Meditation for the Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The Feast of the Falling Asleep of the Virgin Mary falls just before the feast of her Nativity on September 8, enclosing the liturgical year in her birth and death. Thus our journey through the calendar reminds us that the story of Mary’s life is the story of our own life in the church: our own salvation and glorification.

The Roman tradition calls this feast the Assumption of Mary, maintaining that Mary did not experience natural death but was assumed bodily into heaven. The eastern tradition names it Mary’s “falling-asleep,” “Dormition” in Latin, maintaining instead that Mary did undergo a natural death but that after three days her body was resurrected and taken up to heaven. The current calendar in our Prayer Book likewise calls the feast the “falling-asleep.” Cyril of Jerusalem in his discourse on the Theotokos [1] emphasizes the importance of Mary’s repose: she was not a disembodied “force” but a mortal woman made immortal by grace. Affirming Mary’s natural death affirms her entirely human nature, which in turn affirms the full reality of the human nature in the person of Christ.

Early accounts of this event emphasize its mystical, paschal, and eschatological character: it follows Christ’s own ascension in the salvation narrative and celebrates humanity’s entering into Christ’s glory. [2]  As Christ did and as we hope to do, Mary passed through death and rose to eternal life in paradise. Saint John of Damascus calls the death of the Theotokos, "the Deathless Death," because it brought about her resurrection. St John uses the language of Christ’s own Passover in his homily on the Dormition: "O how does the source of life pass through death to life? She dies according to the flesh, destroys death by death, and through corruption gains incorruption, and makes her death the source of resurrection." [3]

Not only is Mary’s human nature, as Bernard of Clairvaux says, the “aqueduct” of our humanity in the Incarnation, [4] but her death and glorification is the first realization of glorified human flesh after Christ’s, of deification. As a human woman who carried God in her body, her body in turn was deified. Significantly we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration just before the Dormition: Christ’s anticipatory revelation of glorified human flesh. John Donne in his poem "The Virgin Mary" calls her “that fair blessed mother-maid, whose flesh redeemed us.” In honouring the glorification of her body, we affirm our hope in the promise of the resurrection of our own bodies.

We may or may not accept the resurrection and glorification of the Theotokos as having already taken place, but perhaps the literal chronology does not matter so much, since the eschatological character of the event points us both forward and backward in time. Since the ante-Nicene fathers, Mary has been understood as the reversal and recapitulation of Eve. St. Irenaeus says: “[...]  as by a virgin the human race had been bound to death, by a virgin it is saved, the balance being preserved, a virgin’s disobedience by a virgin’s obedience.” [5] “And so the knot of Eve’s disobedience received its unloosing through the obedience of Mary, for what Eve, a virgin, bound by incredulity, that Mary, a virgin, unloosed by faith.” [6] Later St Augustine says, “It is a great sacrament that, whereas through woman death became our portion, so life was born to us by woman.” [7] St Jerome likewise asserts, “Death by Eve, life by Mary.” [8] So we, the wounded children of Eve, see in Mary’s translation to paradise the promise of healing, consolation, and restoration to our own lost home in eternity. [9]

This feast comes to us here in the middle of Trinity season, the season in which we recite the words that God is love, and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God in him. The love of God has been shed abroad into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, and this love has a life that produces fruit. Virginity for Gregory of Nyssa [10] and others in the patristic tradition has an important characteristic of spiritual birth-giving. It is not a physical condition so much as a unified state of the heart, which is necessary for spiritual illumination and mystical union with God. This union, like Plato’s erotic union with The Beautiful, results in a spiritual fecundity: the virginal spirit gives birth to spiritual progeny, the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In these fruits we see the Trinitarian activity of self-giving, the kinotic outpouring of self.

So this feast invites us to act out the life of the Theotokos, to live the Magnificat, giving birth to Christ: assured by Mary`s glorification that God does indeed exalt those of low degree and fill the hungry with good things.

Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breath describes Mary’s virginal birth-giving and glorification as one that is reproduced in each of us:

Of her flesh he took flesh://
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now//
And makes, O marvellous!
New Nazareths in us,//
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;//
New Bethlems, // and he born
There, // evening, noon, and morn—
Bethlem or Nazareth, //
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;//
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each one // and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.



[1] “Twentieth Discourse on Mary the Theotokos.”
[2] Cf. hymnography from St Andrew of Crete and St John of Damascus and accounts from St Dionysius the Areopagite, St Melito of Sardis, St Germanus of Constantinople.
[3]  “Homily on the Dormition of the Holy Mother of God,” 1.10, “Homily on the Holy and Glorious Dormition and Transformation of Our Lady Mary, Mother of God and Ever-Virgin,” 2.14.
[4] “Sermon for the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
[5]  Adversus Haereses, 5.19.1
[6]  Ibid, 3.22.34
[7]  De Agone Christ. 24.
[8]  Epist. 22.
[9]  Cf. St. Theodore the Studite, Encomium on the Dormition of Our Holy Lady, the Mother of God 2.
[10] Cf. esp. Treatise on Virginity.