Friday, August 15, 2014

Burial Rites of the Theotokos

St. John Paul II offered a reflection on the death of the Theotokos in a General Audience in 1997:
My Venerable Predecessor Pius XII, made no pronouncement on the question of Mary’s death. Nevertheless, Pius XII did not intend to deny the fact of her death, but merely did not judge it opportune to affirm solemnly the death of the Mother of God as a truth to be accepted by all believers. Some theologians have in fact maintained that the Blessed Virgin did not die and and was immediately raised from earthly life to heavenly glory. However, this opinion was unknown until the 17th century, whereas a common tradition actually exists which sees Mary's death as her entry into heavenly glory. Could Mary of Nazareth have experienced the drama of death in her own flesh? Reflecting on Mary’s destiny and her relationship with her divine Son, it seems legitimate to answer in the affirmative: since Christ died, it would be difficult to maintain the contrary for his Mother. The Fathers of the Church, who had no doubts in this regard, reasoned along these lines.
Icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos.  Mary lies on
 the bier, while carried in procession to the tomb.
Christ holds her soul in his arms.

For an Eastern Christian, it is not possible to celebrate the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God, and not ponder her death.  For two weeks we have been preparing for this, the last of the 12 Great Feasts of the Liturgical Year.  (The first of those feasts is the birth of the Theotokos on Sept. 8).  Serving as a bookend to the Church year, the Dormition also serves as an occasion for us to reflect on the end that must come to us all.  Yet at the same time we are consoled, knowing that for a Christian to die is less about the biological process and more about falling asleep in the Lord.  In the words of John Donne, "One short sleep past, we wake eternally.  And death shall be no more; Death thou shalt die."

Our preparation for this feast that celebrates the end of death, began August 1st, with a solemn procession with the Cross of Christ.  Traditionally, this was due to the increase of disease and death in the blistering hot Augusts of Constantinople.  As a way to pray for healing and/or to prepare for the coming death, the priests of the Great City would process
Procession of the Holy and Life Giving Cross,
August 1.
through the streets with the relic of the Cross, everyday until the middle of August.  For those of us not dwelling in plague stricken urban climes, the procession invites us to follow the Cross through the two weeks of fasting, penance, and prayer that we undergo to prepare for the coming of Christian death.

At the same time, Christians of the Kievan-Rus' tradition also remember their baptism on August first, and thereby recall that is through being baptized into the death of Christ that we are able to gloriously enter into his resurrection.
Lesser Blessing of the Water,
August 1st.

To highlight the link between the Cross and Baptism, the waters are blessed on August first through a short ceremony that is a "lesser" version of the great blessings of the waters done on Theophany.  In the lesser service, a cross is three times submerged into a large vessel of water.

Throughout the remaining time, the Christian faithful are traditionally called to a period of fasting stricter than any but Great Lent, although such ascetical observances are rare in today's setting.  All of this preparation culminates in the liturgical celebration of the feast of our Lady's Dormition, and the still developing liturgical observance is amazing to behold.  In fact, the Liturgical celebration of the feast is a wonderful example of the ongoing organic life of the Byzantine Liturgical tradition.

The feast of the Dormition has been observed since at least the sixth century, although the Patriarch Juvenal testified in the fifth century that the Christians of Jerusalem had preserved the tradition of Mary's immaculate assumption into heaven, and he even sent the grave wrappings of the Theotokos to the Empress Pulcheria.  We are told that by the end of the 7th century, a Church had been built atop Mary's tomb in Gethsemane, but there are no traces of that Church today.  The current Church has been both attacked and developed since the 9th century, and now claims to house not only the tomb of the Virgin, but the tombs of St. Joachim, St. Anne, and St. Joseph.  While we assume that there was a tradition of liturgical devotion in this Church, the subsequent invasions of pagans and Crusaders has left us little trace of first millenium Jerusalem's observances for the feast.
Tomb of the Blessed Virgin in Jerusalem
In the second millenium, the Russian Chuch's 1438 rubrics evidence a tendency to observe the vigil of August 15th in ways that were analogous to the Holy Saturday observance.  Thus, it is suggested that if the rector wishes, he can have a "tomb" placed before the iconostasis, and the chanting for Matins can take place before this tomb.  Further, churches dedicated to the Feast of the Dormition are allowed to place the icon of the feast in the tomb, again, as an analogue to the Church's placement of the icon of Christ in the tomb on Holy Saturday.

In 15th century Jerusalem, the "Lamentations of Christ for Great and Holy Saturday" were introduced into the Matins service.  These lamentations alternate with each verse of psalm 118/119, and are set to a solemn melody, serving as an extended mediation on Christ's mournful burial and triumphant descent into Hades.

Following the lamentations, the Jerusalem Church kept her older tradition of placing the Shroud of Christ on the back of the priest, and then processing outside as a symbol of Christ's soul's descent into the abode of the dead.  This procession also allowed the faithful to take part in a traditional funeral procession as they would at the death of any loved one.  Following the procession, the shroud was laid in a tomb that had been constructed in front of the iconostasis.  Vigil was then kept at the tomb until the Vesperal Liturgy on Holy Saturday evening.

Epitaphios of Christ Used
In Holy Saturday Procession

The Epitaphios carried in procession in front of the "tomb"

Around a hundred years after the composition of the Lamentations of Christ, Metropolitan Dionysios of Old Patras composed the Lamentations of the Theoktokos in 1541.  The Lamentations correspond thematically, liturgically, and musically to the lamentations of Christ.  They were intended to be chanted at the Matins of the All-Night Vigil for the Dormition.  Like the Lamentations of Christ, they were to be chanted alternately with the verses of Ps. 118/119.  And like the Holy Saturday Matins, the lamentations were to conclude with a procession.  In this case, Met. Dionysios expected the procession to be made with the icon of the Dormition depicted at the top of this post, and he expected this observance to take place only in parishes and shrines dedicated to the Dormition.

The Lamentations of the Theotokos were adopted by the Jerusalem Church as part of her liturgical observance. In susbequent years it spread to Patmos.  At some point the lamentations were translated from Greek into Slavonic in Kiev.  Antiochene parishes also began to adopt the observance.  While the lamentations are not chanted on either Mt. Athos nor in the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, they are becoming increasingly common throughout various parishes of the Byzantine tradition.

In addition, churches are increasingly adopting a burial shroud of the Theotokos to be used in the vigil procession instead of the traditional icon.  The churches that adopt this form of the funeral procession then lay the shroud in a tomb constructed before the iconostasis or even in front of the Church.

Funeral procession with the shroud of the Theotokos

The Entombment of the Theotokos
This ongoing development within the Byzantine tradition is by no means universal, but it fits well with  the shorthand reference to the Dormition Fast and Feast as Summer Lent, and Summer Pascha. Like Great Lent, the Dormition Fast has a feast for the Holy Cross, and it is in part devoting to a renewal of one's baptismal promises. The fasting observances are more similar to Great Lent than either of the other fasting seasons, the culmination of both seasons is an all night vigil focused on bodily resurrection.  The feast of the Dormition points to the ultimate fruition of the Feast of Pascha.  Christ conquers death definitively in both His Physical Body, and in those united to him in His Mystical Body.  The feast of Dormition, therefore, expresses not only the exceptional holiness of the Theotokos, but also the Church's hope that Mary is the exemplar of us all.  She is the pledge of the resurrection of the body; the proof that Christ's redemption will break forth onto all those united to him.

The texts for the lamentations beautifully capture the mood of the feast.  The first verse parallels the verse the lamentations of Christ.  On Holy Saturday we chant:
O Life, how can You die? How can You dwell in a tomb? Yet by Your death You have destroyed the reign of death and raised all the dead from Hell.
Last night we sang:
In a grave they laid Thee / O my Life and my Christ / and now also the Mother of Life / a strange sight  both to angels and men.
Each of the three sets of verses continues to ponder the meaning of this strange death.  On the one hand, the humanity that gave birth to the Theotokos is invited to come and rejoice at the sight:
Come with me, O Anna / Come and stand with us now / lead us in the festive praises of Mary / thine own  daughter, the Mother of God.
Now Joachim rejoiceth / seeing the great glory of his only child / who indeed didst bear a divine Child / truly inexplicable and inspired!
Adam and Eve came out / to behold the glory / of their own Virgin offspring.
On the other, the sadness highlighted in the first verse mingles with terror at the awe-inspiring nature of what is taking place:
Shudder, O ye heavens! / and, O earth, give ear unto these words: / God descended once before for our sake / He descends again today for His Mother. 
But, it is in the third stanza that brings the full weight of the cosmic significance of the event to the fore, while also ending with the personal dialogue between the Mother and her Son:
Ev’ry generation / to thy grave comes bringing / its dirge of praises, O Virgin. All of creation / to the grave comes bringing / a farewell hymn to our Lady. Christ’s holy Disciples / tend to the body / of Mary, Mother of my God. Orders of Angels / and Archangels / invisibly hymn her presence. Pious Women / with the Apostles / now cry out their lamentations. She who was at Cana / at the marriage / hath been called with the Apostles. The Master descendeth / to Gethsemane / with countless hosts of heaven. The choir of the Disicples / seeing the Lord descend / in glory greatly rejoiceth.. Let the earth leap for joy / as it beholdeth / our God from heaven descending.  Let us go out quickly / meeting the Lord Jesus / Who cometh once more among us. Let us be attentive / God now speaketh / with His most pure Mother: "Most sweet Mother / come and rejoice with / thine own most sweet Child, Jesus." Behold now thy Son / cometh to bring thee / into His home in the heavens. "Come, My most lovely one / and enjoy the beauty / of thine own Son thy Maker. Come indeed, My Mother / come into divine joy / and enter into the kingdom." "What will I bring Thee / O my Son, the God-Man" / the Maiden cried to the Master. "What will I bring Thee / O my God in heaven / except my soul and body. The Father I glorify / to the Son I sing a hymn / the Holy Spirit I worship."

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