Every time we celebrate the Dormition of the Mother of God, it’s as if we’re having Easter – the Easter of the summer. Our Lady the Mother of God prepares Easter for us. A glorious crossing “from death to life”. A second Easter, holy spotless, life-giving for the human race, because today “the laws of nature are overcome”.
“How the source of life goes towards life, passing through death”, says Saint John the Damascan. The death of the life-giving Mother of the Lord transcends the concept of death, so that it’s not even called death, but “dormition” and “divine transition” and an emigration and immigration towards the Lord. And even if it’s called death, it’s a life-bringing death, since it transports to a celestial and immortal life.
The transition of the Mother of God, as an indisputable fact preserved by sacred Tradition, has been incorporated into the teaching of the Orthodox Church and has nothing to do with the pietistic beliefs of the Westerners concerning the conception without seed and life without death of the Virgin Mary.
The Virgin was the particular creation of God who surpassed all people and the angels. She is the only mortal ever to have lived a spotless life and to have become what is beyond the understanding of all reasoning beings- the Mother of God. Because she never sinned, never gave in to sensuous thoughts, it was proper that she lived on earth without the pains of the flesh, or illnesses. Even though she had a life-giving body, still, as a human being she was subject to the sickness of death and she did, in fact, die. But her body and soul were not separated from God. For a short time, the connection binding them together was loosed, as was the case with Christ
How does the Eastern Orthodox Church view and articulate the atonement of our Lord? This question arises from many converts to the Eastern Orthodox Church, particularly here in America. Many come to the Eastern Orthodox Church looking to leave behind what they may consider harsh or even terrifying notions of God unleashing His wrath upon His Son on the cross. This can become strained when they then come to see the Orthodox Church, through Her fathers and hymnography, employ the same terms and verbiage as their former tradition. So, does the Eastern Orthodox Church thus employ a Penal Substitution model of the atonement?
In short, no, She does not. How, then, should we properly order these terms, and their application, to properly understand the Church’s teaching on the atonement? A short gloss of the Evangelical concept of Penal Substitution (from here “PSA”) is that God required someone who was equal to Him in rank to satisfy the breaking of His Law, in order that He might remain just and that there be justice. In this view, God pours out His wrath upon Christ, wrath due to us in our sins, and since Christ is equal to God—since He is God—this satisfies the besmirchment of the Law, that first disobedience of Adam.
There are a lot of terms there, all of which are used by the fathers. However, the Eastern Orthodox Church not only understands these terms in a radically different way than do Evangelicals, they are also radically different in their application. Let’s go through each term, one by one.
When we lose someone that is very near and dear to us, we are troubled by a solitary, perplexing question that we cannot answer, and it seems that no one else can give us a satisfactory response for it either. We all have the question, “WHY why did our loved one die?” It is a very natural question. Does it need to be this way? Does it need to be an unanswerable inquiry? I think not, and offer this reflection coming out of my own difficult experience facing the death of my Matushka ten years ago.
We all relate to God in three equivalent and identical ways. Some may call them by other names, but for the purpose this essay I will use the three that are the most logical to me. They are 1) the Wisdom of God, 2) the Love of God, and 3) the Mystery of God. Let us look at these three more deeply and see if it will be helpful in answering our “Why” question.
Before I continue, I understand that what I am saying does not bring back our loved one. It does not take away the pain of loss or the emptiness we feel because of it. I only write this because it helped me — and might help others—to understand what has happened and in some small way come to grips with the agony that comes with the loss of a loved one.
In a general way, we are always participating in these three modes of His being, even if we are unaware of it. They continue to exist and operate whether we acknowledge them or not. It is just that when we are talking about death, they are all the more acute, punctuated by the act of loss that has no equal in our world.