As August comes to an end, the Orthodox Church prepares to celebrate one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Church, the Dormition of the Theotokos. Here in the Belarusian Orthodox Church, the feast falls on August 28 each year.
There is not much information about the life of the Mother of God after her Son’s death. In fact, her own death is not even mentioned in the Bible at all. The last time we hear about the Theotokos in the New Testament is in the Book of Acts:
“They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” (Acts 1:14)
This verse tells us that the Virgin Mary stayed with the Apostles in Jerusalem, was present on the day of Pentecost, and most probably lived with John, just as Christ commanded:
“When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” (John 19:26-27)
Everything else we know about Mary’s life after that moment comes from the Tradition of the Church. When she was about to pass, all of the disciples (except for Thomas) came from all over the world, leaving their ministry for a few days to honor her and say final goodbyes.
As she fell asleep in the Lord, the apostles were standing at her bedside. Then Christ Himself descended, took his Mother’s soul, and carried it right into Heaven. Mary’s body was laid in a tomb in Jerusalem, but when the Apostle Thomas came to say goodbye to her three days later, he found the tomb to be completely empty. It is believed that the Theotokos’ body was resurrected and she was taken up into Heaven bodily.
The Dormition (or Falling-asleep) is in a way the celebration of the Theotokos’ whole life. The Mother of God is praised and glorified because she agreed to be the Bearer of God and became Christ’s first Apostle. Blessed Mary is an example of great love for God, of humility and obedience.
With all of that said, the Virgin Mary was still human like every one of us. So when the time came, she too had to die, not voluntarily like Christ, but because of her human nature. Her life, death, and assumption reveal joyous news to mankind.
What happened to her will also happen to those who learn from her, who love God, who rejoice in Christ, who dedicate their life completely to God, who search and find the Truth and who do their best to follow the Light every single day. Just the way the Theotokos did.
The Feast of the Dormition is the guarantee that those who imitate her will become temples of the Holy Spirit and will inherit the Kingdom of God.
The icon of the Dormition is one of the most complex and beautiful Orthodox icons. It shows the Mother of God lying on the bed at the moment of her passing. Around her, there are the Apostles, three women and four bishops.
The Apostles are depicted looking at the Theotokos, bowing their heads. The Apostle Peter can be seen censing the body of Mary, and the Apostle Paul bows lower than the others in honor of her.
Traditionally, the bishops represented are James, Timothy, Heirotheus and Dionysius. They are shown wearing episcopal vestments and sometimes holding the Bible and praying for Mary.
The most unusual part of the icon is at the very top. There we can see Christ in a ray of Divine light, accompanied by the Angels and standing over His Mother’s body. In Christ’s arms, there is a baby. The baby represents Mary’s pure soul, which Christ is about to take into Heaven.
Here at Saint Elisabeth Convent, we create beautiful icons of Dormition using various techniques and materials. There are three most popular types of Dormition icons that we make:
We make fully personalized icons - they can be any size, the inscription on the icon can be written in any language, you can choose the color and the material of the case, you can request certain materials and embroidery patterns to adorn the icon with.
Preparation for the Feast of the Dormition starts long before the Feast with the two-week Dormition Fast. It starts on August 14th (August 1st) and lasts until August 27th (August 14th).
During the Fast, the Orthodox spend more time praying, giving alms and restrict themselves in terms of food - they do not consume any meat, eggs, wine, olive oil (it is permitted only on Saturdays and Sundays) and dairy.
On the eve of the Feast, we serve festive Vespers and read some extracts from the Old and the New Testament. On the day of the Feast, we celebrate a festive Divine Liturgy and sing joyous hymns:
“In giving birth you preserved your virginity,
In falling asleep you did not forsake the world, O Theotokos.
You were translated to life, O Mother of Life,
And by your prayers, you deliver our souls from death.”
(Troparion of the Dormition)
PS - The Feast of the Dormition is a perfect time for prayer. The Sisters of St Elisabeth Convent will be happy to pray for you and your loved ones on this joyous Feast. Click on this link to send us your prayer requests.