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from issue no. 11 - 2010


The dormition of the Theotokos

Mariological Insights into Life, Death and Resurrection

by His Holiness Bartholomew I

On the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into the glory of Paradise in soul and body (1 November 1950), we requested a comment from Bartholomew I, Ecumenic Patriarch of Constantinople.
The article sent to us is an occasion of gratitude for the faith we profess together and a request to the Lord that He grant us full communion

Bartholomew I, Ecumenic Patriarch of Constantinople, during the feastday of the Dormition of the Holy Mother of God, in the monastery of Sumela, in the Turkish province of Trabzon, 15 August 2010 <BR>[© Reuters/Contrasto]

Bartholomew I, Ecumenic Patriarch of Constantinople, during the feastday of the Dormition of the Holy Mother of God, in the monastery of Sumela, in the Turkish province of Trabzon, 15 August 2010
[© Reuters/Contrasto]

The Orthodox Church deeply venerates the Mother of God – or Theotokos (birth-giver of God) or Panaghia (all-holy one), as we prefer to refer to her – extolling her not as a saintly exception but in fact as a solid example of the Christian way of commitment and response to the vocation to be a disciple of Christ. Mary is extraordinary only in her ordinarily human virtue, which we are called to respect and emulate as devout Christians. Her death is commemorated on August 15, one of the twelve great feasts of the Orthodox calendar.
And in understanding the “sacred covenant” or mystery of Mary, which “no one should approach with uninitiated hands,” Orthodox theology looks to Scripture but especially to Tradition, particularly to liturgy and iconography. In this regard, Orthodox Christians connect Mary first of all to her role in the divine Incarnation, that is to say as Mother of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, while at the same time connecting her to a long line of human – rather than divine – beings, who comprise the continuity of sacred history leading to the birth of the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, two thousand years ago. Severing Mary from this preparatory or “economic” lineage disconnects her from our reality and marginalizes her from our salvation. Mary, too, needed salvation – like all human beings; even if she was considered to be “without personal sins,” nevertheless she lay under the bondage of original sin. Although she is “more honorable than the Cherubim and incomparably more glorious than the Seraphim,” what is true of us is also true of Mary. While “she was blessed among women,” she incarnates the one thing alone that is needful among all human beings, namely dedication to the Word of God and surrender to the will of God.
Thus, while Orthodox Christians stand in Church and look upward to the Pantokrator (or “the one who contains all”), namely Christ, who towers above their heads during worship, they face directly toward the Platytera (or “the one more spacious than all”), namely the Mother of God, who stands immediately before them, literally in the spacious apse connecting the altar with heaven. For, in giving birth to God the Word and “conceiving the inconceivable” in her womb, she was able to contain the uncontainable and render the uncircumscribable describable.
We learn from Scripture that, when our Lord lay on the Cross, He saw His mother and His disciple John and turned to the Virgin Mary to say: “Woman, behold your son!” and to John: “Behold your mother!” (John 19:25-27) From that hour, the Apostle and Evangelist of Love took care of the Theotokos in his own home. In addition to the reference in the Book of Acts (chapter 2, verse 14), confirming that the Virgin Mary was with the Lord’s Apostles on the feast of Pentecost, Church tradition maintains that the Theotokos remained in John’s home in Jerusalem, where she continued a ministry in word and deed.
The iconographic and liturgical tradition of the Church also claims that, at the time of her death, the disciples were preaching throughout the world but returned to Jerusalem to pay their respects to the Theotokos. Except for Thomas, all of the others – including the Apostle Paul – were assembled at her bedside. At the moment of her death, Jesus Christ descended to carry her soul to heaven. Following her death, the body of the Theotokos was led in procession to be laid in a tomb near the Garden of Gethsemane. When the Apostle Thomas arrived three days later and wanted to see her body, the tomb was empty. The bodily assumption of the Theotokos was confirmed by the message of an angel and by her appearance to the Apostles, both of these reflecting the events surrounding the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.
<I>Dormition of the Virgin</I>, mosaic of the church of Christ Savior in Chora, circa1320, Kariye Camii Museum, Istanbul, Turkey

Dormition of the Virgin, mosaic of the church of Christ Savior in Chora, circa1320, Kariye Camii Museum, Istanbul, Turkey

The icon and liturgy of the great Feast of Mary’s death and burial clearly depict a funeral service, while also underlining the fundamental teaching regarding the resurrection of Mary’s body. In this respect, Mary’s death serves as a feast that affirms our faith and hope in eternal life. Yet, Orthodox Christians refer to this festive event as the “Dormition” (Koimisis, or “falling sleep”) of the Theotokos, rather than her “Assumption” (or physical “translation”) into heaven. This is because emphasizing that Mary is human, that she died and was buried like other human beings, provides us with the assurance that – despite the fact that “neither grave nor death could contain the Theotokos, our unshakeable hope and ever vigilant protection” (from the Kontakion of the day) – Mary is actually much closer to us than we think; she has not forsaken us. As the Apolytikion for the Feast observes: “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”.
For Orthodox Christians, Mary is not simply the one that was “chosen.” Above all, she is symbolical of the choice that each of us is called to make in response to the divine initiative for incarnation (namely for the birth of Christ in our hearts) and transformation (namely for the conversion of our hearts from evil to good). We are, as St. Symeon the New Theologian put it in the tenth century, all invited to become Christotokoi (or “birth-givers of Christ”) and Theotokoi (or “birth-givers of God”).
Through her intercessions, may we all become like Mary the Theotokos.

(With thanks to Father John Chryssavgis for the collaboration)

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