Sunday Reflection with Fr Robin Gibbons: The Assumption/Dormition of the Virgin Mary

Icon of the Dormition by Theophan the Greek, 1392.

Icon of the Dormition by Theophan the Greek, 1392.

We cannot give Our Lady extra special powers, which her son did not have! As St Paul puts it, 'Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of all who have fallen asleep'. Wise words I think because it reminds us that Mary must always be linked to the ministry and mission of Christ! Although the great Church is silent about the fact of Mary's bodily death, the ancient tradition understands that she had to enter into the mystery of death, just as her son did.

Many Christians outside the Orthodox and Catholic traditions often wonder what role Mary plays in the faith life of the Church and if she is somehow seen as a quasi-divine being. They can certainly be forgiven for asking that question, some forms of popular piety can seem over exuberant, whilst dogma, although giving a definition, doesn't answer everything. That is good because death, that mysterious falling asleep cannot be pre-empted, our faith is built upon the resurrection of the crucified one, raised to life by God.

The Assumption or Dormition (falling asleep) of Mary dates from about the 5th century feast and is based on a long liturgical and spiritual tradition that links Mary's transitus, passing from this life, with that of her Son, Though the scriptures are silent about her death, there were various conjectural beliefs about her manner of death, including martyrdom.

The most ancient sources point to Jerusalem as the place of her passing and the East has always celebrated this feast as the point at which Christ, our true God, receives his Mothers soul into heaven free from sin and the corruption of death.

There is something to be said for letting the mystery of Mary's death remain just that, but also to rejoice in what this feast tells us of our own destiny. Like the Transfiguration it hints at a renewed life in God, where who we are will be made known at the end of time as resurrected and transfigured people recognizable in some way, transformed into the best we can ever be.

I prefer to gaze at the icon for this feast rather than wrestle with dogma, to let Mary speak for herself. There on a bier she lies asleep in death, surrounded by the grieving apostles and above her the risen Christ receives her soul into heaven. Her assumption/dormition captures that hope of everlasting life, as Edith Sitwell put it, 'Love is not ended by death, nor is anything lost, for all in the end is harvest!'.

Fr Robin Gibbons is an Eastern Rite Chaplain for the Melkite Greek Catholics in Great Britain.

Tags: Dormition of the Virgin Mary, Sunday Reflection with Fr Robin Gibbons, The Assumption

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