Being a Byzantine, or Eastern Rite Catholic, specifically a Melkite Greek Catholic, carries some interesting things with it. One of them is the celebration of the various feasts within our faith. Most Protestants do not celebrate today’s Feast; most are not even aware of it. There are many reasons for that, mostly because the theology surrounding the Mother of God (in Greek – Theotokos) is so very misunderstood.
Today’s Feast is the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, or the “falling asleep” of the Mother of God, Mary, for those in the east. In the west, the celebration is called the “Assumption of Mary.” There is a a slight difference in the emphasis, but not the event. In the west, the focus is on Mary’s body, after death, being assumed wholly into Heaven. Mary, being this perfect vessel, perfect Woman for Our Lord, was assumed totally and without corruption of Her Body into Heaven at the end of Her days on earth. We believe that God created His own Mother to be perfect. A cute explanation of this was told to me once: If your little son brings to you the flowering weed he yanked from the yard, don’t you offer him your most beautiful vase in order to display his gift to you? How his face glows with the honor you have given to his gift to you? How much more would God choose a perfect vase for the most perfect Rose, the Mother of God?! The most incorrupt womb in which to house the “Seed of Perfection” itself; Christ Our Lord?
In the east, the focus is on her “dormition,” or “falling asleep.” The difference is explained in the Icon above. We see Our Lord holding a baby, wrapped in white linens. That infant is the soul of Mary, in all its perfection. The white linens are the purity of her soul, shining forth in radiance. The many stories handed down through the Apostles of this event are incredible to read. Most Protestants do not count this event as an historical fact and rarely speak of Mary, except at Christmas and perhaps some small mention at the Crucifixion of Our Lord. But in the many apocryphal writings that survived through the ages, the stories of her Dormition are amazing. Some relate how the angels were surrounding her home singing hymns of praise; how St. Michael the Archangel accompanied Christ Himself into her home, and stood with the Apostles around her bed. She then offered herself, again, to the service and glory of Her Son and He welcomed her Immaculate Soul to His Sacred Heart. It is a beautiful, beautiful story and is an example for us all to aspire to. At our last breath, we, too, should offer ourselves once again to Our Lord and await His presence in the Heavenly realms and prepare to attend His Banquet. I have often stated that I am praying for nosebleed seats in Heaven; I do not require front row or even mezzanine. I just want to be at the banquet. I will even clear tables and take out the trash, so long as I am there!
And it is about this Icon that I wish to speak today. The only apostle you will find missing in the Icon is St. Thomas. Often he is referred to as “Doubting Thomas.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25) The story about the Dormition tells us that all the Apostles were brought supernaturally (on clouds, in some versions) to Mary’s bedside, except Thomas, who was “busy.” He arrived late, after Christ had taken Mary’s soul with Him, and after her tomb was sealed. He asked if he could gaze upon her and offer her worship and prayers. So her tomb was opened for him, but when he looked inside, flowers and a beautiful fragrance were all that was there; she had been assumed into Heaven already. He had missed out, again, on a big event in the Gospel stories. And although St. Thomas missed out on the Resurrection, he was the first to proclaim, “My Lord and my God.” (John 20:28).
As a family, we are clock-watchers. We are NEVER late. We may be early, but we are never late. On the occasion of our first Hafla (which is Arabic for “party” and was a dinner/dance at our parish) we arrived at the 7:00pm starting time. Only the “Americans” were there, sitting at the only table filled with people and completely decorated. Everyone else was running around setting things up and still cooking. Very few of the parish were even there. We were told, “Well, everyone knows that 7 o-clock really means 9 o’clock!!” We all laughed about it at the time. But it also was a lesson for us in cultural norms and expectations. Much like Thomas, many people arrive to things on their own timetable, irrespective of the schedule of others or starting times, etc. There is a young man who works with my son who is late almost every day. He was told the next time he is late to not bother getting out of his truck, to gather his tools, and just go home.
In Scripture, there is a story about the workers in the vineyard. The vineyard owner offers wages (two denarius – a form of money) for the workers who showed up bright and early, and also offers the same amount to the workers who show up late. When the earlier workers complain, the owner explains that they were paid according to their contract and the later workers were paid according to their contract. A fair deal was made in both situations and the earlier workers should not complain, but be happy with their day of working and the wages they earned. The story is allegorical for our “coming to the faith.” (Matthew 20:1-16) Our Lord welcomes us equally, whether we begin to follow Him early in life, or come to know Him later in our lives.
And I cannot help but think of St. Thomas. He later went on to establish the Church in India and the Catholics there are known as “Thomas Christians” and are eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Catholics. He traveled the world, spreading the Good News of Christ, even though he was late and missed out on two important events in the Gospel story – the Resurrection of Our Lord, and the Dormition of the Theotokos. He was filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and loved Our Lord and Our Lady so very, very much. I am pretty sure he wasn’t late for many other important events! Ha-Ha!
Why do we attend Church today, or for that matter, on any Holy Day or Feast Day, or even on Sundays? I read a wonderful article about how we are people of a communal faith. We do not become followers of Christ in a vacuum, but rather, corporately, as part of a community. Celebrating these feast days, these Holy Days, these Sundays, with fellow believers allows us to pray with the Angels and the Saints (the Church Triumphant) as the Church Militant. Our chorus is added to the “thousands of archangels and myriad of angels, cherubim, seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring on their pinons; singing, proclaiming, shouting the hymn of victory and saying, “Holy, holy, holy Lord of Sabbaoth, Heaven and Earth are filled with Your glory. Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord: hosanna in the highest!” (Divine Liturgy of St, John Chrysostom). And sharing in this glorious praise of God is something I do not want to miss, nor do I want to be late for!!
A story was told about a teen who did not want to attend Church and her mother, a devout Catholic, was saddened at her teen’s lament, “Why do I have to go to Church? I can pray wherever I want to, whenever I want to; God is everywhere.” She had no cognitive response to her teenager. For me, it is about celebrating with my community of believers, these amazing Feasts and Holy Days, and even each week on Sunday. We share the Divine Mystery of Holy Communion together. We share corporate prayer and worship together. It is uplifting and so powerful. We know that Scripture tells us, “Wherever two or more are gathered in My name, I am in their midst.” (Matthew 18:20). So for me, I will not be late. I will not miss out on some amazing experiences being shared around a common faith, with a community who believes as I do. There have been too many sublime moments in my life when I have known the presence of God, my Savior, while in the midst of my community. And today is no exception. Today I will celebrate the gentle falling asleep of the Mother of God. The moment where she once again offers herself to Her Son, and He takes her Soul in His Arms, wrapped in white linen, as she once bore her Son in white linen…to His manger and to His Tomb.