by Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco
“In birth you preserved your virginity; in death, you did not abandon the world, O Theotokos. As mother of life, you departed to the source of life, delivering our souls from death by your intercessions.”
Hymn of the Dormition of the Theotokos
Dearly Beloved in the Lord,
For the next two weeks, all Orthodox Christians will prepare to commemorate the Feast of the Falling Asleep – the Koimesis or Dormition – of the Virgin Mary. With a period of fasting and Supplication Services – Paraklesis – our attention will center on the final days of the All-holy Mother of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. While the Feast celebrates her death, we should also use these days to remember her life and what our Church teaches about her.
Many Orthodox Christians refer to the Feast as or attend parishes with the name of “Assumption”. This refers to the Tradition of the Church that speaks of the bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary upon her death. In the hymns for the Feast, we will hear words that support the belief:
“Open wide the gate (of heaven) and receive above the world the Mother of the everlasting Light,” or the following, “Christ translates her, as His own mother, into a dwelling far better and more divine, the Holy of Holies.”
As a result, this teaching is commonly held among Orthodox Christians although the Church has not proclaimed the bodily assumption of Mary as a doctrine or dogma (the Roman Catholic Church proclaimed it as doctrine in 1950).
We Orthodox Christians see Mary’s essential role in the story of our salvation contained within the Scriptures. We see her prefigurement in the Old Testament as the ladder in Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28:10-19) and in the young woman who will give birth to Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14). Of course we see her throughout the birth and childhood of Christ. We also see her presence in the life and ministry of her Son and the first days of the Church, for example, her presence at the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12), at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25-26), and among the Disciples following the Ascension (Acts 1:14).
Centuries ago, the Church bestowed upon her the title of Theotokos, “the bearer of God.” This title was formalized at the Third Ecumenical Council to emphasize the divine and human natures of Christ. When we hear the hymn,
“For Christ our God who cannot be contained was pleased to be contained in you,”
we can look at the icon of the Platytera ton Ouranon (“She who is wider that the heavens”), which dominates the central apse of many of our churches, and reflect in amazement upon the mystery of the infinite God being held within the finite womb of Mary.
But our love and appreciation of the Mother of God far exceeds any intellectual knowledge about her. She is the example par excellence for all humanity, for she freely accepted the will of God for her life. She is the Mother of the Church, our Mother, as we are all members of the Body of Christ. As our Mother, we are comforted in the knowledge that she protects us from adversity. We call upon her in our liturgical life and in our personal prayer to interceded to her Son for our salvation because we know that the appeals of a mother have great influence upon a son. As a hymn for the Feast states,
“Never cease, we entreat you, to intercede with Him on our behalf; for next to God we have put our hope in you…O Theotokos.”
And more succinctly, when we pray our petitions we cry our
“Most-holy Theotokos, interceded for us!” or “Most-holy Theotokos, save us!”
Our Church surrounds us with scripture, hymns, and icons to teach us about the Virgin Mary. We should fill our minds with the story of her life, but we should also allow our hearts to be filled with love for the Mother of God so that we may join the apostles who sang at her repose,
“Hail, incorruptible source of God’s life-giving Incarnation, that brings salvation to all.”
With Love in Christ,
G E R A S I M O S
Metropolitan of San Francisco