“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.”
With out a doubt, the greatest human figure of Eastern Christianity would have to be Mary the Mother of God. The concept that a mere mortal can be deemed suitable to conceive and bring forth into world the Deity is vast, inexplicable and profoundly moving. In allowing such a state of affairs to occur, the Deity awards humanity the most supreme honour, to have him in us so completely, that one of us can give birth to Him.
As a result, the Theotokos, “bearer of God” in Orthodox tradition becomes a multifaceted figure, whose various roles are innumerable. As the supreme Mother, the Compassionate, the Merciful and the Guide, through the Theotokos, also known as the All Holy (Panayia) the Orthodox faith affords the supreme place in the body of the faithful in womanhood, which through the act of giving birth to God, is set at the level of the highest honour.
In traditional Greek Orthodox thought, the Theotokos plays an extremely important role and could be said to be the de facto head of the Greek nation. In times of trouble, when the nation was threatened by barbarian incursions, natural disasters or unjust rulers, Greeks looked to Panayia for succour. Thus, all victories were ascribed to her. It was held to be through the divine protection of the Theotokos that Constantinople was protected against the invasion of the Slavs and Avars, that the Emperor Heraclius wrested the Holy Cross from the Persians and set it up in Jerusalem. More significantly, popular belief held that the Emperors of Byzantium held their crown through the mandate of Theotokos herself.
Tradition has it that on the last night before the fall of Constantinople, the Theotokos descended from Heaven and demanded the imperial crown of the Emperor, thus signifying her withdrawal of protection over her city and warning of its imminent fall. Panayia reputedly also protected Greek troops in the liberation of Northern Epirus during World War II and also during the War of Independence. Tradition has her miraculously curing Greek freedom fighter George Karaiskakis of a gun-shot wound. She is also constantly present in the lives of everyday people.
Depicted often as a mother nursing Christ, named the “quick-listener,” “the sweet-embracer”, the “all-encompassing”, the “all-seeing”, the “undying rose” and thousands of other appellations, the Panayia is the first point of reference for the Greek people’s prayers. Indeed, one of the most frequent prayers in the liturgy is for the Theotokos to intercede on behalf of the faithful. As a human, she is considered to be best placed to feel our pain.
During the Holy Week of Easter, the Church dirges for Christ’s crucifixion centre on the very human pain of the Theotokos losing her son. She is a figure we can identify with more readily than the other celestial inhabitants, simply because her pain is very close to us. It therefore surprises no-one that the anniversary of the Koimisis of Theotokos is one of the most important days of the Orthodox calendar. As is related within the Holy Tradition of the Church, a few days before the 15th of August, an angel of the Lord appeared before the Panayia and told her that her Son was calling her to His side.
At that time, while she was over seventy, her face reputedly had not lost its angelic glow. The very next night, she went to the Mount of Olives and gave thanks to God. She then returned home and began to prepare herself. The Bishop Jacob of Jerusalem, her friends and family begged her to remain with them but she calmly blessed those present and exhorted them always to practise Christian love, and follow the teachings of Christ. At that stage, the apostles suddenly appeared before her. They had been miraculously borne from where they were preaching at the ends of the earth so they may farewell the Mother of their Teacher. After addressing each one and giving them her blessing, the Panayia lay back on her bed, closed her eyes and fell asleep, departing from her earthly existence. She was buried amidst lamentation in Gesthemane and three days later, the apostle Thomas went to her grave, to get a glimpse of her for the last time. Her body was not there.
The bodily assumption of the Theotokos was confirmed by the message of an angel and by her appearance to the Apostles. The commemoration of this event is a Great Feast of the Church and a national holiday in Greece, celebrating a fundamental teaching of the Orthodox faith-the Resurrection of the body. In the case of the Theotokos, this has been accomplished by the divine will of God. Thus, this Feast is a feast of hope in Resurrection and life eternal. Like those who gathered around the body of the Virgin Mary, the faithful gather around their departed loved ones and commend their souls into the hands of Christ.
As they remember those who have reposed in the faith before them and have passed on into the communion of the Saints, the faithful prepare themselves to one day be received into the new life of the age to come. The commemoration of the Dormition of the Theotokos and the preparation for the Feast begin on 1 August with a period of fasting. A strict fast is followed on most of the days (no meat, dairy, oil, or wine), with the exceptions of fish on the Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6) and the day of the Dormition. Oil and Wine are allowed on Saturdays and Sundays.
On the weekdays before the Feast, Paraklesis services are held in most parishes. These consist of the Great Paraklesis and the Small Paraklesis, both services of supplication and prayer for the intercessions of the Theotokos. All over Greece, the faithful will mass to churches that have a special significance for the Greek people, such as Panagia Soumela in Veroia and Panagia of Tinos. Last year for the first time, the Oecumenical Patriarch was permitted to conduct the celebration of the Feast at Panagia Soumela in Pontus. Let us hope that this tradition is continued so that all churches will resound joyfully with the kontakion of the Dormition: In birth, you preserved your virginity; in death, you did not abandon the world, O Theotokos. As mother of life, you departed to the source of life, delivering our souls from death by your intercessions. Χρόνια Πολλά.
Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and a freelance writer