by Saint Philaret of Moscow (1783-1867)
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God, but what does the word ‘dormition’ mean? It literally means ‘to fall asleep’, but it is also used to mean the end of the Mother of God’s earthly life. Now we have to ask why the word ‘dormition’ came to be used in this particular way.
In the Old Testament the end of life is called ‘death’. In general, when speaking of the Patriarchs, Scripture says: ‘he lived … and he died’ (Gen. 5:5). For example, Abraham died (see Gen. 25:8) and Samuel died (see Sam. 25:1). The Patriarch Jacob uses an especially sad expression when speaking of his own death: ‘I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave’ (Gen. 37:35).
Notice, however, that the Saviour calls death ‘falling asleep’ or ‘repose’. For example when by His divine omnipotence He announced the death of Lazarus to the disciples He said: ‘Our friend Lazarus sleepeth’ (John 11:11). Only when the disciples did not understand this expression did He make it clear to them: ‘Lazarus is dead’ (John 11: 14).
The custom of calling death ‘falling asleep’ or ‘repose’ is confirmed in the writings of the apostles. The Apostle Paul wrote of those who had seen the risen Lord with their own eyes that ‘the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep (1 Cor. 15:6).
St. Paul also refers to the resurrection of the dead: ‘We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed’ (1. Cor. 15: 51). In other words, we shall not all die because on the last day of the world there will still be some people living on earth. Nevertheless, we shall all be changed because the bodies of those who are still alive will be instantaneously changed from corruptible into incorruptible. The bodies of those that have never died or been buried will be changed like those who will be raised from the dead.
The New Testament attitude towards death is cheerful when compared to the Old Testament view of it, and this can be explained by the change in the human condition caused by the redeeming sacrifice of the Saviour of the world.
The human race was under sentence of death because of the deeds of our ancestors, and every day that sentence was confirmed by our willful sins. If we had not been redeemed from that sentence of death by the passion and death of Christ, the Son of God, then the death of the body would still inexorably lead to eternal death without any hope of resurrection unto the blessed life in God.
However, when Christ died for us we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son (see Rom. 5:8,10) and ‘God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us made us alive together with Christ even though we were dead in sin’ (Eph. 2:4-5). The righteous will now live in the eternal life and blessedness that only the life in Christ can give.
Death has truly been destroyed by death and changed into sleep because ‘as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive’ (1 Cor. 15:22). This sleep is of a short duration compared with the eternal life that will follow; it is a peaceful sleep, being a rest from labours, the shedding of sorrows, a rest for the conscience granted by Christ to the peacemakers. This sleep, however, is not unconscious, because although the body sleeps, the soul does not, but is sweetly conscious as if foretasting the eternal blessedness.
Now we know why in the Old Testament there was no such comforting and calming understanding of death. But how can we understand this? From the fact that, as the Apostle explains, death reigned (see Rom. 5:14), and was not yet conquered by the life-creating death of Christ; the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest (see Heb. 9:8). In other words, the gate into the holy of holies, which is heaven, had not been opened by our forerunner even Jesus Himself (see Heb. 6:20).
Even the Old Testament patriarchs, prophets and righteous ones did not receive the promised things, they only saw them from a distance and welcomed them. They were excluded because they were strangers on earth (see Heb. 11:13). This is why the darkness of imminent death made a more powerful impression upon them than the far-off glory of the resurrection.
Christianity, by renaming death as ‘sleep’ or ‘dormition’, inspires us with the knowledge that just as he who falls asleep in the evening arises in the morning with renewed powers of life, so he who falls asleep in physical death will arise unto a new immortal life in the day of the general resurrection.
We must not forget that though the gift of New Testament grace is open to all and may be achieved by all, it does not belong to us all just because we live in New Testament times.
There were people in those far off Old Testament times who lived according to the spirit of the New Testament. Christ Himself said of the Patriarch Abraham, that he rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad (see. John 8:56). Of course Abraham inherited all the good things which have been made available to mankind in Christ. On the other hand, in the time of the New Testament grace, there are people who, in their inner disposition, remain hostile to the grace-filled covenant of God, even though outwardly they bear the name of Christian.
The door of grace has been opened to all by Christ Who said: ‘I am the door: by Me if any man enter in, he shall be saved’ (John 10:9). However, we must make sure that we enter by this door, and we can only do so through our living and active faith in Christ, the Son of God, as the Apostle Paul says: ‘I live by the faith of the Son of God’ (Gal. 2:20). Those who live in the grace-filled life through faith in Jesus Christ, and who maintain that life within, will not sleep unto death even though dwelling in the grave. From the bed of corruption they will rise again unto incorruption, heavenly life and blessedness in glory.
On the other hand, those who do not struggle to participate in the grace-filled life in Christ live the life of the old Adam. They live a life of sinfulness. Even though they show signs of life, they are actually submerged in an inner death, because sin brings forth death (see Jam. 1:15). If they do not turn and repent, they will surely die and undergo the death of sinners, which is evil (see Ps. 33:21), and which inherits eternal torment.