“If her Fruit, Whom none may comprehend, on Whose account she was called a heaven, submitted of His own will to burial as a mortal, how should she, who gave Him birth without knowing a man refuse it?”
St John of Damascus
Every time we enter the feast preparatory to the celebration of the Dormition of the Theotokos on 15 August, I cannot help noticing how reminiscent the traditional iconography of this event is of traditional representations of the Nativity, and the preceding quote, by perhaps one of the greatest theologians of all time, offers ample explanation of why this is the case. In the Dormition icon, the Most Holy Theotokos is seen lying on her bed, much as in the Nativity icon, surrounded by angels, saints, friends, neighbours, and apostles arriving on a cloud, rather than shepherds and magi. This represents one of the more miraculous events surrounding the central miracle itself: the Theotokos prepared for her death, having been advised of this by the Archangel Gabriel, who appeared before her, handed her a palm leaf, a symbol of victory symbolising, according to St Germanos, her overcoming of corruption, while stating: “Thy Son and our God, with the Angels, Archangels, Cherubim and Seraphim and all the heavenly Spirits and the souls of the righteous shall receive thee, His Mother, into the heavenly Kingdom that thou mayest live and reign with Him forever.”
Looking closer at the Holy Bier, we see Saint John the Evangelist, who bends his head near to the Theotokos, calling to mind the parallel biblical passage of John 13: 23-25 where the beloved disciple places his head on Jesus at the Last Supper. The bier itself, lined with a brilliant vermilion mat upon which the Theotokos lies, is also reminiscent of the Nativity icon. In both icons, we see a parallel motif of life coming into a world of death. Candles burning brightly in front of the bier represent light in a world of darkness, proclaiming the theme of ‘life’ and ‘light’. Christ will give the Theotokos, who sleeps in death, new life, which is metaphorically described as ‘light’. Thus: “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:4)
The Theotokos prayed while reclining upon her bier and all of a sudden a thunderclap was heard. Almost immediately, all the apostles who were scattered to the ends of the world, except Thomas, were gathered together on clouds and brought to Jerusalem. This, along with all other events associated with the Dormition, are expounded in the hymns sung at this time. The Matin Hymn, written by St Cosmas of Damascus relates: “Carried to Sion as it were upon a swift cloud, the company of the Apostles assembled from the ends of the earth to minister to thee oh Virgin.” As his brother, St John of Damascus mentions in his hymn, also sung at this time, this gathering together of her Son’s apostles was an event of profound theological significance: “It was right that the eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word should see the Dormition of His Mother according to the flesh, even the final mystery concerning her: hence, they might be witness not only to the Ascension of the Saviour but also to the translation of her who gave Him birth. Assembled from all parts by divine power, they came to Sion, and sped on her way to heaven the Virgin, who is higher than the cherubim.”
Around the entire icon there is a glow of gold and reds, representing the burst of the new kingdom and the surge of life. It is a scene representing both earthly and heavenly members of creation, coming to see the fulfilment of Christ’s word.
The resemblance of this Dormition icon to the Nativity icon is furthered by its background composition. Here, the Nativity background of lofty mountains, representing contact between God and humanity, is replaced by a mountainous mandorla, a small one outlining a glow of divinity around Christ connected to the flow of the Spirit indicated by a bright ray and a large mandorla filled with the singing heavenly hosts angels. The larger mandorla encompasses the realm of heaven and the small mandorla the aura of Christ, bearing the soul of his Mother in a depiction reminiscent of the Theotokos’ presentation at the temple as a baby and of Christ in swaddling clothes, in the Nativity icon. This records the moment when the Theotokos turned and said to the Apostles: “Cast incense and pray, because Christ is at hand, sitting on the throne of the cherubim.” Holy tradition records that the roof of the room opened and Christ descended from Heaven at the head of a host of angels and called her to him. After worshipping him, proclaiming: “Blessed is Thy name, O Lord of Glory and my God, Who was pleased to choose Thy humble handmaiden for the service of thy mystery”, the Theotokos gave up her soul.
At the peak of the larger mandorla the six-winged angel known as the Cherubium predominates, much as angels predominate the Nativity icon. In iconography, angels are predominantly portrayed through the significant profusion of wings. These heavenly hosts represent the guardians of the Holy of
Holies, so as to keep the Tree of Life protected until the end of time. This causes us to recall that of the trees in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve ate only of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The gift of true and everlasting life was retained by God, to be fully received only in the end of time, in accordance with the Book of Revelation. Here, in the icon, the Cherubium flutters at the top of the larger mandorla – symbolising that Christ has brought new life and His Mother is the first to realise the new eschaton, the beginning of humanity’s journey in the final days of the Kingdom to the Tree of Life. This then is the supreme significance of Theotokos’ koimisis. As the Vespers stichera marvel, giving voice to the grief of the Apostles who turn to each other in their grief: “O marvelous wonder! The source of life is laid in the tomb, and the tomb itself becomes a ladder to heaven. Thy glory is full of majesty, shining with grace in divine brightness.” Thus, at the very centre of the top of the icon, we find a time lapse glimpse at the Theotokos being carried into the open gates of Heaven itself by the heavenly hosts, an experience that has become accessible to us by the dignified koimisis of Theotokos and which believers are called upon to emulate.
Underlying her role as intercessor and protector of all humanity, the Υπέρμαχος Στρατηγός of Byzantium and, according to popular belief, the guardian of the Greek nation during such times of tribulation as the German occupation, even as she ascends to heaven, the Theotokos’ arms are wide and she bends toward the earth still caring for all those who are now the Mystical Body of Christ in the world. Thus believers comprehend her as the Platytera, one whose body held the God of the universe, wider than the heavens. She prays in early Christian style in the orans position, with arms extended. She is the one who will constantly draw all to her Son and eventually to the realm she now enters.
The Feast of the Dormition does not commemorate the Assumption, as in the Roman Catholic tradition, but rather, the koimisis of the Theotokos and the translation of her sacred body to heaven three days later, upon the arrival of the Apostle Thomas, from India. It was St Juvenal, Patriarch of Jerusalem, in the fifth century, who related to St Pulcheria, the earliest traditions concerning the translation of the Theotokos’ relics. At the end of the sixth century, Emperor Maurice established the Feast for 15 August and it has been so celebrated by the Eastern Christians ever since.
Unlike the Resurrection of Christ, the mysterious character of her death, burial and ascension were not the subject of apostolic teachings extant but were preserved in the oral tradition of the Church, giving rise to the Orthodox belief that inaccessible to the view of those outside the Church, the glory of the Theotokos’ Dormition can be contemplated only in the inner light of Tradition. The glorification of the Theotokos, Mother of all, is a result of the voluntary condescension of the Son who was made incarnate by her and thus, became in his human nature, capable of dying. For believers therefore, the Mother of God is now established beyond the general Resurrection and the Last Judgment, having passed from death to life, from time to eternity, from terrestrial condition to celestial beatitude.
Δεκαπενταύγουστο (15 August) then, is a second mysterious and wondrous Pascha, since the Church celebrates before the end of time, the secret first-fruits of its eschatological consummation. Χρόνια Πολλά to all eortazontes.
*Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and a freelance journalist.