The Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos (August 15)
In August the Church celebrates the end of Mary’s earthly life, her death, known as her Falling Asleep or Dormition, a word in which dream, blessedness, peace, calm, and joy are all united.
We know nothing of the circumstances surrounding the death of Mary, Jesus Christ’s mother. Various stories, embellished with childlike love and tenderness, have come down to us from early Christianity, but precisely because of their variety we are under no compulsion to defend the “historicity” of any one of them. On Dormition the Church’s commemoration and love are centred not on the historical and factual context, not on the date and place where this singular woman, this Mother of all mothers completed her earthly life. Wherever and whenever it occurred, the Church looks instead at the essence and meaning of her death, commemorating the death of the one whose Son, according to our faith, conquered death, was raised from the dead and promised us final resurrection and the victory of the undying life.
Her death is best explained through the Dormition icon placed in the centre of the church on that day as the focus of the entire celebration. The Mother of God has died and lies on her deathbed. Christ’s apostles have gathered around her, and above her stands Christ himself, holding His Mother in His arms, where she is alive and eternally united with Him. Here we see both death and what has already come to pass in the particular death: not rupture, but union; not sorrow, but joy; and most profoundly, not death, but life. “After giving birth you remained a Virgin and after falling asleep you remained alive,” sings the Church, gazing at this icon. “In giving birth you preserved your virginity; in falling asleep you did not forsake the world…”
The words of one of the deepest and most beautiful prayers addressed to Mary now come to mind, “Rejoice, bright dawn of the mystical Day!” (Akathist Hymn). The light which pours from Dormition comes precisely from that never-ending, mystical Day. In contemplating this death and standing at this deathbed we understand that death is no more, that a person’s very act of dying has now become an act of living, the entrance into a larger life, where life reigns. She who gave herself completely to Christ, who loved him to the end, is met by Him at these radiant gates of death, and there at once death is turned into joyful meeting — life is triumphant, joy and love rule over all.
For centuries the Church has looked upon, reflected on and been inspired by the death of the One who was the mother of Jesus, who gave life to our Savior and Lord, who gave herself totally to Him to the very end and stood by Him at the Cross. And in contemplating her death the Church discovered and experienced death as neither fear, nor horror, nor finality, but radiant and authentic Resurrection joy. “What spiritual songs shall we now offer you, O most holy? For by your deathless Dormition you have sanctified the whole world…” Here, in one of the first hymns of the feast we immediately find expressed the very essence of its joy: “Deathless Dormition,” deathless death. But what is the meaning of the 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. If death is the horror and greed of separation, of descent into terrible loneliness and darkness, then none of this is present in the death of the Virgin Mary, since her death, like her entire life, is all encounter, all love, all continuous movement toward the unfading, never-setting light of eternity and entrance into it. “Perfect love casts out fear,” says John the Theologian, the apostle of love (1 Jn 4:18). And therefore there is no fear in the deathless falling asleep of the Virgin Mary. Here, 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.
In the glow of this incomparable festal light, in these August days as the natural world reaches the peak of its beauty and becomes a hymn of praise and hope and the ensign of another world, the words of Dormition ring out, “Neither the tomb nor death could hold the Mother of God, who is ever watchful in prayer, in whose intercession lies unfailing hope. For as the Mother of Life she has been transported to life…” Death is no longer death. Death radiates with eternity and immortality. Death is not rapture but union. Not sorrow but joy. Not defeat, but victory. This is then what we celebrate on the day of the Dormition of the Most Pure Mother, as we anticipate, taste and delight even now in the dawn of the mystical and never-ending Day.
– Fr Alexander Schmemann ( “Celebration of Faith: The Virgin Mary”, Crestwood, New York, SVS Press, 1995)