The Falling Asleep of the Theotokos
Although the Dormition of the Theotokos is not in scripture, we know a lot of what happened from Tradition. When the time came for the soul of the Theotokos to be united with her son in heaven, the apostles and disciples were brought mysteriously to Jerusalem. This happened so they could all be present as she died. And they were all present – all except for Thomas. After the death and funeral of the Theotokos, the apostles entombed her in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Q: Why did the Theotokos die, even though she, like Christ, was born immaculate?
A: Because it is fitting that she be united and conformed to Christ in all things, including experiencing death.
The 2nd Empty Tomb
Three days after the burial, St. Thomas arrived in Jerusalem. Although he had missed the funeral, he desired to see the Theotokos one last time. The apostles agreed to open the tomb. Then the apostles again found an empty tomb! Therefore, we rejoice that St. Thomas arrived a little late. That is how know that the Theotokos’ body is already united with her soul in heaven.
And how fitting it is!
Consumed with the desire to be united with your divine Son, your soul departed from your most pure body and united itself to Him. And He, out of the excessive love He bore for you, His Mother, whose virginal body was His first tabernacle, took that body into Heaven. And there, amidst the acclaims of the angels and saints, fused it to your soul.
The first obvious feature of the Dormition Icon, is that it shows the separation of the soul and body of the Theotokos. Christ is holding the soul of the Theotokos, as a new babe in heaven.
The apostles are gathered around the Theotokos just as they are in icons of the Apostles waiting with the Theotokos in the Upper Room. St. Paul is on the right, bending low at the bier. St. Peter is at the left, incensing her body. There are three other bishops present, including St. Timothy, James the first bishop of Jerusalem, and St. Dionysius. In some icons, there is also a small figure trying to disrupt the bier with the Theotokos. This symbolizes those trying to spread the heresy that the Theotokos was not the Mother of God. When this figure is present, an angel smites this figure, expressing the victory of truth at the Council of Ephesus.
Also, there is a single candlestick in the background, which is a symbol hearkening to the words of St. Cosmos, “Thy Son, O Virgin, has truly made thee dwell in the holy of Holies as a bright candlestick, aflame with immaterial fire, as a golden censer burning with divine coals.”
The event of the Dormition, as pictured in icons, expresses the Christian understanding of death. In particular, it shows the soul taken up into heaven. And then, because we know Christ reunited the soul of the Theotokos with her body, the event also foreshadows our own future; the resurrection of the body is what will happen for us too, at the end of time.
This is why, when a loved one dies, we often seek comfort in this icon.
Some Dormition icons include a scene above Christ showing the crowning of the Theotokos as Queen of Heaven. Other Eastern Churches have this event in a separate icon. In Ukraine, such an icon is titled: “The Son Crowns the Mother, the Holy Spirit Sanctifies the Bride, The Father Blesses the Daughter.” Other representations show this event as a triple crowning. As the Queen of Heaven and most perfect adorer of the Trinity, the Theotokos is crowned by God the Father as His beloved daughter, and by God the Son as His dearest mother, and also by God the Holy Spirit as His chosen spouse.
Another version of this icon is based on an Old Testament passage from Psalm 45 (44 in Vulgate). Which is fitting given the Trinity icon is based on the Hospitality of Abraham. We call this icon “The Queen Stands at Your Right.”
Dormition Prayers and Tropars
Troparion: (tone 1)
O Theotokos, in giving birth you retained your virginity,and in falling asleep you did not abandon the world. You passed into life, for you are the Mother of Life, and by your prayers you deliver our souls from death.
Kontakion: (tone 2)
The tomb and death could not hold the Mother of God, unceasing in her intercession, and unfailing hope of patronage. For, as the Mother of Life, she was transferred to life by Him who had dwelt in her ever virgin womb.
Prokeimenon: (tone 3)
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
The Irmos: (tone 1)
Seeing the pure one’s falling asleep, angels marvelled in wonder at how the Virgin could ascend from earth to heaven. O pure virgin, in you the bounds of nature are conquered, for childbirth remains virginal and death is betrothed to life. O Mother of God, virgin after childbearing and alive after death, never cease to save your inheritance.
The Byzantine Life
Thank you for checking out this week’s article. Don’t forget to read our other Dormition article, which talks about celebrating the feast of Dormition with blessed flowers!
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