The Birthday of the Theotokos—into Heaven
On August 15 the Church celebrates the Dies Natalis, the birthday of the Theotokos (Mother of God) into heaven. The Dormition, or “falling asleep”, as the Church calls the death of the Saints, is the oldest and most important of all the feasts in honor of the Theotokos. But what does the Church commemorate? Just her death or also her bodily resurrection and assumption to heaven?
The “end” of the holy Theotokos is not historically ascertainable. The only thing we can say is to repeat with St. Epiphanios of Salamis (+403): “no one knows her end.”1 We can, however, state that the Church of the first eight centuries considered the death of the Theotokos as a given. In East and West there was the same tradition of the natural death of the Theotokos.
In the Orthodox tradition, the death and burial of the Most holy Virgin constitute the central event of the feast, expressed in the hymnography and iconography of the Church. Her death is what has been always historically believed. However, the fate of her body is also a given in the patristic writings, though it is not the main focus of their attention.
In the West, what constitutes the central event is not the death, but the bodily assumption of the Theotokos, proclaimed a “revealed truth” by Pope Pius XII in 1950. Her death remains the subject of theological speculation and debate. The reason the West departed from the tradition of the Church is the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854. If she was born without the original sin, then she did not have to die. A corollary of this erroneous teaching, arrived at through rationalistic speculation, was that the holy Virgin had to be assumed into heaven as a consequence of her sinlessness.
For us, only Christ is sinless. The most holy Virgin followed the fate of all mortal human beings, dying physically. However her body was raised by her Son from the dead after three days, and she was taken up (assumed) into heaven. If Christ is the first born of the dead, His holy Mother is the second born of the dead, as it was right and proper for her who is the “Mother of Life” to have the privilege to follow Him first to the true life.
According to the hymnology of the Church, at her death
“the whole world was filled with joy.”2
Why? Because, it is stated elsewhere,
“After your dormition you went up to heaven, O most pure One, in soul and body.”3
“Your tomb, O Most pure One, declares your burial and the passage (metastasin) to heaven with your body.”5
Another hymn is also very clear: “your sacred tomb is empty,” because “the body is raised from the tomb.”6
Another hymn calls her death “incorruptible”7.
The kontakion of her feast is equally clear:
“the tomb and death did not hold you.”
Finally, another hymn declares, “you live after death.”8
All Saints live in the spirit, but the most holy Virgin and Mother of God lives in heaven in her bodily form, together with her Son, enjoying already the common destiny which awaits all those who have united their lives to that of her Son and God. May He grant that joyous life to all of us, through her holy intercessions. Amen.
- PG 42, 737A
- Doxastikon of her Forefeast.
- First Kathisma (Sessional Hymn) of the Forefeast.
- First stanza of the fifth Ode of her Canon by Joseph.
- Second and third stanza of the seventh Ode of the Canon of the Forefeast.
- necrosis afthoros, Kathisma after the Polyeleos
- Irmos of the 9th Ode of the First Canon by Kosmas.
Article graphics and editing: Tony Hatzidakis
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