by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
This coming Wednesday, we celebrate the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos. Of course, when we say “falling asleep,” we’re referring to her passing from this life to the next…her death. It’s a major feast-day of the Church.
Here in the United States, some of the Orthodox Church’s major feast-days, like this one, easily fall through the cracks of our lives, because they so often occur in the middle of our busy workweek. American Orthodox Christians will rarely interrupt work schedules for religious observances. However, a few years ago, when I traveled through Albania…and then later through Greece, I saw a radically different significance given to this feast. Just as people will normally drop everything for the funeral of a beloved friend, most of these people took the day off from work out of respect for the Theotokos. Their lives came to a sobering halt to be in liturgy for this feast. But not only was it like going to the funeral of a beloved friend, there was something more to this feast-day, something joyful as well…like what happens at Pascha. In fact, at one of the places I traveled to, after the Divine Liturgy, it was something of a cross between a giant tail-gate party and a Pascha picnic. The open trunks of cars were filled with various festive foods and libations, with people sitting around them in lawn chairs, enjoying one-another’s friendship. Lots of people had their blankets spread out on the grass for their families. Scattered throughout the park, there were several lambs roasting on the spit. Drinks were being served…and joyful toasts were being made. But, why? Why would Christians make such a celebration out of a religious observance that commemorates the death of someone so beloved as the Theotokos?
It begins with the Church’s use of the expression, “falling asleep.” Of course, the Church is offering us much more than just a nice euphemism to make us feel better about the holy mother’s dying. There’s powerful meaning behind this phrase, “falling asleep.” Throughout the Vespers service the theme is that, the Mother of Life has passed over into the heavenly joy, into the divine gladness and unending delight of the Kingdom of her Son. So her physical death, because of her Son’s physical resurrection, becomes a point of great joy—merely a sleep—through which she awakens in the divine glory of her Son. Saint John of Damascus called it, “the deathless death.” The hymns tell us that at the funeral of the Theotokos, both the multitude of angels and all of those living on earth overflow with elation. “Heaven is glad, and angelic hosts celebrate with joy; and the inhabitants of the earth are jubilant as they sing funeral anthems unto you as the Mother of Him who rules over the entire world.”
At first glance, it’s easy to understand why the angels would be so joyful. They now have the Mother of God in their midst…but why would the inhabitants of the earth be so jubilant? Shouldn’t they be sad? The Queen of Heaven is no longer physically in their midst. Of course the icon of the feast shows our Lord’s disciples gathered around the Theotokos in great mourning. But the hymns tell us that when she was assumed from the earth into heaven, their sadness was turned to joy. Why? It’s because, in this final event, as Christ escorts her to heaven, she continues uniting all the things on earth with the things in heaven. “And when they saw you were taken up from the earth into the heights, full of joy they cried aloud the salutation of Gabriel: Rejoice, O chariot of the Godhead; rejoice, the only woman who in childbirth united the things of earth with the things on high.” All of this exemplifies the truth of Christ’s resurrection…His victory over death for all the rest of us…a source of boundless joy!
What an amazing paradox! While this Feast is called the “Falling Asleep of the Theotokos,” in reality, it’s a celebration of her life and her victory over death. It’s a celebration of her “Passover” from this life into life eternal. It’s a celebration that confirms the promise of our own resurrection in Christ. Mary is a sign of God’s faithfulness to all of humanity…especially to those who faithfully follow her Son like she did. As He raises her from the dead, so also, He raises the rest of us. This is why we can call it the Summer Pascha. It’s indeed a Paschal event. The hymns of the feast affirm that the Virgin Mary experienced her own personal Pascha (Passover) by passing through death and rising to eternal life. Saint John of Damascus shines a light on this great mystery, saying, “O how does the source of life pass through death to life? She dies according to the flesh, destroys death by death, and through corruption gains incorruption, and makes her death the source of resurrection.” Thus, being alive in heaven, as Queen and Mother of our Lord, we can now ask her intercessions to help us transform our own impending death into the same Passover victory over death.
At the Divine Liturgy we hear Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians where he speaks of Christ’s self-emptying…and of His willingness to descend into human servitude and disgraceful death, in order to be “highly exalted” by God his Father (Philippians 2:5-11). And then again we hear at the end of the Dormition Gospel Reading that Mary’s blessedness belongs to all who “hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:27-28). So, when it comes right down to it, participating in the Dormition services of the Theotokos is about preparing us for our own fate…death. Our Lady, the Mother of God shows us how we also should die...with “our souls magnifying the Lord and our Spirit rejoicing in God our Savior.”