The traditional Eastern Orthodox Churches, in particular the Church of Jerusalem, celebrate the “Dormition of our Most Holy Lady the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary” on the 28th of August that corresponds, in the Gregorian calendar to August 15th. The Roman Church calls this feast the “Assumption of Mary”.
There are different traditions with regard to the passing away of the Theotokos. She certainly died in Jerusalem, but there is much discretion about the exact place. This corresponds to the rather “backlaid” if not hidden presence of Mary, the Mother of Jesus throughout his ministry.
She is present at the wedding in Cana and introduces the “forthcoming hour” of Jesus. The Gospel reports that she was at the Golgotha when Jesus died on the Cross. The Master asked John to take her to his home and to welcome her as his own mother. In between, she apparently kept “silent”. There is more than some pre-supposed Jewish female modesty.
The Oriental Churches show the importance of Mary. She is never alone. Joseph, Jesus’ father, spent a life of total humbleness and most rarely appears in the Gospel. It does not mean that he was not important. Silence, humbleness and backlaidness are usually more significant iin the Jewish way of living by the time of Jesus.
“Panagia-panayia/panaghia/Παναγία = All Holy” is the adjective and name given to Mary in the Oriental Church. It is also the name of the engolpion/medallion only worn by the bishops. It shows the icon of the Virgin. This is a meaningful way to insist on the role of Mary: she is the Image/Icon of the Church.
Mary certainly died in Jerusalem, i.e. close to Mount Zion which is, because of the Upper Room, the location of the nascent Church. The Holy Fathers attested that the feast of the Dormition has been celebrated very early in Jerusalem. Pilgrims used to visit Mary’s Tomb at Gethsemane; the other place of repose being on Mount Zion. There is definitely no evidence that the Mother of God passed away in Ephesus (cf. Catherine Emmerich’s visions) or even in Constantinople.
We can be fascinated by the birth and origins of the Theotokos. It is much more intriguing to look into her passing away. All the titles given to Mary in the Christian traditions are based upon the creed of the Church, i.e. the resurrection of Jesus three days after he had been put on the stake. Mary and subsequently the Church are only alive, living and life-giving because the faithful are united in the original creed. God gave His only-begotten son through Mary.
Jesus took flesh from the Most Holy and Ever-Virgin Mary and he was both a human and Godly. Thus, the Dormition of Mary is a “Summer Pascha/Easter time”. The Church celebrates her “falling asleep” as a major feast for the whole of the One Church. Her passing away is parallel to Jesus’ resurrection as human and divine. The Church Fathers state that she was buried at Gethsemane, down the Mount of Olives that is the eschatological mountain for the Jewish tradition. But they also wrote that her body had remained uncorrupt. They also report that,after three days, the Virgin’s body was taken to heaven. This was stated inter alia by the priest Timothy of Jerusalem in the 4-5th century: Jesus’ Mother had to go through death in this world in order to enter Ever-lasting Life, following the resurrection of her son, true man and true God as said in a wonder liturgical sequence of the Assyrian Church (Gregory of Narsai).
This corresponds to the Jewish faith and tradition. Human beings do not die. They fall asleep. The Greek word is “koimesis/κοίμησις – falling asleep” and the root also exists in the Latin and English languages: “κοιμητήριον/coemeterium = cemetery” is the place where the departed “sleep”, in the expectation of the final resurrection. Russian “Uspenie/Успение” underscores this state of “sleepingспать” and the Russian Orthodox Church as all the Slavic, Georgian and Romanian traditions show a lot of respect towards this crucial Church summer feast. German “Friedhof”, Danish “kierkegaard” insist on a place of “peace or “the area of the Church”, which is somehow linked to the meaning of Gethsemane’s orchard. Hebrew: “beyt ‘alminבית עלמין – ” is connected with “olam habaעולם הבא – the world to come”. It also refers to a new kind of birthing.
“The Assumption of Mary, Mother of God” was defined by Pope Pius XII as a full dogma of the Roman Catholic Church in 1950, without the consent of the Oriental and the Eastern Orthodox Byzantine and ancient Churches. It alludes to the death of the Ever-Virgin Mary and Theotokos as being taken to heaven. It does not really refer with precision to her resurrection.
It should be noted that this “summer Pascha” of the Mother of Jesus is celebrated in the season of the year when the Ancient Semitic Assyrian and Syrian Orthodox Churches commemorate Prophet Elijah who will come to herald the coming of the Messiah (Judaism) and, for the Christian Churches, the Second Coming of Jesus in glory (compare Sukkot 52a-b). This is the “Qeytzaקצה – קיץharvesting time”.
This means that the Church is “bodily” called to witness to the resurrection and preservation of God Who chose Mary to bear Jesus as human and divine Messiah. This is at the heart of the Christian creed and faith.
Now, in the Jewish tradition, the departed have fallen asleep. Enoch and Elijah did not die but were lifted to heaven. Nothing is said about Melkisedek and we don’t know where Moses was really buried. On the other hand, the Jews venerate the patriarchs buried at the cave of Machpelah, Rachel’s tomb, Joseph’s tomb and many other holy graves. It is a custom to pray while facing the mount of Olives.
In Hebrew, it is possible to choose different clues for the words “dormition/assumption”. The Latin Church would refer to “חג ההעלאה/hag ha’ala’ah – from “aliyah – to ascent (to heaven)”. Today, people would speak of “aliyat Myriam leshmeymah – עליית מרים לשמימה”. This aspect is not the one confessed by the Oriental traditions that insist on the “falling asleep/sleep-in” of Mary.
In Hebrew, “hirdim/הרדים” means “to put/send/ get to sleep”. The root is “radam/רדם = to fall fast asleep”. Thus, “If they have been fast asleep, at the end of the Passover/Pesach meal they dare not eat again” (Pessahim 10,8 (120b)). This quotation shows some similarities with Jesus’ words. At the end of the Pesach meal, Jesus declared that he will not drink of the fruit of the vine till he will be in the Kingdom”. The word means a “falling or get into sleeping”. This means that Jesus, Mary and every human being have to fall asleep against their consent. This solely depends on God’s will.
It is also written: “Jonah, in the anguish of his soul, was overcome and fell asleep and slept/נרדם וישן” (Tanhumah VaYikra 8). Adam, Abraham, Elijah, Jonah fell asleep and woke up receiving special blessings. Adam got Eve, Abraham envisioned the long history of his many descendants. Jonah “rose” back to the living from the belly of the big fish.
The dormition of the Theotokos closes down the process of death and opens up the cycle of resurrection. In Hebrew, the Benedictine Church of the Dormition on Mount Zion is called “Dormitziyon – דורמיציון” . It suggests a rather exact definition as the “falling asleep” proposed by the Latin root “dormire”.
This means also something else: “dormition, falling asleep” implies that the resurrection of the Panaghia is invisibly perceived by the believers as a “sleep”. The Christian faithful confess the resurrection of Jesus; they cannot see Him in this world in the shape of the Resurrected. This is comparable and does cope with the expectance of everlasting life expressed in the Jewish prayers. The Amidahעמידה or the daily prayers of the 18 benedictions proclaims this blessing constantly and throughout the day: “Mechayeh metimמחי מתים = He Who reinvigorates, revives the dead”.
The prayer continues: “You are mighty forever, my Lord; You resurrect the dead – You are powerful to save = אתה גיבור לעולם אדוני מחיה מתים אתה, רב להושיע: This is the second blessing that continues as follows: He(God) sustains the living with lovingkindness, resurrects the dead (traditional translation)… and fulfills His trust to those *Who sleep in the dustומקים אמונתו לישני עפר* (cf. the cave of the patriarchs at Machpelah, Hebron dust). Who is like You, mighty One! and who can be compared to You, King Who brings death and restores life, and causes delivrance (salvation) to spring forth = ממית ומחיה ומצמיח ישועה “.
Then, what do we do when we sleep, are falling asleep? Hebrew for “sleep” is “yashanישן” = to recover strength (cmp. ashanאשן and chalamחלם = to dream”. The root also refers to “growing old, keeping and improving with age”.
Resurrection is not a project put in ice! or on hold! It is a move from sleep to new portions of eternity.
I love to say “sheinah tovahשנה טובה = have a good sleep” instead of the usual “laylah tov = good night”.
שנהsheinah also comes from the root “yashan = to sleep”. It is said: “Three things must be prayed for: a good king (leader), a good year and a good dream” (Berachot 55a). The words ‘year’-‘sleep’ have the same original root in Hebrew. It rolls forwards, scrolls life up till the end of times and eternity. The feast of the Dormition introduces into new times. We will go ahead, towards a new portion of our life. In Aramaic, the feast is referred as the “shuna/o = ܫܘܢܐ” that means that the Lady “fell asleep into death”.
The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates on September 1st [14, old style] the beginning of the Ecclesiastical/liturgical New Year. It shows how pregnant the Semitic roots are in the Church traditions, sometimes with little awareness of such parallels. This happens to be tomorrow in the West and 14 days later for the Church of Jerusalem and many other Christian Orthodox old style communities.
New Year Rosh HaShanah ראש השנה 5769 will start in 40 days. Tonight, the Jewish community welcomes the new month of Elulאלול. Tonight and throughout the month, the shofar will be blown at every morning prayer. It is a month of penance and meditation in order to meet the new year with more insights, a pure heart and love. The Jewish communities are called to wake up and get aware that, God willing, dreams come true and sleep refreshes till into the world to come.
We are still in the time of the Dormition of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, Emmanuel. The Jewish community enters the new month of Elul. This year, the Muslims have the Ramadan.
“ווער האט געזאגט אז מיר זאלן שטערבן? – Who said we would die?” as people say in Yiddish.
God teaches how to live.