There is much in our culture that tempts us to think of faith and religion as arbitrary matters of personal preference or antiquated tradition that are not nearly as important as matters of “real life.” Even a few moments’ thought about the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos, however, reveals that this great feast calls us to embrace the fullness of life, the deepest reality of what it means to be a human being in the world as we know it.
At the end of the Mother of God’s earthly life, the Apostles were miraculously assembled in her presence. St. Thomas, however, arrived three days late. When her tomb was opened for him to pay his last respects, her body was not there. Even as she was the first to accept Christ into her life—and in a unique way into her womb as His virgin mother—she was the first to follow Him as a whole, complete person into the Kingdom of Heaven. She is the first and greatest example of one who receives, loves, and serves Jesus Christ with every ounce of her being.
When we think of the Theotokos, we are immediately reminded of how God creates us male and female in the divine image and likeness, and uses both sexes together to bring salvation to the world. The Church knows the Theotokos as “the New Eve” through whom the Son of God became “the Second Adam.” The first Eve came from the body of the first Adam, while the Second Adam becomes a human being through the body of the New Eve. The imagery of male and female continues with the Church as the Bride of Christ, which is born from the blood and water which flowed from the Lord’s body at His crucifixion, for they symbolize the Eucharist and baptism through which we share in the life of our Lord. He is the Groom and we, the Church, are His bride. The biblical drama of salvation culminates in the wedding feast of the Lamb in Revelation, which fulfills so much imagery from Christ’s teaching and ministry about the marriage banquet as a sign of the Kingdom of God.
The term “Theotokos” means “Bearer” or “Mother of God,” but not, of course, in the sense of her somehow being the mother of the Holy Trinity or a goddess. From as far back as anyone can tell, Christians have honored Mary as Theotokos in recognition of the divinity of her Son. Those who refused to call her Theotokos, such as the heretic Nestorius, denied a true Incarnation and did not think that the baby born to her was truly God. The Church teaches that the Virgin Mary is every bit as human as the rest of us, but in her purity, obedience, and receptivity to God’s will, she freely agreed to become the mother of the Son of God, Who alone is fully divine and fully human. Hers is a unique and glorious vocation. “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
By accepting her life-changing calling, that obviously only a woman could fulfill, the Theotokos heals and restores the vocation of motherhood to welcome and nurture new life. In contrast to the mortality and corruption that have been the common lot of everyone born since the fall of our first parents, she gives life to the One who conquers sin and death. In the place of slavery to the passions that so easily makes the circumstances surrounding conception and birth tragically broken, she brings forth the Savior in purity and faith. And when her Son turns water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, He does so at her request. This miraculous sign reveals the potential of the union of man and woman to become an icon of our salvation, our true participation in the heavenly banquet.
In all these ways, the Theotokos’ life is about the fulfillment of our broken and imperfect selves and world. God called her to play a unique role as a woman and a mother in setting right what has gone wrong with all the children of the first Adam and Eve. Her example stands as a powerful reminder that God’s salvation is neither an escape from the world as we know it nor an imaginary endeavor of simply pretending all is well. The Theotokos dealt with matters of life and death, challenges as unsettling as a surprising pregnancy, the suspicion of others about the miraculous conception, and the rejection and public execution of her only Son. This is the stuff of real life by anyone’s definition.
We celebrate her Dormition, her “falling asleep” at end of her earthly life, because even in death she is a brilliant icon of God’s intentions for us all. Even as her Son’s tomb is empty on the third day, so is hers. The New Eve joins the Second Adam in the heavenly kingdom, thus showing that the man and the woman who bear God’s image and likeness may find together the fulfillment of the gracious purposes for which God breathed life into them in the first place. Together with the Ascension of the risen Christ into heaven forty days after His resurrection, her assumption into the heavenly kingdom presents an icon of the salvation of all humanity, of the entire creation. Not only is eternal life a reality for her Son, the God-Man, but He shares that blessedness with her and all who like her respond to Him with faith, love, and obedience. He makes us all guests at the heavenly banquet, the wedding feast of the Lamb, where we as the Bride of Christ become true participants by grace in the divine nature. We thereby enter into the eternal life that He shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit as whole, complete persons united in love. By sharing in the Lord’s bodily resurrection, we become “one flesh” with Him in the glory of heaven.
It is surely not an accident that the Theotokos’ story began with an old Jewish couple, righteous and barren, who prayed to God for a child and dedicated her in the Temple where she grew up. Sts. Joachim and Anna remind us of Abraham and Sarah and of others in the biblical narrative who struggled with infertility. The unique blessing of man and woman, created together in God’s image and likeness, to bring new life into the world out of love for one another should remind us of the overflowing love of the Holy Trinity which created all that is and enables us all to become participants in eternal life. To set right all that has gone wrong with man and woman from time immemorial, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, became the Son of the Virgin Mary. She fulfills the meaning of all humanity in saying “yes” with her whole person to the Lord in ways that the first Adam and Eve did not. In this way, she entered into real life, into true humanity, the fulfillment of the image and likeness of God.
In the icon of the Dormition, Christ holds the soul of the Theotokos as she held Him as a baby. This detail indicates that she has been born anew in the eternal life of the heavenly kingdom. What else would we expect for one who played her unique role in the salvation of the world so faithfully? She welcomed Christ fully into her life and now He welcomes her fully into His. Together they show us the ultimate purpose of our creation as male and female, which is to enter into real life, to find fulfillment for every dimension of our existence in God. So let us celebrate the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos by honoring her, asking for her prayers, and—above all else—following her blessed example of responding to the Lord’s calling: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” That is how we will become truly ourselves in the image and likeness of God.