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The Assumption in Orthodox Tradition

by Claire Tierney

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Deep devotion to the Mother of God is a bright thread that runs through the long and ancient history of Eastern Christianity. Both the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches share a tradition in which the veneration of Mary is a most important aspect of liturgy and belief. Eastern Christians revere the Blessed Virgin as their own loving Mother, and see in her the sign that God has truly dwelt among His people.

Mary’s unique role in Christ’s work of redemption is understood and expressed by Orthodox Christians in richly symbolic terms. Jesus is The Image of God. Mary shows what it is to be created in the image and likeness of God. She is the creature who, more than any other, reveals the perfection of His works. In her life and in her divine motherhood she demonstrated the transforming power of God’s grace, which is available to all men in spite of the effects of sin. Mary herself was transformed and glorified as the Theotokos, the Godbearer, and her Son achieved the ultimate transformation when He redeemed man and broke the power of sin with His death and resurrection. Christ’s victory is for all men, and the most perfect witness of that victory is the one who bore Christ, followed Him to Calvary and now shares fully in His glory: His Mother. This truth finds profound expression in the feast of Mary’s Assumption, celebrated on the fifteenth of August.

The Assumption commemorates Mary’s bodily resurrection following her death. In the East and among Orthodox it is frequently referred to as the Dormition or “falling asleep” of Our Lady; the name is a reminder that Mary’s death was a gentle and holy passage from earthly life into the arms of her Son.

Orthodox Christians believe that Mary died not as a result of any personal sin or guilt, for she was personally sinless. Rather, she died because she was a mortal being whose nature was bound up with the corruption of a fallen and sinful world. Because she was truly human, Mary was subject to bodily death. But because she is the Mother of Life, the Theotokos who was never subject to the spiritual death of sin, she was raised up by her Son before the time of humanity’s general resurrection. This is, of course, a sign of Christ’s great love for His Mother. But it also signifies that Christ’s victory over sin and death is already accomplished for all mankind. The destiny of the Blessed Virgin is the destiny of all who do the will of God.

God’s promise of salvation, which is fulfilled and made manifest in the glorification of Mary, is offered to every human being.

When Orthodox Christians celebrate the feast of the Dormition, they also celebrate their own liberation, achieved by Mary’s Son, and their own hope of eventual union with God.

“What happens to Mary happens to all who imitate her holy life of humility, obedience and love. All will have Christ born in them by the Holy Spirit. All will become temples of the living God. All will share in the eternal life of His Kingdom who live the life that Mary lived.

“In this sense everything that is praised and glorified in Mary is a sign of what is offered to all persons in the life of the Church. It is for this reason that Mary, with the divine child Jesus within her, is called in the Orthodox Tradition the Image of the Church. For the assembly of the saved is those in whom Christ dwells.”

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