Today marks the first day of the Fast in Rememberance of the Theotokos, the Holy Virgin. The Orthodox Church has four great fasts during the year. The current fast begins today and culminates in the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos on August 15. It is a fixed fast, it occurs during the same dates each year, as opposed to Pascha, which is moveable.
During fasting seasons I am asked by close friends or colleagues why I am fasting, since it is not common for our Protestant friends to have structured fasts. We are appointed to fast for four major feasts in the Orthodox Tradition: Great Lent, Advent, Apostles Fast, and Dormition Fast. The first two festal fasting periods last forty days, while the next two are for two weeks. We are currently in preparation for this last feast, the Dormition of the Theotokos (mother of God) –the Church starts its New Year on the 1st day of September.
In the primitive Church, Sunday and Pascha were the only feasts, both commemorating not just Christ’s resurrection, but also the whole mystery of salvation. The development of the festal cycle can be explained as the elucidation of the paschal mystery by breaking it up into its component parts, from the Annunciation to Pentecost.
Pascha is the Feast of Feasts and is the pinnacle of everything celebrated in the Church. It is the culmination of the cycle of the Church year and that which we are always celebrating. Without the crucifixion and resurrection there can be no Christianity. Everything celebrated in the Church then has these two events as the cornerstone to all other celebrations. The two events of the crucifixion and resurrection are inextricably connected and each is meaningless without the other.
Just as we know that the holy icons are theological expressions of the incarnation of Christ, we believe that the feasts of the Church are theological expressions of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. It makes no difference which holy person is depicted in the holy image; it portrays a holy person in as much as he or she is an icon of the incarnate Word of God. Likewise, any feast celebrated throughout the Church calendar is an expression of the crucifixion and resurrection. Feasts lose their impact, in fact their whole purpose, if they are not remembered through the lens of this two-fold event.
The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate how the Dormition of the Theotokos bears witness to this Paschal mystery by examining the hymns of the feast and their relationship to Pascha.
Any person who has spent time in any service of the Orthodox Church becomes soon aware of the importance of the Theotokos in the liturgical life of the Church. The Church considers Jesus to be the new Adam, but it also regards Mary as the new Eve. Eve aided in bringing man out of Union with God, while Mary was the woman who helped to bring mankind back to this union through her instrumental place in the Incarnation of Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity.
Our Church Tradition is to remember those holy men and women who the Church sees fit to recognize as holy persons, Saints, on the day of their repose. August 15th is the day the Church remembers the most revered Saint of the Church, the Virgin Mary. During these days, we remember and recount the holy way that these men and women lived their lives, serving as an example to all of us within the Church as icons of Christ.
Of all women who have ever lived, it was this specific person who God chose as the Vessel through which he would take on a material body. We teach that every person is endowed with free will; we all have the ability to choose Christ, or to turn away from Him. Mary said yes to God and was the portal through which God brought forth to the world the only begotten Son of God. It is through this event that God took on a human body and became man. As is stated by St. Athanasius, “God become man, so that man might become God.”
The Holy Virgin served as a temple for the dwelling of God, so that He might become man. This god-man would later suffer, die, and be resurrected in order to free mankind from the bondage of death and sin forever. The fact that God sent his messenger, Archangel Gabriel, to a woman to ask her to bring flesh to a Son shows His love for His creation. Life is exactly what she brought into the world. Christianity is not static, it is not a one-time pronouncement, but a dynamic life in Christ; our goal is to become partakers of His divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) by following his precepts. Likewise, Mary was not a passive instrument, but an active participant in the eventual redemption of the world.
The Liturgical life of the Church is one of our great treasures; our doctrines are taught and lived through our worship. One of the hymns sung to the Blessed Virgin is as follows:
“Neither the grave nor death could contain the Theotokos, the unshakable hope, ever vigilant in intercession and protection. As Mother of life, He who dwelt in the ever-virginal womb transposed her to life.”
When this hymn is broken down, we get a peak at the mystery of salvation. Orthodox Christology teaches that Jesus is God who became man by taking on human flesh. It was with this human body that he suffered, died, and was resurrected. He did this in full humanity, yet retained His full divinity. He is perfect God and at the same time perfect man. It was necessary for Him to take on a human body and become what we are so that we can become like He is. It was by taking on a material body that he redeemed the material world including all of us, who were fashioned in His image. Christ destroyed the power of sin, death, and the power of the devil; and man, should he choose to become a partaker in His divine nature, is able to achieve this ancient state. The fruit of the womb is blessed because of what it contains.
‘Believe that my sayings are true, O all-holy Lady, utterly without spot.’ And she cried aloud, ‘Let it be unto me according to thy word: and I shall bear Him that is without flesh, who shall borrow flesh from me, that through this mingling He may lead man up unto his ancient glory, for He alone has power so to do’. (Festal Menaion, p 440)
The Church appoints specific Gospel and Epistle readings for major Feasts. The readings for the Dormition reflect the role that Mary played in the salvation of man, which culminates in the death and resurrection of Christ.
Luke 1:39-49, 56
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And Mary remained with her about three months, and returned to her home.
Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The Gospel reflect Mary’s joy in bringing forth our Savior, while the Epistle reading brings us back to the point first stated, how all feasts relate to Pascha–the Feast of Feasts.
There is a hymn in the Great Compline of the Feast that celebrates the mystery of salvation and Mary’s role in that plan:
Today there come glad tidings of joy: it is the feast of the Virgin. Things below are joined to things above. Adam is renewed, and Eve set free from her ancient sorrow; and the Tabernacle of the human nature which the Lord took upon Himself, making divine the substance He assumed, is consecrated as a Temple of God. O mystery! The manner of His emptying is unknown; the fashion of His conceiving is ineffable. An angel ministers at the wonder; a virgin womb receives the Son. The Holy Spirit is sent down; the Father on high gives His consent; and so the covenant is brought to pass by common counsel. In Him and through Him are we saved, and together with Gabriel let us cry aloud unto the Virgin: ‘Hail, thou who art full of grace: the Lord is with thee. From thee has Christ our God and our Salvation taken human nature, raising it up unto Himself. Pray to Him that our souls may be saved.’