On Wednesday, Christians throughout the world celebrate a major feast: the Dormition of Mary, known as the Assumption in the West. Among the Marian feasts, the Dormition is probably the one observed with the greatest fervor among the people. In the West, some Catholic organizations will close to honor the solemnity (yes, even in America!). Orthodox parishes in America observe a liturgical build-up to Dormition that resembles Holy Week. Greek parishes hold frequent Paraklesis prayer services in honor of Mary. In some Slavic parishes, a vigil with lamentations will be celebrated in front of her tomb on the eve of the feast, including a procession with her burial shroud (epitaphios). A strict two-week fast precedes her feast. This fast appeared in the eleventh century, and it was not initially observed throughout the Byzantine Church. Likewise, the liturgical observance of the feast is not consistent within the Byzantine Church: the detailed Vigil with a lamentations service does not appear in many manuscripts, so the level of liturgical detail and solemnity truly varies. The narrative of Mary’s death underpinning the feast also has mysterious origins – unlike similar Marian feasts, such as Mary’s birth and her presentation in the temple, there is no record of her death in the Gospel of James. It seems that that the earliest sources for the Dormition story are found in Syriac and Coptic homilies, from the mid-sixth century, and the Dormition is accepted as a major solemnity by renowned figures such as John of Damascus and Germanus of Constantinople.
Despite the mysterious origins of this feast, its meaning is clear: Mary’s death and her ascension into heaven – the Byzantine icons depict the risen Christ bearing her to heaven in his arms, with the apostles gathered and bearing witness – is a powerful affirmation of God’s fidelity to humankind in the new covenant. God is the God who keeps promises, so the risen Christ escorts his mother, Mary, into eternal communion with God and the saints. As a mother who shares humanity with all of us, Mary becomes another beacon of confidence that Christ’s defeat of Hades is final, and death really is a passage to life. Mary herself is a credible model of resurrection: she is like us and one of us, and the Byzantine emphasis on the truth of her death emphasizes that notion of shared humanity. Like her son, she has endured everything confronting humankind, including death, so the wondrous gathering of apostles in Gethsemane “sing” her into the kingdom. Pastorally, the Dormition feast is a powerful affirmation of Paschal joy presented by the narrative of Mary’s death and translation to life. Her Dormition adds another layer of surety that we, too, will enter into eternal communion with God and the saints when we die – the addition of an apostolic choir singing us into heaven would just be a bonus layer of grace. Orthodox Christians frequently refer to the Dormition feast as a summer Pascha, and this theological explanation of the meaning of the feast is compatible with the unofficial title.
Mary as Advocate for Life Among the Living
A secondary theme of the Dormition feast is that Mary is crowned as the queen of heaven when she enters God’s kingdom in glory. Mary’s regal status was a staple of medieval theology in West and East: murals of her Assumption adorned the walls of churches and courthouses where she ruled the righteous and protected them from enemies across the border. In Byzantine hymnography, Mary became known as the Strategios – the general leading the Roman army into battle. The Byzantines literally carried her icon (Nikopoia, the ‘maker of victory’) into battle until the Venetians defeated them and seized the icon. The Venetians adopted Mary as their general in a twist on the Ancient Near Eastern pattern when the god of the victorious army took up residence among the defeated peoples and thus became their god. Sadly, to this day, Mary is exploited in intra-religious polemics demonstrating the legitimacy of one Church over another.
In principle, I support the practice of praying to Mary as an advocate and protector of Christians, with the complete confidence that she will have a session with God at the divine throne. The question is, what do we want Mary to do for us, today, in light of the good news of her ascension into heaven? We live in an era of comic book hero resurgence. The production companies who bring us heroes like Ironman, Dr. Strange, Wonder Woman, and Scarlet Witch depict a cosmos that resembles certain Christian worldviews: God sending faithful servants to defeat opponents. Mary’s role as a military general is quite compatible with the contemporary view that promotes an old story: accumulating insurmountable power and using it forcefully to win, for the “good guys.”
Occasionally, the production companies hint at the possibility that winning the next war did not result in good living conditions. In our real world, human brokenness is a constant. We’re witnessing to yet another series of human catastrophes symbolized by violence, death, hunger, and homelessness. The carnage is not limited to developing countries – many of us cringe as we see headlines posted, for fear of reports of mass shootings in schools or theaters right here. Perhaps we are most silent about the painful brokenness that goes unreported, but is no less real: the pain suffered from the fracturing of relationships in marriages, among friends, and experienced by our own children. In all of these instances, the suffering of those who are hurt is shared by their parents, who co-suffer with their children with tears, regret, and a desire to make things better. Moms – and Dads! – are active, working among the living, wiping away tears, and seeking to make it all better.
As Christians throughout the world honor Mary’s assumption this year, perhaps we can write a new page in the history of this feast by naming her our common Christian advocate for the healing of brokenness in our complex relational webs, and a swift aid for parents who co-suffer with their children. Mary’s Dormition reminds us that death’s defeat is final, and humanity is destined for eternal communion with God. There is no need to delay the restoration of human dignity in this life, a message that resonates with parents who suffer with their children. A joyous and blessed Assumption/Dormition to all – may this feast be an occasion for our renewal and healing.
As we celebrate this sacred and solemn feast of the Mother of God, let us come, clapping our hands, O people of the Lord, and give glory to God who was born of her. (Heirmos on Ode 6 of the second canon of the Dormition Feast from The Festal Menaion, 519).