In our Orthodox tradition we are usually very careful to
distinguish between the "Dormition" of the Mother of God and her "Assumption"
into heaven. The former, we feel, is properly Orthodox, while the latter strikes
us as a purely Western designation, derived from a Roman Catholic
"misunderstanding" of the meaning of this feast, celebrated universally on
It is true that some very genuine yet misguided interpretations
of Mary's death and exaltation can be found both in Catholic spiritual writings
and in contemporary Western icons: a tendency, for example, to exalt the Holy
Virgin to a level of "divinity" that effectively erases the crucial and absolute
distinction between human and divine life. Orthodox theologians will insist that
the "deification" (theôsis) known by the Mother of God in no way involves an
ontological transformation of her being from created humanity to divinity. She
was and will always remain a human creature: the most exalted of all those who
bear God's image, yet always a human being, whose glory appears in her humility,
her simple desire to "let it be" according to the divine will.
Traditional Orthodox icons of her "falling asleep," therefore,
focus especially on her death and entombment. The disciples, "gathered together
from all the ends of the earth," surround her in an attitude of grief and
lament. Behind the bier on which she is laid there stands her glorified Son,
holding in His arms a child clothed in radiant white garments, an image of His
Mother's soul. This is a theme of reversal. On every Orthodox iconostasis there
is found a sacred image of the Mother of God, holding in her arms her newborn
child, the God-Man who "took flesh" in order to save and sanctify a fallen,
sinful, broken world. Here, in the icon of the Dormition, the Son embraces and
offers to that world His Holy Mother, as she did Him at the time of His birth.
At her falling asleep He receives her soul, her life, in order to exalt it in
Himself and with Himself, to the glory, beauty and joy of eternal life.
In many Orthodox icons, however, this primary image is
complemented by another: the depiction of the Mother of God ascending to heaven,
accompanied by a host of angels. We find this double motif especially in post-byzantine
icons such as the koimesis (Dormition) of the Koutloumousiou monastery of Mount
Athos, dated from around 1657. (Vladimir Lossky notes other such representations
in his commentary on the Dormition, The Meaning of Icons, Boston, 1969, p. 215.)
Should we conclude that this dual theme, depicting both the Dormition and the
Assumption of the Mother of God, is simply the result of Western influence?
In fact, whether we label it the "Assumption" or the "Ascension"
of the Theotokos, this image complements that of the koimesis in a way that is
in perfect accord with Orthodox theology. Just as Christ died and lay in the
tomb, to be resurrected and exalted into heaven, so His Holy Mother "falls
asleep," to be raised up by her Son and exalted with Him into heaven. By His
Resurrection and Ascension, He provides the means by which the "Mother of Life,"
together with all those who dwell in Him, can be raised from death and exalted
to transcendent Life.
If we understand the "Assumption" of the Mother of God in the
light of the Ascension of her divine Son, then we can appreciate the dual
depiction of Dormition and Ascension found in many of our Orthodox icons. The
Holy Mother of God, the Theotokos or "God-bearer," is the first fruits of the
eschatological fulfillment that will bring all of God's creative and redeeming
work to a close. She is the vessel in which the Second Person of the Holy
Trinity "took flesh" and became (a) man, in order to bestow salvation on the
human race. Her womb, "more spacious than the heavens," contained the
uncontainable One. He drew his human existence from her, and she accompanied Him
with love and prayer throughout the time of His earthly ministry, even to the
foot of the Cross. She shared His suffering to the full, bearing His crucifixion
and death in the depths of her soul. Accordingly, she is the perfect image of
the Church, the eternal communion of all those who live and die in Christ.
They, like her, will be raised in Him and exalted to the same
glory to which He raised and transformed their fallen human nature. She is thus
a forerunner of their salvation, a prophetic image of the glorified life that
awaits all those who bear Christ in the inner depths of their being, as she bore
Him within the depths of her womb.
Yet she is more than this. She is not only a model of the common
destiny of Christian people. She also accompanies them at every step of their
journey, offering them - offering us - her incessant prayer and love. In her
falling asleep and in her exaltation to heaven, she "did not forsake the world,"
but remains, as the liturgical hymns of the feast proclaim, the Mother of Life,
who is "constant in prayer" and "our firm hope," who by her prayers "delivers
our souls from death!"