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PATRON SAINT

Often known among the faithful as the “Pascha of the Summer,” the Dormition of Our Lady the Most Holy Mother of God is one of the great feast of the church, which is celebrated each year on August 15th.  

In English, the Dormition is also called the “Falling Asleep” in the Lord of the Mother of God, which is a closer rendering of the Greek name for the feast.  

The Dormition is, from a liturgical point of view, the most important of the feasts dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  It is preceded by a fast lasting for two weeks, often called the “Lent of the Mother of God,” and which is similar to the fast that precedes the feast of the Holy Apostles in June.  

The Orthros Gospel for the Feast (Luke 1:39-56) recounts Mary’s visit to Elizabeth; both the Epistle (Philippians 2:5-11) and the Gospel (Luke 10:38-42; 11:27-28) read during the Divine Liturgy itself are also those that are read during the liturgy for the Nativity of the Mother of God (celebrated September 8th).  The beautiful hymns sung during Vespers and Orthros for the Dormition convey the theological significance of the feast.  For example: “The source of life is laid in the grave and her tomb becomes a ladder to heaven.” (Hymn from the Dormition Vespers).  

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In celebrating the Dormition, the Church recognizes not only Mary’s central role in the history of salvation, but also underscores the Orthodox concept of Theosis - or, the ability of all of us to try to be God-like and, just as the Mother of God did, place in Him the hope of our salvation (cf. Prayer after Holy Communion: “It is good for me to cleave unto God and to place in Him the hope of my salvation.”).  

Icons of the Dormition are traditionally placed over the western interior wall of Orthodox churches, so that they are the last thing that the faithful will see on exiting the building.  An extremely beautiful example is the mosaic icon of the Dormition which has survived in the Church of the Savior in Chora in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).  The icons of Dormition, according to tradition, are very much didactic (or “teaching”) icons.  They depict the funeral bier of the Virgin Mary, behind which Christ, in glory, is depicted as receiving the soul of His Mother (usually shown as a little child in swaddling clothes).  At this moment, the Lord attends to His Mother rather than the other way around, as it was on earth.  The Apostles – and sometimes also some of the Church Fathers – are depicted as being gathered together in amazement.  The tomb of the Virgin Mary can be visited today in Gethsemane.  The tradition of the Church, from the earliest days, says that three days after her death, the Lord took His Mother bodily into heaven in anticipation of His Second Coming.  

As one contemporary theologian explains, “To understand the Theotokos is to understand the mystery of the Church.”  Scripture and the theological tradition and worship of the Church together have honored the Virgin Mary from the earliest days of the Faith.  “Devotion to the Theotokos has always been an essential part of the Church’s inner life, the heart and soul of its spiritual and mystical tradition,” continues this theologian.  It is for these reasons, and of course many others, that the Third Ecumenical Council meeting in Ephesus in 431 formalized her title in the Church, the “Theotokos,” or the “Bearer of God.”  The title, “the Theotokos,” first appears in written text in the works of St. Methodios of Patara in the late third century, but this again merely reflects the practice of the Church from its earliest days.  

In our church here in Somerville, we have placed an icon of the Virgin Mary Platytera (or “Wider than the Heavens”) in the apse of the church building, overlooking the sanctuary area, the holy table, and all of the congregation.  The placement of the Theotokos’ image in the apse predates the Iconoclastic Controversy, and the Platytera icon visually expresses the words of the hymn, the Theotokion: “Our God Who existed before the ages made your womb a throne and your belly broader than the heavens.” (From the hymn, “All creation rejoices in you who are full of grace…”).  

“She who is higher than the heavens, more glorious than the cherubim, held in more honor than all creation, whose great purity made her fit to be the dwelling of the eternal Being, into her Son’s hands today commits her holy soul.  With her, are all things filled with joy, and to us is given abundant mercy.”

 

 - From the Vesperal Hymns of the Forefeast of the Dormition (August 14th).

References:  

  • A Monk of the Eastern Church.  The Year of Grace of the Lord: A Scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church.  Trans. Deborah Cowan.  Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980.  

  • George S. Gabriel.  Mary: The Untrodden Portal of God.  Thessalonica: Ekdoseis Zefyros, 2000.  

  • The Rev. Archimandrite Maximos Constas.  The Mother of the Light: Prayers to the Theotokos.  Columbia: Newrome Press, 2018. 

  • St. John Maximovitch.  The Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God.  Trans. Fr. Seraphim Rose,  Platina: St, Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2017.  

  • John Kosmas Skinas.  Heaven Meets Earth: Celebrating Pascha and the Twelve Feasts.  Chesterton: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2015. 

  • The Rev. John Anthony McGuckin.  “The Dormition” in The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.  Ed. Rev. John Anthony McGuckin.  Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.  

  • Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia (Timothy Ware).  The Orthodox Way.  Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999.    

  • Hugh Wybrew.  Orthodox Feasts of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary: Liturgical Texts with Commentary.  Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000.    
     

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