August 15, 2017

History of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos

By John Sanidopoulos

The origin of the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos is closely connected with her public veneration in the early fourth century, when Christmas began to be celebrated in Rome, and peaked at the Third Ecumenical Synod of Ephesus in 431, when controversy arose over the title "Theotokos". A few years later, in the Armenian Lectionary of 434, which preserves the ancient liturgical practices of the Jerusalem Church between 417 and 439, it says that a feast of Mary the Theotokos was celebrated on August 15th, "at the second mile from Bethlehem," with Scripture readings that focused on the Nativity of Christ and the Mary as the Mother of God. In Egypt, this same feast was celebrated on January 18th under the influence of the Holy Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria (+ 444), who presided over the Third Ecumenical Synod. In Constantinople, the veneration of the Theotokos was promoted by Holy Patriarch Anatolios (+ 458), who also composed the first liturgical hymns to the Theotokos.

At the beginning of the sixth century, a magnificent basilica was erected over the tomb of the Virgin Mary in Gethsemane. With this, the feast of Mary the Theotokos celebrated on August 15th took on a new meaning and became the solemn celebration of Mary’s dormition and translocation into heaven under the name of the Feast of the Dormition. In some liturgical calendars of the East, the feast was referred to as the "Journey of the Theotokos into Heaven", or the "Deposition of Mary", i.e. the interment of Mary into her grave.

In Constantinople, the Holy Empress Pulcheria (+ 453) promoted devotion to the Theotokos and built three churches in her honor. Being present at the sixth session of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod of Chalcedon (451), she asked the Holy Patriarch Juvenal of Jerusalem (+ 458) for some relics of the Theotokos to be enshrined in the Church of the Theotokos at Blachernae, in Constantinople.

The Holy Patriarch replied: “We have received from ancient and the most reliable tradition that at the time of the glorious dormition (falling asleep) of the Mother of God, the whole company of the Apostles were brought together in Jerusalem. So, amid divine and heavenly praises, they commended her holy soul to the hands of God and, taking her God-conceiving body, they carried it in procession to Gethsemane and there placed it in a little tomb. For three days a choir of Angels continued to sing above Her tomb. After the third day, when finally Saint Thomas arrived, (he had been absent and desired to venerate the body that had borne Christ God), they (the Apostles) opened the tomb and found no trace of her blessed body. Thus, taking the winding sheets, which were filled with fragrance, the Apostles closed the tomb. Wondering at this mystery, they could only think that He, Whom it had pleased to be born of her in the flesh, the Lord of Glory, desired that after her departure from this life, her immaculate and all-pure body would be honored by incorruptibility, being translocated (to heaven) before the universal resurrection of the dead” (cf. Cyril of Scythopolis, Life of Euthymios, 3, 40, written about 515).

On July 2, the Orthodox Church commemorates the Deposition of the Venerable Robe of Our Lady the Mother of God at Blachernae. It seems that, instead of the holy relics requested, the imperial city had received Mary’s vestments which were found in Nazareth and brought to Constantinople in 474, i.e. after the death of Juvenal and Pulcheria.

The solemn celebration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos was extended to the entire East during the sixth century. Since the feast was celebrated on different days, it was decreed by Emperor Maurice (582-602) that, in the entire Roman Empire, the feast will be celebrated on August 15th under the name of Dormition which, literally translated, means “the falling asleep” (1 Thess. 4:14). St. Modestos of Jerusalem (+ 634), to whom the oldest extant homily of the Feast of the Dormition is ascribed, fully accepted the Jerusalem tradition concerning Mary’s wondrous departure and the translocation of her most pure body to heaven (cf. Migne, P.G. 86, 3277 ff.).

In the middle of the seventh century, the Feast of the Dormition was introduced in Rome from where it gradually spread to the entire West. However, at the end of the eighth century, the Western Church changed the name of the feast to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven. The Assumption of Mary was celebrated in the West under Pope Sergius I in the eighth century and Pope Leo IV then confirmed the feast as official. The Dogma of the Assumption of Mary was introduced into the Roman Catholic Church in 1950, when Pope Pius XII defined it ex cathedra in his Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus.

In the East, the celebration of the feast was enhanced by the famous homilies of St. Andrew of Crete (c. + 720) , St. Germanos of Constantinople (+ 733) and especially St. John of Damascus (+ 749). According to his testimony, the tomb, which harbored the purest body of the Mother of God for only a short time, became an object of public veneration and the source of numerous miracles and special graces (cf. Hom. on Dorm. 1, 13). St. John of Damascus, in the homily he delivered at the Basilica of the Dormition in Jerusalem, pointed to Mary’s tomb and said: “Her immaculate body was placed here, in this renowned and all-glorious tomb, from whence after three days it was taken up to the heavenly mansion” (cf. Hom. on Dorm. 11, 14).

The liturgical hymns extolling the wondrous dormition of the Theotokos, for the most part, were composed during the eighth and ninth centuries by such renowned hymnographers as St. Germanos of Constantinople (+ 733), St. John of Damascus (+ 749), St. Kosmas of Maiuma (+ 760), St. Theophanes Graptos (+ 845) and others.

The Feast of the Dormition is one of the Twelve Major Feasts of the Orthodox Church and is celebrated with uncommon solemnity. In preparation for the feast, a two week period of fasting is prescribed for the faithful, called the Fast of the Dormition, which begins on the first day of August. Since the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Savior falls within this time on August 6th, some refer to the fast up to this time as the Savior’s Fast. Historically, the Fast of the Dormition can be traced to the ninth century, which coincided with the two week procession of the Holy Cross throughout Constantinople during this same time to sanctify the air and buildings and drive away the diseases of the summer. It was officially introduced into the Orthodox discipline by the Synod of Constantinople in 1166.

Liturgically speaking, the Feast has one day of pre-festivity and eight days (octave) of post-festivity during which time the mysteries of Mary’s wondrous death and her glorious translocation to heaven are celebrated. The leavetaking (apodosis) of the feast on August 23rd is celebrated almost as solemnly and festively as on August 15th.

According to an old custom, flowers and medicinal herbs are blessed after the Divine Liturgy on the Feast of the Dormition. This custom most probably originated from the traditional belief that after Mary’s glorious translocation into heaven, her holy tomb was filled with a “heavenly fragrance” and flowers" (cf. St. Germanos, I Hom. on Dorm.) The herbs, used by people as natural medicine, are blessed in commemoration of the numerous healings and extraordinary graces bestowed on the pilgrims at Mary’s tomb (cf. St. John of Damascus, Hom. on Dorm. 1, 13). The blessing of the herbs on the Feast of Dormition may have been introduced as a replacement of the procession of the Holy Cross during this time to banish summer diseases.

Preaching at the tomb of Mary, St. John of Damascus reminded the people: “Divine power is not circumscribed by any place and neither is the inexhaustible goodness of the Mother of God. For if the graces were restricted only to her tomb, only a few people would gain them. Now her graces are poured out in every place throughout the world” (cf. Hom. on Dorm. 2, 19).

In his Homily on the Dormition, St. John of Damascus makes the Tomb of Mary speak:

“Why do you seek in the tomb what has been translocated into heaven? Why do you exact from me an account of her dissolution? I had no power to go against the divine command. Leaving the winding sheet, that holy and sacred body, which filled me with myrrh, sweet fragrance and holiness, has been caught up and has departed with all the powers of heaven accompanying it. Now the Angels keep watch over me. Now the divine grace dwells in me. I have become a well of healing for the sick, a defense against demons, a refuge to those who flee to me. Draw near in faith, you people, and you will receive grace in streams” (cf. Hom. on Dorm. 2, 17).