Archpriest Artemy Vladimirov speaks to why the feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos—the autumn Pascha, is especially significant for us, how to prepare for it, how to celebrate it, and on the event of the feast.
Quickly, as always, alas, happens, flew by the blessed, radiant, and serene, although sometimes interspersed with autumn showers, days of the Dormition fast. Behind us remains the imperishable radiance and unwaning light of the feast of the Transfiguration. And now—the Dormition—the Russian autumn Pascha as is known this glorious day. It is remarkable that our people the Dormition of Our Sovereign Lady the Theotokos consider an especial celebration. Otherwise why are the main and greatest monastic lavras and monasteries named in honor of the Dormition? The Pochaev-Dormition Lavra, the inheritance of the Mother of God on earth; the Kiev Caves-Dormition Lavra; the main church of the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra is in honor of the Dormition of the Theotokos; the Pskov Caves-Dormition Monastery, where these days are so celebratory and beautiful that to there throng practically half of all of Russia to help the monks and laborers of the habitations to lay out of living flowers a road on which the clergy bear the ancient wonder-working icon of the Most Holy Virgin Mary. Moreover, in any parish church, dear friends, if you desire to actively express in an outward manner your love to the Heavenly Queen, you can participate in this feast. I will prompt you with in precisely what manner you can do so.
In view of the Dormition the parish is usually adorned with white lilies and roses. Lilies flank the very icon of the Dormition, in vases sweetly-smelling of a delicate aroma, creating a distinctive atmosphere. In the center of the church lies the shroud with the image of the Theotokos, having only just committed her blameless soul into the hands of Jesus Christ, to her appearing as is proper to the Son of God, having placed Himself during the course of His earthly life in full obedience to His mother, until He departed out into public preaching. So, according to your means, to your desire and dispensation bringing to the church one, two, three lilies or roses, you will feel that in your heart are incorruptible lovely flowers of paradise uncovering themselves, regardless of earthly withering, for the Mother of God will none from among her benefactors, those who honor her virginity and her heavenly glory, abandon without consolation, without succor, without recompense. If you happen to have chance to be in some Russian monastery—in the Tolga Convent on the banks of the beautiful Volga, or in the aforementioned Pskov Caves Monastery—I submit that you take part in the careful placing of the path. In Pechory a few days ahead of time they commence this holy work, and of course, with pure hands, and firstly—with pure thoughts. If someone among us would like to quit smoking, but in no way can manage to part with this evil passion, embedded under his skin as a poisonous maggot, if you have grown weary of your own irritability or you do battle with despondency, if you desire to attain to those qualities with which the Queen of Heaven herself shines… But she, you will recall, exuded all grace—her lips anointed with myrrh and understanding, her heart never bewildered with thoughts of enmity. Friendly, smiling, quiet and laconic, she was able to every person coming to her comfort according to his age: with babes she was gentle like a mother; to the elderly reverential; youths she could render chaste but by her external appearance, for the ambiance of virginity hovers over her; spouses she inured to the abstemious life with mutual care one for another; for the apostles she was a teacher, thanks to whose instructions they were confounded neither from any persecution nor Hebraic or pagan malice, but with great audacity glorified the risen Lord and proclaimed the glad tidings of His rising from the dead.
So, taking part in this amiable earthly work, in this hustle and bustle to decorate the monasteries, laying down the path of living flowers, you inwardly pray: “Mother of God, holy Lady Theotokos, I want to be thy pure son … grant me the grace to be thy pure daughter … help me to turn again back home, to my household, to my dwelling, thus changed that I might not darken my mind with earthly vanities, that my mouth might not wallow in censure and idle talk, that my heart might learn at last to preserve that blessed peace, that tranquility and serenity which penetrate here, in thy habitation. Mother of God, I a bit will labor and adorn this path along which will proceed the clergy, bearing up in their hands the icon of the Dormition, and thou help me because I am tortured by blood pressure and it’s movements whether high or low, ischemia, palpitations plague me, and migraines, and gout…” Every one of us, dear friends, as is well known, has his own set of frailties, his own medical card. To the doctor it’s far, the medicine expensive. We, of course, will not wholly cancel the therapy prescribed to us by the medic. But in the days of the Dormition we deeply believe that the Mother of God will extend to us her invisible right hand, touching with her gentle, immaculate fingers the ailing body and wounded soul, and we will acquire the strength and fortitude to which attained those people having touched with faith then the bed of the Theotokos, in Jerusalem, in the first century at the Nativity of Christ.
According to Tradition, the Heavenly Queen reposed at the age of seventy plus some years. I would like, dear friends, to remind you that a few days and hours before the Lord called His Most Pure Mother to the heavenly habitations, on the Mount of Olives under the olive shade, where formerly her Son and God conversed with sublime, sacred conversations with teaching on the Heavenly Kingdom for the apostles, the Mother of God on bended knee, irrigating her face with tears, prayed to the Lord Jesus Christ to release her soul from her body and to extricate her from the sight of the impure spirits. Such was the humility more honorable than the seraphim and more glorious beyond compare than the cherubim of her whose purity exceeds that of the angels and astonished the heavenly moral perfections. Such was her humility, her modest self-esteem, that she supplicated the Creator to ban the fallen spirits from access to her all-chaste soul. The Queen of Heaven knew that the ascent from earth to heaven is the final exam and trial which you and I shall invariably undergo—one sooner, another later, but we are all behooved once to die and then to appear at the judgment seat of Christ. This is why the feast of the Dormition is so important for every one of us.
If we give ourselves the work of not being late to the All-Night Vigil and as candles spreading forth light and warmth will pray at the shroud of the Theotokos, beholding her light-bearing face, contemplating its beauty amongst the lilies and roses, and to proceed to the Divine Mysteries at Dormition Liturgy, and having partaken we preserve the festive mood of our hearts, allowing no kind of earthly rancor, vain curiosity, intemperance in food or drink, discussion of others’ shortcomings to kidnap from out of our hearts the pearls of Divine grace, then the Heavenly Quee, undoubtedly will intercede for us at the hour of our personal departure. Read the Canon at the Departure of the Soul (which can be found in large prayer books), and you will see that on behalf of the departing these words are pronounced: “O Heavenly Queen, I tremble and know not where to place my gaze: evil spirits terrify me and try to drag me to the bottom of hell, but do thou, as a meek dove, extend over me thy blessed wings. Receive me, as thy child, from all sides assaulted, stung by demonic cackling and laughter, protect me from these ravenous dogs and birds, but send to me a guardian angel to bear up my soul to the gates of the Heavenly Jerusalem, that by thine intercession I might be vouchsafed to behold Christ the Savior and enjoy His face, that the dark powers might be afflicted and find in me nary a defect or dark side.” So here, dear friends, it behooves us to pray beforehand. He who is warned, the same is armed. He who has glorified the Dormition of the Theotokos himself will be glorified by the Virgin Mary and not put to shame in his hour of departure.
And if, God forbid, one of us should become hardened, lose his faith, begin to befoul his mouth with unclean profanity and hate for the Queen of Heaven, and corrupt himself with sins of the flesh and remain impenitent, is it not of such wretches that it is said: The death of sinners is wicked?
This is why the feast of the Dormition serves for us, dear friends, as the best preparation t’wards our own repose and moreover gives hope that God, by the intercession of the Theotokos, will add to us hour upon hour, day upon day, month upon month, year upon year, of all of our sins having repented, to glorify the name of the Lord in acts of repentance, and acts of faith and love.
Returning to the historical canvas of the feast of the Dormition, we recall that to the Virgin Mary appeared in the Garden of Gethsemane the Achangel Gabriel, who from her tender years, from youth, from her infancy veil led spiritually the Divine Maiden Mary and by his presence marked the milestones of her life. Namely from his hands,according to Tradition, sojourning in the quietude of the Jerusalem Temple, the Queen of Heaven aforetime ate daily immaterial heavenly bread. The Archangel Gabriel announced, as you remember, to the immaculate Virgin Mary of the riches of heavenly providence—about that, in the case of her humble consent, the Spirit of the Lord would descend upon the Virgin and weave under her heart in her immaculate womb the splendid Fruit—the Holy Son of God, in the Person of Whom is miraculously united humanity and Divinity. Here, just before her Dormition, the Archangel Gabriel appears to the Theotokos Mary, already having labored in the endorsement of Christ’s Church on earth, already having visited Athos, when fell the idols and the demons in terror fled from this lot of the Theotokos. And bestow did the archangel the light-bearing paradisaical branch which became a sure sign of notification of her approaching blessed repose.
Tradition testifies: he who does not believe or wants to verify, refer to, please, the detailed narrative of the feast of the Dormition from the holy hierarch Dimitry of Rostov—perhaps in Russian, perhaps in Church Slavonic, perhaps in English, or what have you—and see that this branch was placed in Zion’s upper room, by the bier upon which lied the All-Pure Virgin with her luminescent face, having managed to bestow her blessing upon the apostles, by the unseen power of God gathered in the Zion’s upper room at the hour of her decease. There occurred something incredible, the impossible: the rooftop of this building as if opened itself, and in Heavenly glory the risen Christ, surrounded by archangels and angels, appeared here, having stepped foot onto the stone tiles of the room, and into His hands received as a pure, immaculate dove the soul of the Most Holy Theotokos. Look at the icon of the Dormition and you will see: the Queen of Heaven lying lenghtwise with her virginal and immaculate body, and over her in a mandorla, that is, surrounded by heavenly powers, the Son of God, and in His hands a child, swaddled in pure linen sheets. What is this child? It is the soul of the Most Holy Theotokos, never once by word, or deed, or even thought absenting itself from the Heavenly Father.
On this, dear friends, we, probably, should complete our contemplation, because we are all children of God. To Divine love all ages yield surrender. And the best of all enter into the feast of the Dormition under the temple arches with the soul of a childlike believer, gentle, joyful, friendly with all, having completely forgotten inconsequential and unnecessary offenses, having dissipated suspiciousness, having shaken off from your feet the dust of despondency, with visible fervent faith, with trembling love and confidence in the heavenly assistance of the Theotokos drawing near to her icon, to hear the words of the Dormition troparion: “In falling asleep Thou didst not forsake the world, O Theotokos.”