O death,

where is your victory?

O death,

where is your sting?

(1Co. 15:55)

Icon courtesy of Theo Nicolakis: ORTHODOX ICON GALLARY

The Eastern Church calls Mary's death the Dormition or the falling asleep. Her death was like a falling asleep - a peaceful sigh of God's love and translation/Assumption or transfiguration into the infinite realm of Peace and Glory where her eyes now "see" and her ears now "hear" the infinite music of God's embracing love.

In the above icon we see Christ receiving the soul of Mary and fittingly so since it is written in the book of wisdom,"The souls of the just are in the hand of God". (Ws 3:1) We can surely apply here the poetic words of the Song of Songs: "'Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come! For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on earth.'" (Sg 2:10-12)

The Feast of the Dormition began to be celebrated in the East in the 6th Century and in Rome by the end of the 7th Century. Originally the feast celebrated the death/dormition of Mary but soon arose in the Christian consciousness the realization of her incorruptible body and her assumption into heaven. St. Gregory of Palamas in the 14th century expresses it thus: "The Lord Sabaoth Himself, the Son of the Ever-Virgin, was present,[at her dormition] into Whose hands she rendered her divinely-minded spirit, through which and with which its companion, her body, was translated into the domain of celestial and endless life...." Therefore, the icon above when kept in this perspective includes belief in her Assumption.

But one might say, how did this all begin? "St. John of Damascus (P. G., I, 96) thus formulates the tradition of the Church of Jerusalem: St. Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, at the Council of Chalcedon (451), made known to the Emperor Marcian and Pulcheria, who wished to possess the body of the Mother of God, that Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles, but that her tomb, when opened, upon the request of St. Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven." (from then Catholic Encyclopedia)

On November 1, 1950 Pope Pius XII defined the dogma as follow:

"By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory:" (Encyclical: Munificentissimus Deus, Paragraph 44)

Pope Pius is silent as to when and how Mary was assumed into heavenly glory. The common explanation is that Mary really died, that is, her soul became separated from her body. Her body remained incorrupt in the tomb and after a short time was reunited with her soul into heavenly glory. St. Alphonsus of Liguori says that since she was sinless, Mary should not have undergone death but this happened because God wanted Mary to resemble Jesus in all things. On the other hand, there is a general belief that her death was a painless and a happy event - God's way of showing us what death can be like for those who have faith and love God.

Mary's translation into the realm of glory is a transhistorical event which means it began in history but culminates in metahistory. It cannot therefore be subjected to historical verification. But considering that Mary is the Mother of God refulgent in beauty greater than all the angels and saints, her entrance into the heavenly realm must have evoked great rejoicing throughout God's heavenly kingdom.

The mystery of the Dormition calls to mind our mortality. What will my death be like? Will I suffer? Am I ready to face God's judgment? Will I abandon myself to God's will at the moment of death?

The Dormition inspires us to strive and pray for a holy death as follows:

O most prudent virgin,
who entering into the heavenly palace,
didst fill the holy angels with joy,
and men with hope,
vouchsafe to intercede for us
at the hour of our death,
that being free from the illusions
and temptations of the devil,

we may joyfully and securely
pass out of this temporal state
to enjoy the happiness of eternal life. Amen.
(Taken from The Augustinian Prayer Book)