Saturday, August 15, 2015

The "Dormition": Mary is Born into Eternal Life

Today's beautiful Feast Day is known in the Eastern churches as the "Dormition" of the Theotokos (the "falling asleep" of the Mother of God). The point of this complimentary emphasis is not to decide the theological question of whether or not Mary actually died (i.e. in the same way we do). "Falling asleep," after all, is a metaphor for death in the New Testament and among the early Christians (see e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:6). Rather, it is to focus on the unique nature of Mary's passing from this life into eternal glory, body and soul, in the fullness of resurrected life.

The icon of the Dormition often presents images of Mary's earthly life coming to an end, surrounded by the apostles. Above her is the image of the glorified Christ carrying Mary, who is represented as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes (which are not unlike burial cloths). Just as Mary gave birth to the Incarnate Jesus in this world, so the Glorified Jesus brings about Mary's "birth" into eternal glory in a manner that is likewise fully incarnate, involving the glorification of her whole concrete humanity even "now," by anticipation, in this present age. The Theotokos is borne by her Son into the completion of Divine transfiguring life.

Thus the Kingdom has come in its fullness; the New Creation has begun, and the New Adam and the New Eve already dwell bodily in this "Paradise restored," where every aspect of death has been conquered. 

I am always struck by how much Mary is invoked in the Eastern Byzantine liturgy (which is such a contrast to the Roman liturgy, which rarely makes explicit reference to Mary, although she holds a crucial place in Western devotional practice). The presence of Mary in Byzantine prayer traditions is pervasive, above all in the Eucharistic liturgy and in the offices.

Though Eastern tradition as such did not develop Marian devotions such as the Rosary, it is striking to see how the all the elements of the Western "Hail Mary" are contained in a beautiful way in many of her liturgical prayers, as for example the prayers for the Feast of the Dormition:
"Hail, O Woman full of grace, the Lord is with you, the Lord who, because of you, bestows great mercy upon the world" (from Vespers). "Blessed are you among women and blessed is your womb that contained Christ, in whose hands you committed your soul. O pure Virgin, intercede with Christ our God that He may save our souls!" (at the Apostichon).
The Byzantine tradition emphasizes Mary as the "Panagia," the All-Holy One, free indeed from sin and corruption and also radiant with the fullness of grace by virtue of her singular accompaniment of her Son as the Theotokos.

The face of Mary fills the heart with hope:
"O you who gave birth to the Doer of Good, to the Cause of all Delights, let the wealth of his generosity abound within all souls, for since you have borne the almighty Christ, you have power to act according to your will, O you who are blessed of God!" (see Paraklesis).