The Day the Earth Stood Still

Orthodox Christians (New Calendar) commemorate the death (Dormition) of the Virgin Mary today. For those for whom such feasts are foreign, it is easy to misunderstand what the Orthodox are about – and to assume that this is simply a feast to Mary because we like that sort of thing. Flippant attitudes fail to perceive the depths of the mystery of our salvation. The Dormition of the Mother of God is one of many doorways into that mystery – all of which is Christ – who alone is our salvation.

The Christian life, as taught by the Scriptures and the fathers, is grounded in the mystery and reality of communion. We do not exist alone, nor do we exist merely as a collection. Our lives are a communion of lives. We share one another in ways that permeate the whole of our being. I am unique, and yet I am also the child of Jim and Nancy. Though I am unique, so much of who I am and what I am is their lives and the lives of generations of human beings and culture – not just genetic relatives – but all of humanity. Without such knowledge (whether conscious or unconscious), we do not love as we should and will not live as we should. Your life is my life; God help us.

The belief that God became man in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, makes no sense and has but little value apart from the reality of life understood as communion. It is thus crucial that the Creed confesses, “He took flesh of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” The womb of the Virgin was not “borrowed space” which God inhabited until His birth. The womb of the Virgin is also that place and that source by which God “took flesh of the Virgin Mary.”

There are many theological accounts of Christ and His work of salvation that center almost solely upon the idea of Christ as a sacrifice on the Cross that pays the penalty of our sins (the doctrine of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement). This account tends to “stand on its own.” There is nothing inherent within Christ’s birth from a Virgin to such a view of the Atonement. Nor does the Virgin herself have any inherent connection to the saving acts of God as made known to us in the Scriptures. Thus those who profess her virginity in such cases only do so because it is recorded in the Scripture – but they do not do so because they understand its true role in our salvation.

However, our salvation is not achieved by an objective payment (even if the image of payment may be found in the Scriptures). The unifying teaching of the Scriptures with regard to Christ is our salvation through union with Him, through true communion in His life.

His Incarnation thus becomes a part of reality of God’s restoration of our communion with Him. He becomes a partaker of our life, that we might become partakers of His. This reality is made profoundly clear in that God not only comes to dwell among us, but comes to do so as a man, having taken flesh of the Virgin Mary. He becomes “flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone” (Ge. 2:23). And yet another image: “And a sword will pierce your own soul also” (Lk. 2:35). Mary is united to Christ in the flesh, and mystical in her soul as well.

Her role in the salvation of the world (through union with Christ) is so profound that it is prophesied in the early chapters of Genesis (Ge. 3:15). She, and the Virgin Birth, are pre-figured repeatedly throughout the Old Testament (as interpreted by the fathers). There is a traditional hymn, sung during the vesting of a Bishop that makes reference to just a small sample of such prefigurements:

Of old the Prophets aforetime proclaimed thee,
the Golden Vessel, the Staff, the Tablet, the Ark,
the Lampstand, the Table, the Uncut Mountain,
the Golden Censer, the Gate Impassible,
and the Throne of the King,
thee did the Prophets proclaim of old.

Perhaps the greatest collection of such references can be found in the 6th century hymn called the Akathist to the Theotokos.

This prefigurement and their abundant use in the fathers, all flow from the fundamental understanding of salvation as communion. Thus she, as the Mother of God, belongs with Christ. She belongs with Him as the Golden Vessel belonged with the Manna (she is the vessel who contained the Bread of Heaven); she belongs with Him as Aaron’s Rod belongs with the buds which sprang forth (that He should be born from her virginal womb is like the life which springs forth from Aarons lifeless rod); she is the Tablet as Christ is the words inscribed; she is the lampstand as Christ Himself is the Lamp, etc.

As the Creed tells us, Christ died, in accordance with the Scriptures. This does not mean in “accordance with the Gospel writings”, but “in accordance with the Scriptures of the Old Testament” (we first see the phrase in 1 Corinthians 15:3). Through the eyes of the fathers and the Tradition of the Church we begin to see that in accordance with the Scriptures is more than the few references that can be found that refer to payment or sacrifice or that point to the Cross. The Gospel given to us includes a very wholistic understanding of salvation and its story – and unfolds that from beginning to end.

The union with the flesh of the Virgin is the union with our humanity – indeed with the whole created order. What Christ takes to Himself in that action, He takes with Himself throughout His ministry, taking it into death and Hades and raising it again with Himself on the third day. Thus St. Paul can say:

Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin (Romans 6:4-6).

These comments on death and resurrection in the context of Baptism, in which “we have been united together,” only make sense in an understanding of salvation as communion.

The death of the Mother of God (for He who was born of her was truly God as well as truly man), commemorated in the Feast of the Dormition, is something in which all of creation shares. For the point of the Incarnation was not simply to take flesh of the Virgin, but to be united with the whole created order. And so creation itself “groans and travails” as it awaits the final completion of our salvation (Romans 8). Or as the Church sings:

All of creation rejoices in Thee, O Full of Grace,
the assembly of angels and the race of men.
O sanctified temple and spiritual paradise,
the glory of virgins,
from whom God was incarnate and became a child.
Our God before the ages,
He made thy body into a throne,
and thy womb He made more spacious than the Heavens.
All of creation rejoices in thee,
O Full of Grace, glory to thee!

Her Dormition is indeed a day the earth stood still – for the Mother of us all passes from death to life.

Comments

  1. PJ says

    Re: “I am unique, and yet I am also the child of Jim and Nancy. Though I am unique, so much of who I am and what I am is their lives and the lives of generations of human beings and culture – not just genetic relatives – but all of humanity. Without such knowledge (whether conscious or unconscious), we do not love as we should and will not live as we should. Your life is my life; God help us.”

    A wonderful bit from the Confessions of Augustine:

    “I will not speak of [my mother's] gifts, but of Thy gift in her; for she neither made herself nor trained herself. Thou didst create her, and neither her father nor her mother knew what kind of being was to come forth from them.”

    That last bit — “neither her father nor her mother knew what kind of being was to come forth from them” — always gets me. It speaks to the silent and dignified mystery of rebirth in Christ.

    Also, a question, Father: Do all Orthodox believe that Mary died? At least, die in the sense that we die? If she passed in the way you or I will certainly pass, why is it called the “dormition,” as though something unusual occurred?

    Happy Dormition/Assumption.

  2. says

    First, yes, we believe that she died. “Dormition” is simply the respectful term, “Fell Asleep,” which is commonly used in Orthodoxy to refer to the death of a believer (1 Cor. 15:6). She died in the same sense that we die. The icon of the Dormition shows her body on the bier and her soul in the arms of Christ. She was certainly dead when the Apostles placed her in her tomb. She was not there, however, when they returned 3 days later. I’ve been to her tomb. Wonderful pilgrimage.

    When I die, the prayers of the Church will refer to my having “fallen asleep,” though I doubt there will be anything unusual about it.

  3. PJ says

    Mary must have died fairly young (by our standards) if there were still many apostles around. Does tradition relate who was present?

  4. says

    I appreciate this post, Fr. Stephen, and the quotes, both from the traditional hymn and from St. Paul. Trying to understand Romans doesn’t make my brain hurt anymore — not that I became Orthodox in order to cause my brain to feel better, but it does, as quite a bit of what Paul is saying makes more sense to me than it used to.

    I’m wondering if, when you say, “as interpreted by the fathers,” you are to some degree implying that the fathers received what was delivered (passed down) from the apostles (who had the OT Scriptures opened to them by Christ), in an organic fashion that was overseen by the Holy Spirit. Would this be a true statement, if I said it to someone regarding what you’ve written?

  5. simmmo says

    I think you touch upon a problem within fundamentalist Protestant interpretation of scripture. I.e. believing the virgin birth simply because it is written in Scripture. It becomes, for them, another box to tick. And they reduce it to this only. Mary is like a tube in the process of God becoming man, and simply discarded after her usefulness for this purpose was fulfilled. The broader problem for fundamentalists is that they can’t seem to do concrete reality PLUS theological meaning. It is the theological significance of these concrete events that has meaning and power for how we understand ourselves. Thus, ironically, they have colluded with the Enlightenment worldview, just at the time when the Enlightenment was attempting to undermine the traditional doctrines of the faith. That’s why you get silly ideas about Biblical inerrancy like the “Chicago Statement” etc. (I believe the problem of the theological spectrum in the US and to a lesser extent in Western Europe is a direct consequence of the church colluding with the Enlightenment -The liberals: “There can’t be a virgin birth because it doesn’t make sense in our Enlightened knowledge of science, textual criticism etc. The conservatives: “We believe the virgin birth because it says so, and the Bible is scientific and historical text book.. so there!” Notice that both are operating within the Enlightenment worldview! According to Jaroslav Pelikan the historical chain goes roughly like this: Renaissance – Reformation – Enlightenment. The Protestant Reformation stands at the heart of this chain that sort to smash the cherished beliefs of the faithful. Of course medieval Catholicism and scholasticism should be added at the start of the chain as the precursor to all of this, but I’m getting side tracked now!)

    You can understand why they have this truncated understanding of scripture by simply contrasting their soteriology with the one described by Father Stephen above. For fundamentalist Evangelicals it would be quite sufficient for God to become man and then simply be killed to satisfy God’s wrath. No need to be born as a baby of the virgin. Why did God come as a baby born of a virgin? Why couldn’t he have simply come down from heaven and then go to the cross? What is all this teaching about the Kingdom of God coming on earth as in heaven? What is this stuff about the redemption of the world in Romans 8? Afterall, isn’t Romans about individual salvation and how “I” can be saved from God’s wrath? And isn’t God going to destroy the space-time universe anyway, whilst we escape in the rapture? I’m afraid that these are unanswerable questions within the fundamentalist evangelical framework. That is why, i think, they have done violence to Mary and to the Scriptures and to many other things.

  6. PJ says

    ” Renaissance – Reformation – Enlightenment. The Protestant Reformation stands at the heart of this chain that sort to smash the cherished beliefs of the faithful. Of course medieval Catholicism and scholasticism should be added at the start of the chain as the precursor to all of this, but I’m getting side tracked now!)”

    But wasn’t the Renaissance stimulated to a significant degree by Greek refugees fleeing the conquering Turk? That throws another factor into the equation.

    It is too simple to say that medieval Catholicism, or even Scholasticism, caused the Renaissance, never mind the Reformation or the Enlightenment. In large part those movements were conscious efforts *against* medieval Catholicism. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t some hidden Catholic influence, but it’s not so simple as X => Y => Z. For instance, the Reformation was as much a reaction to the Renaissance as medieval Catholicism. Copernicus and his “revolution” were received much better by Catholics than by fundamentalist Protestants.

  7. simmmo says

    The Renaissance was marked by “humanism”. Renaissance humanists baulked at what they saw as the clumsiness of the medieval era. They wanted to “go back to the sources” as Jaroslav Pelikan puts it. They weren’t content to read scripture in Latin, they wanted to go back to the Greek and the Hebrew, which is where your Greek refugees were probably helpful – I’m not sure whether these Greeks could be said to have stimulated the Renaissance in anyway – they certainly were a valuable resource for those who wanted to go back to the sources. It was a historical coincidence that at the time of the Renaissance, Greek Christians, reading the Bible in the original Greek were being exiled to the West. The other historical coincidence was the invention of the the printing press, which made Biblical texts widely available. People could get a copy of the Greek New Testament, compiled by humanists like Erasmus and study the text in the original language. Of course, “going back to the sources” also meant that Biblical Hebrew was being rediscovered. And, pertinent to the topic of this blog, the preferred Masoretic text of the Tanakh (Old Testament) allowed for a non-virgin reading of the birth of Messiah. This is the roots of the discipline we call textual criticism today. The Reformers colluded with the Renaissance. Luther agreed with the Renaissance preference for the Masoretic text. Up until now, it is compulsory in just about all respected Protestant (and probably Roman Catholic) seminaries to take Greek, Hebrew and know something about textual criticism. This is the legacy of Renaissance humanists.

    One example from Pelikan’s book “Whose Bible Is It” hints at the role of medieval Catholicism in creating the historical circumstances for the Renaissance and Reformation:

    “Thomas Aquinas, who seems to have known the Vulgate New Testament practically by heart, was not in a position to correct its translations on the basis of the original Greek but had to take these translations at face value even when they were erroneous. This ignorance of Greek permitted him, in his treatise Against the Errors of the Greeks, to attribute to the separated Greek Orthodox church various teachings that it did not in fact hold, which also contributed to the perpetuation of the schism.”

  8. PJ says

    Simmmo,

    I’m not really sure how all that changes anything that I said, which was just that it’s not so simple as “the Enlightenment was caused by the Reformation was caused by the Renaissance was caused by medieval Catholicism.”

    Anyway, I’m getting off topic, so I’ll pursue this no further.

  9. Juliana says

    Fr Stephen,
    Thank you for this post. Beautifully and eloquently written. Every time I read about the ever-virginity of the Theotokos, be it on a blog like this or in the service book at my parish, my heart aches for family and friends who refuse to contemplate the uniqueness and purpose of Mary’s role in mankind’s salvation. Through her we see that she is always pointing us to her Son.

  10. says

    It is interesting that you use the idea of the earth standing still for the Dormition, Father Stephen. Just recently I was reading in the Protevangelium of James – the source of much of our knowledge of Mary’s life and the iconography of the Nativity of Christ. In that text, Saint Joseph describes how time stands still as our Lord is being born. The images are quite striking, almost photographic. Perhaps there is a parallel to be drawn with the icon of the Dormition shown here – where Christ holds the soul of Mary in the form of an infant, to symbolize her birth into eternal life.

  11. says

    Matt, I long ago (in a sermon) used the image of creation holding its breath waiting for the response of the Virgin to the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation. Her “Be it unto me according to Thy word,” are the most important words ever to pass human lips. The response of her heart is the verbal expression of creation’s groaning – a creation that long’s for its fulfillment. I cannot understand a Christianity that is not moved to weeping at the very mention of her name. Christianity that is a stranger to Mary is a stranger to God. It is only perverse habit of history that hardens our hearts to her.
    My parish has the Vladimirskaya Mother of God on its iconostasis. The eyes of that icon always melt my heart. It is a deep spiritual pleasure to stand beside her in services and to intone the prayers.
    Many Christians remind me of my own teenage years (as well as those of many others) during which I rebelliously ignored my own mother. Our hearts become so hard. The Theotokos taught my heart how to be reconciled to my mother – may her memory be eternal!