The Catholic and Orthodox churches are days away from a solemnity, the feast of the Assumption on August 15. The title for this feast in the Orthodox world is Dormition, or Koimesis, a reference to Mary’s falling asleep.
The feast is significant enough in the Catholic Church to warrant a an Apostolic Constitution by Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus (1950), one of three papal infallible teachings. A sign of solemnity in ordinary, daily life: I recall having to plan around Assumption as a graduate student at The Catholic University of America, which would close in honor of this solemnity.
The Dormition feast is a big deal in the Eastern Orthodox world, too. In some churches, the burial rite for Mary is celebrated. This burial rite follows the pattern of the one celebrated at the Orthros and Lamentations of Holy Saturday, when the Church stands before Jesus’ tomb and simultaneously laments his death while anticipating his rising from the dead. A two-week fasting period precedes the Dormition feast in Orthodoxy, one of four designated seasonal fasts (in addition to the forty days of Lent, the forty-day fast before Christmas, and the fast preceding the feast of Saints Peter and Paul).
What does this feast mean for Catholics and Orthodox? Catholics and Orthodox affirm that Mary did not suffer bodily corruption in the tomb and that Jesus translated her to eternal life. For Orthodox, Mary’s Dormition is a summer Pascha, a liturgical commemoration evoking the memory of the apostles gathering for the end of her life, the Church surrounding her mother to witness to her translation to life.
In reflecting on this feast and its deep roots in global Christian liturgical tradition, I am moved to the painful confrontation with death each of us faces on a daily basis. The hymns of the Byzantine rite emphasize the apostles gathering for Mary’s death and translation to life, and the icon of the Dormition depicts the risen Jesus appearing to escort Mary to life. One essential element underpins the Orthodox commemoration of the feast: Mary died. The act of remembering her death refers the liturgical participants to Jesus’ confrontation with death, culminating in his victorious rising. In other words, the Dormition feast is a celebration of the gift of Christ’s Pascha given to all, beginning with his mother, a sign of hope and promise for all humankind. Ultimately, that’s what the feast means to me.
What does Mary’s Assumption/Dormition mean to you?