The Dormition of the Theotokos

One of the major feasts in the Orthodox Church has to do with the Theotokos, the Ever-Virgin Mary, Mother of our Lord. It is the feast of the Dormition, or her “falling asleep.” Some people refer to this event as the “assumption,” because they hold that Mary was bodily assumed into heaven, as our Lord was. Although Orthodox generally hold this view, it is not a dogma in the Orthodox Church. That is, it is not an “article of faith,” necessary for us to believe. Nevertheless, the event is an occasion for us to show our deep reverence for Mary, as we do on a number of other occasions: her nativity (September 8), her presentation to the Temple (November 21), her “purification, the entry of our Lord to the Temple (February 2), and her Annunciation (March 25). Special services are held on August 15, the feast of the Dormition. At the Cathedral, Orthros will be held at 9 a.m., followed by the Divine Liturgy at 10 a.m., and luncheon afterwards, offered by the Ladies Philoptochos. Meanwhile, the Paraklesis service will be offered, whereby we beseech the Mother of God for her intercession, that our Lord may protect us and that peace might prevail in the world. For the first time in years, we will celebrate the Paraklesis service in the evening, rather than in the morning, to enable working people to attend. The services will take place at 7 p.m. on Monday, August 1, Wednesday, August 3, Monday, August 7, Wednesday, August 9, and Friday, August 11. Inasmuch as the Dormition is a most solemn occasion, it is characterized by fasting. For us, fasting is accompanied by more frequent prayer and acts of philanthropy. In terms of food, we eat less, and avoid meat, dairy and fish.

Among Church fathers who have written about the Theotokos, St. Gregory Palamas figures prominently. Mary the Mother of God is the first volume in the series Sermons by Saint Gregory Palamas. We would like to bring the life and teaching of this remarkable 14th century saint (1296-1359) to your attention, and to encourage you to read the above-noted work.

Arranged thematically, the work consists of six sermons devoted to the Mother of God, including Homily 37, which St. Gregory preached on the Dormition. We reprint excerpts of this sermon below. Meanwhile, it was in 1334, while on Mount Athos, in his third year at the hermitage of Saint Sabas, which belongs to the Great Lavra, that Palamas experienced a vision in which he was encouraged to share the wisdom bestowed upon him from on high. It seemed that he was carrying a vessel overflowing with milk, which subsequently turned into the finest of wines. The wine emitted such a strong fragrance that it brought great joy to his soul. A youth appeared and rebuked him for not sharing the wine with others and for allowing it to go to waste, for this wine, as he explained, was inexhaustible. The angel then warned Gregory, reminding him of the parable of the talents. As he later related to his friend and disciple Dorotheus, Palamas understood this vision to mean that the time would come when he would be called upon to transfer his teaching from the simple plane of the ethical (the milk) to the higher plane of the dogmatic word (the wine), which leads heavenward. Thus, at the age of about 38, Gregory began to write his Encomium for Saint Peter the Athonite, and, at about the same time, he also began to compose his homilies on the Theotokos.

“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 highest honors the memory of the ever-virgin Mother of God, the Holy of Holies, through whom the saints receive their hallowing? That is exactly what we are doing today 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.” (On the Dormition)

“Since anything that overshadows something else naturally gives it its own form and character, what came to pass in the Virgin’s womb was not just union but the formation, out of both the power of the Most High and her all-holy virgin womb, of the incarnate Word of God...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 holiday and worldwide festival.” (On the Dormition)

“It was right, therefore, that the body which brought forth the Son should be glorified with Him in divine glory, and that the Ark of Christ’s holiness should arise with Him Who rose on third day, as the Prophet sang” (cf. Ps. 132:8). (On the Dormition)”

“Just as it was only 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 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.” (On the Dormition)

“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.” (On the Dormition)

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Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God.

John 4:7