12. THE DORMITION OF THE THEOTOKOS
Of the icons pertaining to the twelve feasts, two of them - the Annunciation and the Dormition - refer to the Most Holy Mother of God. These two divine-maternal depictions are the outer limits of the twelve-feast cycle; after the Annunciation, all the other iconized events follow in a sequence, to end in the Dormition of the Holy Mother.
We have already mentioned the honorary place that the Holy Mother holds in the liturgical life of the Church, in the preceding chapter where we described and analyzed the icon of the Annunciation. At this point, we must add that the body of the Church - acknowledging and respecting the Theotokos' place in the Church's history - celebrates the divine-maternal feasts with exceptional splendor. In them, the faithful display their love and respect towards the person of the Holy Mother with their wealth of liturgical and religious traditions. The devoutness of the faithful is actually nourished and is especially evident, when the divine services in honor of the Theotokos take place in a church that is given her name.
For our Church, the Theotokos is " the repealing of the fallen Adam, the redemption of Eve's tears ". She assisted in the incarnation of Christ, she served universal salvation, because through her was realized the age-old decision of God: the incarnation of the Logos and our salvation (John the Damascene).
Of the Divine-Maternal feasts, the most prominent one is the Dormition (15 th August). On this day, our Church celebrates the Dormition of the Theotokos, which involves, firstly her death and her burial and secondly, her resurrection and metastasis to the heavens. As mentioned in the feast-day hymn: " the grave and death could not hold her ( the Theotokos ); being the mother of life, the One who inhabited the ever-virginal womb removed her (from death) , into life ". In other words, the Lord - who is the source of real life- took on a human body inside the womb of the Theotokos and was born of her. He thus made His Most Holy Mother the mother of life, a source of life.
Since the Lord with His crucifixional death stamped on and abolished death, it was only natural that He would lift up His mother to the heavens and grant her the glory of eternity. As the Dormition hymns tells us, her death becomes pre-engaged to life. She who gave birth to Life, has moved on to life. Thus, her death is called "the immortal Dormition"; and this was because the Holy Mother was the first among mortals who actualized the deification of man, which was the result of an incarnation. As specified by the Fathers: " God became incarnate, so that we may be deified "; " man becomes God, so that he might make Adam God " (Athanasios the Great, LGF 30,119, glorification hymn of 25 th March). This is the deification that the Theotokos manifested, because, as the blessed Kavasilas said, she revealed man the way that he was in the beginning, in Paradise , and how he ought to be, eventually. With her Dormition, she paved the way to the glory that awaits us. It was aptly observed, that: " this is a glory far greater than all other glories, which the Theotokos received: to be resurrected much earlier than the common resurrection, to become imperishable prior to the time of imperishability, to be glorified before the day of judgment and examination, to receive retribution before the day of retribution, and finally, to be honored with privileges similar to those of her Son ." (Nkiforos Theotokis). In other words, that which is to be savored by the faithful after the second coming of Christ and the general crisis of the world, the Mother of God is exceptionally enjoying in advance. This explains why the feast of the Dormition is - in the conscience of the body of the Church - a second Easter. The glory of the Most Holy Theotokos is the first fruit, the " beginnings of the other, eternal life ", which we celebrate at Easter.
1. The history of the Dormition . We do not have any information on the Dormition in the New Testament. We learn about it, from the Apocrypha narration of Saint John the Theologian, from the essay 'On divine names' by Dionysus the Areopagite, from the 'Praises to the Dormition' by Fathers of the Church such as saints Modestus of Jerusalem, Andrew of Crete, Germanus of Constantinople, John the Damascene and others, as well as from various hymns that are sung by our Church. These texts have preserved in them the "ancient and most true" tradition of our Church on this Divine-Maternal event. Naturally, another piece of tradition is orthodox iconography.
According to the information given by the above texts, the Theotokos was informed of her imminent death by an angel of God. She afterwards went up to the Mount of Olives to pray, returned to her home, informed all her acquaintances of her departure from this world and made all the necessary funeral preparations. Around the Theotokos' deathbed were gathered all the apostles except Thomas. The power of the Holy Spirit in the form of a cloud had swept the apostles away from the various places where they were teaching the Gospel, and had transported them all to Jerusalem . " Her god-bearing body - with the accompaniment of angelic and apostolic hymn-singing - was duly prepared and buried in the proper manner, in a Gethsemane gravesite, where for three days the presence and the hymn-singing of angels was incessant. After the third day, when the angelic singing had ceased and in the presence of the apostles - except for one of them ( Thomas, who was absent ), who had come after the third day in his desire to pay his respects to the god-bearing body, the coffin was opened. Having discovered that her much-exalted body was not inside, and finding only her shroud left behind, which flooded them with its overwhelming fragrance, they closed up the coffin again ." (John the Damascene, B' In praise of the immaculate dormition of the Mother of God). Her Son, who was incarnated by her, had received her immaculate body in heaven, along with her saintly soul. This pious tradition of our Church is beautifully summarized, in a closing hymn of the Dormition feast-day: " All you Apostles from far away, come, gather here in the village of Gethsemane and bury my body; and You, my Son and my Lord, receive unto You my spirit ."
2. Description of the icon . The holy icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos is a densely populated one. However, two characters stand out in this portrayal: Christ and the Holy Mother. We can see Jesus, with His regal stature, holding in His hands the Theotokos' soul depicted as a swaddled infant, and the gaunt figure of the deceased Holy Mother.
" In the icon, the funeral bed with its opulent covers -on which rests the Holy Mother with her arms crossed- dominates the scene. In the foreground, we see a thick candle burning in a simple candleholder. Behind the funeral bed, exactly in the centre stands Christ with His body peculiarly turned towards the right, towards His mother's head. His hands are also outstretched in the same direction, and they are holding her soul, which is depicted as an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and its arms crossed. He is surrounded by glory. Inside this glory, at the top, we can see the image of a six-winged spirit, as well as four un-colored angels who, with gestures and expressions of sorrow on their faces form a frame around Him. Right above Christ at the top of the arch, the gates of heaven stand open; two angels -un-colored again- can be seen bending over, with their arms covered, awaiting their turn to receive the soul of the Theotokos. Gathered around the head and the foot of the funeral bed are the twelve apostles, with expressions, postures and gestures that indicate profound sorrow. Peter is swinging an incense-burner at the head of the Theotokos, while Paul is bent over her feet. Further back, on the right are three hierarchs holding open books, and to the left, in the background, three women are mourning. This composition is closed, by the two conventional, majestic buildings that tower up behind the apostles. Between the tops of the buildings, we can see the inscription THE DORMITION OF THE THEOTOKOS " (A. Karakatsanis). The four hierarchs (only three are depicted here) that were present at the Dormition were: James, the brother of Christ, Hierotheos, Dionysios the Areopagite and Timothy.
In every face, we notice sorrow combined with sweet hope. This is the "harmolype" (joyful sorrow) - the "happy mourning" - a characteristic of the faithful who live with the expectation of resurrection. This can also be found in the hymns of the feast-day, which, in certain places stress the awe and the fear of the apostles, portraying them in tears, while in other places, the hymns stress the joy that they feel, through psalm and hymn singing. Two such verses are: " While preparations were under way for your departure, the apostles encircled your deathbed, gazing at you in fear " and " Having interred your life-imbued and god-bearing body, they ( the apostles ) rejoiced, o much-praised one " (from a Vespers glorification hymn)
Some icons portray the apostles being carried aloft on clouds, to be transported to Jerusalem . In many icons of the Dormition, the scene with the angel cutting off with his sword the hands of Jephonias is depicted. (This was the Jew who had attempted to throw the dead body of the Theotokos onto the ground.)
3. A eulogy to the Theotokos . From the eulogies of the Fathers of the Church in praise of the immaculate Dormition of the Theotokos, we shall refer to an excerpt from the 3 rd homily by saint John the Damascene. In it, the blessed father invites us to praise her and to migrate with her, in the spirit:
" Come, let us all co-migrate in spirit with the one who has departed. Come, let us all descend with our hearts into the grave, along with the one who had descended there. Let us encircle the most sacred bed. Let us sing divine hymns, such as 'Rejoice, o grace-filled one; the Lord is with you. You rejoice, as the mother of God. You rejoice, as the one whom God pre-selected before all time: you, the most holy fruit of the earth, the residence of divine fire, the sacred statue of the Spirit, the spring of living water, the garden of the tree of life, the vine bearing the divine grapes that bring forth nectar and ambrosia, the river that is filled with the fragrances of the Spirit, the field that brought forth the divine grain, the rose that blossoms in virginity and breathes the fragrance of divine grace, the lily that adorns a regal gown, the ewe that bore the lamb of God, who took away the sins of the world, the workshop of our salvation, the power that is superior to the angelic hosts, the maidservant and the mother of God ."