(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”?