The Dormation of Theotokos

The Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God is celebrated on August 15. Through her womb, heaven and earth were joined together. Through her, all mankind has been reborn. Her death and burial show us the completion of God's plan for all mankind. The Feast celebrates the Mother of God as the Mother of Life.

Theotokos, the mother of God. Great Feast of the Dormition of The Theotokos celebrates the wondrous way in which The Theotokos left this earthly life and was taken into heaven in a miraculous way: both body and soul. The Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ received her soul and body into heaven. The Theotokos left behind an empty tomb filled with the fragrance of flowers.

The Great Feast of the Dormition of The Theotokos recalls the physical glorification of Mary as she shares in the resurrection life of her Son, Our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ. When, at her death (or falling asleep, that is, dormition), Jesus Christ received her body and soul into heaven, He in a way gave all humanity a preview of the transfiguration that awaits all of us in the Kingdom to come. Holy Tradition tells us that all the Apostles, except Thomas, were transported mystically to Jerusalem in order to be with the Mother of God as she died and present at her burial. When Thomas arrived the next day, they opened the tomb so that he could say his farewell. They found only an empty tomb filled with sweet-smelling flowers. We bless sweet-smelling flowers in remembrance of this great sign of her holiness.

"Dormition" is a Latin word meaning "Falling asleep".

The Dormition of the Mother of God

The day of the death of the Mother of God is called the Dormition (or falling asleep) in the Orthodox church, for her body did not know corruption after death, but together with her soul was taken up into heaven; hence, another name for the feast is “the Assumption”. We have no historical data to indicate how long the Mother of God remained on earth after the ascension of Christ into heaven, nor when, where, or how she died, for the Gospels say nothing of this. The foundation for the feast of the Dormition is to be found in a sacred tradition of the Church dating from apostolic times, apocryphal writings, the constant faith of the People of God, and the unanimous opinion of the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church of the first thousand years of Christianity.

The earliest written tradition which speaks of the death of the Mother of God is given in the work, which, in the Western Church, is known by the title “The Transition (i.e. death) of St. Mary”; in the East that same work has the title “Sermon of St. John the Theologian on the Dormition of the Mother of God”. The author of this work is unknown. Some historians believe that this work dates from the end of the second or third century, while others place it at the end of the sixth century.

From this work, which we summarize here, we learn the details of the holy and wonderful Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God:

Three days before the death of Mary, the Archangel Gabriel appeared and announced to her from her Son, Jesus Christ, the time of her departure into eternity. On the day of her death, in a miraculous manner the Apostles gathered in Jerusalem, although they had been scattered in various countries of the then known world. St. Thomas was the only Apostle absent. The Mother of God expressed her wish to be buried in Gethsemane near her parents and her spouse, Joseph. Christ, in person, came accompanied by Angels and Saints to escort His Most Holy Mother to heaven. The Apostles, while singing holy hymns, carried the body of Mary to the grave where they remained keeping vigil for three days. On the third day, St. Thomas came from afar and desired very much to view for the last time the Most Pure Mother of God. When the grave was opened, her body was not there, only the funeral clothes in which the body had been wrapped. The Apostles then realized that Mary had been taken up body and soul into heaven.

From the beginning of the sixth century, it was believed by many that the tomb of the Most Holy Mother of God was to be found in the Church of the Dormition in Gethsemane, while the Church on Mt. Sion was regarded as the site of her dormition. However, to this day historians cannot prove anything certain concerning the place of her death and burial. Some believe that she died in Jerusalem, others claim that she died in Ephesus where St. John was believed to have taken her. Even today a house in Ephesus is pointed out as the one where the Mother of God allegedly lived.

The liturgical cult of the Most Holy Mother of God began with the Council of Ephesus (431), which defined the dogma of her Divine Motherhood. In the works of the holy Fathers prior to the fourth century, no mention is made about the Dormition of the Mother of God. St. Epiphany of Cyprus (+403) writes: “Let them examine the Scriptures and they will find no evidence there either on the death of Mary, nor on whether she died or not, nor whether she was buried or not buried. And when John went to Asia, nowhere is it mentioned that he took the Virgin with him.”

It was not until after the fourth century that, on the basis of tradition, church writers began to write about the final moments in the life of the Most Holy Mother of God. These include St. Gregory of Tours (+594) in the West, and the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Modest (+634), who was the first to have a sermon on the Dormition, St. Andrew of Crete (+712), and St. John Damascene (+749) in the East.

Toward the end of the seventh century, and at the beginning of the eighth century, church writers began to direct their attention not only to Mary’s wonderful Dormition, but also to her ascension into heaven body and soul. St. John Damascene gives the most interesting and most substantial testimony on the Dormition. In his second sermon on the Dormition, he appeals to another work, not well known to us, “The History of Euthemius” and says, that after Pulcheria, the wife of Emperor Marcian (450-457), had built a church in honor of the Most Holy Mother of God at Blachernae, a suburb of Constantinople, she wanted to place the body of the Most Holy Mother of God there. In this matter she turned to the Patriarch of Jerusalem Juvenal (+458), who at the time was at the Council of Chalcedon (451). He related to her the tradition that, after Mary’s grave had been opened for St. Thomas, her body was not found there. Instead of the body, Juvenal sent to Pulcheria the funeral clothes of the Most Holy Mother of God. The last writer in the East who collected all the traditions concerning the Dormition was the Byzantine Church writer, Nicephor Callistus Ksantopul (+1335). He also wrote the synaxaries for the Triodion and of the Saints for the whole year.

St. John Damascene clearly believed in the assumption of the Most Holy Mother of God body and soul into heaven. In one of his sermons on the Dormition he says: ‘It was fitting that He, who preserved Mary’s virginity after his birth, should also preserve her body incorrupt after death. It is fitting that She, who carried in her arms the Creator as a Child, dwell in the heavenly mansions. It is fitting, that she, who beheld her Son on the cross while her heart was pierced with a sword of grief she did not know at the Nativity, should now look upon Him as He sits with the Father. It is fitting that the Mother of God possess all that her Son possesses and that all creatures venerate her as the Mother and maidservant of God.”

The whole tradition and faith of the Church of the first centuries regarding Mary’s wonderful Dormition and Assumption body and soul into the heaven is reflected in our service for the feast of the Dormition. “Death and the tomb could not hold you, O Mother of God,” says the Kontakion of the feast, “who are our ever-vigilant intercessor in prayer and our unfailing hope in pleading for us. For He Who dwelt in the ever-Virgin womb transferred the Mother of Life to life.” In the Lytiya stichera we sing: “Come, O gathering of those who love her feast, come and let us form a choir. Come, let us fill the Church with hymns of praise at the falling asleep of the ark of God. For today heaven has opened its bosom, as it receives the woman who gave birth to the One whom nothing can contain. Today the earth, as it gives back to heaven the Source of Life, is robed in blessing and majesty. The angels join the crowd of Apostles and gaze in awe at her who bore the Cause of Life.” Holy Church rejoices at the Dormition of the Mother of God, for she intercedes for us in heaven. In the troparion of the Feast we read: “O Mother of God, in giving birth to Christ you have preserved your virginity, and after the assumption you did not abandon the earth; you have passed from life, being the Mother of Life; and through your prayers you deliver our souls from death.” In the first stichera in the Vespers service the Church exclaims: “O strange miracle! the Source of Life is laid in a tomb, and the grave becomes a ladder to heaven. Rejoice Gethsemane, holy chamber of the Mother of God! O faithful, let us all cry out with Gabriel: O Full of Grace, rejoice! the Lord is with you, and because of you he bestows great mercy upon the world.”

Institution of the Feast

The feast of the Dormition is one of the oldest of Marian feasts. It began in Jerusalem shortly after the Council of Ephesus. The original celebration in honor of the Dormition under the influence of the Council of Ephesus emphasized the privilege of her Divine Motherhood, and hence, it was cafled “The Feast of Mary, the Mother of God.” In one of the eulogies in honor of St. Theodosius the Great (t529), there is mention that on the 15th of August, the Palestinian monks annually celebrated with great solemnity “The Memory of the Mother of God”, that is, the memory of her Dormition. In Syria, in the fifth century, this feast was called “The Memory of the Blessed One.”

In the sixth century this feast received its present day title: “The Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God”. In the first centuries not all the Churches of the East celebrated the Dormition at the same time. The Patriarch of Alexandria, Theodosius (t567), prescribed that the Dormition be kept on the 6th of January, and the feast of her Assumption on the 9th of August. The Ethiopian Church even today celebrates the “Dormition of the Body of our Pure, Holy, Glorious Mother of God, the Virgin Mary” on the 6th of January, and the “Ascension of the Body of our Virgin Mary, the Mother of God into Heaven” on the 9th of August. The Armenians keep the Dormition on the Sunday between the 12th and the 18th of August. Other Churches celebrate it on the 18th of August.

Emperor Mauricius (582-602) extended this feast throughout the entire Byzantine empire and commanded that it be celebrated on the 15th of August, for on that day he gained a brilliant victory over the Persians.

The feast of the Dormition appeared in the West under the influence of the East, at a somewhat later date. It was accepted in Rome under Pope Sergius I (687-701), and from Rome it passed over to the other countries of Europe. Just as in the East, so too here, the various Churches celebrated it at different times. Rome, following the East, celebrated the Dormition on 15th of August; France, on the 18th of January; Spain, after the Council of Toledo (656), on the 18th of December. The Roman menology of the seventh century, which is attributed to St. Jerome, under the 18th of January makes the following note: “The Death of the Most Pure Virgin Mary”, and on the 14th of August: “Assumption into Heaven”, while the Roman calendar of the eighth century has already only one feast of the Dormition, and that is on the 15th of August.

In the Western Church, beginning with the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), there has always been an attempt to establish as a dogma the belief of the Church in the miraculous Dormition and Assumption of the Most Pure Mother of God. Pius XII (+1958) took this task upon himself. After obtaining the opinions of all the bishops of the Catholic Church, in his Apostolic Constitution “Most merciful God” of the first of November 1950, he solemnly proclaimed to the whole world, “By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own authority, we proclaim, declare and define as a truth revealed by God, that the Immaculate Mother of God, the Ever-Virgin Mary, having ended the course of her life on earth, was taken body and soul into heavenly glory.”

Two other feasts are associated with the Dormition: The Placing of the venerable Robe of the Most Holy Lady our Mother of God in Blachernae - on the 2nd of July, and the Placing of the venerable Cincture of the Most Holy Lady our Mother of God in Chalcopratia - on the 31st of August.

Some ancient Typicons prescribe the blessing of fruit of the vine (grapes), not on the feast of the Transfiguration, but on the feast of the Dormition. In the Greek Nicolo-Casulan Typicon of the twelfth-thirteenth century, we read: “Let it be known that, on the feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God, the 15th of August, grapes are blessed and eaten in church after the Divine Liturgy according to an ancient tradition.” The Typicon of Sinai of the year 1214 contains the same prescription. Similarly, the Typicons of the Lavra of St. Athanasius on Athos prescribes the blessing of grapes on the 15th of August. We have the custom of blessing flowers on the feast of the Dormition. The Typic on of Father I. Dolnytskyj says: “Wherever the custom prevails of blessing flowers, let it be done after the Prayer behind the Ambo or after the Dismissal Prayer of the Divine Liturgy.”

Reflection

Recalling that our Byzantine Church year begins on September 1st (not January 1st like the civil year), the last feast we celebrate is fittingly the ‘Dormition’ of the Mother of God In our calendar, the first of the great feasts is the Birth of the Virgin (September 8th). The we re-live all the events she lived through: the Annunciation, the Birth of Christ-God at Christmas, the Holy Baptism in the Jordan, the public ministry of Christ, the Passion, the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Now finally, as if to close the frame, we come to the end of the Virgin’s life on earth.

We have no reliable historical documents about how Mary’s life came to end. Some say she died in Ephesus where she lived with St. John the Apostle. Our Liturgical texts say she died in Jerusalem. But that is not proven anywhere - it is only popular belief. It is our ‘Tradition’ and not an article of faith that is equal to the Incarnation or Resurrection of Christ. It just exists in the living memory of the Church, a memory which is especially strong in the Eastern Church. Our emphasis on the ‘Dormition’ of the Virgin, that is, her passing from life to death to eternal life in Christ parallels our approach to the Resurrection of Christ. Mary is Christ’s first and greatest disciple, and as any good disciple, she imitates the Lord and teacher. She knew her own passion ("a sword shall pierce your heart") and, now, death and resurrection. God could not allow the body of the Mother of God, the flesh which had given Christ flesh, to know corruption, so the angels came to bring Mary to heaven with her body. There were witnesses to Christ’s Ascension, and it is told in Scripture. There is no proof of Mary’s ascent, which we call her Assumption. However, the Church Fathers have always held that this honor was given to Mary, and that now, she is glorified in heaven, in the body.

Mary is unique and wonderful. There are many saints in heaven, but these must await the final day of judgment for their bodies to be raised, and for them to be ‘whole’ again, body and spirit. Their bodies remain in their tombs. We venerate them as relics, nearness to these sacred bodily remains of the saints is a great blessing to us. They are ‘matter’, stuff of the earth, which will be glorified on the great day of the Lord’s coming. How this will happen, what it might be like, we might wonder. Whatever that great process will be, it has already happened to the Mother of God! Her relics are not among us. Her tomb in Jerusalem lies empty, yet still gives off a wonderful fragrance, because for three days she lay there as the apostles and the Church mourned. Today, the Church rejoices. Yet again, in his Mother, God has provided a sign of the Resurrection, a promise of the future glory we all hope to enjoy on day. Mary is the faithful disciple, who carried out the will of God with a generous spirit. She accepted Christ, and bore our Savior within herself in love. Now Christ accepts her, and bears her to the throne she occupies in heaven. She is the sign of hope, the proof of Christ’s merciful love, the first among the redeemed, the highest among our race. Indeed, she is more honorable than the cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, for they are only spirits, she in the flesh, glorifies God in the flesh. On the great feast of her Dormition, her ‘falling asleep’, we magnify her and stand among the generations which call her blessed.

O Mother of God, in giving birth you still preserved virginity;
and in falling asleep your did not forsake the world.
You are the Mother of Life and have been transferred to life,
and through your prayers have delivered our souls from death.
Troparion of the Feast

Written by a monk of the Byzantine Church.