The “Falling-Asleep” or “Repose” (“Dormition”, “Uspenie”, “Koimesis”) of our MostHoly Lady Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary: After the Ascension of the Lord, the Mother of God remained in the care of the Apostle John the Theologian, and during his journeyings She lived at the home of his parents, near Mount Eleon (the Mount of Olives, or Mount Olivet). She was a source of consolation and edification for both the Apostles and for all the believers. Conversing with them, She told them about miraculous happenings: the Annuniciation (Blagoveschenie), the Conception (Zachatie) without seed and without defilement of Christ born of Her, about His early childhood, and about all His earthly life. And just like the Apostles, She helped plant and strengthen the Christian Church by Her presence, Her discourse and Her prayers. The reverence of the Apostles for the MostHoly Virgin was extraordinary. After the receiving of the Holy Spirit on the remarkable day of Pentecost, the Apostles remained basically at Jerusalem for about 10 years attending to the salvation of the Jews, and wanting moreover to see the Mother of God and hear Her holy discourse. Many of the newly-enlightened in the faith even came from faraway lands to Jerusalem, to see and to hear the All-Pure Mother of God.
During the time of the persecution, initiated by king Herod against the young Church of Christ (Acts 12: 1-3), the MostHoly Virgin together with the Apostle John the Theologian withdrew in the year 43 to Ephesus. The preaching of the Gospel there had fallen by lot to the Apostle John the Theologian. The Mother of God was likewise on Cyprus with Saint Lazarus the Four-Days-Entombed, where he was bishop. She was also on Holy Mount Athos, about which, as says Saint Stephen Svyatogorets (i.e. Saint Stephen of the “Holy Mount”), the Mother of God prophetically spoke: “This place shalt be allotted Me, given unto Me by My Son and My God. I wilt be the Patroness for this place and Intercessor to God for it”.
The respect of ancient Christians for the Mother of God was so great, that they preserved what they could about Her life, what they could take note of concerning Her sayings and deeds, and they even passed down to us the regards of Her outward appearance.
According to tradition, based on the words of the PriestMartyrs Dionysios the Areopagite (+ 3 October 96), Ignatios the God-Bearer (+ 20 December 107), – Sainted Ambrose of Mediolanum-Milan (Comm. 7 December) had occasion to write in his work “On Virgins” concerning the Mother of God: “She was the Virgin not only of body, but also of soul, humble of heart, circumspect in word, wise in mind, not overly given to speaking, a lover of reading and of work, and prudent in speech. Her rule of life was – offend no one, intend well for everyone, respect the aged, be not envious of others, avoid bragging, be healthy of mind, and love virtue. When did She ever in the least hurl an insult in the face of Her parents, when was She at discord with Her kin? When did She ever puff up haughtily before a modest person, or laugh at the weak, or shun the destitute? With Her there was nothing of glaring eyes, nothing of unseemly words, nor of improper conduct: She was modest of body-movement, Her step was quiet, and Her voice straightforward; – such that Her bodily visage was an expression of soul, and personification of purity. All Her days She was concerned with fasting: She slept only when necessary, and even then, when Her body was at rest, She was still alert in spirit, repeating in Her dreams what She had read, or the pondered implementation of proposed intentions, or those planned yet anew. She was out of Her house only for church, and then only in the company of kin. Otherwise, She but little appeared outside Her house in the company of others, and She was Her own best overseer; others could protect Her only in body, but She Herself guarded Her character”. [trans. note: In context, we must realise that Saint Ambrose wrote this discourse in exhortation to young women to conduct themselves maturely and with concern for the reputation of their good-name, an exhortation equally incumbent upon young men].
According to tradition, that from the compiler of Church history Nicephoros Kallistos (XIV Century), the Mother of God “was of average stature, or as others suggest, slightly more than average; Her hair golden in appearance; Her eyes bright with pupils like shiny olives; Her eyebrows strong in character and moderately dark, Her nose pronounced and Her mouth vibrant bespeaking sweet speech; Her face was neither round nor angular, but somewhat oblong; the palm of Her Hands and fingers were longish… In conversation with others She preserved decorum, neither becoming silly nor agitated, and indeed especially never angry; without artifice, and direct, She was not overly concerned about Herself, and far from any pampering of Herself, She was distinctly full of humility. Regarding the clothing which She wore, She was satisfied to have natural colours, which even now is evidenced by Her holy head-covering. Suffice it to say, an especial grace attended all Her actions”. (Nicephoros Kallistos borrowed his description from Sainted Epiphanios of Cyprus, + 12 May 403, from the “Letter to Theophilos concerning icons”.
The circumstances of the Falling-Asleep or Dormition of the Mother of God were known in the Orthodox Church from times apostolic. Already in the I Century, the PriestMartyr Dionysios the Areopagite wrote about Her “Falling-Asleep”. In the II Century, the account about the bodily Assumption of the MostHoly Virgin Mary to Heaven is found in the works of Meliton, Bishop of Sardis. In the IV Century, Saint Epiphanios of Cyprus refers to the tradition about the “Falling-Asleep” of the Mother of God. In the V Century Sainted Juvenal, Patriarch of Jerusalem, told the holy Byzantine empress Pulcheria: “Although in Holy Scripture there be no account about the circumstances of Her end, we know about them otherwise from the most ancient and credible tradition”. This tradition in detail was gathered and expounded in the Church history of Nicephoros Kallistos during the XIV Century.
At the time of Her blessed “Falling-Asleep”, the MostHoly Virgin Mary was again at Jerusalem. Her fame as the Mother of God had already spread throughout the land and had aroused against Her many of the envious and the spiteful, who wanted to make attempts on Her life; but God preserved Her from enemies.
Day and night She spent at prayer. The MostHoly Mother of God went often to the Holy Sepulchre of the Lord, and here She offered up incense and the bending of knees. More than once enemies of the Saviour sought to hinder Her from visiting her holy place, and they besought of the high-priest a guard to watch over the Grave of the Lord. But the Holy Virgin Mary, unseen by anyone, continued to pray in front of them. In one suchlike visit to Golgotha, the Archangel Gabriel appeared before Her and announced Her approaching transfer from this life into the Heavenly life of eternal beatitude. In pledge of this, the Archangel entrusted Her a palm branch. With these Heavenly tidings the Mother of God returned to Bethlehem with the three girls attending Her (Sepphora, Evigea and Zoila). She thereupon summoned Righteous Joseph of Aramathea and other disciples of the Lord, and told them of Her impending Repose (Uspenie). The MostHoly Virgin prayed also, that the Lord would have the Apostle John come to Her. And the Holy Spirit transported him from Ephesus, setting him alongside that very place, where lay the Mother of God. After the prayer, the MostHoly Virgin offered up incense, and John heard a voice from Heaven, closing Her prayer with the word “Amen”. The Mother of God took notice, that this voice meant the speedy arrival of the Apostles and the Disciples and the holy Bodiless Powers. The Disciples, whose number then it was impossible to count, flocked together, – says Saint John Damascene, – like clouds and eagles, to hearken to the Mother of God. Seeing one another, the Disciples rejoiced, but in their confusion they asked each other, why had the Lord gathered them together in one place? Saint John the Theologian, greeting them with tears of joy, said that for the Mother of God had begun the time of repose unto the Lord. Going in to the Mother of God, they beheld Her augustly lying upon the cot, and filled with spiritual happiness. The Disciples gave greeting to Her, and then they told about their being miraculously transported from their places of preaching. The MostHoly Virgin Mary glorified God, in that He had hearkened to Her prayer and fulfilled Her heart’s desire, and She began speaking about Her immanent end. During the time of this conversation the Apostle Paul likewise appeared in miraculous manner together with his disciples: Dionysios the Areopagite, wondrous Hierotheos, and Timothy and others from amongst the Seventy Disciples. The Holy Spirit had gathered them all together, so that they might be vouchsafed the blessing of the All-Pure Virgin Mary, and all the more fittingly to see to the burial of the Mother of the Lord. Each of them She called to Herself by name, She blessed them and extolled them in their faith and hardships in the preaching of the Gospel of Christ, and to each She wished eternal bliss and prayed with them for the peace and welfare of all the world.
There ensued the third hour, when the Uspenie-Repose of the Mother of God was to occur. A multitude of candles blazed. The holy Disciples with song encircled the felicitously adorned sick-bed, upon which lay the All-Pure Virgin Mother of God. She prayed in anticipation of Her demise and of the arrival of Her longed-for Son and Lord. Suddenly the inexpressible Light of Divine Glory shone forth, before which the blazing candles paled in comparison. All that saw took fright. Sitting atop as though immersed in the rays of the indescribable Light, was Christ the King of Glory Himself come down, surrounded by hosts of Angels and Archangels and other Heavenly Powers, together with the souls of the fore-fathers and the prophets, formerly having foretold of the MostHoly Virgin Mary. Seeing Her Son, the Mother of God exclaimed: “My soul doth magnify My Lord, and My spirit rejoiceth in God My Saviour, for He hath regarded the lowliness of His Handmaiden” – and, getting up from Her bed to meet the Lord, She bowed down to Him. And the Lord bid Her come enter the habitations of Life Eternal. Without any bodily suffering, as though in an happy sleep, the MostHoly Virgin Mary gave up Her soul into the hands of Her Son and God.
Then began joyous Angelic song. Accompanying the pure soul of the God-betrothed and with reverent awe for the Queen of Heaven, the Angels exclaimed: “Hail Thou, Full-of-Grace, the Lord is with Thee, blessed art Thou amongst women! For lo, it be the Queen, God’s Maiden doth come, take up the gates, and with the Ever-Existent take ye up the Mother of Light; for of Her is salvation come to all the human race. Upon Her tis impossible to gaze and to Her tis impossible to render due honour” (Stikherion verse on “Lord, I have cried”). The Heavenly gates were raised, and meeting the soul of the MostHoly Mother of God, the Cherubim and the Seraphim with joy glorified Her. The graced face of the Mother of God was radiant with the glory of Divine virginity, and of Her body there exuded fragrance.
Miraculous was the life of the All-Pure Virgin, and wondrous was Her Repose, as Holy Church doth sing: “In Thee, O Queen, the God of all hath wrought a miracle, that transcendeth the laws of nature. Just as in the Birth-Giving He did preserve Thine virginity, so also in the grave He did preserve Thy body from decay” (Kanon 1, Ode 6, Tropar 1). Giving kiss to the all-pure body with reverence and in awe, the Disciples in turn were blessed by it and filled with grace and spiritual joy. Through the great glorification of the MostHoly Mother of God, the almighty power of God healed the sick, who with faith and love gave touch to the holy cot. Bewailing their separation on earth from the Mother of God, the Apostles set about the burying of Her all-pure body. The holy Apostles Peter, Paul, James and others of the 12 Apostles carried the funeral bier upon their shoulders, and upon it lay the body of the ever-Virgin Mary. Saint John the Theologian went at the head with the resplendent palm-branch from Paradise, and the other saints and a multitude of the faithful accompanied the funeral bier with candles and censers, singing sacred song. This solemn procession went from the Sion-quarter through all Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane.
With the start of the procession there suddenly appeared over the all-pure body of the Mother of God and all those accompanying Her a vast and resplendent circular cloud, like a crown, and to the choir of the Apostles was conjoined the choir of the Angels. There was heard the singing of the Heavenly Powers, glorifying the Mother of God, which echoed that of the worldly voices. This circle of Heavenly singers and radiance moved through the air and accompanied the procession to the very place of burial. Unbelieving inhabitants of Jerusalem, taken aback by the extraordinarily grand funeral procession and vexed at the honours accorded the Mother of Jesus, denounced this to the high-priests and scribes. Burning with envy and vengefulness towards everything that reminded them of Christ, they sent out their own servants to disrupt the procession and to set afire the body of the Mother of God. An angry crowd and soldiers set off against the Christians, but the aethereal crown, accompanying the procession in the air, lowered itself to the ground and like a wall fenced it off. The pursuers heard the footsteps and the singing, but could not see any of those accompanying the procession. And indeed many of them were struck blind. The Jewish priest Aphthoniah out of spite and hatred for the Mother of Jesus of Nazareth wanted to topple the funeral bier, on which lay the body of the MostHoly Virgin Mary, but an Angel of God invisibly cut off his hands, which had touched the bier. Seeing such a wonder, Aphthoniah repented and with faith confessed the majesty of the Mother of God. He received healing and joined in with the crowd accompanying the body of the Mother of God, and he became a zealous follower of Christ. When the procession reached the Garden of Gethsemane, then amidst the weeping and the wailing began the last kiss to the all-pure body. Only towards evening time were the Apostles able to place it in the tomb and seal the entrance to the cave with a large stone. For three days they did not depart the place of burial, during this time making unceasing prayer and psalmody. Through the wise providence of God, the Apostle Thomas had been destined not to be present at the burial of the Mother of God. Arriving late on the third day at Gethsemane, he lay down at the sepulchral cave and with bitter tears bespeaking loudly his desire, that he might be vouchsafed a final blessing of the Mother of God and have final farewell with Her. The Apostles out of heartfelt pity for him decided to open the grave and permit him the comfort of venerating the holy remains of the Ever-Virgin Mary. But having opened the grave, they found in it only the grave wrappings and were thus convinced of the bodily ascent or assumption of the MostHoly Virgin Mary to Heaven.
On the evening of the same day, when the Apostles had gathered at an house to strengthen themselves with food, the Mother of God Herself appeared to them and said: “Rejoice! I am with ye – throughout all the length of days”. This so gladdened the Apostles and everyone with them, that they took a portion of the bread, set aside at the meal in memory of the Saviour (“the Portion of the Lord”), and they exclaimed also: “MostHoly Mother of God, help us”. (This marks the beginning of the rite of offering up a “Panagia” (“All-Blessed”) – the custom of offering up at meals a portion of bread in honour of the Mother of God, which even at present is done at monasteries).
The sash of the Mother of God, and Her holy garb, – preserved with reverence and distributed over the face of the earth in pieces – both in past and in present has worked miracles. Her numerous icons everywhere issue forth with outpourings of signs and healings, and Her holy body – taken up to Heaven, witnesses to our own future mode of life therein. Her body was not left to the chance vicissitudes of the transitory world, but was all the more incomparably exalted by its glorious ascent to Heaven.
The feast of the Repose-Uspenie of the MostHoly Mother of God is celebrated with especial solemnity at Gethsemane, at the place of Her burial. Nowhere else is there such sorrow of heart at the separation from the Mother of God and nowhere else such uplift, persuaded of Her intercession for the world.
The holy city of Jerusalem is separated from the Mount of Olives (Olivet) by the valley of Kedron on Josaphat. At the foot of the Mount of Olives is situated the Garden of Gethsemane, where olive trees bear fruit even now.
The holy Ancestor-of-God Joakim had himself reposed at 80 years of age, – some several years after the Entry (“Vvedenie vo Khram”) of the MostHoly Virgin Mary into the Jerusalem Temple (Comm. 21 November). Saint Anna, having been left a widow, resettled from Nazareth to Jerusalem, and lived near the Temple. At Jerusalem she bought two pieces of property: the first at the gates of Gethsemane, and the second – in the valley of Josaphat. At the second locale she built a crypt for the repose of members of her family, and where also she herself was buried with Joakim. And it was there in the Garden of Gethsemane that the Saviour often prayed with His disciples.
The most-pure body of the Mother of God was buried in the family cemetery-plot. With Her burial Christians also reverently honoured the sepulchre of the Mother of God, and they built on this spot a church. Within the church was preserved the precious funeral cloth, which wrapped Her all-pure and fragrant body.
The holy Jerusalem Patriarch Juvenal (420-458) attested before the emperor Marcian (450-457) as to the authenticity of the tradition about the miraculous assumption of the Mother of God to Heaven, and he likewise sent to the empress, Saint Pulcheria (+ 453, Comm. 10 September), the grave wrappings of the Mother of God, which he had taken from Her grave. Saint Pulcheria then placed these grave-wrappings within the Blakhernae church.
Accounts have been preserved, that at the end of the VII Century an overhead church had been situated atop the underground church of the Dormition-Repose of the MostHoly Mother of God, and that from its high bell-tower could be seen the dome of the Church of the Resurrection of the Lord. Traces of this church are no longer to be seen. And in the IX Century near the subterranean Gethsemane church was built a monastery, at which more than 30 monks asceticised.
Great destruction was done the Church in the year 1009 by the despoiler of the holy places, Hakim. Radical changes, the traces of which remain at present, also transpired under the crusaders in the year 1130. During the XI-XII Centuries there disappeared from Jerusalem the piece of excavated stone, at which the Saviour had prayed on the night of His betrayal. This piece of stone from the VI Century had been situated within the Gethsemane basilica.
But in spite of the destruction and the changes, the overall original cruciform (cross-shaped) plan of the church has been preserved. At the entrance to the church along the sides of the iron gates stand four marble columns. To enter the church, it is necessary to go down a stairway of 48 steps. At the 23rd step on the right side is a chapel in honour of the holy Ancestors-of-God Joakim and Anna together with their graves, and on the left side opposite – the chapel of Righteous Joseph the Betrothed with his grave. The rightside chapel belongs to the Orthodox Church, and the leftside – to the Armenian-Gregorian Church (since 1814).
The church of the Repose of the Mother of God has the following dimensions: in length it is 48 arshin, and in breadth 8 arshin [1 arshin = 28 inches]. At an earlier time the church had also windows beside the doors. The whole temple was adorned with a multitude of lampadas and offerings. Two small entrances lead into the burial-chamber of the Mother of God: entrance is made through the western doors, and exit at the northern doors. The burial-chamber of the All-Pure Virgin Mary is veiled with precious curtains. The burial laying-place was hewn out of stone in the manner of the ancient Jewish grave and is very similar to the Sepulchre of the Lord. Beyond the burial-chamber is situated the altar of the church, in which daily is celebrated Divine Liturgy in the Greek language.
The olive woods on the eastern and northern sides of the temple was acquired from the Turks by the Orthodox during the VII-VIII Centuries. The Catholics acquired the olive woods on the east and south sides in 1803, and the Armenian-Gregorians on the west side in 1821.
On 12 August, at Little Gethsemane, at the 2nd hour of the night, the clergy-head of the Gethsemane church celebrates Divine Liturgy. With the close of Liturgy, at the 4th hour of the morning, the clergy-head in full vesture makes a short molieben before the resplendent plaschenitsa, lifts it in his hands and solemnly carries it beyond the church to Gethsemane proper where the holy sepulchre of the Mother of God is situated. All the members of the Russian Spiritual Mission in Jerusalem, with the head of the Mission leading, participate each year in the procession with the holy plaschanitsa [of the Mother of God], called the “Litania”.
The rite of the Burial of the Mother of God at Gethsemane begins customarily on the morning of 14 August. A multitude of people with hierarchs and clergy at the head set off from the Jerusalem Patriarchate (nearby the Church of the Resurrection of Christ) in sorrowful procession. Along the narrow alley-ways of the Holy City the funeral procession makes its way to Gethsemane. Towards the front of the procession is carried an icon of the Dormition-Uspenie of the MostHoly Mother of God. Along the way pilgrims meet the icon, kissing the image of the All-Pure Virgin Mary and lift children of various ages to the icon. After the clergy, in two rows walk the black-robed – monks and nuns of the Holy City: Greeks, Roumanians, Arabs, Russians. The procession, going along for about two hours, concludes with a lamentations at the Gethsemane church. In front the altar‑table, beyond the burial chamber of the Mother of God, is set a raised-up spot, upon which amidst fragrant flowers and myrtle and with precious coverings rests the plaschanitsa of the MostHoly Mother of God.
“O marvelous wonder! The Fount of Life is placed in the grave, and the grave doth become the ladder to Heaven…”, – here at the grave of the All-Pure Virgin, these words strike deep with their original sense and grief is dispelled by joy: “Hail, Full-of-Grace, the Lord is with Thee, granting the world through Thee great mercy!”
Numerous pilgrims, having kissed the icon of the Dormition-Uspenie of the MostHoly Mother of God, – following an ancient custom, then stoop down and go beneathe it.
On the day of the Leave-taking of the feast (23 August), solemn procession is again made. On the return path, the holy plaschanitsa is carried by clergy headed by the Gethsemane archimandrite.
About the rite of the litany and feast of the Uspenie-Dormition of the Mother of God in the Holy Land, there is an article in the “Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate”, 1979, No. 3.