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August 15, 2019

History of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos

The origin of the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos is closely connected with her public veneration since the beginning of the fourth century. It developed from the early celebration of Christmas in which the Theotokos, the Mother of God our Savior, played an important role. The solemn proclamation of Mary as “the Theotokos” at the Third Ecumenical Synod of Ephesus in 431 greatly enhanced her public veneration as the “Mother of God.” This is evidenced by the fact that a few years later her divine maternity was celebrated in Jerusalem as the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God, on August 15. (cf. Armenian Lectionary, 434 A.D.)

In Egypt, the same Feast of Mary was celebrated on January 18 under the influence of Saint Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) who presided at the Synod of Ephesus. In Constantinople, the veneration of “Mary’s divine motherhood” was promoted by Saint Anatolios (d. 458), who also composed some of the first liturgical hymns in honor of 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 celebrated on August 15 took on a new meaning and became the solemn celebration of Mary’s death and metastasis into heaven under the name of the Feast of the Dormition.

In Constantinople, the Empress Saint Pulcheria (d. 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 in 451, she asked Saint Juvenal of Jerusalem (d. 458) for some relics of the Mother of God to be enshrined in the Church of the Theotokos at Blachernae, near Constantinople.

The holy Bishop 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 translated (to heaven) before the universal resurrection of the dead” (cf. Cyril of Scythopolis, The History of St. Euthymius III, 40, written about 515).

On July 2, the Orthodox Church commemorates the Deposition of the Honorable Robe of the Theotokos 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 Mother of God 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 15 under the name of Dormition (Gr. "Koimeseos"; Old Slav. “Uspenije”) which, literally translated, means “the falling asleep” (cf. I Thess. 4:14) Saint Modestos of Jerusalem (d. 634), to whom the oldest extant homily of the Feast of the Dormition is ascribed, fully accepted the Jerusalem tradition concerning Mary’s wondrous dormition and metastasis of her purest 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.

In the East, the celebration of the feast was enhanced by the famous homilies of Saint Andrew of Crete (d. about 720) , Saint Germanos of Constantinople (d. 733) and especially Saint John of Damascus (d. 749), who became the main champion of the traditional belief in the bodily metastasis of Mary.

According to the testimony of Saint John of Damascus, 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. I, 13). In the homily he delivered at the Basilica of the Dormition in Jerusalem, he 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 wonderous Dormition of the Theotokos, for the most part, were composed during the eighth and ninth centuries by such renowned hymnographers as Saint Germanos of Constantinople (d. 733), Saint John of Damascus (d. 749), Saint Kosmas of Maiuma (d. 760), St. Theophanes the Graptos (d. 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 weeks period of fasting is prescribed for the faithful, called the Fast of the Dormition, which begins on the first day of August. Historically, the Dormition Fast can be traced to the ninth century (though there was a fast around this time centuries earlier in some places; see for example "On the Three Fasts" by Saint Anastasios of Sinai who died in 700) but it was officially introduced into the Orthodox Church discipline by the Synod of Constantinople in 1166.

Liturgically speaking, the Dormition has one day of pre-festivity and eight days of post-festivity (the octave), which are festively celebrated by Orthodox, especially in Greece. In some shrines dedicated to the Theotokos, Lamentations are chanted over a decorated epitaphios and kouvouklion the night before her feast.

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 metastasis 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 a natural medicine, are blessed in commemoration of the numerous healings and extraordinary graces bestowed on the pilgrims at Mary’s tomb (cf. St. John Damascene, Hom. on Dorm. I, 13). The blessing of the herbs on the Feast of Dormition was introduced by the Fathers to combat the superstitious incantations and charlatanism among the people.

Preaching at the tomb of Mary, Saint John of Damascus reminded the people that: “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. II, 19).

In his Homily on the Dormition, Saint John of Damascus gives a voice to the Tomb of Mary:

“Why do you seek in the tomb what has been assumed 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 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. II, 17).