that was not the end. She merely fell asleep. According to Holy Tradition, her tomb was opened by Christ's Apostles just as they had opened Christ's tomb three days after his Crucifixion. And just as they found Christ's tomb empty, Mary's tomb was also empty. Mary also arose from the dead, just as her son. As an icon of creation renewed, so she is also an icon of the Resurrection, the same Resurrection which we all wish to participate in. She is the first fruits of Christ's saving work. Celebrating Mary's falling asleep is a celebration of Christ's triumph over death. It is important to remember and remember well that Mary did not rise from the dead on her own. She does not have that power, only God does. But what has been given to Mary has also been given to us.
The late Protopresbyther, Fr. Alexander Schmemann once remarked that Mary is not the great exception as the Catholics describe her but the great example which we should all emulate. Her life on earth was blessed to be sure from her carrying of Christ Himself in herself, but we are called to carry Christ in ourselves. Mary is the icon of a good, true and faithful Christian with trust in God. Her hymn, the Magnificat, should also be our hymn. Her obedient response to Gabriel's announcement that she would bear the Saviour of the world, "Let it be unto me as you have said" should be our obedience to all of God's commands.
Thus, let us all honor Mary, on this day and every day, not because she saves us (For only God can do that), but because she is the icon of the saved.
In giving birth thou didst preserve virginity and in thy dormition thou didst not forsake the world, O Theotokos. For thou wast translated unto life, for thou art the mother of Life. By thine intercessions, deliver our souls from death."--Troparion of Dormition in Tone 1