How To Not Die When Dying

by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd

Woody Allen once comically said, “I’m not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens.” Maybe you also feel like you’d like to avoid the encounter entirely. But the Church gives us another way to face this inevitable event in our life, and the Theotokos’ passing illustrates it perfectly.

This coming Thursday we celebrate the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos (although we’ll have our Divine Liturgy for it on Wednesday evening for the sake of those who have to be at work the next day). 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 our faith, marking the culmination of the Church’s liturgical year.

Here in the United States, sadly, some of the Orthodox Church’s major feast-days, like this one, slip by people as though nothing ever happened, 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, in spite of people’s work schedules, I saw a radically different significance given to this feast. Just as people will normally drop everything to go and attend the funeral of a beloved friend, most of these people in Albania and Greece also took the day off from work to offer their respects for the Theotokos. Their lives came to a meaningful halt so that they could be in liturgy for this major feast. However, there was much more to this than merely going to the funeral of a beloved friend. There was something both transcendent and joyful to it as well…like what happens at Pascha. In fact, in a park near one Orthodox Church I visited that day after the Divine Liturgy, we also enjoyed a distinctive blending of a something like a Pascha picnic and a giant tail-gate party. The open trunks of cars were filled with various festive foods, where people sat near their cars in lawn chairs, enjoying one-another’s friendship. Lots of people had their blankets spread out on the grass nearby for their families. Scattered throughout the park, there were also several lambs roasting on the spit. Libations were being served…and joyful toasts were being made. But, why? Why would these 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, because her Son was physically raised from the dead, her own physical death is able to become a point of great joy for us—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.”

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At first glance, it’s easy to understand why heaven and the angelic hosts would be so joyful…as they now have the Mother of God in their midst. But, why would the inhabitants of the earth also become so jubilant at this event? Shouldn’t our Lord’s disciples continue all the more in their sadness since they have also now lost the physical presence of her deceased physical body? Why would the disciples’ sadness be suddenly turned to joy? How is that possible? It’s because, in this definitive event, as Christ escorts her to heaven, in her role as the 1st among equals (of all humanity) she continues leading us to unite 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 victory over death because of her life in Christ. 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 some people 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 to intercede in prayer to her Son for us, 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…our own 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.”