Not many people may realize this, but today’s celebration of the Dormition of the Virgin is the third greatest celebration in Greece (and the Greek Orthodox tradition), after Easter and Christmas. Although nominally a religious holiday, it is celebrated in the same manner as Easter, with family gatherings, public festivals, and loads of lamb eating. Many go to the beach for a quick swim first, as August is usually the hottest month. Since no one works, it’s perfect for relaxing, and most people will be on vacation this week.
It seems unlikely that people will celebrate so much the death of one of Christianity’s most revered figures. According to Eastern Orthodox and Catholic tradition, however, even though the Virgin Mary died a natural death (called the Dormition of the Theotokos, the falling asleep), like any human being, her soul was received by Christ upon death and her body was resurrected on the third day after her repose. At that time, she was taken up, soul and body, into heaven in anticipation of the general resurrection. Her tomb, according to this teaching, was found empty on the third day.
As John Damascene (c. 650─c. 750), one of the greatest Orthodox theologians, explained:
It was necessary that the body of the one who preserved her virginity intact in giving birth should also be kept incorrupt after death.
Traditions Surrounding the Dormition of the Virgin
Most of the traditions surrounding Virgin Mary’s death come from the Gospel of James, an apocryphal (ie not recognized by the Church as theological, but largely accepted for its presentation of early Christian beliefs) Gospel probably written about AD 145. Also known as the Infancy Gospel of James, it presents a narrative concerning the birth, upbringing, and death of Mary herself. Another influential source is the Account of St. John the Theologian of the Dormition of the Mother of God, a Greek text that some date to the 5th century.
According to these traditions, upon the Virgin Mary’s Dormition, clouds of light assembled the twelve Apostles were miraculously from their far-flung missionary activity to be present at the death. This is the scene normally depicted, with the apostles gathered round the bed. There was one exception, that of St. Thomas, who was late and met with her as she was ascending to Heaven. In order to help him prove their meeting, she handed him her cincture (belt). When he met up with the rest of the Apostles, they all hurried to her tomb, only to find it empty.
The tomb of Virgin Mary is located in the Kidron Valley – at the foot of Mount of Olives, in Jerusalem. As for the cincture, it was sent in 452 to Constantinople (modern Istanbul), where it was kept in the Church of Our Lady of Blachernae.
You may have noticed at the bottom of the icon the strange image of an angel and a man whose hands are severed from his arms. This concerns the blasphemous act of an unbeliever called Iephonias who rushed into the room and tried to push Virgin Mary’s dying body to the ground, whereupon an angel promptly cut off his hands. Iephonias then begged for forgiveness and his hands were just as miraculously reattached.
There are generally two versions of the Dormition icon. The first shows the Apostles arriving on clouds as well as the scene of the angel cutting off the hands of Athonias. The second simplifies the type by omitting those elements.