The Dormition of Mary and the Terrors of Death

(This is Neil) In the West, today marks the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the East, today is the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God. For the most part, the “Assumption” and the “Dormition” are theologically similar – the Catechism of the Catholic Church actually uses the Byzantine Liturgy’s Troparion for the Feast of the Dormition to describe the Assumption. To be sure, there are different emphases. As the Orthodox priest John Breck notes in his current column, Orthodox icons of Mary’s Dormition, or “falling asleep,” “focus especially on her death and entombment,” with the disciples in grief, but a glorified Christ ready to receive Mary’s life.

But, as Fr Breck notes, “In many Orthodox icons, however, this primary image is complemented by another: the depiction of the Mother of God ascending to heaven, accompanied by a host of angels.” This “Ascension” or “Assumption” shows Mary as “a prophetic image of the glorified life that awaits all those who bear Christ in the inner depths of their being, as she bore Him within the depths of her womb.” The Mother of God is thus a “model” of the common journey of Christians.

So the “Assumption” and the “Dormition” can be complementary.

Here I would like to look at the “Dormition” and the focus on Mary’s death and entombment. Where did this image come from? What pastoral use might it have for us today? As will be obvious, the two questions are related. As will also be obvious, what I write is completely indebted to an article by Brian E. Daley, SJ that appeared in Dumbarton Oaks Papers 58 (2001).

Where did the image of the Dormition come from? Of course, there doesn’t have to be a single source. Fr Daley tells us that the fifth century “was a time of meteoric rise for the figure of Mary in popular devotion, art, and homiletics” for reasons varying from the devotion of Pucheria, empress, to “a kind of ‘spillover’ of holy power and transcendent benevolence from the increasingly exalted figure of Christ.” But Fr Daley wishes to focus on a “strictly eschatological concern,” namely, “a deep anxiety in the face of death that apparently began to be felt by Christians throughout the Mediterranean world just before 400.” In anxiety, Christians were drawn to the portrayal of Mary dying in a manner both serene and holy, with “a fully achieved salvation” from the moment of death.

Why was there such a deep anxiety? Perhaps it had to do with sudden threats – the danger of invasion from migrating people, the disturbing memory of Julian Apostate – and the resulting “apocalyptic sense that history was nearing a disastrous end.” And, “at about the same time, a new emphasis on death as a fearful and violent event, in which hostile demons struggle with protecting angels over the fate of each departing soul, begins to show itself more and more widely in Christian literature.”

One example should suffice. This is from a homily attributed to Cyril of Alexandria:

“What fear and trembling do you think the soul will experience on that day,” the preacher asks, “when it gazes on the dreadful, fierce, cruel, merciless, untamable demons circled around it, as dark as Ethiopians? The very thought of them is more oppressive than any punishment! Just by looking at them, the soul will be cast into turmoil, terrified, racked with pain, and made to shrink with horror and distress, and will flee for refuge to the angels of God. The soul will be protected by the holy angels, as it makes its way forward and upward through the air, but it will discover toll stations guarding and controlling the way, blocking the path of the souls that are trying to ascend. And each toll station deals with its own particular sin.”

Rather grim (and unfortunate, when Cyril describes the “darkness” of the demons). There were attempts in the fifth and sixth century to try to moderate the severity of such visions. The image of the Dormition of Mary, fully developed in the sixth century, is very much part of this story. The first source is a homily from the Syrian Jacob of Serug at 489, at an anti-Chalcedonian synod. The monastic communities in Syrian and around Jerusalem – again, anti-Chalcedonians – developed the narrative. It is clearly meant to comfort the terror of death: “the anxiety before demons, the … fear of a pitiless judgment and a journey into dark and unknown regions.”

The first Greek homily for the feast was delivered by John, bishop of Thessalonike, in the first half of the seventh century. In his story, Mary is told in advance that she will die. She prays to Christ to be saved “from the powers that will confront [her] soul” at the hour of death. She is joined in vigil by others, including the apostles. She tells them that death is not fearful, “for it is a universal thing. I am only afraid of the enemy who makes war on everyone. He can do nothing, of course, against the righteous and faithful; but he defeats the unbelieving and sinners, and those who do their own will – he does in them whatever he desires.” Those around Mary agree that she has nothing to fear, but “We little ones – what shall we do, or where shall we escape?” Mary remains calm and courageous. She tells them not to weep. John of Thessalonike reports that Mary does worry that Jews may try to burn her body before it is buried (!).

Mary dies. Jesus takes her soul, brighter than the sun, and gives it to the archangel Michael. Mary is buried, but, three days later, when her tomb is opened, there is only an empty shroud. Peter preaches, “Do not think, then, that Mary’s death is death! It is not death, but eternal life, because ‘the death of the just will be proclaimed glorious before the Lord.’” We have the basic elements of the Dormition narrative: Mary realizes she will die; friends and disciples gather; Mary comforts them; Mary dies peacefully. She is a model of how to die well.

In the eighth century, Andrew of Crete presented a theological reflection on this narrative in three sermons for the vigil of the Feast of the Dormition. He tells us that we must die, “but we shall not remain enslaved by death, as once we did when we were bound by it through the legal bond of sin.” For Christians, death is but a “dormition” (κοίμησις). Mary’s death shows us this: “The period of time for which death and bodily death held power over her was only as long as was necessary for her to move, at natural speed through unknown regions and to come to know them firsthand, regions where she had never set foot before and that she was now crossing as in a journey through foreign, uncharted territory.” To be sure, Mary’s stay in mortal decay was shorter than ours will be, because of her holiness, but the Dormition, while “proper to her,” is “common to us all.”

At this point, we might have two questions. First, why did the fear of death persist? We can suggest that some of it is universal. But that answer is insufficient. Fr Daley points us to the work of Hans-Georg Beck, who suggests (borrowing the terminology of the recently exhumed Newman) that, while there was a “notional assent” to the Gospel’s promise of eternal life, there was a “real assent” to “a darker, pre-Christian apprehension of death as simple and inexorable deprivation of all that gives human existence color and joy.”

Second, some of my readers might wonder why, in the face of this anxiety, the church didn’t simply preach the eschatological hope of the Gospels? Why was there recourse to a historically dubious narrative of the Dormition? It seems as though eschatology was not a subject pursued with theological intensity, simply because there were no major controversies on eschatology. Thus, as Daley says, “the only clear and viable medium in late Christian antiquity for proclaiming the prospect of a gracious transformation of all humanity by God that would reach through and beyond the terrors of death was the story, the feast, and the theological interpretation of Mary’s death: a death witnessed by the apostles and the church, and celebrated with prayer and pious ritual, in which Jesus himself received the departing soul in his arms, and the body, though buried, itself soon came to share in Jesus’ own bliss and glory.”

In fact, Daley says, we read of the “dormitions” of other holy people. Leontius of Neapolis, in the seventh century, reports that Symeon the Fool’s body disappeared, “for the Lord had glorified him and translated him.” In the 10th century, Nicephorus the Presbyter reports that St Andrew the Fool died in Constantinople, and his body also disappeared. “For the Lord had transferred him by a peculiar judgment which only that person knows, who understands God’s hidden decrees.”

So, we can say that the Dormition was the Eastern Church’s proclamation of eschatological hope in the face of a dark, pre-Christian apprehension of death. It still serves as that proclamation, even if it is no longer the only medium for proclaiming “the prospect of a gracious transformation of all humanity by God that would reach through and beyond the terrors of death.”

Now, reader, a question: Do we still have “a darker, pre-Christian apprehension of death as simple and inexorable deprivation of all that gives human existence color and joy”?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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14 Responses to The Dormition of Mary and the Terrors of Death

  1. Liam says:

    Of course we do. People have not changed. We struggle with hoping with the supernatural truth over the seemingly natural truth.

    The story of the Assumption is: Redemption – Restoration – Glorification.

    The Paschal Mystery did not merely offer redemption from the hell of death to humanity. It did not merely offer restoration of prelapsarian life to humanity. It offers us the opportunity for theosis and glory far beyond that which Adam and Eve were ever offered before the Fall.

    The Assumption put the bones on this – not mere concept or theory for the future. But Now and Forevermore.

    (And the Immaculate Conception is intimately bound up in this.)

    Where I think the Eastern tradition offers an immensely valuable complement to the Western tradition in this regard is the emphasis on glory as a theologically rich source of contemplation.

    So my corollary question would be: do we apprehend the glory to which which are invited, and if so, in what ways and does that inform not only our doings but our being?

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks, as always, for writing.

    I completely agree with you that we need to remember that we are called to union with God. As we’ve discussed before, too much of Catholic preaching still encourages a moralism in which we must meet certain religious obligations to avoid God’s wrath – or perhaps his displeasure, or at least some sort of existential meaninglessness.

    I’ll put up another post on theosis in a week or so. I look forward to your comments.

    I must confess that I’m a little concerned about your claim that we have the opportunity for “glory far beyond that which Adam and Eve were ever offered before the Fall.” Did God create us before the Fall for an incomplete glory? How did sin – which is, of course, merely a privation – prepare the way for a “glory far beyond that which Adam and Eve were ever offered”? I’m having a hard time conceptually with your language. Forgive me if I have misunderstood you.

    I agree that glory is a rich source of contemplation, as long as it doesn’t lose sight of the cross.

    Take care,

  3. Liam says:


    My understanding from my reading and listening over the years is that we don’t know if theosis would have been available to Adam and Eve in the original creation and many of the Fathers apparently thought not. What I’ve read in the past is somewhat summarized in the following Wiki passage (yeah, yeah, I know, but it’s handy):

    “For many Fathers, theosis goes beyond simply restoring people to their state before the Fall of Adam and Eve, teaching that because Christ united the human and divine natures in Jesus’s person, it is now possible for someone to experience closer fellowship with God than Adam and Eve initially experienced in the Garden of Eden, and that people can become more like God than Adam and Eve were at that time. Some Orthodox theologians go so far as to say that Jesus would have become incarnate for this reason alone, even if Adam and Eve had never sinned.”

    This is not the dominant Dominican position in the Roman tradition, but it is connected to the minority Franciscan tradition.

    Oh, and I am not neglecting the Cross. I am way too Roman to do that. But I did refer to the Paschal Mystery here, holistically including the Passion and Death of Our Lord, the Harrowing of Hell, and the Resurrection.

  4. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks again. I’ll look again at the matter. I’m still concerned about the possibility that God originally created humankind for a sort of incomplete glory that would only later be enhanced. One could suggest that humanity had to be slowly educated by the law, prophets, and Christ, but that suggests an initial deficiency.


  5. Liam says:

    Well, remember infinity plus one is…infinity. It might be a situation where human arithmetic meets divine arithmetic.

    And also God, being beyond time and space, knows all that has and will ever happen.

  6. Liam says:

    I assume you are familiar with the Scholastic disputations over whether the Incarnation was dependent on the Fall. The Dominicans tended to say yes, and that position has been favored (though not definitively, IIRC) in Roman speculative theology, while the Franciscans tended to say no. It was through my curiosity about the Franciscan position that I came across the patristic positions summarized in the wiki entry above. The Franciscan approach is that the Incarnation flows from the nature of God’s very Self and design for Creation, and that it was not forced (as it were) by human frailty.

  7. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    I’m familiar with the Scholastic disputations. Perhaps I’ll post on them and we can discuss this more directly. I do appreciate that the Franciscan approach might take historicity more seriously.

    My problem, though, is still this: I understand that “infinity plus one is … infinity,” but your position makes it seem as though Adam was created for something qualitatively less than infinity, since we can say that we are offered “theosis and glory far beyond” that offered to him. Thus, we are left with some sort of original deficiency preceding the Fall. Either that, or possibly some sort of “pure nature.”


  8. Liam says:


    The “pure nature” point is I believe the traditional one.

    I believe Catholic thought is that prelapsarian Adam & Eve did not yet enjoy the Beatific Vision. See this link to the Summa (First Part, Question 94, Article 1) on this point:

  9. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks for your response.

    It is true that Aquinas says that Adam did not yet enjoy the beatific vision, because if he did, he could not have sinned. But I think that we can still say with Aquinas that Adam was created to enjoy the beatific vision. And Aquinas certainly does say that Adam was created in grace, with his reason subject to God and his lower powers subject to reason. Adam was possessed with every virtue (but, alas, not with perserverance).

    This is important, for, as John Milbank writes:

    …it is highly significant that Aquinas, almost uniquely amongst his contemporaries, insisted that Adam was created from the outset with the reception of grace. He did not live for a second under a regime of pure nature. For Bonaventure, by contrast, there was a short temporal interval, even though the Franciscan theologian certainly never envisaged a serious possibility of humanity without grace. This ‘interval’ was also retained by Peter Olivi and Duns Scotus.

    Thus, my comment about the unhappy possibility of a “pure nature.”


    PS I know that Aquinas, elsewhere, does say that “there is no reason why human nature should not have been raised to something greater after sin” and so on. I’m not sure why.

  10. Liam says:


    Whatever the distinction – which I guess we can leave to speculative theology to define – there appears to be a distinction between humanity’s prelapsarian condition and theosis.

  11. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Sure. As long as we can say that Adam, though in a state of semi-beatitude, was called to the beatific vision.

    Would you like me to post something more on this? Or have we jumped the shark?


  12. Liam says:

    I know I am beyond my paygrade. I will let you speak for yourself. My original point is that Mary does not represent merely a return to the prelapsarian condition, but a human state with glory infused by theosis.

    Is that OK by you?

  13. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    I think that I can agree with that statement. My concerns are that we must not imagine humanity living under a regime of “pure nature” and that we must not give sin a positive role in salvation history.


  14. Pingback: Mary as Trinitarian Icon: For the Assumption « Catholic Sensibility

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