On August 15, Orthodox Christians celebrate the greatest of all the religious festivals which the Church established in honor of the All-Holy Virgin Mary (Panagia), the feast of the Dormition (Koimêsis) of the Theotokos.
The feasts of the Virgin Mary (theomêtorikai eortai) are second in importance after those of our Lord Jesus Christ in the annual cycle of festivals observed by the Orthodox Church because, after our Lord Himself, the All-Holy Virgin is the most blessed person in our Church.
If the Lord’s greatest Feast is that of Pascha, the Feast of His redemptive Death and Resurrection, then His Mother’s greatest feast is also associated with her death and metastasis (i.e., translation or transposition) to Heaven. The reason for this is to be found in the basic Christian perception of salvation, which is none other than the reentry of human beings into God’s eternal kingdom, transcending death and regaining the gift of eternal life.
In our Orthodox tradition, the blessed person of the Theotokos is inseparable from the blessed person of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is exactly what the name, Theotokos (i.e., the God-bearer, Mother of God) constantly declares: namely that the place and significance of the Virgin Mary in the Church can not be understood apart from her relation to our Lord.
What is declared by the name Theotokos is most tangibly depicted on the iconostasion (the icon screen before the sanctuary) of any Orthodox Church. The icon of the Lord’s is always on the right of the Beautiful Gate, and the icon of the Theotokos is always on the left. This particular icon, depicting the All-Holy Virgin Mary holding our Lord and Savior as a child in her arms, is the most characteristic of all icons associated with her blessed person.
The hymns of this feast, which are among the most significant of the Orthodox liturgical year, bring out not only this basic Christian perception of salvation but also the important place that the blessed person of the All-Holy Theotokos has in this perspective.
The Feast of the Dormition was established in the 6th century, although its roots go back to earlier centuries, especially the 5th century, following the dogmatic decision of the 3rd Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431) to accept and use the term, Theotokos as the most important and defining description of the All-Holy Mother of our Lord in the Church.
According to Dr. Ioannis Fountoulis, Professor of Liturgics at the University of Thessaloniki, this feast was joined to an earlier feast in honor of the Theotokos at the famous church of the All-Holy Virgin Mary in Gethsemane, which had been erected by the Byzantine Emperor Maurice over her tomb.
The details of the celebration of the feast of the Dormition, especially those revealed in its hymns, are based on an apocryphal narrative concerning the circumstances of the death of the Theotokos, which goes back to Saint John the Theologian, the beloved disciple of the Lord in whose care the All-Holy Theotokos had been entrusted.
The narrative tells us the story, which is beautifully depicted on the holy icon of the Dormition. It tells us that the All-Holy Theotokos was visited by the Archangel Gabriel and foretold about her approaching death; that thereupon the Theotokos returned to her home and prepared for this event, praying at the same time that the Apostles should be notified accordingly. John is said to be the first to arrive in a miraculous way, and then all the rest follow. Finally, the Lord Himself appears in His dazzling divine glory, escorted by a myriad of angels, and takes her all-holy soul, which is wrapped up like a newborn babe in swaddling clothes, into His arms in order to transport it to Heaven.
THIS WORLD AND THE NEXT
Before she departs, the All-Holy Theotokos greets the Holy Apostles and the people, promising that “whichever soul is to call her name will not be put to shame, but will find mercy and consolation, understanding and boldness in this world and the next.”
Her funeral follows. The holy body of the Theotokos is then taken to a tomb in Gesthemane where it is buried. Yet according to the narrative, on the third day after the funeral, the holy body of the Theotokos was translated to Heaven. The first hymn of the Great Vespers of the Feast sums it all up.
“O marvelous wonder. The source of life is laid in the tomb, and the tomb itself becomes a ladder to Heaven. Be glad, O Gethsemane, thou sacred abode of the Mother of God. Come, o ye faithful, and with Gabriel to lead us, let us all cry out: Hail, thou who art full of grace, the Lord is with Thee, granting the world through thee great mercy.”
Orthodox Christians honor the All-Holy Theotokos as the supreme living icon of the Church, the Mother of all Christians because, as the holy fathers explain in their writings, she is the “New Eve,” the new Mother of Humanity who, through her obedience, reversed the curse, which followed Eve’s disobedience, and brought to the world the “New Adam,” our Savior Jesus Christ, Who restored mankind’s communion with God the Creator.
Orthodox Christians also believe in the ancient doctrine of the perpetual virginity of the All-Holy Theotokos. That is to say, that she was a Virgin before and during the Birth of Christ, and that she remained a Virgin afterwards. This is depicted in her icon by means of three stars appearing on the veil on her forehead and shoulders and also represents the grace of the Holy Trinity, Which was in her and made her “full of grace (kecharitômenê).”
In line with this, Orthodox Christians disagree with the Protestants, who believe that the All-Holy Virgin had other children besides the Lord, and maintain that the brothers and sisters of Jesus mentioned in the Gospel are most likely children of Joseph from an earlier marriage or cousins of Christ who were under the protection of Joseph, their uncle. Indeed, Joseph was betrothed, but not married, to the All-Holy Virgin.
Orthodox Christians also believe that the Theotokos is all-holy and immaculate, not because of her “immaculate conception” by her parents Joachim and Anna, but because she became such by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, Who “came upon (epeleusetai)” her; the Divine Power, which overshadowed (episkiasei)” her; and the uncorrupted conception of Christ in her womb. The Roman Catholic dogma of the “Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” which was declared in 1854, is unacceptable to the Orthodox.
Orthodox Christians believe that the All-Holy Theotokos fell asleep, that the Lord took up her soul to heaven, and that her body was most possibly transposed to Heaven afterwards as some of the fathers teach. They find unacceptable the dogma of the “Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” which the Roman Catholic Church declared in 1950 and which not only suggests that the Theotokos’ death or dormition not real, but also that she is Co-redeemer (co-redemptrix) and co-mediator (co-mediatrix) with the Lord. The Roman Catholic position gives priority to Mary rather than to Christ, inasmuch it suggests that He is immaculate because of her, instead of her being immaculate because of Him.
In the United States, many Orthodox have adopted the name Assumption as equivalent to the Greek Dormition (Koimêsis), but they understand it not in the Roman Catholic sense, which is almost identical with the Ascension (of the Lord), but in the sense of metastasis, as explained above.
Orthodox Christians do not share the Protestant objections to the sinlessness of the Theotokos, however, which are based on false premises. Protestant Christians, by and large, basically identify the Virgin Mary with the rest of humanity and fail to see the distinct qualities, and the Grace that abides in her, which make her the New Eve.
Orthodox Christians believe in the all-holiness or sinlessness of the Theotokos, not in the absolute sense, which belongs to God Alone, but in the relative sense, which is the gift of Pentecost (i.e., the gift of the abiding grace of the Holy Spirit in the Mother of God, the Holy Apostles and the Church in general, Which, by definition, makes all of them holy).
Finally Orthodox Christians pray to the All-Holy Theotokos for salvation, not in the sense that she is the primary cause of salvation, for this belongs to Christ Alone, but in the sense that she mediates through her maternal boldness and prayers to the Lord for Christians as her spiritual children.
Protestant objections to such Orthodox prayers to the All-Holy Theotokos and to the Saints are based on a misunderstanding of the above position.
The dismissal hymn of her greatest feast, the feast of the Dormition, sums up all these points of Orthodox belief presented briefly in this article:
“In giving birth, O Theotokos, thou has retained thy virginity, and in falling asleep, thou has not forsaken the world. Thou who art the Mother of Life has passed over into Life, and by thy prayers, thou has delivered our souls from death.”
by Protopresbyter Dr. George Dion Dragas