“Rejoice, O Blessed One, the Lord is with Thee! Blessed art Thou among women!”
August 15 – Feast of the “Dormition” of the Mother of God
Intercessory Prayer to Mary the Mother of God
We ask you O the Saint full of glory
the ever-Virgin Theotokos
the Mother of Christ
We ask you to raise our prayers
to your beloved son
that He may forgive us our sins
Hail to the Holy Virgin
who bore for us the True Light,
Christ our Lord
Ask the Lord on our behalf
to have mercy upon us and forgive us our sins.
O Mary the Virgin Theotokos
the holy and trusted intercessor of the human race,
intercede for our sake
before Christ whom you bore
that He may grant us the forgiveness of our sins.
Hail to you the Virgin
the true and just Queen
Hail to the pride of our race
who for our salvation
gave birth to Emmanuel
We ask you, the trusted intercessor
to remember us before our Lord
that He may forgive us our sins.
“THE ONE WHO GAVE BIRTH TO GOD”
The month of August, without doubt, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Not only do we celebrate the Dormition (or Falling Asleep) of the ‘Theotokos’ (Θεοτόκος), but also, there are Supplication Services, which are held every day in the first two weeks of August leading to the great feast as well as the designated period of fasting, which the Church has prescribed. The historical origins of the feast are vague. However, research shows that even before 500 AD, it was already being celebrated on the August 15. To be sure, the mother of Jesus is held in such high esteem in the Orthodox Church that there are many titles which have been attributed to her, some of which are: the ‘all-holy Mother’, ‘the ever-Virgin Mary’, and of course the title ‘Theotokos’ (Θεοτόκος). In the Orthodox Tradition, there are many icons of the blessed mother of Jesus where she is given titles such as: ‘Mother, Praised by All’, ‘Mother who is Swift to Hear’, ‘Mother, Queen of All’, ‘Mother of Consolation’, ‘Mother of Tender Feeling’, ‘Life-Giving Fountain’, ‘Mother of Unexpected Joy’, ‘Surety of Sinners’ and many more. The reason for all these designations to the Virgin Mary must not be misunderstood as worship towards this person, but rather is a testimony that, with her ‘falling-asleep’, Christ’s mother already began to enjoy, as an accomplished fact, the final blessedness of the victorious Christ.
She can rightly be considered a human icon of perfection because of her profound humility, what is of utmost importance is her role as Birth-giver – that is, her divine maternity. Indeed of all the titles attributed to the Virgin Mary, it is only the name ‘Theotokos’ which is a doctrinal definition for the Eastern Orthodox Church. Beyond the fact that she was the Mother of Christ our God (Theotokos) she is also the universal mother – the mother of all humankind. Both before and after the council of 431AD, the title ‘Theotokos’ (Θεοτόκος) was seen as something central to the confession of the true faith in Jesus Christ. The name, ‘Theotokos’ is a composite Greek word made up of the Greek words ‘theós’ (θεός) meaning God and the verb ‘tikto’ (τίκτω) meaning ‘to give birth to’. Therefore the title ‘Theotokos’ implies ‘the one who gives birth to God’. And in so far as the Virgin Mary gave birth to the Son of God (the second Person of the Holy Trinity), she could be called God-bearer. The term was already in use for over two hundred years before it was officially sanctioned in 431 AD. It had previously been employed by Origen in the 2nd century. In an even earlier statement, St Ignatius of Antioch had written: “Our God, Jesus Christ was conceived by Mary according to the economy.” In the fourth century, St Gregory the Theologian stated: “if anyone does not confess the Holy Virgin to be Theotokos, that person is estranged from God.” In the eighth century, St John of Damascus would say that the term ‘Theotokos’ expressed the whole mystery of God’s saving dispensation.
Who was Mary?
Birth of Mary – As time drew near for the Redeemer of the world to be born, there lived in the town of Nazareth, in Galilee, a man by the name of Joachim with his wife Anna. Joachim was a direct descendant of King David but lived a very modest and simple life. Both he and his wife were God-fearing people and were known for their humility and compassion. They never had children and, being very aged, had little chance at having any. However, not willing to despair, they continued to ask God to send them a child. They even made a vow that if they had an infant, they would dedicate that child to the service of God. At that time, to be childless meant to be punished by God for sins. Childlessness was especially difficult for Joachim since, according to prophecy, the Messiah-Christ was to be born into his family line. Owing to their patience and faith, the Lord finally sent them a great joy: Anna had a daughter. The newborn child was given the name of Mary, which means in Hebrew “Mistress-Hope.”
Presentation to the Temple – When the Virgin Mary became three years old, her God-fearing parents prepared themselves to carry out their vow: they took Her to the temple in Jerusalem in order to consecrate Her to God. Mary was left to stay at the temple, in a special school for girls. There she, with the other maidens, was taught the Law of God as well as handiwork. She prayed and read the Scriptures. The Blessed Virgin lived at the temple until she was approximately twelve years and grew up to be deeply pious and obedient to Him, as well as very modest and industrious. Willing only to serve God, She gave a vow to never marry and to remain forever a virgin. The canonical gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke describe Mary as a virgin (παρθένος, parthénos).
Betrothal – In keeping with Jewish custom, Mary was betrothed to Joseph, a distant relative of Hers. This would have taken place when she was around 12, and the birth of Jesus about a year later. Joseph promised to care for her and protect her. Joseph lived in the town of Nazareth and also came from the lineage of King David. He was not a wealthy man and worked as a carpenter. Mary led as modest and solitary a life in the home of Joseph as she did in the temple.
The Annunciation – During Her first year in the house of Joseph, about six months after the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to Zacharias (St. Luke 1:8-25), as the birth of the prophet John the Baptist was approaching, the forenamed Angel was sent by God into the town of Nazareth to the Holy Virgin with the joyous news that the Lord had chosen Her to become the Mother of the Savior of the world. The Angel, having appeared, told Her, “Rejoice, O Blessed One! The Lord is with Thee! Blessed art Thou amongst women.” Mary was puzzled by the words of the Angel and unsure what this greeting was supposed to mean. The Angel continued by saying to Her: “Fear not, Mary, for Thou hast found favor with God. And therefore, Thou wilt bear a Son and shalt name Him Jesus. He shall be great and shall be known as the Son of the Most-high, and to His Kingdom there shall be no end.” Still puzzled, Mary asked the Angel: “How can that be, since I know not a man?” The Angel replied that this would be accomplished by the power of the omnipotent God: “The Holy Spirit shall come upon Thee, and the power of the Most-high shall overshadow Thee; therefore, accordingly, that Holy One which shall be born of Thee shall be called the Son of God. Your relative, Elizabeth, not having had any offspring till her very old age, shall soon give birth to a son; for with God nothing shall be impossible.” Then Mary humbly answered, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (St. Luke 1:26-38). After this reply the Holy Spirit descended upon Mary, and She conceived the Word of God. Thus, in the most modest circumstances happened the greatest miracle in the life of mankind. Here the Infinite joined the finite; the Light, unapproachable to Angels, descended into the Virgin’s womb.
In discussing this Angelic appearance, the Fathers of the Church underline the wisdom of the young Mary. She was careful not to accept Gabriel’s message in haste, remembering what happened to Eve when she believed the serpent. Although God decided to make the Virgin Mary the Mother of the Savior, He wanted Her voluntary consent because He never overpowers or disregards the gift of free will that He gave us.
Visiting Elizabeth – Having heard that her relative Elizabeth, the wife of the priest Zacharias, would soon bear a son, Mary hastened to visit her. On entering the house, She saluted Elizabeth. Upon hearing Mary’s voice, Elizabeth, being filled with the Holy Spirit, recognized Mary to be worthy to become the Mother of the Lord. She cried out aloud and said: “Blessed art Thou among women, and Blessed is the Fruit of Thy womb! And from whence is such happiness for me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” The Virgin Mary, in answer to Elizabeth’s greeting, glorified God with the following words: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my savior. For He hath regarded the low estate of His handmaiden: for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For He that is mighty hath done to me great things; and Holy is His name. And His mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation” (St. Luke 1:46-50). Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned to Nazareth.
Struggles of Joseph and Mary – When the righteous, aged Joseph learned that Mary was expecting a child, he was scandalized, assuming that something had gone very wrong. Jewish law required unfaithful wives to be mercilessly stoned. But God revealed to Joseph not to be afraid of what had happened and to be kind to Mary. The Angel of God appeared to Joseph in his sleep and told him that Mary would bear a Son through the action of the Holy Spirit, just as the Lord God had predicted through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 7:14) and the Angel commanded Joseph to give Him the name “Jesus” Savior — because He shall save people from their sins.
Birth of Jesus – As the story is told by the Apostles, the Roman Empire was powerful. The Romans had conquered much of the then known world. Judea and Samaria, what we know today as Israel, were included in their conquests. Emperor Augustus ordered that a census be taken in all his lands. He needed to know how many people lived in the empire so he could tax them. Everyone had to go to the town of their family’s origin to register for the census. This meant that Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem. They were descendants of King David and Bethlehem was the City of David.
Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth and it was a great distance from Bethlehem. It was about 100 miles over very rugged roads. Moreover, Mary was expecting the baby and it was almost time for her to give birth. Bethlehem was a small town and there were many descendants of David who had come to register for the census. By the time Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem there was no place for them to stay. Joseph tried very hard to find a place to sleep that evening. There was no room at the inn. Finally, Joseph found a cave-like place where they could rest. This place was used by shepherds to protect their sheep in stormy weather. It was here that Mary gave birth to Jesus. The baby was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in the straw in the manger.
The subsequent Evangelical narratives mention the Virgin Mary in conjunction with the events in the life of Her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, subsequent to the birth, they speak of Her in connection with the birth of His circumcision, the worship of the Magi, the offering brought to the temple on the 40th day, the flight into Egypt, settling in Nazareth, traveling to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover when He reached His twelfth birthday, and so forth. We will not dwell on those events here. It should be noted that though the Evangelical references to the Virgin Mary are concise, they give the reader a clear comprehension of Her great moral eminence: Her humility, great faith, patience, courage, obedience to God, love and dedication to Him, and devotion to Her Divine Son. From these incidental but characteristic references we see why, in the words of the Angel, She became worthy “to attain favor from God.”
Mary in the life of Jesus
Mary is involved in the only event in Jesus’ adolescent life that is recorded in the New Testament. At the age of twelve Jesus, having become separated from his parents on their return journey from the Passover celebration in Jerusalem, was found among the teachers in the temple. (St. Luke 2:41-5)
After Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and his temptations by the devil in the desert, Mary was present when, at her intercession, Jesus worked his first public miracle during the marriage in Cana by turning water into wine. (St. John 2:1-11). Mary is also depicted as being present during the crucifixion standing near “the disciple whom Jesus loved” along with Mary of Clopas and Mary Magdalene, (St. John 19:25-26) to which list (St. Matthew 27:56) adds “the mother of the sons of Zebedee”, presumably the Salome mentioned in (St. Mark 15:40). Mary followed her son very closely during his public ministry through his trial, crucifixion, and resurrection.
After the Ascension of Jesus
In Acts 1:26, especially verse 14, Mary is the only one to be mentioned by name other than the twelve apostles and the candidates of about 120 people gathered, after the Ascension, in the Upper Room on the occasion of the election of Matthias to the vacancy of Judas. (Though it is said that “the women” and Jesus’ brothers were there as well, their names are not given.) Some also consider the “chosen lady” mentioned in 2 John 1:1 as Mary. From this time, she disappears from the biblical accounts. However, it is held by some that, she is again portrayed as the heavenly woman of Revelation. (Revelation 12:1).
Her death is not recorded in scripture. However, Orthodox tradition and doctrine have her assumed (taken bodily) into Heaven. Belief in the corporeal “Assumption” of Mary is universal to all Orthodox Churches.
Traditions of Mary’s Dormition and Assumption
East and West agree that Mary died, and Christ received her soul; that the apostles entombed her body; and that Mary’s body was taken up into Heaven from the tomb. Unlike the Prophet Elijah, who was caught up by a fiery chariot and taken up into Heaven while still alive, the Virgin Mary, according to these traditions, died naturally, and then her soul was reunited with her body at the Assumption.
Dormition of Holy Virgin Mary – When the time drew nigh that our Savior was well-pleased to take His Mother to Himself, He declared unto her through an Angel that three days hence, He would translate her from this temporal life to eternity and bliss. On hearing this, she went up with haste to the Mount of Olives, where she prayed continuously. Giving thanks to God, she returned to her house and prepared whatever was necessary for her burial. While these things were taking place, clouds caught up the Apostles from the ends of the earth, where each one happened to be preaching, and brought them at once to the house of the Mother of God, who informed them of the cause of their sudden gathering. As a mother, she consoled them in their affliction as was meet, and then raised her hands to Heaven and prayed for the peace of the world. She blessed the Apostles, and, reclining upon her bed with seemliness, gave up her all-holy spirit into the hands of her Son and God.
Burial of Holy Virgin Mary – With reverence and many lights, and chanting burial hymns, the Apostles took up that God-receiving body and brought it to the sepulcher, while the Angels from Heaven chanted with them, and sent forth her who is higher than the Cherubim. But one Jew, moved by malice, audaciously stretched forth his hand upon the bed and immediately received from divine judgment the wages of his audacity. Those daring hands were severed by an invisible blow. But when he repented and asked forgiveness, his hands were restored. When they had reached the place called Gethsemane, they buried there with honor the all-immaculate body of the Theotokos, which was the source of Life.
Assumption of Holy Virgin Mary in to Heaven – For three days the disciples did not depart from the place of burial, praying and chanting Psalms. Through the wise providence of God, the Apostle Thomas was not to be present at the burial of the Mother of God. Arriving late on the third day at Gethsemane, he lay down at the tomb and with bitter tears asked that he might be permitted to look once more upon the Mother of God and bid her farewell. The Apostles out of heartfelt pity for him decided to open the grave and permit him the comfort of venerating the holy relics of the Ever-Virgin Mary. Having opened the grave, they found in it only the grave wrappings and were thus convinced of the bodily ascent of the Most Holy Virgin Mary to Heaven.
On the third day after the burial, when they were eating together, and raised up the leavened loaf of bread (ἄρτος) in Jesus’ Name, as was their custom, the Theotokos appeared in the air, saying “Rejoice” to them. From this they learned concerning the bodily translation of the Theotokos into the Heavens. These things has the Church received from the traditions of the Fathers, who have composed many hymns out of reverence, to the glory of the Mother of our God.
Tomb of Holy Virgin Mary – The New Testament says nothing about the death and burial of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, but a strong Christian tradition places her tomb in a dimly lit church at the foot of the Mount of Olives. The large crypt containing the empty tomb in the Church of the Assumption is all that remains of an early 5th-century church, making it possibly the oldest near-complete religious building in Jerusalem. The location of the Tomb of Mary is across the Kidron Valley from St Stephen’s Gate in the Old City walls of Jerusalem, just before Gethsemane. The Church of the Assumption stands partly below the level of the main Jerusalem-Jericho road. It is reached by a stairway leading down to an open courtyard. Entry is through the façade of a 12th-century Crusader basilica that has been preserved intact. To the right, a passageway leads to the Grotto of Gethsemane.
A wide Crusader stairway of nearly 50 steps leads to the crypt. Partway down, on the right, is a niche dedicated to the Virgin Mary’s parents, Anne and Joachim. This small chapel was originally the burial place of Queen Melisande, daughter and wife of Crusader kings of Jerusalem, who died in 1161. Almost opposite is a niche dedicated to Mary’s husband, St Joseph. Here three women connected to Crusader kings were buried. The crypt, much of it cut into solid rock, is dark and gloomy. The smell of incense fills the air, the ceiling is blackened by centuries of candle smoke, and gold and silver lamps hang in profusion.
To the right, a small aedicule houses a stone bench on which Mary’s body is believed to have lain. The aedicule is richly decorated with Eastern Orthodox icons, candlesticks and flowers, but the interior is bare. Narrow openings on two sides allow access, and three holes in the wall of the tomb enable pilgrims to touch the bench. Because the emperor Constantine’s engineers cut away the surrounding rock to isolate the Tomb of Mary in the middle of the crypt, its appearance strongly resembles her Son’s tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher . Floods in 1972 enabled excavations by the archaeologist Bellarmino Bagatti, who concluded that the place where Mary had been buried was clearly located in a cemetery used during the first century. The Greek Orthodox Church now shares possession with the Armenian Orthodox. The Syrian Orthodox, the Coptic Orthodox and the Ethiopian Orthodox have minor rights.
Feast of the Dormition of Holy Virgin Mary – The rite of the Burial of the Mother of God at Gethsemane begins customarily on the morning of August 14. A multitude of people with hierarchs and clergy at the head set off from the Jerusalem Patriarchate (nearby the Church of the Resurrection of Christ) in sorrowful procession. Along the narrow alleyways of the Holy City the funeral procession makes its way to Gethsemane. Toward the front of the procession an icon of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos is carried. Along the way, pilgrims meet the icon, kissing the image of the All-Pure Virgin Mary and lift children of various ages to the icon. After the clergy, in two rows walk the black-robed monks and nuns of the Holy City: Greeks, Rumanians, Arabs, and Russians. The procession, going along for about two hours, concludes with Lamentations at the Gethsemane church. In front the altar, beyond the burial chamber of the Mother of God, is a raised-up spot, upon which rests the burial shroud of the Most Holy Mother of God among fragrant flowers and myrtle, with precious coverings.
“O marvelous wonder! The Fount of Life is placed in the grave, and the grave doth become the ladder to Heaven…” Here at the grave of the All-Pure Virgin, these words strike deep with their original sense and grief is dispelled by joy: “Hail, Full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee, granting the world, through Thee, great mercy!”
Muslims also worship here. In the wall to the right of the Tomb of Mary is a mihrab niche giving the direction of Mecca. It was installed after Saladin’s conquest in the 12th century.
The place is holy to Muslims because they believe Muhammad saw a light over the tomb of his “sister Mary” during his Night Journey to Jerusalem.
Our Traditions and Veneration of Theotokos
Orthodox theologian Sergei Bulgakov wrote: “Love and veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the soul of Orthodox piety. A faith in Christ which does not include his mother is another faith, another Christianity from that of the Orthodox Church.”
The place of liturgical texts in expressing the teachings of the Church concerning the Theotokos, illustrates the Eastern Orthodox approach to theology. Liturgical texts referring to the Theotokos are poetic manifestations of devotion to Mary, rather than rational treatises on the Blessed Virgin. They are an expression of the heart rather than the mind, because Orthodox Christians believe that human reason cannot comprehend or understand the mysteries of God. Indeed, Orthodox Christians believe that all true theology must come from the mystical experience of God through prayer and worship, rather than through the intellectual contemplation of God with the mind.
The first and fundamental meaning of Mary for the Church is the relationship between veneration of the Theotokos and Orthodox doctrine. The Church is not a society of thinkers and philosophers, but is the Body of Christ dedicated to proclaiming the Gospel to the world. The Church is not dedicated to finding new knowledge about God, but instead is dedicated to preserving and transmitting the knowledge of God given to us by Christ and the Apostles. St. Irenaeus of Lyon wrote, “For where the Church is, there is the spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace; but the Spirit is truth.”
The veneration of Mary plays a major role in the preservation of Orthodox doctrine, because the honor paid to her is an expression of the Christology or doctrine concerning Christ of the Church. Mary’s most important title is “Theotokos,” which means “God Bearer,” or “Birthgiver of God.” This term, endorsed by the Third Ecumenical Council, the Council of Ephesus in 431, expresses the belief that the son of the Virgin was God from the very moment of his conception. This eliminates such false teachings as Adoptionism, which held that Christ was a good man adopted by God to be his son, and Nestorianism, which came close to teaching that Christ was only an inspired man. As St. John of Damascus wrote, “ … she is truly Mother of God who gave birth to the true God who took flesh from her … For the holy Virgin did not give birth to a mere man, but to true God and, not to God simply, but to God made flesh.”
The consequences of denying the Theotokos a part in the life of Christians are more serious than one may think in view of all its implications. Orthodox theology insists upon the two perfect natures of our Lord Jesus Christ; He was perfect God and perfect Man. The Virgin Mary communicated the humanity of the Incarnate God. The redemption of the human race was possible through the union of God and man in Christ. De-emphasis of the sinlessness of Christ’s Mother, insistence upon her having other children by Joseph (which cannot be demonstrated by the New Testament), and failure to remember her part in the history of the salvation of mankind have contributed to a general misunderstanding in some churches of the Incarnation in all its fullness and power. Very closely related to the above-mentioned things is the denial of the virgin birth of Christ, a rather popular feature of present-day liberal theology. After the virgin birth, the next basic teaching under attack is the divinity of Christ, and His resurrection, and with that, the Holy Trinity Itself.
Titles of Mary
The Orthodox Church honors and venerates the Virgin Mary as “more honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious without compare than the Seraphim …” Her name is mentioned in every service, and her intercession before the throne of God is asked. Mary is referred to by the Orthodox Church as Theotokos (Θεοτόκος), a title recognized at the Third Ecumenical Council (held at Ephesus to address the teachings of Nestorius, in 431). Theotokos literally means “Godbearer”. The equivalent phrase “Mater Dei”, (Mother of God) is more common in Latin and so also in the other languages used in the Western Catholic Church, but this same phrase in Greek (Μήτηρ Θεοῦ), in the abbreviated form of the first and last letter of the two words (ΜΡ ΘΥ), is the indication attached to her image in Byzantine icons. The Council stated that the Church Fathers “did not hesitate to speak of the holy Virgin as the Mother of God”. The three main titles for Mary used by the Orthodox are Theotokos, i.e., Mother of God (Θεοτόκος), Aeiparthenos, i.e. Ever Virgin (ἀειπαρθὲνος), as confirmed in the Fifth Ecumenical Council 553, and Panagia, i.e., All Holy (Παναγία).