Dear Friends in Christ,
It’s hard to believe that we’re in August already, and we are almost about to celebrate the one year anniversary of the founding of our mission here in Greenville! One of the highlights of the month of August is the feast day of the Dormition of the Theotokos, which we celebrate on August 15/28. The two weeks preceding this feast are kept as a fast, which features the frequent chanting of the Paraklasis service, and is punctuated by the glorious celebration of the Transfiguration of Christ on August 6/19.
The Virgin Mary’s Dormition (or falling-asleep) is instructive for the rest of us Christians. Although she was the highly favored one, and was blessed higher than any other human—the Council of Ephesus in 431 described her as “more honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim”—she still participated in the fallen world. Therefore, she had to die, and contrary to the theological opinion of some Western Christians, the Orthodox Church does not believe that the Virgin Mary was assumed in to Heaven without dying. Her death was the natural consequence of being human, but because of her highly favored status, she was allowed to be the first to experience the Resurrection we all shall experience. As Church Tradition teaches us, all the Apostles except Thomas were present at her falling asleep; and when he arrived later, true to his nature (“Doubting Thomas”) he asked to see her body. When the tomb was opened, she was gone; Christ had taken her body to Heaven and restored it to her soul, just as will eventually happen to all of us on the Day of Judgment. From there, the Virgin Mary is the first of the saints interceding for the rest of the Church.
One of the three Old Testament readings celebrated in the Vespers service for the Dormition is the episode concerning Jacob’s Ladder (Genesis 28:10-17) where Jacob beholds the ladder on which the Angels ascend to God and descend to Earth. The Virgin Mary is compared to this ladder, and is called the Gate of Heaven, because through her, God became man. The Virgin Mary is also similar to the Ark of the Covenant, because she carried God within. She prophesied that all generations would call her blessed (Luke 1:48). In all of this, the Holy Spirit is leading us to look at the Virgin Mary as an example, for her humility, for her righteousness, and for her purity. She is the Christian par excellence and we can emulate her example of obedience to her Son, Christ.
The Kontakion hymn sung on the feast of the Dormition explains that, “Neither the tomb, nor death could hold the Theotokos, Who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions. For being the Mother of Life, She was translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb.” For us Christians, the Virgin Mary, the mother of life, could not remain dead in a tomb; she was translated to life, as opposed to the former death that all awaited in Hades before Christ’s resurrection. We call have hope in this resurrection to life, which she was the first to experience.
In order to prepare for this great feast, we observe a two week fast, beginning on August 1/14. It’s a good opportunity for us to get back on track in regards to our eating habits; with the summer’s fill of barbeques, picnics, and get-togethers, we have a habit of losing track of what is coming in to our stomachs. We can also try to pray more, especially the Paraklasis service, which is found in many prayer books and also online. Let us also practice humility, by being slow to anger and slow to judge, and slow to assert ourselves in a conflict. We have the Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary as a guide and as an intercessor towards this end!