Sister Wendy Beckett looks at the late 16th century Russian icon – The Dormition of the Virgin.
For centuries the Church wavered between two images of Our Lady’s death. In one, her body was buried but her soul ascended, and in the other, she was assumed into heaven, soul and body. The matter was settled for us by Pope Pius XII, when he proclaimed that the Assumption was Church dogma, but the Eastern Orthodox Church, our brothers and sisters in the East, have always preferred to think of the Virgin as going to sleep, the Dormition, and only her soul being borne aloft by her divine Son.
This homage to her took form at an early age: we shall find it in all the great Orthodox churches, shining from the walls or the iconostasis, the screen of the most significant images that stands before the sanctuary. Every element is traditional. Her body lies horizontally at the lower edge, surrounded on each side by the grieving apostles. The non-believing Jephonias, who has dared to touch the bier, has his hands cut off by the Archangel Michael, (standing behind St Peter on the left), though he will be healed when he recognises the truth of the faith. Behind the apostles and the angels are the four bishops who have written about the Dormition, and behind them, the holy women and the churches of the world.
This is an unusually hospitable icon. Although their imagery stayed changeless for over 1,000 years, not all elements are always included. Here we even have the touching legend that the apostles were scattered on distant missions when Our Lady ‘fell asleep’, and angels wrapped each of them in a cloth and they were miraculously transported. But all this is only a setting for the central event. Jesus has come Himself in a living nimbus of angelic gold, to revive the soul of his holy mother. When He was born she cradled Him in her arms. Now she has been born into eternal life, it is He who cradles her. With one hand He blesses the holy body, and in the other He holds aloft the tiny white clad soul that He is soon to bear away to her homeland. Look up and we can see it: there Mary sits enthroned, for ever blessed and welcomed by the Trinity.
The apostles on earth see her in earthly form: the apostles transported by the angels see her in her heavenly form. The icon offers us the privilege of seeing both. It shows us the reality and unreality of death. Mary was a human being, as we are. Because she was so unique a being – what Father Faber calls “our tainted nature’s solitary boast” – we know what death was like for her, and so what it will be like for us. This is death: Jesus coming to take us, small and dearly loved, away from this life and its sorrows and into the unimaginable happiness of heaven. In Our Lady, we see played out, as it were, the common human fate.
The earthly apostles grieve, the heavenly apostles rejoice. Faith gives us the grace to do both. Of course death is a cause for mourning: the loss is absolute. But it is also a cause for joy. In the icon, joy rises like a great golden cloud, from the sad pagan at the foot to the blessed ones at the head. All here speaks of how deeply the Lord loves His human children, how safe we are in His hands, even in death. There is no fear here, only trust and faith. But we can choose: fall helpless with the scoffer, or rise, protected by angels, with the believer. “Come, ye blessed of my Father”, is what Jesus says to each of us.
This article first appeared in The Word (October 2008), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.