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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Dormition Awakening

In the industrial town of Kondopoga, the Russian Orthodox celebration of the feast of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary is a big event.

Deep in the Russian north, located some 200 miles northeast of St. Petersburg, lies Kondopoga, a dreary industrial town. Although suffering from the same economic stagnation and social disintegration afflicting much of Russia today, Kondopoga has a few bright spots: a picturesque parish church dedicated to the Dormition of the Mother of God – the falling asleep of the Virgin Mary – and the faith of those who worship within its lumber walls.

Last August, my wife and I joined Kondopoga’s Russian Orthodox parish community in celebrating its patronal feast day, an annual event that the Communists had restricted for years. Before the Communists seized power in 1917, Russians throughout the country celebrated the feast of the Dormition with liturgies and processions, carnivals and banquets. Russia’s most important cathedrals and monastic churches were dedicated to this Marian feast, an indication of the esteem and veneration of the Virgin Mary held by most Russians. In honor of Kondopoga’s patronal feast, Bishop Manuel, the head of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Petrozavodsk, led the celebrations.

Kondopoga’s log church dates to 1774. Villages in this area – the Karelia district of northwest Russia – often had a winter church built of masonry and equipped with stoves for heat, and a summer church built of wood. During the Soviet period, virtually all the churches were converted to secular use or destroyed. Kondopoga’s Communist officials converted the winter church into a club and, like many pre-Revolutionary structures, it fell into ruin. The log summer church had been made a museum, but was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church and restored for worship after the disintegration of Communist rule.

On the feast day the church, a tall and narrow structure crowned with a great wooden cupola, had been adorned with flowers blessed in preparation. The day’s celebration began when Bishop Manuel arrived and was presented with a bouquet of roses by a young priest. After Bishop Manuel entered the church he was ceremoniously vested by acolytes while the congregation swarmed around him, packing the small nave of the church and overflowing into an adjoining atrium.

I glanced over the congregation. There were the expected babushski, the old women who had persevered in their faith despite persecution. But there was also a broad spectrum of others. A young policeman reverently crossed himself before entering the church; two other young men wore the camouflage fatigues of soldiers. There were young mothers holding infants and a group of children sitting around a table in the atrium coloring pictures; there were teenage boys and middle-aged men.

Priests from neighboring parishes joined in the celebration of the feast. A small choir chanted the Divine Liturgy in Church Slavonic; congregational singing was led by a deacon. The liturgy proceeded at an unhurried pace; people had come to pray, not to get an obligation out of the way.

There was a constant, slow, milling about as individuals made their way through the congregation to reverence an icon of the Virgin Mary that portrayed her lying on a burial shroud. This festival icon, displayed on a stand in the center of the church and adorned with fresh flowers, echoed the Orthodox tradition of reverencing a cloth representing the burial shroud of Jesus on Good Friday. For the dormition of the Virgin, like this icon, reflects Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension into heaven:

“For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came also through a human being. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life.” (1 Corinthians, 15: 20-22)

Russian Orthodox Christians observe a two-week fast before the feast of the Dormition, similar to the fasts of Advent and Lent. This means abstaining from alcohol, meat and dairy products. Of the four major Marian feasts in the Orthodox calendar – which correspond to the Roman Catholic Church’s celebration of her birth, presentation, annunciation and assumption – only the feast of the Dormition is preceded by such a fast.

Although there is no specific scriptural reference to the Virgin’s death, a body of apocryphal literature, entitled Transitus Mariae (or the passing of Mary), survives from the fifth century. Though largely legendary, certain themes have entered the canon of church tradition: the Apostles gathered around Mary as she lay dying, they kept vigil at her grave and were present when the Lord received her into paradise.

As early as the fifth century, Christians in Jerusalem set aside 15 August to honor Mary’s dormition. Syrian Christians, perhaps influenced by Jerusalem, adopted the feast which, by the end of the sixth century, became a solemn feast of the Byzantine Church. In the Latin Church, about a century later, Sergius I (687-701), a pope of Syrian ancestry, adopted the feast, which evolved into the feast of the Assumption.

“The feast of August 15,” writes the eminent Orthodox theologian, Vladimir Lossky, “is a second mysterious Easter, since the church therein celebrates, before the end of time, the secret first-fruits of its eschatological consummation.”

And although this concept of the dormition of the Virgin Mary, particularly the assumption of her body and soul into heaven, has never been formally defined by the Russian Orthodox Church, it is a belief that is firmly enshrined in its liturgy, icons and hymns. Whether she died or only fell asleep is debated. One Russian Orthodox priest told me that Mary was spared death while another was quite emphatic in maintaining that she died. A third priest explained some of the ambivalence: while the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God, its hymns and icons reflect her death.

The liturgy commemorating the dormition of the Virgin Mary moved along solemnly. Yet I saw no signs of fidgeting impatience among those who had been standing for several hours and who had in many cases been fasting before Communion. Was this simply stolid Russian stoicism, conditioned by a lifetime of standing in line? The faces of the congregation spoke otherwise; they were the faces of people at prayer. Even the crowd in the atrium, although they could see little, gazed toward the sanctuary with intensity and reverence.

Russian Orthodox Christians usually receive the Eucharist only a few times a year, and then only after fasting from food and drink from the previous evening and confession.

Before Communion, four priests came out from behind the iconostasis and heard confessions. Many lined tip to receive absolution and when distribution of the Eucharist neared, most of the congregation received. I wondered if such an unusually large number were receiving the Eucharist in honor of the feast. Instead, I was told that this reflected the convictions of the pastor, Father Lev, who encourages frequent reception of the Eucharist.

Those who received the Eucharist then proceeded to a table at one side of the nave where they were given small pieces of blessed bread and tea cups of diluted wine, which were consumed to wash down the Eucharist.

As the communicants returned to their places, they exchanged a triple kiss with others, first on the right cheek, then on the left check, then on the right check again. It was done with tenderness and reverence, as if having received the Eucharist they now wished to share Christ with family and friends.

Near the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, bishop, priests and people gathered processional icons and crosses, lamps and censors, left the church and processed around the outside of the building, stopping at the four points of the compass for prayers, blessings and Gospel readings. Bishop Manuel used a whisk to bless everyone within range with holy water. Children and old women giggled when the holy water hit them; Bishop Manuel seemed to be enjoying himself as well. The procession then made its way back into the church for concluding prayers.

Yet the celebration was not over. People, priests and bishop regathered at the pastor’s house, which also served as a parish center. There was no room inside the house for a gathering of this size, so tables and chairs had been set up outside for a parish potluck supper. The table settings were of various designs; a number of families had loaned their best dishes for the occasion.

Plates and bowls of food crowded the tables and when these were emptied others replaced them – a feast for a feast day. Salads and soups, fresh vegetables and fruit, breads and pastries, cheese and sausages, rice and casseroles, fish and chicken, blini and cookies: many hands had obviously been at work. I sampled foods I had never eaten before, including karelski pirogi, ovals of unleavened rye bread dough topped with a layer of mashed potatoes, pinched over and then baked. I was offered a plate of raw bacon but passed it on; others quickly emptied it as if it were a delicacy.

Most of the parishioners looked as if there were few delicacies in their lives; meals such as this one in honor of the Virgin Mary were truly a feast. The parish house itself bore witness to the kind of lives the parishioners led. Off to one side was a large stack of sawmill scraps that would furnish its heat during the winter and beside the woodpile was an outhouse. Communism reduced the gap between rich and poor by leaving almost everyone in this part of the country on the borderline of poverty.

Leisurely, course after course, the meal continued through the afternoon. A few bottles of wine were produced and toasts and tributes began: to Bishop Manuel for coming to Kondopoga and celebrating the liturgy; to Father Lev, the pastor; to guests; to a man who was the oldest member of the parish, persevering through the worst years of Communism; to a woman whose grandfather had been the parish priest and had been killed by the Communists. After every toast, all joined in singing a traditional Russian blessing: “God grant you many years, God grant you many years, God grant you many, many years.” At the end of the meal everyone rose and faced east for a closing prayer led by the Bishop.

Afterward there was of course the cleanup. While the tables were being cleared and leftovers gathered, Bishop Manuel sat in the shade of a tree and people lined up to greet him, to ask his blessing, to request help with a problem. Finally he left, along with the visiting priests, and parishioners trickled away to their homes.

I had witnessed one day in the life of one Russian Orthodox parish in one rural town in northern Russia. It was a special day, a feast day, a day of celebrating the dormition of the Virgin Mary, a day for rekindling hope that Christians will join her in heaven, body and soul, a day of celebrating and anticipating resurrection.

I had witnessed something of another resurrection as well – the resurrection of Christianity in Russia. As was evident in this celebration of the Virgin’s profound sleep, the Russian Orthodox Church, after more than seven nightmarish decades, is, paradoxically, beginning to awaken.

George Martin is a frequent contributor to these pages.

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