15 August 2018
The Dormition is a reminder
that we too will depart from
this life ‘to the source of life’
This week, the Calendar of the Church of Ireland commemorates Saint Muredach or Murtagh of Killala (12 August), Jeremy Taylor, bishop. Down and Connor and Dromore (13 August), Saint Fachtna or Fachanan of Ross (14 August) and Charles Inglis, missionary bishop in (16 August).
But the calendar is strangely silent today, 15 August.
Although the Church of Ireland commemorates the Virgin Mary on 25 March (the Annunciation), 31 May (the Visitation), and 8 September (her birth), the feast that recalls her death – the day on which most saints are commemorated – is missing from the calendar. This is in sharp contrast to the Calendar in Common Worship in the Church of England, and to calendars in other parts of the Anglican Communion.
In the Eastern Church, the Dormition of the Theotokos commemorates the death, resurrection and glorification of Christ’s mother, and is celebrated annually on 15 August.
Since the days of the Early Church, Christians have honoured the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, with special solemnity on 15 August.
From the sixth century on, that celebration has been explicitly associated with her death, as the end of her human life.
The tradition of the Church simply maintains that the Virgin Mary died by the necessity of her mortal human nature. There are no biblical or historical sources to support the feast, and there is no known date when it was first celebrated, though it is presumed to have occurred for the first time between the first and fourth century.
The earliest known celebration of the Dormition is between the first and fourth century, although there is no surviving documentation to prove this. The first real evidence that the feast was observed was in Jerusalem after the Council of Ephesus, in the year 431.
From Patristic times, if not earlier, theologians have sought to interpret her Dormition, or ‘falling asleep’ in the Lord, in the light of the whole Paschal Mystery.
In a well-known sermon (Hom. Dorm. John), Archbishop John of Thessaloniki (610-649) provides the earliest ‘official’ retelling by a bishop of the traditional narrative of the Virgin Mary’s entry into heavenly glory.
This homily is an effort to encourage the adoption of the feast of the Dormition in Thessaloniki. John wishes also to present to his readers a story of the Virgin’s departure that is not corrupted by heretical traditions. The text’s agreements with sixth-century Greek and Syriac versions makes it an important witness to the Dormition tradition.
John narrates the process of the Virgin Mary’s departure from the world over a three-day period in which the apostles and the palm branch play a key role. An angel comes to the Virgin Mary and tells her about her funeral and how the apostles will preserve her dignity and will carry out her final rites. The palm branch will be held by the apostles and it yields healing powers.
On the Mount of Olives, the Virgin Mary has a discussion with the angel who tells her that he will take her to heaven. She becomes agitated and prays to the Lord, reminding him of his promise that he would be the one to take her to heaven. To garner support, she asks her ‘brothers and relatives’ to accompany her for the remaining days of her human life. She asks them to do so by lighting lamps. In addition, the Virgin Mary talks about the two angels that exist: one that claims the souls of the righteous and the other the wicked.
The women with the Virgin Mary tell her that she does not need to be concerned that she will be taken by the wicked angel as she is the very definition of the virtue of abstinence.
She tells the Apostle John, appointed by Christ to care for her, to look after her body as she is afraid of the people who despised Christ and that her body will be the victim of their anger.
Even when she prepares for her final hours, she tells Saint John to donate her possessions to the remaining widows. She also instructs him to carry the palm branch while the other apostles bear her coffin. But Saint John says that all the apostles will carry the palm branch together as they are superior to him.
Saint John tells the other apostles not to be sad but to rejoice in her greatness. Saint Peter explains the significance of the lamps they carry by saying that ‘this is the threefold lamp of the inner person, which is body, soul and spirit.’ Thus, the lamp represents the Virgin Mary’s life of virtue. Saint Peter continues his preaching until, with a clap of thunder, Christ makes his appearance along with the Archangel Michael. The two depart with the Virgin Mary’s soul and Christ tells Saint Peter to take care of her body.
After Christ leaves, the people are told by Satan to attack the apostles and burn the Virgin Mary’s body, but the angels blind them. One of the chief priests manage to touch the bier and his hands are severed. After the priest repents and prays, his hands are restored. The palm branch is then used to cure the people of their blindness.
The text ends with the Virgin Mary’s body being placed into the tomb that Christ had arranged for her. After three days, the apostles open the sarcophagus and find that the Virgin Mary’s body has vanished.
Saint John of Damascus (676-749) later records the canon for this feast.
The Virgin Mary has central importance in Christian faith and spirituality as the one in whom God’s Word has become human, and in whom the community of Christ’s disciples sees the first full realisation of its own share in the risen life of Christ.
In the liturgical celebration of her Dormition, the teachers in the early Church offered a kind of icon of Christian hope for the transfiguration of our common humanity, both at the time of our own ‘falling asleep’ and at the end of history.
In his encyclical marking the Feast of the Dormition this year [15 August 2018], Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco writes: ‘We are accustomed to seeing and venerating icons of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus Christ.’ He refers to Saint Photios, who says in his Homily XVII, ‘The Virgin is holding the Creator in her arms as an infant.’
‘As we contemplate and prepare for the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos,’ Metropolitan Gerasimos says ‘we are challenged by the converse.’ Today, ‘[i]n the icon of the Feast of the Dormition, the Creator holds the Virgin in His arms.’
Orthodox tradition holds that at her falling asleep, the Lord entered the room and received her soul from the Archangel Michael, while an angelic choir sang nearby. ‘The icon for the Feast presents our hope to pass through death and into eternal life with Christ,’ Metropolitan Gerasimos writes.
‘We can only sing praises to God when we encounter this miracle … The Dormition of the Theotokos is a reminder that we too will depart from this life “to the source of life.” We must also call to mind the words Saint Paul uses when instructing the Philippians about death: “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain”.’
The feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary is being celebrated in Lichfield Cathedral today with the Mid-Day Eucharist, at which the preacher is the Dean, the Very Revd Adrian Dorber, and at Solemn Evensong, when the setting is Stanford’s Evening Service in A and the anthem is Mother of God, here I stand by John Taverner.