The text of the Vigil of the Dormition in the Byzantine Rite anticipates with joy the feast that we celebrate on today:
O peoples, dance with joy and clap your hands with fervor; gather today in eagerness and jubilation and sing with glee, for the Mother of God is about to rise in glory, going up from the earth into heaven. It is to her we always sing hymns of praise, for she is the Mother of God.
The Dogma Explained
The feast of the Dormition and Assumption of the Mother of God commemorates her natural death (her falling asleep in the Lord) and her assumption, body and soul into heaven. In the Christian East, the feast is preceded by a fast even stricter than that of the Nativity Fast or the Apostles’ Fast, and, in some monasteries, even that of Great Lent.
The first four centuries make no mention of the end of Mary’s life. However, in the fifth century, a controversy, led by Nestorius, arose within the Church as to whether or not she was the mother of the eternal God or the mother of the human Christ: Here we see that “the doctrine on Mary is so closely linked with that about Jesus Christ and his work that the most fundamental affirmations regarding her are found in the Church’s Christological documents.” (The Christian Faith, 1982, 198).
The basic Mariological dogma of the divine motherhood is in fact a Christological dogma asserted in the general council of Ephesus (431). Mary’s divine motherhood was upheld because Jesus is not two persons but one, a Divine Person.
Mary bore the Incarnate Word and carried him at her breast; she gazed on her crucified Son. It is altogether fitting that the Mother of God, as the New Eve and the Temple of God, should be preserved from bodily decay at her natural death as her resurrected Son was raised. She died a natural death like any other human being.
In 1950, Pope Pius XII dogmatically declared Mary’s assumption into heaven in the papal bull, Munificentissumus Deus. Pope Pius quotes St. John Damascene (8th century) "when he related the bodily assumption of the loving Mother of God to her other gifts and privileges: 'It was necessary that she who had preserved her virginity inviolable in childbirth should also have her body kept free from all corruption after death.'"
Ambrose Autpert (d. 784) writes that “Mary lifted herself up to such heights of heaven that the Word reached down from the highest pinnacle of heaven and took her in.”
The Dogma Depicted in Iconography
At the end of her life, Mary was supposed to have left Jerusalem with St. John, and they came to live at Ephesus. Today the House of Mary at Ephesus is a well-visited pilgrimage site.
Icons of the Dormition visually depict the theology of the feast. The Mother of God is depicted lying on a bier and is surrounded by the twelve disciples of the Lord. He stands at the center holding her soul swaddled in a cloth. In some icons, at either side of him are depicted Dionysius the Areopagate and Ignatius, the God-bearer who, according to tradition, are responsible for transmitting the account of the Dormition.
One of the earliest depictions of Mary’s Dormition is that of a tenth-century ivory plaque of located the Schnürgen Museum, Cologne. Another tenth-or eleventh-century ivory plaque with the same subject is located at the Musée at Cluny. A twelfth-century miniature in the York Psalter depicts the Burial and Assumption of the Virgin. And in the sixteenth century, El Greco painted an icon of the Dormition, which is located in the Cathedral of the Dormition at Ermoupolis.
Mary in the Christian East and the Latin West
In the Christian East, the Mother of God is known as the Theotokos, the one who bore or carried God (literally, the God-bearer). Rarely, if ever, is she depicted without the Divine Child. In the Latin West, the Mother of God is often shown alone and is more commonly known as the Blessed Virgin Mary or simply the Blessed Virgin. In the Christian East, the focus is on her divine motherhood, whereas in the Latin West, her virginity. In a classic paradox, Mary is the virgin-mother.
The Many Faces of Mary
The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. boasts of one beautiful Lady chapel after another where Mary is depicted according to the culture of different countries and nationalities. Each invites the visitor to contemplate the Mother of the Church, strong and exceedingly beautiful.
The Church’s teaching about Mary ranges from the biblical, theological, and liturgical, always vigilant about pious devotions and apparitions of Mary in various countries. These include the international devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes, national devotion such as that of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the regional and international devotion to Our Lady of Montserrat, located in the Abbey of Montserrat, a few miles west of Barcelona. In the Christian East, the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir ranks among the most beloved of all.
The Akathist Hymn to Mary opens with a theological statement of fact: “You were a Mother, and yet a Virgin; you went up to heaven, and yet did not forsake the world, O Mother of God. You have passed to life, being the Mother of Life. Through your intercession, save our souls from death.”
According to an early Syriac text, "with the Dormition, we see the exquisite meeting of heaven and earth. For Mary, it was a special end for a special woman, marked by fine fragrances that rose from her body and from heaven 'a fragrance and sweet odor went forth from the highest heaven of the Lord’s glory to all places of creation.'"