What Is a “Dormition”?Our English word echoes the French and Latin words for “sleep.” The corresponding Greek word, koimisis, appears in English as “cemetery,” or “sleeping place.” By calling death a “repose” or a “falling asleep” we are affirming our faith that death is not an ultimate reality.
Mary’s is not the only Dormition observed in our Church. The first saints to be commemorated were the martyrs, witnesses to Christ at the risk of their life; their death was considered as a “crowning” to their testimony. Some saints not martyred were remembered on the day of their peaceful death, their dormition. Thus we remember the Dormition of St Anne, mother of the Theotokos (Jul. 25) and of St. John the Theologian, the only apostle not martyred (Sept. 26). The Coptic Church also remembers the Dormition of St Joseph (Aug. 2).
Several writings describing the death of the Virgin have come down to us; the earliest still in existence dates from the fifth century. But, according to biblical scholar Lino Cignelli, “All of them are traceable back to a single primitive document, a Judaeo-Christian prototype, clearly written within the mother church of Jerusalem some time during the second century, and, in all probability, composed for liturgical use right at the Tomb of Our Lady.”
The early Tradition generally places Mary’s death in Jerusalem, a few years after the death and resurrection of Christ. According to one early version, “…the apostles carried the couch, and laid down her precious and holy body in Gethsemane in a new tomb. And, behold, a perfume of sweet savor came forth out of the holy sepulcher of our Lady the Mother of God; and for three days the voices of invisible angels were heard glorifying Christ our God, who had been born of her. And when the third day was ended, the voices were no longer heard; and from that time forth all knew that her spotless and precious body had been transferred to paradise.”
Other of these writings speak of all the apostles being summoned and/or transported miraculously to attend the Holy Virgin at her passing. When Mary reposes, they see Christ taking her soul to heaven. When they bury her body as the Lord had instructed, the apostles once more see Christ. In one version Peter appeals to Him: “It had seemed to us Your servants to be right that, just as You, having vanquished death, now reign in glory, You should raise up the body of Your mother and take her with You in joy into heaven.” Christ restores her soul to her body and glorifies both with Him. In all these accounts Mary enters eternal life in the fullness of her spiritual and bodily existence.
Employing elements of these accounts, the Churches of the East and then the West began to celebrate the feast of Mary’s passing, which became widespread before the end of the first millennium ad. The eighth century Father, St John of Damascus, has left us several sermons on the meaning of Mary’s Dormition as well as a canon which we still sing at Orthros on this feast. “What, then, shall we call this mystery of yours? Death? Your blessed soul is naturally parted from your blissful and undefiled body. The body is delivered to the grave, yet it does not remain in death, nor is it the prey of corruption. The body of her, whose virginity remained unspotted in child-birth, was preserved in its incorruption, and was taken to a better, more divine place, where there is no death, only eternal life” (First Homily on the Dormition).
The Resurrection of the BodyThe Dormition of the Theotokos points to an aspect of eternal life only briefly sketched out in the Scriptures. There we read that the risen Christ is “the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). To call Him “first-fruits” presumed that there is more to the crop, as St Paul elaborates: “Christ the first-fruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming” (v. 23).
Mary’s participation in eternal life is unique – she is not awaiting the return of her Son; she now fully shares in the eternal life in body as well as spirit by a special gift of grace. Some may see this belief as unscriptural, contradicting the very words of St Paul. Rather they confirm by a historic moment what would otherwise simply be an allegation. Mary’s dormition demonstrates that St Paul’s teaching is not mere words. Human beings can share physically in the Resurrection and Mary is there to prove it.
In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Mary’s dormition “…is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrec-tion and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians. (It is significant that this ¶ concludes by paraphrasing our troparion of the Dormition in witness to the meaning of this feast.) In giving birth you kept your virginity; in your Dormition you did not leave the world, O Mother of God, but were joined to the source of Life. You conceived the living God and, by your prayers, will deliver our souls from death” (¶966).
What Mary Left BehindOne tradition repeated in several early texts concerns the sash or girdle of the Theotokos. Thomas was supposedly the last Apostle to arrive and missed venerating her body. According to the seventh-century Passing of the Blessed Virgin Mary attributed to Joseph of Arimathea, Thomas saw the most holy body of the blessed Mary going up into heaven, and prayed her to give him a blessing. She heard his prayer, and threw him the sash which she had about her. Parts of this girdle are venerated at the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos and at the Syriac Orthodox “Church of the Girdle” in Homs, Syria. During the eighteenth century some iconographers were moved to “Catholicize” the icon of the Dormition. They showed the Theotokos giving St Thomas a rosary instead of her sash, contributing to the popular notion that the rosary was of Apostolic and Eastern origin
Mary and Ephesus?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 docu-mented 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.
Today some claim that the Theotokos died in Ephesus, where St John the Theologian lived for many years. In the nineteenth century a house claimed to be that of the Virgin was unearthed near Ephesus, based on a supposed vision of Anne Catherine Emerich. This shrine became popular in the West; however there was never any early tradition connecting Mary’s death and burial with the city of Ephesus.