On the Subject of Mothers

On the subject of mothers, Pope Paul VI once said: “Every mother is like Moses. She does not enter the promised land. She prepares a world she will not see.” How true are these words in general and how incredibly

On the subject of mothers, Pope Paul VI once said: “Every mother is like Moses. She does not enter the promised land. She prepares a world she will not see.” How true are these words in general and how incredibly true they of Mary are in particular! Never did it occur in the humble heart of that halcyon handmaiden hidden in Nazareth’s hollowed hearth that she would be the means by which a new world would come into being. Through mortal eyes she never saw in her life on earth the full harvest of saints in their mirth. Perhaps no other feast on the Church’s calendar better encapsulates the full impact of divine faith and festive human emotion at work than on Dormition/Assumption, the day on which we commemorate Mary departing this which world we can see for that world we may only through the eyes of faith.

Since early in the 5th century, all ancient Christian traditions agree on the
importance of commemorating the falling asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary. From antiquity they all have even agreed upon the date, August 15th. However, the precise details concerning Mary’s peaceful repose is a point of difference between Eastern and Western Christians. The clarity and precision of teaching so typical of the Latin tradition comes to us from the fatherly pen of Pope Pius XII when on November 1st, 1950 he infallibly declared: “We proclaim and define it to be a dogma revealed by God that the immaculate Mother of God, Mary ever virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven.” Based on Pope Pius’ wording we can see that the emphasis here is on her being assumed bodily into heaven.

For their part, the Eastern Orthodox churches share this same article of faith, though they would emphasize the nature of the Theotokos’ repose and the form they prefer to use to articulate this truth of faith is that of liturgical laudation rather than dogmatic declaration. It is appropriately called a ‘dormition’ (meaning, a falling asleep) because the feast emphasizes her peaceful repose, her tranquil drifting from mortality into the ether of immortality as a sleep in the fullness of grace. The is not a violent sundering but a smooth awakening into paradise.

As for the liturgical laudation, here is an example. It is taken from the Kontakion of the Dormition: “Neither tomb nor death overpowered the Mother of God…as Mother of Life she has been taken over into life by Him who dwelt in her ever-virgin womb.” This truth of Mary being preserved from death and taken into glory is declared iconographically in that Christ holds in his arms the soul of Mary, wrapped in swaddling clothes, just like in the icon of her Nativity. The point is screaming through the paint and wood: whether at her infancy or at the moment of her death, God kept her in pure and uncorrupted form, as embodied in the symbol of newborn life. Traditional stories attest to this kernel of truth as well. The Virgin’s body was buried in Gethsemane and it was reported that a sublime, splendid aroma emanated from her tomb accompanied by voices praising Christ. Three days hence the voices were no more and it was evident her body had been taken up on high. For the Coptics, the version has it that Christ Himself comes and takes her body to heaven in a chariot of fire.

The Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church states that from among the human race, the Mother of God was the first to be glorified in her body. This is an image of our own resurrection as well. The Mother of God, being the Mother of Life, was transferred to Life; and in her Dormition she did not abandon the world.

Perhaps the best witness you and I may give the world is the witness of a peaceful death. It is through the manner of our dying that others find matter for living. Make us worthy of so holy death, O Most Holy Mother of God!

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