19 June 2024

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
41, 19 June 2024

The Virgin Mary depicted in the Dormition of the Theotokos, an icon in the new iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

This week began with the Third Sunday after Trinity (Trinity III, 16 June 2024). Today the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers Sundar Singh of India (1929), Sadhu (holy man), Evangelist and Teacher of the Faith.

Before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a reflection on the icons in the new iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford.

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

4, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos or the Virgin Mary in the new iconostasis in the Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18 (NRSVUE):

[Jesus said:] 1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before others in order to be seen by them, for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look sombre, like the hypocrites, for they mark their faces to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

A detail in the icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos or the Virgin Mary in the new iconostasis in the Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Stony Stratford iconostasis 4: The Dormition of the Theotokos (Virgin Mary):

Over the last few weeks, I have been watching the building and installation of the new iconostasis or icon screen in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford. In my prayer diary over these weeks, I am reflecting on this new iconostasis, and the theological meaning and liturgical significance of its icons and decorations.

The lower, first tier of a traditional iconostasis is sometimes called Sovereign. On the right side of the Royal Doors or Beautiful Gates facing the people is an icon of Christ, often as the Pantokrator, representing his second coming, and on the left is an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), symbolising the incarnation. It is another way of saying all things take place between Christ’s first coming and his second coming.

Other icons on this tier usually include depictions of the patron saint or feast day of the church, Saint John the Baptist, one or more of the Four Evangelists, and so on.

The six icons on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict Christ to the right of the Royal Doors or Beautiful Gates, as seen from the nave of the church, and the Theotokos or Virgin Mary to the left. All six icons depict (from left to right): the Dormition, Saint Stylianos, the Theotokos, Christ Pantocrator, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Ambrosios.

The icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos or Virgin Mary, the first icon to the left in the first tier in new iconostasis in Stony Stratford, bears the lettering Η Κοιμησις τησ Θεοτοκου, or ‘the falling asleep of the Theotokos’.

In the Calendar of the Orthodox Church, the Feast of the Dormition (Κοίμησις) or the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary is on 15 August. For Roman Catholics, it is the Feast of the Assumption. In the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship, 15 August is marked simply as ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary’, without any indication of any event in her life or any commemoration.

A reflection in the parish leaflet in Stony Stratford and Calverton last year described the Assumption as ‘the taking up of Mary into the glory of the Resurrection.’ It added, ‘In sharing in the fullness of God’s life and love, we remember that the same promise is made to all believers, as we turn to the Lord for grace and mercy.’

In his guidebook, The Holy Land, the late Jerome Murphy-O’Connor points out that two places in Jerusalem are traditionally associated with the end of the Virgin Mary’s earthly life: a monastery on Mount Zion is the traditional site of her death or falling asleep; and the basilica in the Garden of Gethsemane is said to be the site of her tomb.

Since the end of the 19th century, however, Mereyama, 8 km east of Selçuk, near ancient Ephesus and the coastal resort of Kuşadasi, has been venerated by many Roman Catholics as the site of her last earthly home. This tradition is based not on tradition or history, but on the writings of an 18th century German nun and visionary, Sister Catherine Emmerich, who never left her own country, and the interpretation of her visions by some late 19th century French Lazarist priests who were living in Smyrna (Izmir). The pilgrim industry was boosted by a papal visit in 1967.

The Feast of the Dormition is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church. However, this belief has never been formally defined as dogma by the Orthodox Church.

The Orthodox Church teaches that the Virgin Mary died a natural death, like any human being; that her soul was received by Christ when she died; and that her body was resurrected on the third day after her burial and was taken up into heaven, so that her tomb was found empty on the third day.

The death or Dormition of Mary is not recorded in the New Testament. Hippolytus of Thebes, writing in the seventh or eighth century, claims in his partially preserved chronology to the New Testament that the Virgin Mary lived for 11 years after the death of Jesus and died in the year 41 CE.

On the other hand, Roman Catholic teaching says she was ‘assumed’ into heaven in bodily form. Some Roman Catholics agree with the Orthodox that this happened after her death, while others hold that she did not experience death. In his dogmatic definition of the Assumption in 1950, Pope Pius XII appears to leave open the question of whether or not she actually underwent death and even alludes to the fact of her death at least five times.

In the Orthodox tradition, Mary died as all people die, for she had a mortal human nature like all of us. The Orthodox Church teaches that Mary was subject to being saved from the trials, sufferings, and death of this world by Christ. Having died truly, she was raised by him and she already takes part in the eternal life that is promised to all who ‘hear the word of God and keep it’ (Luke 11: 27-28). But what happens to Mary happens to all who imitate her holy life of humility, obedience and love.

In the Orthodox tradition, it is said that after the Day of Pentecost, the Theotokos remained in Jerusalem with the infant Church, living in the house of Saint John the Evangelist. That tradition says she was in her 50s at the time of her death. As the early Christians stood around her deathbed, she commended her spirit to God, and tradition says Christ then descended from Heaven, taking up her soul in his arms. The apostles sang funeral hymns in her honour and carried her body to a tomb in Cedron near Gethsemane. When a man tried to interrupt their solemn procession, an angel came and cut off his hands, but he was healed later.

The story says that the Apostle Thomas arrived on the third day and wished to see the Virgin Mary for the last time. The stone was rolled back, and an empty tomb was discovered. Orthodox tradition says that the Theotokos was resurrected bodily and taken to heaven, and teaches that the same reward awaits all the righteous on the Last Day.

Icons of the Dormition date from the 10th century. In traditional icons of the Dormition, the Theotokos is shown on the funeral bier. Christ, who is standing behind her, has come to receive his mother’s soul into heaven. In his left arm, he holds her as an infant in white, symbolising the soul of the Theotokos reborn in her glory in heaven.

Greek icons of the Dormition follow a 1,000-year-old tradition that some say dates back to early texts.

Behind the bier, Christ stands robed in white and – as in icons of the Transfiguration, the Resurrection and the Last Judgment – he appears surrounded by the aureole, or elongated halo, depicting the Light of his Divinity and signifying his heavenly glory.

Christ receives the soul of the Mother of God, but here the imagery reverses the traditional picture of mother and son, as he holds her soul, like a child, in his arms.

The Twelve Apostles are present; sometimes they are shown twice: grouped around the bier, and transported to the scene on clouds accompanied by angels. The Apostles are usually seen on either side of the bier – the group on the left led by Saint Peter, who stands at the head of the bier; the group on the right led by Saint Paul, who stands at the foot of the bier.

Many icons include four early Christian writers, identified by their bishops’ robes decorated with crosses – James, Dionysios the Areopagite, Hierotheos and Timotheos of Ephesus. In the background, mourning women are a reminder of the women who wept when they met Christ carrying his cross to Calvary, or the women who arrived at his tomb early on Easter morning ready to anoint his dead body.

The cherubim in blue, the seraphim in red and the golden stars in these icons refer to the hierarchy of cosmic powers. Archangels are present in the foreground in the lower left and right corners. In the centre foreground, the Archangel Michael threatens the non-believing Jephonias who dared to touch her bier in an attempt to disrupt her funeral. The story is told that his hands were cut off but that later they were miraculously restored when he repented, was converted to Christianity, and was baptised.

The best-known version of this icon is by El Greco, or Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541-1614), created in Crete probably before 1567.

The icon of the Dormition by Alexandra Kaouki for the Church of Our Lady of the Angels in the old town of Rethymnon in Crete

It was my privilege in Crete some years ago to watch a new icon on this theme in Orthodoxy being shaped and created by Alexandra Kaouki, perhaps the most talented and innovative iconographer in Crete today, as she worked in her studio, then below the Venetian Fortezza in the old town of Rethymnon.

She was creating this new icon for the Church of Our Lady of the Angels, or the Little Church of Our Lady (Mikri Panagia), on a small square in the old town. It was a careful, slow, step-by-step work in progress, based on El Greco’s celebrated icon. But, as her work progressed, Alexandra made what she describes as ‘necessary corrections’ to allow her to ‘entirely follow the Byzantine rules.’

We discussed why El Greco places three candelabra in front of the bier. Perhaps he is using them as a Trinitarian symbol. However, Alexandra has returned to the traditional depiction of only one to remain true to Byzantine traditions.

How many of the Twelve should be depicted?

Should Saint Thomas be shown, or was he too late?

Why did she omit stories from later developments in the tradition, yet introduce women?

Alexandra completed her icon in time for the Feast of the Dormition in Rethymnon on 15 August that year.

The three icons to the left on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict (from left) the Dormition, Saint Stylianos and the Theotokos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Wednesday 19 June 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Windrush Day.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with reflections by the Right Revd Dr Rosemarie Mallett, Bishop of Croydon.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (19 June 2024) invites us to pray:

Help us Lord, to commit to standing up for justice, equity and dignity, and against anything that denies the image of God in human beings.

The lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford, with the central doors open during the Divine Liturgy, and the icon of the Dormition to the left (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Collect:

Almighty God,
you have broken the tyranny of sin
and have sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts
whereby we call you Father:
give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service,
that we and all creation may be brought
to the glorious liberty of the children of God;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

O God, whose beauty is beyond our imagining
and whose power we cannot comprehend:
show us your glory as far as we can grasp it,
and shield us from knowing more than we can bear
until we may look upon you without fear;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Additional Collect:

God our saviour,
look on this wounded world
in pity and in power;
hold us fast to your promises of peace
won for us by your Son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Christ holding his mother’s soul wrapped like a new-born baby … a detail from Alexandra Kaouki’s icon of the Dormition as it neared completion

Saturday’s introduction to the Stony Stratford iconostasis

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

A fresco depicting the Dormition of the Virgin Mary in a church in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.