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August 15, 2015

The Dormition of the Theotokos and Ecclesiastical Tradition

By Metropolitan Daniel of Kaisariani, Vyronas and Hymettus

During the fourth and fifth centuries there were configured two traditions regarding the place of death and entombment of the Theotokos, the Jerusalemite (Dormitio hierosolymitiana) and the Ephesian (Dormitio ephesiana). The Jerusalemite is the more ancient and historical tradition.

The Ephesian emerged from the apocrypha, and only they mention that when John the Evangelist went to Ephesus he brought with him the Mother of the Lord Jesus. According to the Jerusalemite tradition, John the Evangelist went to Ephesus after the death of the Theotokos.

According to the Jerusalemite tradition "this place (Zion) did the Mother of God have as an earthly habitation" (Andrew of Crete, "Homily on the Dormition", P.G. 97, 1064).

After the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Theotokos lived for a few years among the Apostles of Jesus, under the care and protection of John the Evangelist. Exactly how many years she lived after the Ascension, we cannot tell.

According to apocryphal sources she lived for another two years. According to others it was twenty-two. The chronographer Hippolytus of Thebes (7th century, P.G. 117, 1029) says that the Theotokos lived another eleven years and died at the age of 59. Saint Andrew of Crete meanwhile states: "Having reached her end at an advanced age, she thus departed." The view of Hippolytus of Thebes seems most appropriate.

Information from the Encomium on the Dormition of the Theotokos (P.G. 99, 742Β) by Saint Theodore the Studite, which comes from the same tradition as above, says that the Theotokos was informed beforehand of the time of her death and she prayed to her Son asking Him to have attend to her at the time of her death the scattered Disciples of Jesus who were out preaching the Gospel, to "liturgize at her entombment".

Her prayer had not ended when suddenly all "the foundations of the Church, the rulers of the ecumene, the wondrous servants, arrived at her funeral on clouds." Tradition has it that in attendance with the Disciples were the Apostle Timothy, Saint Hierotheos of Athens and Saint Dionysius the Areopagite. Saint John of Damascus even mentions that the Patriarchs of the Old Testament were there, as well as Adam and Eve. Her soul was then taken by her Son Jesus and He handed her over to the Archangel Michael.

Saint John of Damascus mentions the tradition when at the time of the translation of the body of the Theotokos a Jew attempted to attack the body, but immediately both of his hands were cut off. This information may only be symbolic, to indicate the hostility of the Jews against Christianity and their punishment for this.

He goes on to say that the all-revered body of the Mother of God remained in the tomb for three days, at which time Jesus came down in a cloud and brought it up to the heavens, to unite it with the soul of the Virgin Mary.

Regarding the tomb of the Theotokos, in a letter attributed to Saint Jerome we are certain that in the fifth century her tomb in Palestine becamea place of pilgrimage for Christians. The location of this tomb is in Gethsemane where a church that still stands today was erected by Emperor Maurice in 582. This same Emperor also decreed as compulsory the celebration of the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos on August 15th (Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos, Ecclesiastical History 18).

The above Jerusalemite tradition is the most ancient and described by Saint Andrew of Crete. It is this tradition which was preserved in the hymnography of the Church.

The thought and teaching of the Church regarding the metastasis (translocated) of the body of the Theotokos may be briefly formulated as follows.

The most-pure body of the Theotokos, which for nine months was found worthy to hold the Creator of the world, without suffering any corruption and remaining perfectly pure in virginity, was not possible for it to suffer the ravages of time. Therefore, the Creator of all things and the Son of the Virgin received it in the heavens.

As there are similar instances in the Old Testmanent with Enoch and Elijah, as well as Moses and perhaps Isaiah, and even John the Evangelist, it is possible if not necessary for the most-pure and most-immaculate body of the Mother of God to have been translocated.

The term "metastasis" is a common term for someone who has died, and can be found in the liturgical texts of the Church in reference to those who have reposed in Christ. It refers to the faith of the Church that one who has reposed has been translocated to another life after their death.

Some Fathers of the Church support the physical metastasis of the Theotokos on the biblical passage from the Apocalypse of John (Ch. 12, verses 6 and 14). But it is quite rightly indicated by the eminent professor Panagiotis Bratsiotis that these passages that speak of a women refer to the entirety of the Church.

Saint Ephraim the Syrian teaches that after the Ascension of Christ and the Metastasis of the Theotokos there entered another two people physically into Paradise - Adam and Eve who were expelled from there.

All these teachings are encompassed in the dismissal hymn for the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos:
In giving birth you preserved your virginity,
In falling asleep you did not forsake the world, O Theotokos.
You were translocated to life, O Mother of Life,
And by your prayers, you deliver our souls from death.
Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.