Last time, we discussed how Mary, in the Dormition and Assumption, stands as an exemplar of patience and hope—that we should learn to imitate her hope and trust in God’s promises. Today, we will see how the Church sets forth Mary’s Dormition and Assumption as an image of how we can approach death, mourning, and the Resurrection.
I grew up in an Evangelicalish/Charismaticky brand of Christianity and, even as I went deeper into more traditional forms of faith over the years, this Evangelically Charismatic tradition has had a particular influence on my life/the lives of my extended family. One area where this influence has been particularly felt/is extremely noticeable is the way we have approached death. In the culture I grew up in there was a mixture of anxiety and ambivalence about death. There was anxiety/concern for certain relatives—I remember having conversations with one of my aunts, where we anxiously hoped that someday my grandfather would “get saved” (Evangelical speak for saying the “Sinner’s Prayer,” and dedicating your life to Christ), because we were afraid of him going to hell. But then, with some other relatives, the idea that “This person is saved—they’re going straight to heaven” was common. St. Paul said to the Thessalonians: “we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13 RSV). And we took that to mean that grieving was not really a legitimate response to death—it’s not that there couldn’t be sadness, but ultimately you should be rejoicing because the person was in heaven (because they had been saved) or just accepting the fact that it was too late for them, that they were in hell. And both before and after I began to believe something a bit deeper than that, I could feel the tension different family members would have in reaction to the passing of various family members: “I feel sad, but I shouldn’t be feeling it. I know this person is saved/that they are in a better place. Why can’t I let it go?” And, one of my most jarring memories, at the funeral of my grandma Colette (I was Catholic for many years at that point) one of my relatives said that they didn’t want to be present for the burial itself because “It doesn’t matter. That [her body] is not her. That’s just her shell.” This was a woman who had made cookies with us, whose house my sisters and I had played in, who had drawn our family members together on holidays, who was one of the few family members present when I became Catholic, and who had courageously fought cancer for the last year of her life. But her body’s just a shell, doesn’t matter.
Obviously, I’ve generalized/selectively exaggerated certain events, but this was the culture surrounding death that I had grown up with. And some of these things were just from a faulty soteriology—the ideas of “Once Saved Always Saved” and imputed righteousness (God just declares you righteous without anything about the reality of you changing) are heresies, and we really need the process of sanctification in order to really respond to the Gospel even after death (that is, more fully surrendering, becoming holy more and more each day through God’s grace—God doesn’t just call you righteous, but He makes you righteous in reality). But there are some real challenges to faith or questions that need resolving here: Is mourning the death of a loved one ok, or is it “grieving like those who have no hope”? Is there room for grief and joy in death? Should I go to death brazenly confident of my own salvation or should I approach it in fear, terrified of dying in a state of mortal sin? And what about our bodies—are they just shells to be cast off at death, or is there something more going on?The Church gives us some really beautiful answers to these questions in Mary’s Dormition and Assumption. This is can be seen in the liturgical texts for the feast, but it is displayed especially well in the Church’s iconographic tradition.
The first things we ought to recognize in the icon of the Dormition are the faces of the Apostles and the other Disciples present. They are weeping. They are mourning. Someone they love has died. And they are mourning for their friend, their companion, and their Mother. This is not presented as something evil, they are not presented as though they have no hope, but instead they are doing something holy. Paul warns against grieving as those who do not have hope, but he does not condemn grieving. There is something sad about death. There is something in us that recognizes the horror of the rending of body and soul. As Wisdom puts it, “God did not make death, and He does not delight in the death of the living” and “God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of His own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world” (Wisdom 1:13, 2:23-24). It wasn’t supposed to be this way—and when we are confronted with the reality of death that comes sharply into focus. We see the reality that I am not going to see this person again until the end, that we are no more going to be able to sit down and have a meal together or share a hug, that we will not be able to have conversations in the same way (for, you can still talk to them, but you never hear an answer)—when that reality hits there is a real sadness that we go through. Even Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God experienced this sadness. He Who had the power to be rid of the source of sadness (by resurrecting Lazarus) first enters into the pain of loss. He Who had just said that He was the Resurrection and the Life and that He had the power to raise Lazarus, “When [He] saw [Mary of Bethany] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and troubled; and He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to Him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept. So the Jews said, ‘See how He loved him!’” (John 11:33-36)
But what separates this sadness from “grieving as those without hope”? The icon gives us another clue. Peter, in the left corner in the gold and blue, is swinging a censor. He, “the κορυφαῖος [koryphaios, the choir director/lead singer] of the choir of the Apostles” is leading the Church in worship. They do not just mourn for their beloved, they pray for her. Instead of allowing their grief to consume them, they turn their grief into intercession. And, we will discuss His presence more fully in a few paragraphs, but Jesus is with them. Mar (St.) Jacob of Serug, one of the Syriac/Chaldean Saints, writes in his Metrical Homilies on the Mother of God:
As the Lord had descended and prepared His servant Moses for burial, so together with [the Apostles] He buried His Mother according to the flesh…In a cave of stone, in the new sepulchre of Nicodemus, they had introduced and placed the Son of this blessed one. And [now] this pure Mother of the Son of God, they introduced and placed her in a cave, in a sepulchre from a cave of stone. All the company of the Apostles gathered together and stood by, while in truth, their Master together with them laid her in the grave.Mar Jacob of Serug, On the Mother of God, V, 714-715 (from the late 400s, early 500s)
This does not necessarily mean that Jesus literally appeared back on earth to bury His Mother. But it most definitely means that He comes to the Disciples in their sorrow—He enters into their pain of loss, and helps them mourn. So it is with all of us: “grieving as those without hope” doesn’t mean mourning—we ought to mourn, to feel our sadness at the loss of a loved one. But we should turn our sadness into prayer for the one we lost. And we should recognize that not only did Jesus feel sadness one day two thousand years ago, but that He enters into our sadness with us, He weeps with us.
Those Who Have Fallen Asleep
The next thing to notice is the way Mary is positioned in the icon. She appears to be peacefully sleeping. This feast is indeed called the Κοίμησις (Koimesis) the Dormition or Falling Asleep of Mary. It is a common euphemism used for death in the Bible. As has already been quoted: “concerning those who are asleep—κοιμωμένων koimomenon,” or in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, as is read on the Feast of the Assumption in the Latin Church: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep—κεκοιμημένων kekoimemenon” (1 Corinthians 15:20). St. Germanos of Constantinople preaches expanding on what happens to Mary: “since He Who humbled Himself in you was God from beginning and Eternal Life, so the Mother of Life was to share the dwelling of Life, to accept her death like a sleep and consent to her translation like a waking, as the Mother of Life” (Homily on the Dormition of Blessed Mary, I—as quoted in the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary). The Church used the term “falling asleep” for describing her death, so St. Germanos expands that, saying that she approached death like a sleep. How and why do people go to sleep? They go to sleep in quiet and in peace, and they go to be refreshed. There are of course examples to the contrary (think of the toddler who wants to stay up and have fun with the grown-ups), but sleep is the welcome reward of a long day of work, a time to retreat from the stress of the day, and a time to get energy for the next task at hand. It is hard to sleep when you are distracted or worried. But when you are calm and quiet, when you have eliminated your distractions, when you know that you are safe, sleep can come easier. Mary approached her death like a sleep. She did not give in to worldly concerns or fears (“what are we to eat or what are we to wear?”), nor was she scrupulously worried about her salvation (whether she was safe), but she was singularly focused on God’s will—calmly able to listen to God’s voice. So she was able to approach death as if it were sleep, that it would be refreshing, that she could trust in whatever He wants. Death was not a terror for her. She didn’t know exactly what would happen to her—what do you feel after death?—but she trusted that her Son would take care of her. And on top of that, “she accepted her death like a sleep and consented to her translation like a waking”—the rest/the sleep is not like Martin Luther’s conception of death, where souls sleep unaware until the Resurrection (otherwise pesky doctrines like purgatory or intercession of the saints could be a thing); but she falls asleep and wakes up in the Lord’s presence. She goes to sleep at peace with the Lord (for there is no reason to fear), and she wakes up in His presence.
Another important thing depicted in the icon is Christ’s interaction with her. Mary appears in the icon twice—when she has fallen asleep/died, and in Jesus’ arms. Immediately after his statement about approaching death like a sleep, St. Germanos continued:
For just as a child seeks and longs for its own mother, and the mother loves to spend her time with her child, so it was right that you, with your maternal love for your Son and God, should return to Him. And it was right too that God, preserving a Son’s love for you, should make His companionship with you into a perpetual association.Homily on the Dormition, I
Mary was and is truly the Theotokos, the God-bearer. She really bore Jesus in her womb. She really raised Him. He was really her Son. And they loved each other as Mother and Son. And yet, at the same time, another aspect of the true nature of their relationship is revealed in the icon. Dante Alighieri prayed to Mary, Vergine Madre, Figlia del tuo Figlio—“Virgin Mother, the Daughter of thy Son.” What we often forget about Mary, in our love and zeal for her, is that, before she was the Mother of God and Ark of the New Covenant, before she became the Queen-Mother of the Kingdom of Heaven, before she became all that we know her and love her to be, first she is a daughter of God. First, before all else, she is a loving creation, a beloved child of the Father. During their earthly lives, Mary held Jesus in her arms—she was alma Redemptoris Mater, the loving Mother of the Redeemer. She was the one that bathed Him, clothed Him, and taught Him how to speak. She was the Mother who faithfully stayed with Him in His agony. She was the one who trusted that the words of the Lord would be fulfilled (cf. Luke 1:45). But now, in heaven, we can see the full reality. All of the other things about her are true—she is still the Ever-Virgin Mother and Queen of Heaven—but her primary identity is a beloved daughter of God. She who held Jesus is now held by Him. Look at how he holds Mary in the icon, how He looks at her. Think of the times that you have held a tiny infant—seeing the innocence, the “helplessness,” the happy little smiles, imagining all that they will become. That is a taste of what the Lord sees in Mary. He can also see all that she was and is (I don’t think in heaven we will all be infants), but in Mary the first thing He sees is His beloved daughter.
Finally, comparing both the mourners gathered on earth and the angels celebrating in heaven, we can see the admixture of joy and sorrow in the death of Mary. The Greek Church’s Liturgy literally enacts this throughout the whole month of August. Starting two weeks before the Feast, they have the Dormition Fast—along with special services called the Supplicatory Canons, asking for Mary to intercede and help them prepare for the celebration. At the all-night vigil of the Feast itself, Mary’s burial is reenacted: just like the Byzantines do on Good Friday night, a cloth icon of the Dormition is processed around the Church in a mini-“coffin”, while songs of mourning are sung. For 14 days, the Church enters into the sorrow of Mary’s death. But right after the funeral, the Church begins hymns of joy. Again intentionally mirroring Easter, the Church bursts out in a hymn with the repeated refrain: “Blessed art thou, O Lady, illuminate me with the Light Of thy Son!” (echoing the repeated refrain of the Ευλογητάρια of the Resurrection: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes!”). And for the whole rest of August, the Church throws jubilant hymns of praise in honor of the Dormition into the Liturgy. And this is also the joy that the Western Church enters into in the feast: “Alleluia, alleluia. Mary is taken up to heaven; a chorus of angels exults. Alleluia, alleluia” (Gospel Acclamation). Mar Jacob of Serug summarizes the mixture of joy and sorrow very well:
Fiery seraphim surrounded the soul of the departed and raised the loud sound of their joyful shouts. They shouted and said: “Lift up, O gates, all your heads, because the Mother of the King seeks to enter the bridal chamber of light.” Heaven was full of the sweet music of the angels, but the depths were troubled, together with the disciples who were filled with grief. The Church on high and that below cried out with one hymn, for neither those above nor those below could suffice to tell of her.On the Mother of God, V, 718.
But all of this spoken of Mary, does not just apply to Mary. This is the Κοίμησις, the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos, but this applies in some way to all who have fallen asleep: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:20-22). Falling asleep is the common euphemism for death in the New Testament, so what was said of Mary’s falling asleep in some way can apply to ours. Like her, we ought to approach our deaths like a sleep. We do not need to fear, but we can long for His rest like we long to go to bed after a hard day’s work. We shouldn’t become scrupulous or overly worried about messing up, so long as we try “working hard” throughout the day—trusting ourselves to His Mercy, uniting our wills to His, and not “keeping score” of the good and bad. We should know that, whatever we are, we are first and foremost sons and daughters of the Father. In the same way that Mary held Him as a child, He holds us in His arms. He is a loving Father, delighted in holding His children. (This image is especially helpful for those who have “gone through a lot” in life—whether illness, poverty, or some other form of suffering—or those who have made many mistakes in life: He still sees all that we’ve done and all that we’ve become, but the first thing He sees is His beloved child. Whatever sicknesses or illnesses a person has gone through, they are held in the arms of Christ). And the fullness of the reaction to death is that blending of the sorrowful songs of earth and the joyful songs of heaven. When we grieve as those who do have hope, we mourn our losses, we feel our sadness, but we offer them as prayer, and we rejoice in what is to come, the Resurrection, and join in the heavenly song.
I believe in the resurrection of the body
Finally, though not pictured in the traditional icon, we come to the part of the story/the ancient tradition where St. Thomas the Apostle shows up to the funeral late. St. John of Damascus records the story attributed to St. Juvenal of Jerusalem at the Council of Chalcedon: “Mary died in the presence of the Apostles, but that her tomb, when opened, upon the request of St. Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven.” We ultimately don’t know who was actually a witness to the event (apart from John, as he heeded Jesus’s words on the Cross and “from that hour…took [Mary] to his own home” [John 19:27]), but there are important things to note. Thomas, the most famous of the Apostles who doubted Jesus’s Resurrection, is invited to be the first witness of Mary’s Assumption (he gets to redeem himself a bit from the first time). Secondly, Thomas is depicted as concerned/wanting to see Mary’s body. Mary had died, but it was important for him to see her body, that is, to see her. He was not worried about a shell or a puppet controlled by Mary’s soul—he wanted to say good-bye to her. And so they open the grave, and find that she is not there. In a manner just like Christ, she has been raised from the dead, and her body is not there. The definition of the Venerable Pope Pius XII declares “that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” (Munificentissimus Deus, 44). Not only is Thomas concerned about Mary’s body, but the Lord is. She was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory. Paul writes, “if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His” (Romans 6:5). We are first united to his death and resurrection in baptism (cf. Romans 6:3-11), but he also is talking about the future resurrection: “If the Spirit of Him Who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He Who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through His Spirit Which dwells in you” (Romans 8:11). And we confess in the Apostles’ Creed: Credo in…carnis resurrectionem et vitam æternam—I believe in the resurrection of the body and everlasting life. We believe that, though we die (our bodies and souls separate at death), our bodies will be resurrected. In both the Liturgies and the Homiletic Tradition, the Dormition and the Assumption are purposefully paralleled with Jesus’s Resurrection. Why? Because that is the destiny of each one of us—our deaths and resurrections happen because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. We do not discard the body or think it is unimportant, because Jesus will raise it from the dead. “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Christ is the first fruits—His resurrection tells us what will happen with all of us. But, to give us faith that us “regular humans who are not in hypostatic union with the eternal Logos of God” will also be raised, Mary, one of “those who have fallen asleep” is raised up body and soul into heaven. For most of us, this will happen at the end of time. But Mary is assumed into heaven early, that she might serve as an example for us. As the Second Vatican Council puts it, “the Mother of Jesus, glorified in body and soul in heaven, is the image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected in the world to come” (Lumen Gentium, 68). She is the image of what will be. As Pope Francis put in his Angelus address for the feast this year:
When man set foot on the moon, he said a phrase that became famous: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. In essence, humanity had reached a historical goal. But today, in Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, we celebrate an infinitely greater conquest. The Madonna has set foot in paradise: she went there not only in spirit, but with her body as well, with all of herself. This step of the lowly Virgin of Nazareth was the huge leap forward for humanity. Going to the moon serves us little if we do not live as brothers and sisters on Earth. But that one of us dwells in the flesh in Heaven gives us hope: we understand that we are precious, destined to rise again. God does not allow our bodies to vanish into nothing. With God, nothing is lost! In Mary, the goal has been reached and we have before our eyes the reasons why we journey: not to gain the things here below, which vanish, but to achieve the homeland above, which is forever. And Our Lady is the star that guides us.15 August 2020
“With God, nothing is lost!” God’s action with Mary shows us that this will be true, that He really values our bodies (part of what was created “very good” in Genesis) and promises to lose nothing. St. Paul gives another picture of the future resurrection, the hope to which Mary’s assumption points us:
Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.1 Thessalonians 4:14-18
And so, remember the dignity of our bodies, that Christ died to save, and continue on in hope even in the face of death.
Mary, Icon of the Church, who stands as an image of what Christian hope in the face of death looks like, pray that we might learn to mourn as those who do have hope, help us in our songs of mourning join the heavenly songs of joy, and help us remember that we are beloved sons and daughters of the Father. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us poor sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
Our last reflection on the Dormition and the Assumption in this series will be published on Saturday (the traditional end of the Octave of the Assumption), on the significance of Marian devotion to this mystery of faith.
. I was baptized/established in faith as a Methodist, I fell in love with Christ and the Liturgy in the Episcopal Church, and then finally became a Catholic in 2012.
. Using the terminology of St. John Chrysostom.