Sunday, 14 August 2011

The Dormition of the Virgin and the Assumption of Our Lady

The Dormition is the most important feast of Our Lady in the Eastern Church. It is also a great feast in the Western Church, although there it is not called the Dormition, but the Assumption; but all feasts of Our Lady are also feasts of Our Lord. It is He who gives them their sacred meaning. Here we are celebrating Mary's death. As she lies motionless, above her arises the glorious figure of her Son, gleaming and vertical. The Eastern legend has it, that when Gabriel came to Mary to tell her that her death was near, she summoned the Apostles and prepared her deathbed. This icon shows the Apostles being whirled through the air by angels, coming from all corners of the earth.

This is a remarkably peaceful icon, the Apostles crowd around either end of her bier, behind them two of the Eastern Fathers, (perhaps Theodore the Studite and John of Damascus), who have written so eloquently about this holy death. The feast of the Assumption celebrates Mary carried up to heaven by angels, body and soul. The feast of the Dormition shows Jesus Himself coming down from heaven, or rather bringing heaven with Him, to receive His Mother’s soul. It is a very touching image. When He was born on earth, Mary held Him, wrapped in swaddling cloths. Now He holds her, new born into heaven, wrapped in the swaddling cloths of immortality. Jesus lifts His mother in triumph, she is His perfect disciple, the one who most truly loved and followed Him. She is His ‘first fruits’.

Mary’s ascent into heaven, and we notice Jesus seems to hold a physical Mary, spells out our own destiny. We too, will die temporally in the body, and become small and diminished in death, but the candle of our true life does not go out. Between the scarlet flame of the candle before the bier and the scarlet wings of the Cherubim above the head of Jesus, is a continuity. For each of us, dying in the Faith will mean the same new birth in the arms of Jesus. Mary’s Dormition, Mary’s Assumption, is our future as well. She had the glory of being His perfect joy. Us, He will gather in His arms, with equal love, but without the fullness of grateful delight that He found in her holiness. She rests, utterly content in His embrace. His hands are not bare, He has them covered, in the traditional mark of respect.

No one respects His creation with greater reverence than the Creator. Most of us will not rest as serenely in His arms as Mary does. In His unveiled presence, seeing Him "face to face", we will feel the immense sorrow that our sinfulness causes Him. His sorrow is on our account. Because we have not loved Him according to the fullness of whatever is our capacity, He has not been able to sanctify us as He has wished. That sanctification will take place in the purifying flames of the love that now engulfs us. We call this purgatory. There was no purgatory for the Blessed Virgin, and hence we see the exultation of her beloved Son, lifting up the radiance of her being, to display it to the world.

Picture: The Dormition of the Virgin 12th/13th century. © Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
Text: © ST PAULS Publishing, written by Sister Wendy Beckett in her latest book Sister Wendy Contemplates The Iconic Jesus