Standing round thy body that had held God, the choir of the apostles looked upon it with awe and saluted it, saying with clear voice: ‘As thou departest to the heavenly mansions unto thy Son, do thou ever save thine inheritance.’ (photo: St. Vladimir’s Seminary)
Detail from XIII century Yugoslavian fresco depicts the Apostles mourning the death of the Virgin. (photo: Rev. Leon V. Kofod)
Deep devotion to the Mother of God is a bright thread that runs through the long and ancient history of Eastern Christianity. Both the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches share a tradition in which the veneration of Mary is a most important aspect of liturgy and belief. Eastern Christians revere the Blessed Virgin as their own loving Mother, and see in her the sign that God has truly dwelt among His people.
Marys unique role in Christs work of redemption is understood and expressed by Orthodox Christians in richly symbolic terms. Jesus is The Image of God. Mary shows what it is to be created in the image and likeness of God. She is the creature who, more than any other, reveals the perfection of His works. In her life and in her divine motherhood she demonstrated the transforming power of Gods grace, which is available to all men in spite of the effects of sin. Mary herself was transformed and glorified as the Theotokos, the Godbearer, and her Son achieved the ultimate transformation when He redeemed man and broke the power of sin with His death and resurrection. Christs victory is for all men, and the most perfect witness of that victory is the one who bore Christ, followed Him to Calvary and now shares fully in His glory: His Mother. This truth finds profound expression in the feast of Marys Assumption, celebrated on the fifteenth of August.
The Assumption commemorates Marys bodily resurrection following her death. In the East and among Orthodox it is frequently referred to as the Dormition or falling asleep of Our Lady; the name is a reminder that Marys death was a gentle and holy passage from earthly life into the arms of her Son.
Orthodox Christians believe that Mary died not as a result of any personal sin or guilt, for she was personally sinless. Rather, she died because she was a mortal being whose nature was bound up with the corruption of a fallen and sinful world. Because she was truly human, Mary was subject to bodily death. But because she is the Mother of Life, the Theotokos who was never subject to the spiritual death of sin, she was raised up by her Son before the time of humanitys general resurrection. This is, of course, a sign of Christs great love for His Mother. But it also signifies that Christs victory over sin and death is already accomplished for all mankind. The destiny of the Blessed Virgin is the destiny of all who do the will of God.
Gods promise of salvation, which is fulfilled and made manifest in the glorification of Mary, is offered to every human being.
When Orthodox Christians celebrate the feast of the Dormition, they also celebrate their own liberation, achieved by Marys Son, and their own hope of eventual union with God.
What happens to Mary happens to all who imitate her holy life of humility, obedience and love. All will have Christ born in them by the Holy Spirit. All will become temples of the living God. All will share in the eternal life of His Kingdom who live the life that Mary lived.
In this sense everything that is praised and glorified in Mary is a sign of what is offered to all persons in the life of the Church. It is for this reason that Mary, with the divine child Jesus within her, is called in the Orthodox Tradition the Image of the Church. For the assembly of the saved is those in whom Christ dwells.
Orthodox Christians are keenly aware of the meaning of Christs words to Mary from the cross: Woman, behold thy son. When He said this, Christ entrusted not only His apostle John but all men for all time to the care of His Mother. He gave her the power to intercede for them in prayer. True to His promise, I will not leave you orphans, He commits His people not only to the care of their heavenly Father but to the loving protection of their Mother in heaven as well. The glory that Mary now enjoys, body and soul, is a sign to all that they are created to share the same eternal joy, and her special role as Mother reminds her children that she stands always ready to assist them as they strive toward their own salvation.
* Excerpted from The Orthodox Faith, Vol. II, by Father Thomas Hopko.
Claire Tierney is a student of Eastern Church history.