On August 15 (August 28), the Dormition of the Mother of God is celebrated by most Christians in the world. The Church year begins on September 1, and the first Great Feast of the year is the Nativity of the Theotokos, making the Dormition of the Theotokos the last great feast of the year. It is entirely fitting that these two feasts – celebrating the birth and falling-asleep of Mary respectively – should buttress the entire church calendar. The Church calendar tells us the story of our Salvation in the traditional way, with the climax of the story coming in the middle, which is when Easter is celebrated, before ending in a way which is somewhat symmetrical and complimentary to the beginning. Therefore, the final “scene” in our story of Salvation is the Dormition of Mary, the Mother of God.
The Icon of the feast depicts various strands of the story in one single frame. The story is this:
At the time of Her blessed Falling Asleep, the Most Holy Virgin Mary was again at Jerusalem. Her fame as the Mother of God had already spread throughout the land and had aroused many of the envious and the spiteful against Her. They wanted to make attempts on Her life; but God preserved Her from enemies.
Day and night She spent her time in prayer. The Most Holy Theotokos went often to the Holy Sepulchre of the Lord, and here She offered up fervent prayer.
In one such visit to Golgotha, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Her and announced Her approaching departure from this life to eternal life. In pledge of this, the Archangel gave Her a palm branch. With these heavenly tidings the Mother of God returned to Bethlehem with the three girls attending Her (Sepphora, Abigail, and Jael). She summoned Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and other disciples of the Lord, and told them of Her impending Repose.
The Most Holy Virgin prayed also that the Lord would have the Apostle John come to Her. The Holy Spirit transported him from Ephesus, setting him in that very place where the Mother of God lay. After the prayer, the Most Holy Virgin offered incense, and John heard a voice from Heaven, closing Her prayer with the word “Amen.” The Mother of God took it that the voice meant the speedy arrival of the Apostles and the Disciples and the holy Bodiless Powers.
The faithful, whose number by then was impossible to count, gathered together, says St John of Damascus, like clouds and eagles, to listen to the Mother of God. Seeing one another, the Disciples rejoiced, but in their confusion they asked each other why the Lord had gathered them together in one place. St John the Theologian, greeting them with tears of joy, said that the time of the Virgin’s repose was at hand.
Going in to the Mother of God, they beheld Her lying upon the bed, and filled with spiritual joy. The Disciples greeted Her, and then they told her how they had been carried miraculously from their places of preaching. The Most Holy Virgin Mary glorified God, because He had heard Her prayer and fulfilled Her heart’s desire, and She began speaking about Her imminent end.
During this conversation the Apostle Paul also appeared in a miraculous manner together with his disciples Dionysius the Areopagite, St Hierotheus, St Timothy and others of the Seventy Apostles. The Holy Spirit had gathered them all together so that they might be granted the blessing of the All-Pure Virgin Mary, and more fittingly to see to the burial of the Mother of the Lord. She called each of them to Herself by name, She blessed them and extolled them for their faith and the hardships they endured in preaching the Gospel of Christ. To each She wished eternal bliss, and prayed with them for the peace and welfare of the whole world.
Then came the third hour (9 A.M.), when the Dormition of the Mother of God was to occur. A number of candles were burning. The holy Disciples surrounded her beautifully adorned bed, offering praise to God. She prayed in anticipation of Her demise and of the arrival of Her longed-for Son and Lord. Suddenly, the inexpressible Light of Divine Glory shone forth, before which the blazing candles paled in comparison. All who it saw took fright. Descending from Heaven was Christ, the King of Glory, surrounded by hosts of Angels and Archangels and other Heavenly Powers, together with the souls of the Forefathers and the Prophets, who had prophesied in ages past concerning the Most Holy Virgin Mary.
Seeing Her Son, the Mother of God exclaimed: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God My Savior, for He hath regarded the low estate of His Handmaiden” (Luke 1:46-48) and, rising from Her bed to meet the Lord, She bowed down to Him, and the Lord bid Her enter into Life Eternal. Without any bodily suffering, as though in a happy sleep, the Most Holy Virgin Mary gave Her soul into the hands of Her Son and God.
Then began a joyous angelic song. Accompanying the pure soul of the God-betrothed and with reverent awe for the Queen of Heaven, the angels exclaimed: “Hail, Full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee, blessed art Thou among women! For lo, the Queen, God’s Maiden comes, lift up the gates, and with the Ever-Existing One, take up the Mother of Light; for through Her salvation has come to all the human race. It is impossible to gaze upon Her, and it is impossible to render Her due honor” (Stikherion on “Lord, I Have Cried”). The Heavenly gates were raised, and meeting the soul of the Most Holy Mother of God, the Cherubim and the Seraphim glorified Her with joy. The face of the Mother of God was radiant with the glory of Divine virginity, and from Her body there came a sweet fragrance.
Kissing the all-pure body with reverence and in awe, the Disciples in turn were blessed by it and filled with grace and spiritual joy. Through the great glorification of the Most Holy Theotokos, the almighty power of God healed the sick, who with faith and love touched the holy bed.
Bewailing their separation from the Mother of God, the Apostles prepared to bury Her all-pure body. The holy Apostles Peter, Paul, James and others of the Twelve Apostles carried the funeral bier upon their shoulders, and upon it lay the body of the Ever-Virgin Mary. St John the Theologian went at the head with the resplendent palm-branch from Paradise. The other saints and a multitude of the faithful accompanied the funeral bier with candles and censers, singing sacred songs. This solemn procession went from Sion through Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane.
With the start of the procession there suddenly appeared over the all-pure body of the Mother of God and all those accompanying Her a resplendent circular cloud, like a crown. There was heard the singing of the Heavenly Powers, glorifying the Mother of God, which echoed that of the worldly voices. This circle of Heavenly singers and radiance accompanied the procession to the very place of burial.
Unbelieving inhabitants of Jerusalem, taken aback by the extraordinarily grand funeral procession and vexed at the honor accorded the Mother of Jesus, complained of this to the High Priest and scribes. The Jewish priest Athonios, out of spite and hatred for the Mother of Jesus of Nazareth, wanted to topple the funeral bier on which lay the body of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, but an angel of God invisibly cut off his hands, which had touched the bier. Seeing such a wonder, Athonios repented and with faith confessed the majesty of the Mother of God. He received healing and joined the crowd accompanying the body of the Mother of God, and he became a zealous follower of Christ.
When the procession reached the Garden of Gethsemane, then amidst the weeping and the wailing began the last kiss to the all-pure body. Only towards evening were the Apostles able to place it in the tomb and seal the entrance to the cave with a large stone.
For three days they did not depart from the place of burial, praying and chanting Psalms. Through the wise providence of God, the Apostle Thomas was not to be present at the burial of the Mother of God. Arriving late on the third day at Gethsemane, he lay down at the tomb and with bitter tears asked that l he might be permitted to look once more upon the Mother of God and bid her farewell. The Apostles out of heartfelt pity for him decided to open the grave and permit him the comfort of venerating the holy relics of the Ever-Virgin Mary. Having opened the grave, they found in it only the grave wrappings and were thus convinced of the bodily ascent of the Most Holy Virgin Mary to Heaven.
The miraculous transportation of the Apostles is shown in the top of the Icon, though the main scene depicted within the icon is the funeral procession itself. The Apostles are shown reverencing the body of the Mother of God: St. Paul at her feet; St Peter at the head with censer in hand.
Together with the Apostles are several bishops – indicated by their white sashes with crosses embroided upon them – and women. The bishops traditionally represented are James, the brother of the Lord, Timothy, Heirotheus, and Dionysius the Areopagite, who first recorded the story of the Dormition in the 2nd century AD. The women are Sepphora, Abigail, and Jael, along with other members of the church in Jerusalem.
The account of the impious Jewish priest is not shown in the icon above, but is usually shown, as it is in this Dormition Icon. At the top centre of the icon, the unwitnessed assumption of Mary’s resurrected body into the open gates of Heaven.
Yet the main aspect of the Icon – to which all eyes are inevitably drawn – is the image of Christ in Glory holding the pure soul of Mary in His arms, shown as an infant. The parallel between the image of the God-Man Jesus holding the child-like soul of Mary and the image of the Mother Mary holding the Christ-child in her own arms is, of course, deliberate. The title of “God-bearer” is given to other Saints, such as St. Ignatius. To carry the Word of God, Jesus Christ, within us is the calling of all Christians: to bear Him spiritually within us during our lives, and shine with His glory. The “reward” for this in our earthly life is suffering at the hands of enemies, even to the point of martyrdom, as in the case of St. Ignatius. Yet the reward after our repose is that God bears our soul into His own hands and carries us into eternity, as we carried Him, for just a short time.
Elsewhere I wrote that no human being resembled Jesus Christ – the Son of God – more than His Mother, Mary. And yet this does not make the Theotokos the great exception to the human race, but the great exemplar. Jesus Christ Himself corrected the woman who shouted that Mary was blessed because she had the honour of being the Mother of God: “yea, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” This is why Mary is blessed – because more than any other person she heard the words of her Lord and kept them. This path toward Heavenly joy is open to us all.
And just as we look to Mary’s life for an example, we look to her bodily death – in this Icon – for hope as to where such an example leads us. The hope is in the bodily Resurrection and the life of the age to come. Both are shown in the Icon: the bodily assumption of Mary into Heaven, as well as the commendation of her soul into the hands of Jesus Christ.
Like those who gathered around the body of the Virgin Mary, we gather around our departed loved ones and commend their souls into the hands of Christ. As we remember those who have reposed in the faith before us and have passed on into the communion of the Saints, we prepare ourselves to one day be received into the new life of the age to come.