Sunday, 15 August 2010

Dormition or Assumption? A day of pilgrimage

An icon of the Dormition, Η Κοιμηcισ τησ Θεοτοκου … today is a popular day for pilgrims and tourists in Kuşadasi to visit Mereyama, near Ephesus

Patrick Comerford

In the Calendar of the Orthodox Church, today [15 August] is the Feast of the Dormition (Κοίμησις) or the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary. For Roman Catholics, it is the Feast of the Assumption, which has particular associations with Ephesus.

Two places in Jerusalem are traditionally associated with the end of Mary’s earthly life: a monastery on Mount Zion that is the traditional site of her death or falling asleep; and the basilica in the Garden of Gethsemane, that is said to be the site of her tomb. However, since the end of the 19th century, Mereyama, 8 km east of Selçuk, has been venerated by many Roman Catholics as the site of Mary’s 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. Today, undoubtedly, Mereyama will be thronged by thousands of tourists staying in Kuşadasi, the resort near Ephesus where I am staying all this week. Few of them may ever know that the commemoration of this feast has different emphases in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. The Dormition and the Assumption may appear to be different names for the same event – Mary’s departure from the earth – but the beliefs surrounding this day are not actually the same.

Dormition: death or dogma?

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 nor is it made a precondition of baptism. The Orthodox Church teaches that Mary died a natural death, like any human being; that her soul was received by Christ upon death; and that her body was resurrected on the third day after her burial, at which time she was taken up, bodily only, into heaven, so that her tomb was found empty on the third day.

On the other hand, Roman Catholic teaching says Mary 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 Munificentissimus Deus (1950), Pope Pius XII was not so dogmatic, for he 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.

An ancient tradition

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 the Lord 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 that awaits all the righteous on the Last Day.

Icons of the Dormition date from the 10th century, although there may have been earlier representations. 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.

This Greek icon, Η Κοιμηcισ τησ Θεοτοκου, dates from ca 1800 and follows 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.

In this icon, we also see four early Christian writers, who are identified by their bishops’ robes decorated with crosses – James, Dionysios the Areopagite, Hierotheos and Timotheos of Ephesus. In the background, we can see mourning women, a reminder too, perhaps, of the women who wept when they met Christ carrying his cross to Calvary.

The cherubim in blue, the seraphim in red and the golden stars in this icon refer to the hierarchy of cosmic powers, described by Dionysios the Areopagite, who serve the Lord. 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.

Ecumenical agreement

The name Theotokos was given to the Virgin Mary by the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431 AD. That council decreed that she should be honoured by this name which confirms the Orthodox belief in the Incarnation: that Christ was both true God and true man.

As so often happened in those days, this action was a response to heretical teachings that needed to be addressed. Thus, once and for all, the Church affirmed its teachings about Christ and Mary.

It is a custom in some Orthodox parishes to bring fragrant herbs or flowers to the church to be blessed on the Feast of the Dormition. These are then used to decorate an icon or the family table.

In some places, the Rite of the “Burial of the Theotokos” is commemorated an all-night vigil, with an order of service based on the service of the Burial of Christ on Great Saturday.

Tinos, one of the largest islands in the Greek Cyclades, is best-known for its large Church of Panagia Megalochori (The Virgin with All Graces), on a hill above the capital, Chora. Each year, the church attracts thousands of pilgrims from all over Greece to Tinos on 15 August.

Troparion (Tone 1)

In giving birth, you preserved your virginity!
In falling asleep you did not forsake the world, O Theotokos!
You were translated to life, O Mother of Life,
and by your prayers you deliver our souls from death!


Kontakion (Tone 2)

Neither the tomb, nor death, could hold the Theotokos,
who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions.
For being the Mother of Life,
she was translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!


Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin