For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed - Luke 1:48
Today is the Forefeast of the Dormition of our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary. The Apolytikion for today would have us sing:
In faith, O ye people, leap for
joy while clapping your hands;
and gather in gladness on this
day with longing and shout in
radiant jubilance. For the Theotokos
cometh nigh to departing from
the earth unto the heights; and we
glorify her with glory as the
Mother of God in our unceasing hymns
On August 15th the Orthodox Church celebrates one of the great feasts of the Church, the Dormition or Falling Asleep of the Theotokos.
After Jesus ascended into heaven the Mother of God lived out her earthly days in the care of the Apostle John. She filled out her days helping to establish the Church, assisting the Apostles and strengthening other believers by telling them the Gospel and the events of her life and Christ's life. She fell asleep the way we all do. By a miracle all of the Apostles, except Thomas, were brought to her bedside when she passed from this life and then was buried.
Thomas arrived a few days later and convinced the others to open her tomb. It was then they discovered that her body was gone. The Church understands this event as a first fruits of the resurrection that all believers will enjoy on the Last Day when Christ returns.
The Scripture readings from the Old Testament, to be read at Vespers the night before, are rich and help explain the significance of Mary for Orthodox Christians.
Genesis 28:10-17 - This is the famous account of Jacob's dream where he sees a ladder with angels ascending and descending between earth and heaven. He exclaims, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Because Mary bore in her womb the Son of God, the Church has always seen her in the imagery of a temple. I think it's fair to say she was the Temple for those months as she carried the infant Christ as an unborn child inside her. It is within Mary that God takes flesh and becomes truly man, so the Church honors and venerates her for this.
Ezekiel 43:27-44:4 - "And the Lord said to me, “This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it, for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it. Therefore it shall remain shut." The prophet Ezekiel's vision of the gate of the Temple being forever shut because the glory of the Lord is there is understood by the Church to be about the Theotokos.
This passage was once universally understood, even by the mainstream Protestant reformers, as being about her perpetual Virginity. The Orthodox Church maintains this understanding while it has largely been lost in Lutheranism and other Protestant churches.
Proverbs 9:1-11 - Mary is identified by the Church here as the house which Wisdom has built. Wisdom is traditionally identified with Christ in the book of Proverbs. It reminds of the one of the greatest church buildings in the world, the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople. The sublime beauty of this church testified to the beauty of God for generations. It's amazing that the building still stands today and a tragedy that it has been turned into a Mosque and now a museum by the Turks.
The short hymns for the day also teach us the meaning of this feast and why we celebrate the falling asleep of the Mother of God.
Troparion for the day:
In giving birth you preserved your virginity, / In falling asleep you did not forsake the world, O Theotokos. / You were translated to life, O Mother of Life, / And by your prayers, you deliver our souls from death.
Kontakion for the day:
Neither the tomb, nor death could hold the Theotokos, / Who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions. / For being the Mother of Life, / She was translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb.
As you can see from the hymns, a theme regarding the Church's understanding of the Mother of God is her prayers for us. In falling asleep she is not separated from us but in heaven she prays powerfully for Christians. Indeed, in falling asleep in Christ none of us are separated from each other. Christ has conquered death and by faith we participate in that victory and enjoy communion with each other through Him! Christ has taken the sting out of death. An aspect of this victory is that death is transformed and a now a passage to eternal life. The saints in heaven with Christ, including Mary, now pray for us powerfully and we may ask them for their prayers.
To close, here is a relevant and more detailed portion of the account about the Dormition of the Theotokos from the OCA website.
The Most Holy Virgin prayed also that the Lord would have the Apostle John come to Her. The Holy Spirit transported him from Ephesus, setting him in that very place where the Mother of God lay. After the prayer, the Most Holy Virgin offered incense, and John heard a voice from Heaven, closing Her prayer with the word “Amen.” The Mother of God took it that the voice meant the speedy arrival of the Apostles and the Disciples and the holy Bodiless Powers.
The faithful, whose number by then was impossible to count, gathered together, says Saint John of Damascus, like clouds and eagles, to listen to the Mother of God. Seeing one another, the Disciples rejoiced, but in their confusion they asked each other why the Lord had gathered them together in one place. Saint John the Theologian, greeting them with tears of joy, said that the time of the Virgin’s repose was at hand.
Going in to the Mother of God, they beheld Her lying upon the bed, and filled with spiritual joy. The Disciples greeted Her, and then they told her how they had been carried miraculously from their places of preaching. The Most Holy Virgin Mary glorified God, because He had heard Her prayer and fulfilled Her heart’s desire, and She began speaking about Her imminent end.
During this conversation the Apostle Paul also appeared in a miraculous manner together with his disciples Dionysius the Areopagite, Saint Hierotheus, Saint Timothy and others of the Seventy Apostles. The Holy Spirit had gathered them all together so that they might be granted the blessing of the All-Pure Virgin Mary, and more fittingly to see to the burial of the Mother of the Lord. She called each of them to Herself by name, She blessed them and extolled them for their faith and the hardships they endured in preaching the Gospel of Christ. To each She wished eternal bliss, and prayed with them for the peace and welfare of the whole world.
Then came the third hour (9 A.M.), when the Dormition of the Mother of God was to occur. A number of candles were burning. The holy Disciples surrounded her beautifully adorned bed, offering praise to God. She prayed in anticipation of Her demise and of the arrival of Her longed-for Son and Lord. Suddenly, the inexpressible Light of Divine Glory shone forth, before which the blazing candles paled in comparison. All who saw it took fright. Descending from Heaven was Christ, the King of Glory, surrounded by hosts of Angels and Archangels and other Heavenly Powers, together with the souls of the Forefathers and the Prophets, who had prophesied in ages past concerning the Most Holy Virgin Mary...
Click here to finish reading the account of Mary's falling asleep in the Lord.
Most Holy Theotokos, pray for us!
Joyous Feast to you all!