The Dormition of the Mother of God
Below, is a short talk on the meaning of the feast and the background to the icon which Fr Paul gave on the Sunday after the Dormition.
In Jerusalem there is a Church known as the Tomb of Mary. It is very close to Gethsemane. It is here that the Holy Mother of God was laid to rest by the Apostles. Now it is below a deep Crusader period staircase. On the way down there is a niche of St Joachim and St Anna and opposite the Tomb of Mary is a niche for St Joseph the Betrothed. After the floods of 1972, excavations clearly indicate that this was a site of a 1st Century cemetery. The traditions surrounding the Feast of the Dormition are based upon the ‘Transitus Mariae’ which in turn is based upon 2nd Century material by Lucius Carinus who was a disciple of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John. These traditions indicate that the Mother of God was about 50 years old when she reposed.
The Dormition of the Mother of God is the last Great Feast of the Christian Year and is sometimes called ‘a summer Pascha’. In some churches the icon used is an embroidered shroud similar to the Epitaphios used on Great Friday. It is decorated in a similar way.
The icon of the Dormition tells us a story. We see the body of the Mother of God on her funeral bier surrounded by the Apostles. Above her is the Saviour surrounded by uncreated light with what appears to be a tiny child in his arms wrapped in swaddling clothes. In some icons, there is a man at the front trying to touch the bier who is having his hands chopped off. Some larger icons, have the Apostles and Disciples of the Lord arriving on clouds.
The icon presupposes the traditional story of the Dormition. The Mother of God has spent he time in contemplation and prayer since Pentecost. It is revealed to her that the time of her repose is getting near so she goes to the holy sites of Jerusalem for a last time. While praying there she is visited once more by the Archangel Gabriel who gives her a palm olive branch from Paradise as a sign that she will shortly be called to Life Eternal. She is attended by three women, Sepphera, Abigail and Jael. The Mother of God prays that St Joseph of Aramathea and all the Apostles will be able to come to Jerusalem, The first to arrive is the Apostle John. The other Apostles mysteriously arrive (except the Apostle Thomas who is delayed). With St Paul come three prominent Gentile converts, St Dionysios the Areopagate, St Heirotheos and St Timothy (dressed as Bishops in the icon). At the Third Hour a candle is lit and a bright light fills the skies as the Apostles and Disciples surround the Mother of God. Within the light is the Saviour surrounded by the Bodiless Powers of Heaven. The Holy Mother of God repeats the prayer, “My soul doth magnify the Lord…” as the Saviour opens the gates of heaven and takes her blessed soul into His arms. Her soul appears like a tiny child wrapped in swaddling clothes as it is absolutely pure and innocent. She now enters a serene repose and the Apostles sing the song we sing at Vespers…”Hail Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women! For behold, the Queen, God’s maiden cometh…” The choirs of Heaven greet the soul of the Mother of God and from her body comes an exquisite fragrance. The disciples treat her body with great reverence and process it through the streets of Jerusalem from Mt Zion towards Gethsemene. As they do, an impious man called Athonios tries to upset the bier but his hands are cut off by an invisible angel. He immediately proclaims his faith in Christ and is miraculously healed. At the head of the Mother of God is St Peter carrying a censer at her feet is St Paul. In the evening, they place the body of the Mother of God in the tomb and give her the last kiss and seal the tomb with a stone, as was the custom. There they stay in prayer. After three days, the Apostle Thomas arrives and begs the Apostles to reopen the tomb so that he can give the last kiss to the Mother of God. When they do, the tomb is empty but for the grave clothes of the Mother of God. (This explains why there are no relics of the Mother of God, only her Robe, Cincture and Veil).
The meaning of the Feast is that it celebrates our faith in the Resurrection as we affirm in the Creed. It confirms our faith and the Mother of God anticipates the General Resurrection as neither her soul nor her body see corruption. It is our hope that our strivings in the Christian life will lead to Life in Heaven and that death with be overcome. Thus we sing with the whole Church…
“In giving birth, thou didst preserve thy virginity. In falling asleep, thou didst not forsake the world O Theotokos. Thou wast translated into life, O Mother of Life and by thy prayers, thou deliverest our souls from death.”
This is our Orthodox Faith and our Orthodox Hope. Glory to God for all things!
Father Paul. 30/08/15