The Dormition of the Theotokos (August 15)

An increasing number of Byzantine churches are observing the Feast of the Dormition by conducting the Burial Service of the Theotokos. This observance comes to us from the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the traditional site of her death and burial.

On the morning of August 14 a procession sets out from the Patriarchate, bearing the icon of the Dormition. They leave the Old City and cross the Kedron Valley, arriving at Gethsemane and the tomb of the Theotokos. There the people, passing beneath the icon, enter the church where the burial shroud of the Theotokos has been displayed for veneration. On the closing of the feast, August 23, another procession returns the icon and the shroud to the Patriarchate.


The Tomb of the Holy Virgin

We do not know when the site of the Virgin’s tomb in Gethsemane, at the foot of Mount Olivet, became a place of Christian devotion. Some say that the first church there had been built by St Helena in the fourth century. There was clearly a church there in the fifth century. It is well documented that the first Patriarch of Jerusalem, St Juvenal, had taken the veil of the Theotokos from this shrine and sent it to the Empress Pulcheria who had asked him for the Virgin’s “relics” after the Council of Chalcedon (451). The patriarch replied, “Three days after her repose, the body of the Holy Virgin was raised up to heaven and the Tomb in the Garden of Gethsemane bears only her Veil.” The patriarch then sent this relic to Constantinople where it was enshrined in the church of the Theotokos at Blachernae, a district of Constantinople.

A church was built at the site of the virgin’s tomb in 582 by the Byzantine Emperor Maurice. Thus church was destroyed during the Persian invasion of 614 but rebuilt soon afterward. During the Crusades it was destroyed again, leaving only the crypt – the actual place of the tomb – and the steps descending to it. Today the crypt-church is served jointly by the Greek Patriarchate and the Armenian Patriarchate. The church also contains chapels used by the Coptic and Syriac Orthodox.

The Burial Service

The first record of a burial service performed outside Jerusalem dates from the fifteenth century. In Russia rectors of churches dedicated to the Mother of God were encouraged to erect a tomb or bier on the solea in which the icon of the feast could be enshrined. Matins could then be served before this tomb.

It was also in the fifteenth century that the lamentations on the burial of Christ were composed in Jerusalem. They are sung today in the Orthros of Holy Saturday, one of the more popular moments in the rites of the Holy Week in the Greek and Middle Eastern Churches. Due to the interaction of Greeks and Italians in this period we often see a burial of Christ service, including the Greek melodies of the Lamentations, used by Italian and Spanish Roman Catholics as well.

Around one hundred years later, in 1541, the Greek Metropolitan Dionysios of Old Patras in western Greece composed the service for the burial of the Theotokos, in imitation of the service for the burial of Christ. It is this service which has spread throughout the Byzantine world today.

At first the principal image used in this service was the icon of the Dormition, as in Jerusalem. As the burial of the Theotokos came to be celebrated as imitation of the Burial of Christ, use of the shroud of the Theotokos became popular.

Passing through Death to Life

Some people feel that this imitation of the burial of Christ detracts from people’s understanding of Pascha as the climactic event of world history, the death and resurrection of the Savior. The Holy Virgin, after all, did not rise from the dead as Christ did; she lived and died in a purely human, if immaculate way.

Since there is no mention of the Virgin’s death in the New Testament, some Christians have come to believe that Mary did not die at all but was translated to glory without being subject to death. There is no evidence nor is there a tradition that this was believed in the Christian East. The Theotokos died by the necessity of her human nature, which is indivisibly bound up with the corruption of this world. Like us she was mortal. Unlike us, her natural mortality did not lead her to sin (spiritual death).

The Church believes that Mary died as all humans die, but that it was granted that she enter now in her body the glorification awaiting all the saints in the life of the age to come. The Theotokos thus becomes a sign confirming that Christ’s death and resurrection truly accomplished for all mankind, not just for Himself, the destruction of Hades and the defeat of Death. Her Repose demonstrates the reality of the transformation of death from a fearful enemy into a joyous passage to life.

Besides pointing back to the death and resurrection of Christ, the Repose of the Theotokos points ahead to what is to come: that all who are in Christ will share in the life of the angels in the resurrected body. As Father Alexander Schmemann put it, “Mary is not the great exception;” rather she is the great example given to us as a witness of what is meant for us all. As we say in the Creed, we “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” The Feast of the Dormition gives us a glimpse of what that might be.

Lamentations at the Tomb of the Theotokos (Third Stasis)

Ev’ry generation
to your tomb comes bringing
its dirge of praises, O Virgin.

All of creation
to the tomb comes bringing
a farewell hymn to our Lady.

Christ’s holy Disciples
tend to the body
of Mary, Mother of my God.

Orders of Angels
and Archangels
invisibly hymn her presence.

Pious Women
with the Apostles
now cry out their lamentations.

She who was at Cana
at the marriage
has been called with the Apostles.

The Master descends now
to Gethsemane
with countless hosts of heaven.

Let us go out quickly
To meet the Lord Jesus
Who comes once more among us.

Let us be attentive
God is now speaking
with His most pure Mother:

“Behold now your Son
comes to bring you
into His home in the heavens.

Come indeed, My Mother,
come into divine joy
and enter into the kingdom.”

“What will I bring You,
O my Son, the God-Man”
the Maiden cried to the Master.

“What will I bring You,
O my God in heaven
except my soul and body.

The Father I glorify
to the Son I sing a hymn
the Holy Spirit I worship.”