What is greater than to be called – and to be – the Mother of God – the source of life whom Christ took the humanity that He made divine? St Paul said: ‘if the root is holy, then the branches are also’ (Rom. 11:16). Her body is the bridal-chamber of virginity, the heaven above us, the earth that brings forth God, the first-fruits of Adam’s mass of clay made divine, the exact image of creation’s original beauty, the earthly Palace of the heavenly King.
In Icon of the Dormition by Theophan the Greek 1392, the Theotokos is depicted lying on a couch surrounded by the Twelve Apostles. At center, Jesus Christ is shown in a mandorla swadling the soul of the Virgin Mary (a red seraphim is shown above his head). To either side of him are depicted the Hieromartyrs Dionysius the Areopagite and Ignatius the God-bearer who, according to sacred tradition are responsible for transmitting the account of the dormition.
The liturgical year, which is the image of the life in Christ, is also defined by two events in the life of Mary, her birth and her death. In fact, the first feast of the liturgical year is the Nativity of the Virgin (September 8). The last major feast of the liturgical year is the Dormition, celebrated on August 15.
In the tradition of our faith, we keep the vision of Mary’s ascent to heaven with the body (in the West this mystery is called the ‘Assumption’ which is also the name given to the feast – assumption signifies ‘ascension into heaven’. Dormition and Assumption are different names of the same event). In the East the feast is called Dormition which means ‘passage through death’ or ‘falling asleep in death’ – from which the word cemetery derives. In the language of scripture, death is often called a “sleeping” or “falling asleep” (Greek κοίμησις; whence κοιμητήριον > coemetērium > cemetery, a place of sleeping). If we die and then live again a better life after death, then clearly that is not so much a death as a sleep, a passage into a second life – born away by death; giving us complete release from earthly cares.
Like her Son, who ascended to the Father, so Mary was taken by angels and transported into heaven with her body (the absence of relics of the Virgin confirms her assumption into heaven). The Dormition expresses the hope of every Christian who waits for the hour of death as the passage into life, because of the victory of the resurrected Christ. Each death is a new and personal Pascha. Therefore this event is seen as the first-fruits of the bodily resurrection of the faithful that will occur at the Second Coming of Christ. The Theotokos has already undergone the bodily resurrection and stands in heaven in that glorified state – which the rest of humanity hopes for. Like us she was formed from earth, but she did not return there after her death, though she intercedes on earth for us.
We can ask why the Word of God took so long to descend to earth and become incarnate in order to save fallen humanity. Only after many millennia (from the middle of the sixth millennium after Adam’s sin) did God find on earth a virgin pure not only in body – but also in spirit. There was only one such woman, unique in her spiritual and bodily purity, who was worthy to become the church and the temple of the Holy Spirit.
We believe that the life, the death, and the resurrection of Mary are a mystery which the Church keeps in its memory/conscience. The exterior world has no access to this mystery. For no words can fully explain the virginity of the Mother of God, no analysis of her miraculous motherhood is possible; and her resurrection too remains a mystery which only the faithful piously preserve in faith and Tradition. The death and resurrection of Mary remains a mystery which the Church venerates in silence. This is why Scripture does not mention the passage from death to life of the most-pure Virgin. In the same way, the Orthodox Church has never proclaimed that the Assumption is a dogma, and yet it offers the Mother of God a limitless devotion. Her glory is such that it remains honourably wrapped up in the mysterious obscurity of God – to preserve its reality and truth unshaken – until the final restoration of all things.
For two thousand years the Church has preserved the memory of the Virgin Mary as the prototype of all Christians – a model of deification – what we are to become in Christ.
If ‘precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints’ (Ps. 116:15), and ‘the memory of the just is praised’ (Prov. 10:7), how much more fitting is it for us to celebrate with the highest honours the memory of the ever-virgin Theotokos (Mother of God), the Holy of Holies, through whom the saints receive their holiness?
By commemorating her holy Dormition and passing away, through which, having been made a little lower than the angels (cf. Ps. 8:5), she rose incomparably higher than the Angels, Archangels, and all the heavenly powers above them, because of her nearness to the God of all (cf. Rom. 9:5), and the marvels written of old which were accomplished in her.
The beginning and foundation of subsequent marvellous events, was the accomplishment of God’s promise to Joachim and Anna, the most virtuous people of their day, that, although childless from their youth, they would have a child in their extreme old age, and that their daughter would bear without seed Him Whom God the Father had begotten before all ages, outside time.
In addition, those who were to become parents in this mysterious way vowed to give back the child, who was to give birth herself even more mysteriously, to the Giver of the gift.
In accordance with this worthiest of vows, the Mother of God left her father’s house in extraordinary fashion while still an infant, to live in God’s house. For the space of many years she stayed there, strange as it seems, in the Holy of Holies (which we celebrate on the 21 November – the entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple – ta isodia). There she was provided with indescribable nourishment by attending angels: food, which Adam never reached the point of tasting, otherwise he would not have fallen away from life.
After this period of spiritual growth came the mysterious divine plan for the Virgin’s betrothal, the strange, inexplicable greeting of the Archangel Gabriel who flew down from on high, with God’s messages and salutations (which we celebrated on the 25th March as the Annunciation). This event reversed Adam and Eve’s condemnation, and healed the curse which was upon them, turning it into a blessing (Lk. 1:28-38).
For the King of all desired the secret beauty of the Ever-Virgin, as David foretold (Ps.45:11). He bowed the heavens and came down (Ps. 18:9), and overshadowed her (Lk. 1:35) – the power of the Most High came to dwell in her in His very person.
God did not reveal His presence through darkness and fire, as He did to Moses (Ex. 19:16, 18), nor through a tempest and cloud, as He did to Elijah (1K. 18:45), but the unveiled power of the Most High directly overshadowed the Virgin’s perfectly pure womb with nothing intervening, neither the air of earth or heaven, nor anything visible or invisible. For this was not overshadowing but pure union.
The Word of God in the flesh made His abode in her, came forth from her, ’and appeared on earth and went about among men’. He made our human nature divine, and bestowed on us, according to the Holy Apostle Peter, ‘things the angels desire to look into’ (1Pet. 1:12). Such is the extraordinary honour and all-surpassing glory of the Ever-Virgin, which defeats all mind and speech, however angelic they may be.
Even after Christ took flesh from her and ascended into heaven, she strove on earth to emulate the great works – past understanding and speech – which He had begun in her. She did this through patient endurance in all kinds of asceticism, through prayers, exertions for the whole world, counsels and exhortations for those going to the ends of the earth to preach.
She was the sole support and consolation of all who saw or heard her, assisting them by various means in the proclamation of the Gospel. Thus she showed that her whole life, her behaviour, her mind and her words, were utterly devoted to godly striving.
As a result of this, her death, too, was life-giving and led to heavenly, immortal life, and its day of remembrance is a joyful worldwide festival. Not only does it renew the memory of the wonders of the Mother of God, it also commemorates the unheard-of way in which all the holy Apostles were gathered from every country to her sacred funeral. With all their might they assisted in deed and song to reverence that body which had held God and is the starting-point of life, the saving remedy of our human race, solemnly chosen from the whole Creation.
In our iconography is indicated that the Son of the Ever-Virgin, was invisibly present at her Dormition, honouring His Mother’s departure. Into His hands she entrusted her God-bearing spirit, and through Him her body – her spirit’s companion – was soon translated into a heavenly place of eternal life, as rightly befits her whole life from the very beginning.
In ancient times there were many who attained to divine favour, glory, and power. As David said, ‘How precious also are thy friends unto me, O God! How great is their authority! If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand’ (Ps. 139:17-18). According to Solomon, ‘Many have acquired riches, and many daughters have acted with power, but she excels and outdoes them all’, to an inexpressible degree (Prov. 31:29).
Standing between God and the whole human race, she alone made God a son of mankind, and mankind sons and daughters of God, thus rendered the earth heaven and mankind divine.
She alone among women was declared the Mother of God/Theotokos by nature transcending every nature. It is at the Third Ecumenical Council, held in 431 in Ephesus, that the Church confirmed the veneration of the Virgin Mary by calling her the Theotokos, i.e. the Mother of God, the Mother of light, literally, God-Bearer. Theotokos implies that her Son is both fully man and fully God. Hence there is a historical consensus of the apostolic college about the veneration which the Church renders to the Theotokos.
Through her unutterable childbearing she became Queen of all Creation in this world and beyond, and through herself she raised up those below her, and made her followers heavenly instead of earthly. She shared in the noblest honour, the most sublime power and the ordination bestowed from heaven through the divine Spirit (Acts. 1:14; 2:1-4), and was set high above all, as the supremely blessed Queen of a blessed race.
At her Dormition she was moved from earth to heaven, and now has heaven too as a fitting dwelling-place, a palace delightful for her. She has stood at the right hand of the King of all, clothed in vesture covered with gold, and arrayed in diverse colours, as the Psalmist and the Prophet said of her (Ps. 45:9); We should take this garment interwoven with gold to mean her divinely radiant body, adorned with every type of virtue.
For at present she is the only one who has a place in heaven with her divinely glorified body in the company of her Son, lavishing the highest benefits upon us in her goodness. and by her unsleeping intercessions she reconciles us to her Son.
Earth, the grave, and death could not ultimately detain her life-giving body, which has held God and been a more beloved habitation for Him than heaven and the heaven of heavens. For if a soul which has the grace of God dwelling within it goes up to heaven when released from this world, as we believe and is evident on many accounts, then how could that body which not only received within it the pre-eternal, only-begotten Son of God, the ever-flowing Fount of grace, fail to be taken up from earth to heaven?
It is as though God wanted to set up an icon of everything good and, in doing so, to display His own image clearly to angels and mankind, and thus He made her so truly beautiful. Bringing together all the various means He had used to adorn all Creation, He made her a world of everything good, both visible and invisible.
He revealed her as the synthesis of divine, angelic and human loveliness, a nobler beauty to embellish both worlds, originating from the tomb to heaven, to the heavens, and beyond.
It is fitting that she, who held Him Who fills all things and is above all things, should herself outstrip all, and become higher than all in her virtues and great in honour. She embraces in their entirety the virtues, which, distributed among the noblest of every age, were sufficient to make them great, and the various graces with which angels and men have individually been favoured by God. But she perfects them all in herself with inexpressible excellence.
Anyone observing her help and generosity in everything good would say that, for those who live virtuously, the Virgin radiates virtue as the sun radiates visible light for those dwelling below, on earth. But if we were to shift our mental gaze to the Sun/Son Who marvellously shone forth to mankind from her, and Who possesses by His very nature everything bestowed on her by grace, and far more – then the Virgin would immediately seem like heaven to us.
Having a far more abundant share in God’s good things than all other recipients of His grace in heaven or below, she is as much greater than them, as the heavens are greater than the sun, though the Sun is brighter.
What words can describe the Virgin Mother of God’s divinely-radiant beauty? We cannot circumscribe her in our words and thoughts, for everything about her surpasses our speech and understanding. In her all graces find a place. She is the fullness of everything noble and good, a living picture and icon of all goodness and kindness, for she alone was found worthy of the gifts of the Spirit in their entirety, she alone had mysteriously dwelling in her womb Him in Whom all these gifts were stored.
The Mother of God is so much closer to God than others who draw near Him that she is able to intercede more powerfully than any of them, and by this I mean not just human beings but even all the ranks of angels.
Isaiah writes of the highest order of angels in heaven, ‘And the Seraphim stood round about Him’ (Isah. 6:2), whereas David says of the Mother of God, ‘Upon thy right hand did stand the queen’ (Ps. 45:9). Do you notice the difference in honour between the Seraphim’s rank and hers, for the Seraphim are ‘round about’ God, but only the Queen of all stands beside Him.
She is admired and praised by God Himself, as though He were extolling her to the powers around Him in the words used in the Song of Songs, ‘How beautiful is my companion’ (Song of Song 4:1; 6:4). She is more brilliant than light, she blossoms more beautifully than the gardens of paradise, and she is more delightfully adorned than the visible and invisible worlds.
It is fitting that she stands not just beside God, but on His right hand of the majesty (Heb. 1:3), for where Christ sat in heaven, there she now stands, having ascended from earth to heaven. Nor is this solely because no one longs for Christ as she does, but because she is truly His throne; and where the King sits, there stands the throne.
Isaiah did not see the Seraphim taking the live coal directly off the altar, but picking it up with tongs, which he also used to touch his prophetic lips to purify them (Isah. 6:6-7). This vision of the tongs is the same as that great vision which Moses saw of the bush burning with fire but not consumed (Exod. 3:2). Is there anyone who is unaware that the Virgin Mother is both that bush and those tongs, which held the divine fire without being burnt; for was it not to this very mystery that the Archangel ministered at her conception, which united through her the One Who takes away the sin of the world with the race of men, and which, through this indescribable union, has thoroughly cleansed us?
She alone stands at the border between created and uncreated nature, and no one can come to God unless he is truly illumined by her, the true lamp of divine radiance. ‘For God is in the midst of her’, says the Scripture, ‘she shall not be moved’ (Ps. 46:5).
God returns a kindness to us according to the measure of our love for Him, and he who loves the Son is loved by Him and by His Father, and becomes a place for them both to dwell, secretly living within each person and going about with each person, as the Lord promised (Jn. 4:21-23). But who could love the Son more than His Mother, who did not just bear Him as her only child, but gave birth alone to Him without a husband, such that her parental love was twice as strong, since it was not shared with a spouse?
Who could be more loved by the only-begotten Son than His Mother, especially as He came forth ineffably from her alone in the last times, as He has come forth from the Father alone before time began? How could He Who came down to fulfil the Law (Matt. 5:17) fail to increase many times over, in addition to the loving disposition expected of a son, the honour due to His Mother under that Law?
Just as it was through her that the Son came to us, was seen on earth, and lived among men, after previously being invisible to all, so from now on and for endless eternity all progress towards the manifestation of divine light, every revelation of divine mysteries, and all forms of spiritual gifts are beyond everyone’s grasp without her. She was the first to receive the all-pervading fullness of Him Who fills all things (Eph. 1:23; 4:10), and she brought Him within reach of all, distributing to each as they are able to receive, in proportion to the measure of their purity, such that she is both the treasure-house and Mistress of God’s richness.
So as many as will share in God will do so through her, all those who know God will know her as the one who holds Him Whom nothing can contain, and all who sing God’s praises will hymn her after God.
She is the cause of what preceded her, the protectress of what comes after her, and she acquires eternity. Of all those on earth she is the glory, of those in heaven the delight, the adornment of all Creation. Source, fount and root of ineffable good things, she is the crown and perfection of all the saints.
How can we fully describe the holy and now heavenly Virgin? How can we glorify the treasure-house of glory? Just the remembrance of her brings holiness. Simply turning towards her makes our mind more lucid, and takes it straight up to divine heights. Through her the eye of our understanding is sharpened; through her our spirit is enlightened by the Coming of the divine Spirit.
She has become the treasurer of graces and their store, not so that she might keep them for herself, but that she might fill the universe with grace. For the trustee of inexhaustible treasures sees to their distribution; why would never-ending treasure be locked away?
Therefore we ask her, as the first believer and the mother of the Church, for guidance and protection. We venerate her – but we do not worship her, for worship belongs to God alone.
God became man so that mankind might become god, said the Fathers of the Church; and in Mary, the Mother of God, we see the divine plan fulfilled. The person of Mary is the fulfilment of the Old Testament, in her Christ inaugurates the New Testament. The passage from the one to the other is accomplished in her body through the incarnation. The goal of the incarnation is manifested in her. Jesus Christ revealed humanity’s reality in Himself and His whole reality in the Theotokos and which He wants to do in us by responding to His call to become god’s by His grace.
The glory of the age to come, the final destiny of mankind, is already realized, not only in a divine person (hypostasis) made flesh, but also in a deified, human person. Her passage from death to life, from the temporal to the eternal, from the earthly condition to heavenly bliss, places the Mother of God beyond the universal resurrection, beyond the Last Judgement, beyond the Parousia which will bring the history of the world to an end.
The feast of the Dormition on the 15th of August is a second mysterious Pascha because there the Church celebrates, before the end of time, the secret first-fruits of (the end times of huamnity) its eschatological consummation of humanity – in the person of Mary. She reigns with her Son and sits at His side. She is our advocate, she defends us and intercedes for us before the one who will return in glory to judge the living and the dead. This is why we address her as the heavenly Queen Pantanassa in our prayers. She is the standard of royalty for the heavenly race. She is the sanctuary where all sacred worship and sacrifice takes place; virgin earth for Adams re-creator.
The Theotokos leads us to believe, in hope, that we too will be brought to share in incorruption and enjoy eternal life – that is if we do not bring death upon ourselves by sinful self-indulgence. The soul’s of all who submit to God’s will/the law of nature, who love what is good, who long to gaze on the good more deeply, and show, in the Holy Spirit, a heavenly pattern of life while still in the flesh, will be taken from here to a place of light that suits the holy state of the saints.