I often say that the Theotokos is a type of the Church and that who She is, is what we are all called to become: Virgin, Mother of God, Bride of God, Handmaiden of God. As we are in the season in which we commemorate the Falling Asleep (death) of Mary the Theotokos, someone has asked me how Her death is to be understood as our death. At first, I did not know how to answer. But with a few days of reflection, I think I have thought of a few things I can say about this.
First we must distinguish between three types of death, or three ways Christians use the word death. First there is the death that we are all born into, the death of this world, the death to which Jesus referred when He said, “let the dead bury their own dead.” Everyone born into this world through a mother and a father–that is, everyone except Jesus Christ Himself–is born dead in this sense. Roman Catholics also exempt Mary from experiencing this first kind of death through a kind of special grace. However, one of the problems with this theory of immaculate conception is that Mary becomes the Great Exception among Christians instead of the Great Example. The Orthodox consensus, for there is no specific dogma on this, seems to be that Mary experienced no special grace freeing her from the effects and influence of sin and death, but that as She grew and learned to choose good, She always did.
The second death is the death to this world. This is the death that frees us from the first death. This is the death that brings us Life. When we are born (conceived, actually) we come into existence. We are born with a capacity for Life, but this life has to be chosen. In the beginning, when God created everything, He created everything by divine fiat: “Let it be.” He created everything this way except the human being. Instead of saying, “exist! and the human being was,” God said, “Let us make.” Everything else was brought into being as it is and as it is to be. Humans were brought into being as something to be made, as a project (you might say), as something to become. And the first real, fully human being is Christ. He is the Man, the new Adam. This new Human Being, was the fruit of a Woman’s womb, a Woman who said “Let it be.”
God created everything else by saying “let it be,” and then He created a creature that would develop and only become fully what it is as it learned to trust and love God and freely submit and cooperate with God, and itself say the “let it be.” It is this learning to say, “let it be,” that is the second kind of death I am speaking of. It is a death to our own death, a death to the world that we have reached out and grabbed and brought into ourselves and we have confused with our life. We are born into the first kind of death, a death that looks to created things rather than the Creator for life. The second kind of death is the death to the first kind of death. It is the laying aside of the fear of death, it is accomplished by cooperation with Grace so that we learn ourselves to say, “let it be,” “not my will but Yours be done.”
Mary the Theotokos learned to embrace this second kind of death, this death of submission to God’s will, this death of trust and obedience, this death of silent prayer, inner stillness, and faith. Mary learned to say “let it be,” and so God could create in and through her a true Human being. Our calling as Christians is also to learn to say “let it be,” to learn to trust and pray and be still and know that God is God. It is a kind of death. All of the disordered passions and thoughts inside us scream for a different way. We desperately want to fix it ourselves, we pine for a way to reach out and grab the people, events and situations around us, to grab them and “make an impact,” to make it better, to fix it. Like Eve in the Garden, we want to grab the fruit and make things better ourselves.
But the only real impact we can make is on ourselves. We must become peaceful, then we can participate in God’s peacemaking. We must learn to say “let it be.” Like Elijah in the desert, we must learn that God is not in the earthquakes and fires and storms we feel raging within us. God is in the gentle breeze, (or as the more famous Masoretic texts puts it) in the “still, small voice.” Or as Isaiah puts it, “In returning [to yourself and God within you] and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” This is not easy, it is a kind of voluntary death. It is a cross to trust in God and to say, “let it be.” Yet it is a cross that Mary our Mother and example took up, it is a death that she embraced. And She has shown for us that it is through this second death that Life comes, that Christ is born in our heart (in our womb) and after an appropriate period of gestation, Christ in us becomes the Light to those around us, those we love. Through our death to the world, the world experiences Life. This is a mystery, as St. Paul puts it:
For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?
Finally there is the third kind of death. For those who have entered the second kind of death, the third kind is a mere “falling asleep.” This is why the Church does not remember the “death” of Mary. We remember her falling asleep. For those who have crucified themselves with Christ, those who have learned to say, “let it be,” “not my will but Yours be done,” for these there remains only a falling asleep in the Lord. And here again, we follow Mary as our example. We die daily to this world and its ways; we learn to “return” to ourselves and to God within ourselves, to trust in Him and to entrust all that concerns us to Him; and we learn to say, “let it be to me, to them, to us all according to Your word.”
These, I think, are some of the ways that the death, the falling asleep, of the Mother of God applies to us and becomes our example.