The Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos is one of the most beloved Feasts of the Orthodox Church. In the Summer when church attendance tends to dwindle, this Feast brings thousands of faithful to church. They come not only for the day of the Feast but throughout the fourteen days leading up to it. The Dormition of the Theotokos has been regarded by many as the Summer Pascha.
It is only during this period of Δεκαπενταύγουστο that we chant the Great Paraklesis to the Theotokos along with the Small Paraklesis on alternating days. Throughout the rest of the year, only the Small Paraklesis is sung. The title Summer Pascha
might seem ambiguous, yet understanding this Feast clarifies that. Pascha is the Resurrection of Christ, the Winter Pascha
has been synonymous with Christmas and the Summer Pascha
for the Dormition of the Theotokos.
With all these three great Feasts, there is a period of preparation leading up to them. With Pascha, it is Great Lent and Holy Week, with Christmas it is Advent and with the Dormition it is the fifteen days of August. The period of preparation is fasting and almsgiving but also prayer, both private and corporate. The Feast of Dormition is not simply about the Virgin Mary’s death, rather the translation of Her Body from Earth to Heaven.
According to Holy Tradition, one day Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Theotokos at Golgotha and announced Her departure from this life. As a pledge to this, the Archangel gave Her a palm branch. On the day of Her Dormition, miraculously all the Apostles were gathered throughout the world, escorted upon clouds and brought to Her funeral bier. We chant at the end of each paraklesis during this period and on the day of the Feast: Apostles, you have assembled today from earth’s furthest reaches here in this town of Gethsemane; now, therefore, bury my body. And You, my Son and my God, receive my departing spirit (Festal Exaposteilarion).
It is interesting to note that the Apostle Thomas was not present for the funeral of the Theotokos. Arriving late on the third day after Her Dormition, Thomas came to Gethsemane where the Theotokos was buried. He asked that he may open Her tomb to venerate Her relics and bid Her farewell. When the Apostles opened the tomb, all they found were grave wrappings, the Body was not there. It is curious that Thomas was delayed for the funeral of the Theotokos. Perhaps this was God-intended, since he was last of the Apostles to accept Christ’s Resurrection.
Later that day, the Apostles gathered to eat and as they raised the bread in Jesus’ Name, as was their custom, the Theotokos suddenly appeared to them and said: Rejoice! I am with you all the days of your lives. It was from this occurrence that the Apostles learned of Her bodily translation into Heaven.
There is a special service held in monasteries called the Rite of Offering of the Panagia. A portion of the prosforon used in the Divine Liturgy is dedicated in honor of the Mother of God. This service is done as a procession after the conclusion of the Liturgy. It traces its roots to the Apostles who first offered a portion of the bread, set aside at the meal in memory of the Savior and they exclaimed: Most Holy Theotokos, save us.
At every Divine Liturgy, during the Service of the Proskomidi, where the priest prepares the Host to be offered, a triangular portion is cut from the prosforon and placed at the right side of the Host on the paten in honor of the Theotokos. The Host is a square piece of the prosforon containing four smaller squares with the letters IC, XC, NI, KA which means: Jesus Christ conquers. It is the Host which becomes the Body of Christ at the Consecration.
The Orthodox belief of the translation of the Body of the Theotokos to Heaven is in contrast to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. For the Latin Church, the Assumption of the Theotokos was defined as a dogma by Pope Pius XII in 1950. Pius’ dogmatic statement: having completed the course of Her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory, leaves open the question of whether or not the Virgin Mary actually reposed.
This teaching is deduced from the Roman dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the Roman teaching of the Original Sin. If the Theotokos was removed from the general law of the Original Sin, then she was given from Her conception the gift of righteousness and immortality which Adam and Eve had before their fall into sin. Thus, even if the Theotokos had died then it had to be a voluntarily death, to emulate Her Son, since death had no dominion over Her.
The Orthodox Church is not in concert with the said teachings and the Assumption is not a dogma. Although the Theotokos lived a life of purity and without sin, she was not exempt from the consequence of the Original Sin which is death. Her conception was not immaculate as it was for Christ. Furthermore, She did undergo a physical death. Her soul was received by Christ upon Her death and Her Body was transferred to Heaven.
The Theotokos was not raised from the dead by Christ as was Lazarus. Jesus raised Lazarus who continued to live an earthly life, having a mortal death years later. The Theotokos, on the other hand, was not raised from the dead to continue Her earthly life. Rather, Her Body was transferred from this life to the next. You gave birth yet preserved your virginity. You fell asleep in death yet did not desert the world, O Theotokos. You were transported to life (Μετέστης πρὸς τὴν ζωήν), as you are Mother of Life and, by virtue of your intercessions, deliver our souls from death (Festal Apolytikion).
The root of μετέστη is μεθίστημι which means to transfer or change one’s place. This is different from έγερσις which means to awaken or raise someone from the dead. As we hear in the Synaxarion at Matins on the Saturday of Lazarus: ἑορτάζομεν τὴν Ἔγερσιν (raising) τοῦ ἁγίου καὶ δικαίου, φίλου τοῦ Χριστοῦ, Λαζάρου τοῦ τετραημέρου (we celebrate the raising on the fourth day of the holy and righteous friend of Christ, Lazarus).
It was essential that the Body of the Virgin Mary not remain on Earth to decay. For in Her contained God Himself which is why Her Body is holy and sacred. It is accurate to say, however, that she was resurrected to life in the Eternal Kingdom.
In other words, the Theotokos is not awaiting the Common Resurrection on the Last Day for Her soul to be united to Her Body. They are indeed united and the Theotokos is together with Her Son in the Kingdom of Heaven. She was raised up by Her Son to His Heavenly Kingdom as the Mother of Life. Thus, the Dormition of the Theotokos is the Summer Pascha because it is commemorating the passage from death to life.
At your Dormition that transcended death, O Theotokos and Mother of Life, clouds caught the Apostles up into the air; and, from being dispersed throughout the world, they were reunited before your immaculate body. And when they had buried you with dignity, they lifted up their voices and sang the words of Gabriel, "Rejoice, O unwedded and virgin Mother who are full of grace; the Lord is with you." Along with them, entreat your Son and our God, for the salvation of our souls (Festal Doxastikon of Matins).
A Blessed Feast to all, especially all those named after the Theotokos.
O Most Holy Theotokos, save us!
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.
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