Icon: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Ellwood City, PA
Photography: Chapel Studios, Rochester, PA
The Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God is one of the greatest holy day on our church calendar. Even though no mention of the Virgin’s falling asleep is found in the scriptures, detailed accounts of her death are found in various sources of sacred tradition – dating back as far as the first century. Material from these sources was ultimately gathered and expanded by the Church Historian Nicephorus Callistas in the 14th century. We are told that the body of the Theotokos was laid to rest in a family tomb in Gethsemane. Although her body was no longer in the sepulcher – having been taken into heaven by her Divine Son – a church was built on that site by the early Christians. Despite undergoing destruction and changes through the centuries, the Church of the Dormition still stands upon this sacred place.
Nowhere is this feast celebrated with as much solemnity as in Jerusalem itself. On the eve of the feast, a large procession begins at the Jerusalem Patriarchate and winds its way through the narrow streets of the Old City, slowly making its way to Gethsemane. An icon of the Dormition leads the procession, with clergy, monks, nuns and pilgrims following closely by. The two-hour walk ends at the church there, with the Lamentations Service celebrated at that time. In front of the altar in the edifice – beyond the burial chamber of the Mother of God – is a raised spot, upon which rest the shroud in which the body of the Virgin was wrapped. It is customary for those in attendance to venerate the processional icon of the Dormition and then stoop down and go beneath it as a sign of piety.
This feast day holds great theological significance for all Orthodox Christians. Holy Tradition goes into great detail about the Virgin Mary's death and the ensuing events that occurred immediately after her burial. With the exception of St. Thomas, all of the Apostles were at her side when she reposed. When St. Thomas arrived in Jerusalem three days later and was taken to her tomb, the body of the Theotokos was nowhere to be found!
The writings of St. Gregory Palamas put the matter into proper perspective for us. Here are some of his spiritual insights into the falling asleep of the Mother of God:
“If the death of His saints is precious in the sight of the Lord and the memory of the just is praised, then how much more should we praise the memory of the holiest of the saints, the Ever-Virgin Mary, through whom all holiness has been accorded?” The death of the Theotokos is a joyous feast, for into the hands of her Son was her spirit delivered. Indeed, a short while afterwards, her body was translated by Him into the eternal habitation of heaven."
"Heaven is a fitting place for her. She stands at the right side of the Almighty, 'adorned in golden robes and arrayed in diverse colors' as the Prophet David said of her. She was taken directly there from the grave, and now she shines with a resplendent radiance, illuminating the earth. Who could be closer to God than His Mother? Moreover, she will pray for all creatures throughout the ages, for she has been deemed worthy to be heard by her Divine Son. The Virgin is incomparably superior to all. It is through her that all partake of God. All who praise God praise her together with Him."
The Orthodox Weekly Bulletin … Vestal, Cliffwood, New Jersey … Litho in U.S.A.