Orthodox Christians commemorate the death (Dormition) of the Virgin Mary during the month of August (New Calendar, the 15th, Old Calendar, the 28th). For those for whom such feasts are foreign, it is easy to misunderstand what the Orthodox are about – and to assume that this is simply a feast to Mary because we like that sort of thing. Flippant attitudes fail to perceive the depths of the mystery of our salvation. The Dormition of the Mother of God is one of many doorways into that mystery – all of which are Christ – who alone is our salvation.
The Christian life, as taught by the Scriptures and the fathers, is grounded in the mystery and reality of communion. We do not exist alone, nor do we exist merely as a collection. Our lives are a communion of lives. We share one another in ways that permeate the whole of our being. I am unique, and yet I am also the child of Jim and Nancy, the husband Beth, etc. Though I am unique, so much of who I am and what I am is their lives and the lives of generations of human beings and culture – not just genetic relatives – but all of humanity. Without such knowledge (whether conscious or unconscious), we do not love as we should and will not live as we should. Your life is my life; God help us.
The belief that God became man in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, makes no sense and has but little value apart from the reality of life understood as communion. It is thus crucial that the Creed confesses, “He took flesh of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” The womb of the Virgin was not “borrowed space” which God inhabited until His birth. The womb of the Virgin is also that place and that source by which God “took flesh of the Virgin Mary.”
There are many theological accounts of Christ and His work of salvation that center almost solely upon the idea of Christ as a sacrifice on the Cross, a payment for the penalty of our sins. This account tends to “stand on its own.” There is nothing inherent within Christ’s birth from a Virgin to such a view of the Atonement. Nor is the Virgin seen to have any inherent connection to the saving acts of God as made known to us in the Scriptures. Thus those who profess her virginity in such cases only do so because it is recorded in the Scripture – but they do not do so because they understand its true role in our salvation. They believe in the fact of her virginity, but do not understand its mystery.
Our salvation is not achieved by an objective payment (even if the image of payment may be found in the Scriptures). The unifying teaching of the Scriptures with regard to Christ is that our salvation is through union with Him, through true communion in His life.
His Incarnation (God-become-man) is thus a foundational reality of God’s restoration of our communion with Him. Christ becomes a partaker of our life, that we might become partakers of His. This reality is made profoundly clear in that God not only comes to dwell among us, but comes to do so as a man, having taken flesh of the Virgin Mary. He becomes “flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone” (Ge. 2:23). And yet another image: “And a sword will pierce your own soul also” (Lk. 2:35). Mary is united to Christ in the flesh, and mystically in her soul as well.
Her role in the salvation of the world (through union with Christ) is so profound that it is prophesied in the early chapters of Genesis (Ge. 3:15). She, and the Virgin Birth, are pre-figured repeatedly throughout the Old Testament (as interpreted by the fathers). There is a traditional hymn, sung during the vesting of a Bishop, that makes reference to just a small sample of such prefigurements:
Of old the Prophets aforetime proclaimed thee,
the Golden Vessel, the Staff, the Tablet, the Ark,
the Lampstand, the Table, the Uncut Mountain,
the Golden Censer, the Gate Impassible,
and the Throne of the King,
thee did the Prophets proclaim of old.
Perhaps the greatest collection of such references can be found in the 6th century hymn called the Akathist to the Theotokos.
This prefigurement and its abundant use in the fathers, all flows from the fundamental understanding of salvation as communion. Thus she, as the Mother of God, belongs with Christ. She belongs with Him as the Golden Vessel belonged with the Manna (she is the vessel who contained the Bread of Heaven); she belongs with Him as Aaron’s Rod belongs with the buds which sprang forth (that He should be born from her virginal womb is like the life which springs forth from Aaron’s lifeless rod); she is the Tablet as Christ is the words inscribed; she is the lampstand as Christ Himself is the Light, etc.
As the Creed tells us, Christ died, in accordance with the Scriptures. This does not mean in “accordance with the Gospel writings”, but “in accordance with the Scriptures of the Old Testament” (we first see the phrase in 1 Corinthians 15:3). Through the eyes of the fathers and the Tradition of the Church we begin to see that “in accordance with the Scriptures” is more than the few references that can be found that refer to payment or sacrifice or that point to the Cross. The Gospel given to us includes a very holistic understanding of salvation and its story that unfolds from beginning to end.
The union with the flesh of the Virgin is the union with our humanity – indeed with the whole created order. What Christ takes to Himself in that action, He takes with Himself throughout His ministry, taking it into death and Hades and raising it again with Himself on the third day. Thus St. Paul can say:
Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin (Romans 6:4-6).
These comments on death and resurrection in the context of Baptism, in which “we have been united together,” only make sense in an understanding of salvation as communion.
The death of the Mother of God (for He who was born of her was truly God as well as truly man), commemorated in the Feast of the Dormition, is something in which all of creation shares. For the point of the Incarnation was not simply to take flesh of the Virgin, but to be united with the whole created order. And so creation itself “groans and travails” as it awaits the final completion of our salvation (Romans 8). Or as the Church sings:
All of creation rejoices in Thee, O Full of Grace,
the assembly of angels and the race of men.
O sanctified temple and spiritual paradise,
the glory of virgins,
from whom God was incarnate and became a child.
Our God before the ages,
He made thy body into a throne,
and thy womb He made more spacious than the Heavens.
All of creation rejoices in thee,
O Full of Grace, glory to thee!
Her Dormition is indeed a day the earth stood still – for the Mother of us all passes from death to life.
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