By Vicki Kanakaris
The Feast of the Dormition of Our Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary is celebrated on August 15 each year and is one of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church.
The Virgin Mary – the Theotokos, (Greek: “God-Bearer”), in Eastern Orthodoxy, the name given to the Virgin Mary as Mother of God.
The Dormition of the Theotokos (the Mother of God) is a Great Feast of the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches which commemorates the “falling asleep” (kimisis in Greek) or death of the Theotokos, and Her bodily resurrection or assumption before being taken up into heaven. The event is normally called the Dormition, though there are many Orthodox parishes in English-speaking countries with the name Assumption. In Greek, Dormition is Koimisis—falling asleep in death.
The commemoration of the Dormition of the Theotokos and the preparation for the Feast begin on August 1 with a period of fasting. A strict fast is followed on most of the days (no meat, dairy, oil, or wine), with the exceptions of fish on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, (or metamorphosis of Christ on Mount Tabor when our Lord appeared in His divine glory before the Apostles Peter, James, and John). Oil and Wine are allowed on Saturdays and Sundays.
While in life, the Theotokos spent Her days in prayer. On one of Her visits 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. She prayed to God that the disciples of the Lord, be with Her for Her Impending Repose. God heard Her prayer and fulfilled Her heart’s desire.
Going in to see the Mother of God, they beheld Her lying upon the bed, and were immediately filled with spiritual joy. The Disciples greeted Her, and then they told Her how they had been carried miraculously on a cloud from their places of preaching and from faraway lands. The Most Holy Virgin Mary glorified 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. She told them of Her desire to speak to them about Her imminent end.
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 Her by name, She blessed them and praised 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 am), when the Dormition of the Theotokos was to occur. 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. Descending from Heaven was Christ, the King of Glory, surrounded by hosts of Angels and Archangels and other Heavenly Powers.
Seeing Her Son, the Mother of God exclaimed: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God My Saviour, 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.
There followed a solemn procession where Her body was carried from Sion through Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane. When the procession reached the Garden of Gethsemane, then amongst 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.
On the third day after the burial St. Thomas (the only one of the Disciples not to have been transported by God) was suddenly caught up in a cloud and transported to a place in the air above the tomb of the Virgin. From that vantage point, he beheld the transformation of Her body into the heavens, and cried out to Her, “Whither goest thou, O all-holy one?” She removed Her girdle and gave it to him saying, “Receive this, my friend.” And then she was gone.
He then descended to find the other disciples keeping watch over the sepulchre of the Theotokos. He sat down beside them, with the girdle in his hand, greatly saddened that he had not been there when she reposed, as had been the other Apostles. The Apostles took pity on St. Thomas and opened the tomb. All were shocked when they found it empty, not realising that moments before she had been bodily transported to paradise. All that remained were Her burial clothes, which emitted a wonderful unearthly fragrance.
This great Feast of the Church (The Feast of the Dormition) and the icon celebrates a fundamental teaching of our faith—the Resurrection of the body. She truly died and was raised up by Her Son as the Mother of Life and participates already in the eternal life of paradise. This life of paradise is prepared and promised to all who “hear the word of God and keep it.” In the case of the Theotokos, this has been accomplished by the divine will of God. We also affirm through this Feast as we journey toward our heavenly home that the Mother of God intercedes for us. Through Christ she has become the mother of all the children of God, embracing us with divine love.