Today, billions of Christians honor the solemnity of the Assumption of Mary. In the Byzantine Church, this feast is known as the Dormition (falling asleep) of the Theotokos. In the middle-Byzantine period, a variety of terms are used to describe the Dormition event, including koimesis, metathesis, metastasis, analepsis, and others.
The liturgy of Mary’s Dormition is patterned after Jesus’ Pascha. In a homily of St. Andrew of Crete (66-740 CE), we see this parallel between Mary and Jesus illustrated (taken from Brian Daley’s On the Dormition of Mary (SVS Press, 1998):
A mother, who has brought forth life itself, produces an ending of her own life to match that of her Son….For as her womb was not corrupted in giving birth, so her flesh did not perish in dying….Let no one here ask in ridicule how her tomb could have been empty. For I will ask you in return: how has her body disappeared? ….For her sepulcher remains empty until today, as a continuing witness to her passing.
In the Byzantine Church, the Dormition is a summer Pascha. The more elaborate liturgical celebration includes the recitation of Lamentations at Mary’s tomb and a procession with her burial shroud, a mimesis of the Holy Week rites commemorating Christ’s burial. Byzantine faithful honor this feast with great piety: there is a two-week fast preceding the feast, and these two weeks include additional liturgical offices.
The art depicting the Dormition tends to accentuate Mary’s triumphant entry into heaven, her enthronement as Queen and Mediatrix for Christians. Millions of faithful throughout the world turn to her for help and assistance.
This feast makes a prophetic statement about Christ’s victory over death, and the gift of his victory to us. For Christians, Mary’s Dormition, the summer Pascha, is inseparable from its primary source, Jesus’ Pascha, because his paradigmatic entrance into death encompasses the complex and painful process of dying most of us will encounter. Commemorating Mary’s Dormition orients the Christian to Christ’s Paschal narrative and its announcement that death is truly destroyed, and capacitates the Christian to follow Christ through the process of dying that awaits us all at the appointed time.
All of us have to face our mortality. May Mary’s Assumption and Dormition grant us confidence and courage to receive the gift of resurrection as we journey through this life – and death – to God.