On the Icon of the Dormition
Sermon preached by Sarah Byrne-Martelli at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA on Sunday, March 18, 2018.
This month, as part of Antiochian Women’s month, we have been exploring the Feasts of the Church dedicated to the Theotokos. Today we turn our collective gaze to the icon of the Dormition. The Dormition, or the falling asleep of the Theotokos – is a feast of resurrection, of celebration, of the life and death and eternal life of the Mother of God.
The Scriptures tell us that when Christ was dying on the Cross, He saw His mother and His disciple John. He called to his mother, "Woman, behold your son!" and to John, "Behold your mother!" From then on, John cared for the Theotokos in his home. The first chapter of the Book of Acts confirms that Mary was with the Apostles on the day of Pentecost, and Holy Tradition teaches us that Mary remained in Jerusalem, a witness and teacher, sharing her knowledge of the Lord humbly and peacefully. She lived on, transformed. She had suffered perhaps the greatest grief a mother can bear – the death of her child – and yet, she carried on in belief and hope. Her subsequent ministry granted her a reputation as a great teacher.
As the end of her life drew near, the disciples preaching throughout the world returned to Jerusalem to see the Theotokos. Except for the Apostle Thomas, all of them including the Apostle Paul gathered together at her bedside.
Let’s turn to the icon. Here, we see the Theotokos reclining on her death bed. She looks like one of my Hospice patients, with family and loved ones gathered at the bedside, keeping vigil in prayer, lamentation, and joy. The respectful posture of the Apostles focuses our gaze toward her. On the left side, Saint Peter censes her body, as a holy icon of God, and on the right, Saint Paul bows low in her honor. In attendance are several women and several bishops. What a vigil, what a witness to her personhood as a believer in God, as the birthgiver of God. What did they say to her? How did they pray?
Hear the Sticheron after the Gospel of Orthros of the Dormition Feast:
The Apostles gazed on thy bed, viewing thee with trembling. Some contemplated thy body and were dazzled, but Peter cried out to thee in tears, saying, I see thee clearly, O Virgin, stretched out, O life of all, and I am astonished…beseech thy Son and God to preserve thy people unimpaired.
They were dazzled, they cried, they were amazed. This mix of emotions echoes that truly profound response we heard today in the Gospel; Lord, I believe; help my unbelief. What a painfully and yet beautifully honest balance of doubt and faith; confession of our limits while reaching toward a God who is limitless. Lord, we believe, help our unbelief. Prayers and Psalms were lifted up; her companions grieved and gave thanks. And at the time of Mary’s death, we are told that Christ himself appeared to all attending and carried her soul to Heaven. Tears of grief were transformed into tears of joy as the Lord appeared in glory.
In the icon, above Mary’s bed, we are offered a wonderful reversal of the image of mother and child. Every Orthodox iconostasis has an icon of the Theotokos tenderly holding Christ. Instead, here we see Christ tenderly holding a child wrapped in white clothes, evocative both of burial and baptism. He holds her in a tender embrace, just as she embraced him. All is coming full circle! It evokes to me the many conversations I have with my Hospice patients and their families. We often reflect on this circular caregiving: first, how parents care for their young children and then, at the culmination of life, the roles start to reverse and the children embrace their parents with the same care. It is about the embrace, the connection, the perfectly imperfect love that we do our best to give. It is holding on and letting go. The Theotokos carried Christ in her womb, and now he carries her. Both life-giving, in their own way.
Following the death of the Theotokos, her community carried her body in procession and laid her in a tomb. The Apostle Thomas arrived after three days and hoped to see her body one last time, but when the stone was rolled away, she was not there! Her bodily resurrection was confirmed by an angel, and she appeared in glory to the Apostles.
Dormition, at its core, is a feast of resurrection. It has clear echoes of Christ’s death, with the three days in the tomb, and the miraculously empty grave. It prefigures our Resurrection through Christ who has trampled down death by death. In Mary’s life, we see a life for all of us to emulate. She’s not super-human; let us recall Christ’s response to the woman who says that Mary was blessed because she bore Him. Christ says that blessed, rather, are those who hear His word and keep it. As Fr. Thomas Hopko has said, Mary did this better than anyone. She heard the word of God and kept it so well, that she of all women was chosen not only to hear His Word, but to give birth to it, to Him.
And the icon itself is not only about the Theotokos. It is just as much about those who are gathered with her. The icon grants us a powerful image of community keeping watch, as she takes her last breaths. It teaches us how to keep vigil in midst of suffering. It brings to mind my Orthodox patient Sophie, a sweet elderly woman home on Hospice. She had family nearby for good support, but she always carried the deep grief of losing her son Jonathan many years before. After meeting her, I connected with her wonderful priest in South Boston to provide support and sacramental ministry. Toward the end of her life, she stopped eating and drinking, but she held on for several days, resting in bed, wearing one of those old-fashioned, long white nightgowns with a pink bow at the neckline. Her family quietly wondered why she was hanging on. It became very difficult for them. But then they recalled how Sophie had mentioned that she didn’t want to die on Joseph’s birthday, which was coming up. Once his birthdate passed, we all offered prayers, and gently reminded her of her end of life wish. She had not spoken or opened her eyes for days. Her family bravely gave her permission to let go. They wanted to keep her with them, of course, but they did their best to trust the process. Lord we believe, help our unbelief. The next day, just as we thought, Sophie fell asleep in the Lord, her face bathed in the rosy light of early morning. In keeping Vigil, her family honored a great matriarch whose connection to her family grew, even beyond her earthly life.
It is in keeping vigil that we encounter Resurrection. In keeping vigil, we face our deepest grief and encounter a well of divine love. In keeping vigil, we come face to face with Christ who is present in life and death, powerfully present in the members of His body who keep watch. By allowing the space for grief, for the unknown, by hunkering down, and singing and crying and praying, we allow the God who is LOVE to enter in. We offer God’s presence, and God offers God’s self back. In doing so, we participate in our ongoing salvation in Him.
Every moment, from the vigil of the Theotokos at her son’s Cross, to her ministry, to her death and new life, points to a woman of strength and courage. Her surprise at the Annunciation, as we will hear next week, was transformed into a bold “Yes!” Her grief at the cross was transformed into witness. She is an image of hope; she is the Mother of all children of God. May she intercede for us. Amen.