Today we celebrate the feast day of the falling asleep or kymesis of the Theotokos. Why do we say the falling asleep? Our church does not recognise death. The word cemetery comes from the Greek word “kimiterion” which means “sleeping place”. We say that people fall asleep to await resurrection.
Our church itself is divided into two – the church militant which consists of the living and the Church triumphant – which consists of the departed. Praying for the departed is an essential expression of the church of love. We ask God to remember those whom we remember and we remember them because we love them. Praying for them we meet them in Christ who is love and who, because he is love, overcomes death, which is the ultimate victory over separation and lovelessness. In Christ there is no difference between living and dead because all are alive in Christ. Christ is life and that life is the light of man. Love in Christ means we love all those who are in him – both the living and the dead, and loving those who are in Christ means we love Christ. It is thus truly our love in Christ that keeps the departed alive because as Paul says in 1 Corinthians “love never ends”. Likewise, we pray for the living so we can live a more virtuous life and become closer to Christ. Prayer is the greatest tool of the Christian.
Why do we call the Ever Virgin Mary the Theotokos? The word theotokos come from the Greek words which mean the bearer of God. We believe that the mother of God gave birth to Christ who was both God and man in the same one unique person who lived, was crucified, resurrected, and who ascended into heaven some 2000 years ago. We also believe that God took human form so that all humanity may be able to be saved. The way God achieved this was through the Virgin Mary, or as we call her, the Panagia.
If you look at an icon of the Panagia you will see a star on her left side, the centre of her forehead and on her right side. The stars mean that in the Christian tradition the mother of God was virgin before she was expecting the Christ child, she remained a virgin during her pregnancy and she remained a virgin after the Christ is child was born. We call her Panagia because she is above and beyond all the saints. This gives her the primacy of honour amongst all men and women and over all the saints that have ever lived. That is why she has a place of honour on the left-hand side of the Royal doors in every church. That is why she is a place of honour above the altar (platitera).
The Panagia and her husband Joseph looked after the infant child from the date of his birth. They cared for him, wiped away his tears, fed him, taught him values, and raised him into a model person. Just like the mother of each and every one of us who wants what is best for us so did the Panagia, out of love, want the best for the Christ child. Even when Christ began his public Ministry she was in the background worrying and fussing over him. I guess that is what mothers do, namely worry and fuss over each and everyone of us, which is what makes mothers so special. Only a mother’s heart can love unconditionally. Only a mother’s heart can share our pain, and only a mother’s heart can smile and take pride in our small triumphs in everyday life. Yes mothers are really special.
Mothers also can speak to their children directly. Even if those children are grown up they still have a special place in their hearts for their mothers. No matter how powerful or famous we may be our mothers have the ability to speak to us with more compassion and love. Their words seemed to carry more than influence than if they came from a stranger. That is why we are able to say with confidence that the Panagia is able to, if we ask her, intercede on our behalf with her son for each and every one of us in the hope that our prayers find great favour.
The Orthodox Church believes that the mother of God was taken into heaven bodily. Tradition has it that her tomb, like the Lord’s, was found to be empty three days after her burial. Tradition also has it that all the disciples were present at her falling asleep. She left behind her girdal cloth as a sign a special favour to the world. We also believe that she has undergone bodily resurrection and is with her son in heaven. The Panagia is revered and is considered to be the guardian mother of our church. All of Mount Athos and its 20 monasteries are considered as her garden.
Why is it important that we remember the falling asleep of the Panagia? By remembering and commemorating this special event of her falling asleep we remember our own mortality. Even the mother of God suffered from mortality. What is important in this life is not how many years we have lived but how we have lived those years. We need to remind ourselves that today we may need to turn our lives around. Today we may begin to ask for forgiveness, and if we do, to ask the Panagia as mother of Christ to ask her son that he find favour with the fact that we are changing our lives around. After all, when we were young and in tears who did we turn to to console us – and make no mistake the Panagia is the heavenly mother. Let us always remember to say Hail Mary full of Grace blessed be your name and blessed be the fruit of your womb for you gave birth to the saviour of our souls.