Monday, August 16, 2010

The Dormition of our All-Holy Lady, the Theotokos

Yesterday, August 15 (new calendar) was the feast of the Dormition of our Lady, the Theotokos (which means birth-giver of God, not mother of God, the two are not synonymous). We were very fortunate and blessed to have His Grace, Bishop BASIL of DOWAMA (Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America) present with us for our patronal feast and to have him lead us in the hierarchical liturgy.

This one of my favorite times of year, liturgically speaking. August begins with the Procession of the Cross, which begins the fast of Dormition. The hymns of the Cross prepare us to celebrate our Lord's Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor on August 6, an event which occurred 40 days prior to our Lord's Crucifixion and Resurrection. Now, after two weeks of prayer and contemplation and fasting we have come to our Lady's Dormition, her falling asleep. After Lent and Pascha, this is my favorite time of year, Nativity season coming behind it.

Whenever it comes to the feasts dedicated to our Lady, the first thoughts that crop into well meaning Christians who are not Orthodox is that the honor given to our Lady or any of the saints is nothing more than idolatry. I cannot convince anyone who holds such an opinion otherwise through rational argumentation. The honour given the saints is not the same as the worship given God. Such people will often retort that they can't tell the difference. And that is the crux of the issue--THEY can't tell the difference. We Orthodox who have lived the faith know (maybe not to the point that they can explain it--that, too is a mystery) the difference but because someone on the outside can't, we must therefore be guilty of transgressing God? If that is the way they want to play it, fine.

But what we contemplate in these feasts dedicated to our Lady is not the embellishments of various Byzantine hymns. But we contemplate the realities. Protestants accept that there was a Mary, who gave birth to God in the flesh (though Nestorianism has started to run rampant in many Protestant denominations of late). So, let's begin with that. If Mary were a real person, then it follows that she was born and she died. Both of those days are commemorated on the Church Calendar, September 8 and August 15, respectively which are the beginning and the end of the church year.

At the Doxasticon of the Praises (Ainoi) of Orthros yesterday, I chanted the following in the plagal of the second tone:

At thy deathless Dormition, O Theotokos, Mother of Life, clouds caught the apostles up into the air: though dispersed throughout the world, they were brought together to form a single choir before thy most pure body. And burying thee with reverence, they sang aloud the words of Gabriel: 'Rejoice, thou who art full of grace, O Virgin Mother who knewest not wedlock, the Lord is with thee. Entreat Him who is thy Son and our God to save our souls.'

Though the Orthodox contemplate the realities and not the embellishment of the hymnography, note the paradox of "deathless Dormition" which can be read as also "deathless death." The late +Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes in his Celebration of Faith, Volume 3 on p. 40:

But what is the meaning of this contradictory, apparently absurd conjunction of words? In the Dormition, the whole joyful mystery of this death is revealed to us and becomes our joy, for Mary the Virgin Mother is one of us. (emphasis mine).

To paraphrase another gem of +Fr. Schmemann, the thing which separates the Orthodox understanding of our Lady's Dormition and the Catholic understanding of Mary's Assumption (the two are not the same!) is that for Catholics, Mary is the great exception. For Orthodox, she is the great example. In Catholic theology, Mary does not even die. For the Orthodox, she has died, just as the rest of us will die. Mary's death and resurrection is what will await all of us on that dread and terrible day when all of our souls will be reunited to our bodies. Honoring her death and resurrection, we worship Christ as He died and resurrected. Mary was in the grave for only three days. Bishop BASIL reminded us yesterday that at the last day, every single person's soul will be reunited with the body, regardless of when that body stopped breathing. Some will be reunited with the body after a millenium, some after two days, some after one and some after a split second from the repose. The time span is irrelevant; for it will happen to all.

Fr. Schmemann goes on and says (ibid):
Here [at Dormition], death is conquered from within, freed from all that fills it with horror and hopelessness. Death itself becomes triumphant life. Death becomes the "bright dawn of the mystical day." Thus, the feast has no sadness, no funeral dirges, no grief but only light and joy. It's as if in approaching the door of our inevitable death, we should suddenly find it flung open, with light pouring from the approaching victory, from the approaching reign of God's Kingdom.

Protestants object that to honour Mary is to take her away from God. Not so! The Church Fathers have overwhelmingly and consistently stated that to remove one bit of Mary from the prayer life of the church is to insult Christ! Mary points us to Christ. One type of her icon is called "Directress" where she is literally presenting us her Son and our God as the Way, the Life. But because she became the living Ark, the Holy of Holies for the Holy One, she has already been resurrected and united to her body along with other saints. As such, they have a hallowed place at the dread judgment seat of Christ where they petition Him to save us, unworthy sinners as we are. If I'm allowed a friendly ecumenical critique, the great heresies of the church (e.g. Arianism, Nestorianism, Iconoclasm) have all cropped up because their adherents, well-intentioned and pious as they may have been, were worried that the calling Jesus the Son of God was dishonoring God, in the case of Arianism, for how could God be separated? With Nestorianism, its adherents believed that calling Mary, Theotokos took away honour from God for how could God become man? And so on.

Mary's falling asleep is for us. It is our festival too because she is one of us. She needed the Incarnation, the Cross, the Resurrection as the rest of us. But whereas we commune with Christ, while we live here on earth, at least most of us, in mystical fashion, she communed with Christ literally carrying the Uncontained One in herself! Honour to her is not just nice, it is demanded for that is God's Providence and Dispensation towards us for our Salvation.

Happy feast to all the Orthodox faithful! By her intercessions, may our Lord Jesus Christ save our souls and resurrect us at the last day!


  1. In Catholic theology, Mary does not even die.

    If I may offer a clarification -- Catholic teaching does not explicitly affirm that Mary did NOT die:

    The dogmatic definition within the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus which, according to Roman Catholic dogma, infallibly proclaims the doctrine of the Assumption leaves open the question whether, in connection with her departure, Mary underwent bodily death; that is, it does not dogmatically define the point one way or the other, as shown by the words "having completed the course of her earthly life".

  2. But, if Mary, did not die, what is the point? If her bodily death is left as an open question, then such thought really diminishes the importance of the feast. To suggest Mary did not die is to make Mary the great exception rather than the great example as Fr. Alexander Schmemann was keen to observe.

  3. Hi Chris,

    Let me say that I have the highest respect for Father Schmemann and from the Orthodox viewpoint I can understand your objections. I think we can both agree that for Catholics and Orthodox it is commonly held that Mary never sinned (which even Martin Luther upheld in the immediate aftermath of the Reformation).

    Of course, from the Catholic position the Immaculate Conception comes into play but even with that Mary's freedom from sin is grounded purely in the merits of Christ and His redemption. I also understand the differences in the Catholic/Orthodox views on Original Sin.

    This article presents some interesting aspects on the Assumption/Dormition of Mary:

    Hope you had a great Feast day!

  4. Thank you! I had a wonderful feast. As I wrote, it's one of my favorites and for it and Transfiguration to be celebrated so close together, so much the better.

    You're right to observe that other Catholic dogmas with regards to original sin (which we call the "ancestral sin") and the Immaculate Conception which we Orthodox don't/can't accept, do weigh in heavily as to how the Catholics view Dormition/Assumption differently. WHen Pope Pius XII dogmatized the Assumption back in the 1940s (?), it really was the capstone on recent Catholic theological development beginning with Vatican I back in 1870s. And those differences, which aren't going to be resolved here, are not minor, but really underscore the differences in incarnational theology which is a gulf between the two communions. We should be honest about that and need to be!

  5. And those differences, which aren't going to be resolved here, are not minor, but really underscore the differences in incarnational theology which is a gulf between the two communions. We should be honest about that and need to be!

    I agree. May the prayers of our holy Lady be with us all.