“In birth, you preserved your virginity; in death, you did not abandon the world, O Theotokos. As mother of life, you departed to the source of life, delivering our souls from death by your intercessions.” (Apolytikion of the Feast)
The last Royal Feast of the Church year is dedicated to the Falling Asleep of the Mother of God. This feast crowns the series of feasts which have proclaimed to us, one after another throughout the year, the mystery of salvation through the Incarnation of the Word, and the Sacrifice, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ the Savior.
While we have Scriptural witness for the other feasts, in the New Testament we find no reference to the Dormition of the Theotokos. However, we have Holy Tradition, recorded in the services of the Church and in the icon of the feast.
Using the former source as our point of reference, we can trace the contours of the event of the Falling Asleep of the Mother of God. The Apostles were brought in a miraculous fashion from the ends of the earth to be present at the Dormition of the one who gave birth to the Savior of the world, and carried Him in her arms: “It was right that the eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word should see the Dormition of His Mother according to the flesh, even the final mystery concerning her. Thus they might be witness not only to the Ascension of the Savior, but also to the Translation of her who gave Him birth.” (Litiya, 1st sticheron). The final mystery of the Mother of God is sung in a special manner at the service of the Lamentations of the Dormition of the Theotokos. The entire service is a hymn of praise and wonder inasmuch as she who gave life to the Savior of the world, she who is more honored than the cherubim and more glorious than the seraphim, is now placed in a tomb. Participating in this event are the Apostles, disciples, all those who have known the Holy Virgin, as well as the heavenly hosts: “To your pure, honorable burial came the entire angelic host, and the choir of the Apostles mourned you” (Lamentations of the Dormition, 1st Stasis, v. 24). Yet the weeping of the assembly is permeated with hope, for, as the troparion teaches us, the Mother of Life departed to the source of life and continues to pray for the faithful: “Now you die and depart to the life above, but do not forsake us, your servants, eternally vigilant laborer for all” (Lamentations, 1st Stasis, v. 28).
Let us look at the icon of the Dormition and seek to understand what it teaches us. First we see the assembly of those who were present at the Dormition: Apostles, disciples, the heavenly hosts. All are leaning toward the lifeless body of the Mother of the Lord. But in the center of the picture is Christ the Savior, the Son of the Virgin, receiving her soul. The fact that the entire assembly is leaning toward the body of the Theotokos, and all their eyes are on the Holy Virgin, suggests that the presence of the Savior was not perceived. They all knew that the Mother of Life was departing to Life, but they did not realize that in that very moment Life was present to receive the soul of the one who had given Him human life. Christ the Lord is receiving in His arms the soul of the one who has carried Him in her arms. This reality is captured in the Royal Icon on the iconostasis of every church. The Mother of God holds in her arms the baby Jesus, presenting Him to the world. The Mother reveals her love for her child as a response to the love of God for man. The Icon of the Mother of God expresses the fiat of the Annunciation, but also the fulfillment of the announcement, for now the Mother presents the One who takes away the sins of the world and grants salvation to mankind. The icon of the Dormition of the Mother of God is another response to love. Christ responds with filial love to the maternal love of the Holy Virgin and receives her soul into His arms. It is the response of the Son to the love of the Mother, but it is also the response of God who again demonstrates His love for man, His creature.
If we look again at the icon of the Dormition of the Mother of God, we discover in the painting a reality which we all know, without having entirely perceived its meaning. The icon of the Dormition is the icon of our own dormition. We are all conducted on our final journey by our family and friends. Believers, however, know that the journey to the grave is only the final earthly journey, for we continue living in another life together with Christ. Our sorrow, when we bury a brother or a relative, is permeated with hope, for our brother has fallen asleep in the Lord. This means that we express our belief that his soul is received in the very arms of Christ the Lord, just as in the case of the Mother of God. So we see that the icon of the Dormition represents more than just the scene of an event in the history of salvation. We see in this icon our own dormition, and we are strengthened in the belief and hope that our own soul will be received into the arms of Christ the Savior.
If we return for a moment to the services of the Church on this holy day, the Synaxarion tells us that the Apostle Thomas was missing, in the Providence of God, at the burial of the Theotokos. In order to grant a final comfort to the Apostle who had desired to put his hand into the side of the Risen Savior, the tomb of the Holy Virgin was opened, but her body was not found. This was a sign that she had been taken up bodily to heaven. God’s provision is that the soul is parted from the body until the second coming of the Lord and the universal judgment. By the power of God, the body is recomposed and unites with the soul, so that in this way, the entire person stands before the Righteous Judge. In the case of the Theotokos, God limited this period of the parting of the soul from the body to just a few days. This is because the Mother of God went with her soul and body to Life, and delivers our souls from death by her intercessions.
† Archbishop Nicolae