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The Abbey of the Dormition in Jerusalem—the site where tradition states St. Mary "fell asleep" into death.

The Abbey of the Dormition in Jerusalem—the site where tradition states St. Mary “fell asleep” into death.

August 15 is the traditional day Christians celebrate the Dormition (or “falling asleep”) of St. Mary. On this day, we thank God for her faithful witness to Christ throughout her life, up to and including the point of her death.

Protestants sometimes have an almost allergic reaction to words celebrating Mary. This comes, no doubt, from a desire to not be seen as deifying the Mother of Jesus—the kind of thing (some) Protestants are likely to accuse (some) Catholics of. I am not interested here in debating the role Mary may or may not play as an intercessor for Christians today, but I do wish to reflect on why she deserves more honour and respect than many Protestants pay her.

Rightly is Mary called the Theotokos—the Mother of God. This term is sometimes misunderstood. “How can Mary be called the Mother of God?” some ask. “Surely this implies that she is more important than God—that she precedes Him!” This, of course, is not what the word means. It means nothing more than what it says: Mary bore God. When God became flesh, He did so through Mary. God was born a Man in the person of Jesus Christ; and Mary was the Mother who bore Him.

Rightly is Mary called the Mother of God. God was born a Man in the person of Jesus Christ; and Mary was the Mother who bore Him.

Indeed, it is in the conception of Jesus Christ that we see most clearly the humble greatness which makes Mary so worthy of our respect, admiration, and imitation. Hear how the angel Gabriel greets her at the Annunciation:

“Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women” (Luke 1:28).

We can well imagine why Mary was “troubled” at his words, and “cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be” (1:29). Consider it again. Mary is greeted by a messenger of God Himself. And he greets her as God’s “highly favoured” one—indeed, as the woman most blessed among all women. To still her confusions and fears at this greeting, Gabriel repeats himself: she “hast found favour with God” (1:30).

We should stop right here and stand in awe. The Scriptures tell us that Mary is blessed among woman. She has found favour with God. Indeed, she is highly favoured. Would that these things should be said of us! Because of this high honour God grants to Mary, He chooses her to conceive the “Son of the Highest,” the inheritor of the “throne of his father David,” the One who shall “reign over the house of Jacob for ever,” and of Whose kingdom “there shall be no end” (1:32-33).

This young virgin, living in the village of Nazareth is to be the recipient of God’s greatest blessing—to be the bearer of Himself, the God-with-us, the Saviour of all the earth. The God who created Mary will enter into her womb and becomes flesh. Her Creator will become her child. She will deliver the Son who will deliver her and all humanity from sin.

Mary with the Christ-child. From a painting in the Shepherd's Field's chapel in Bethlehem.

From a painting in the Shepherd’s Field’s chapel in Bethlehem.

What a glorious, impossible thing it is that God seeks to do through Mary. And she asks the question, as any person might ask, how this thing is to be, since she is a virgin. She is answered with the promise of God’s power to do even the impossible. And so it is that the Holy Spirit overshadows a young woman and she conceives the Son of God.

But I’ve yet to state the most striking thing of all, and that is Mary’s response to the angel’s proclamation. She does not, as Moses did, attempt to exempt herself from God’s call. She does not ask Him to choose someone else. No, she accepts His Word. This Woman blessed above all other women reacts in humble obedience: “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (1:38).

The blessing Mary receives here is not an easy one. She is no doubt aware of the reaction others will have to her pregnancy, seeing that she is not yet married. Indeed, but for an angel’s intervention, Joseph would have divorced her, suspecting infidelity. But hers is the highest fidelity!

This pious woman must also know how the recipients of God’s Word have fared throughout Israel’s history. As Jesus will later lament, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you!” (Luke 13:34). And yet, despite the fear Mary must have felt at Gabriel’s words, she accepts. Willingly. Without a fight. What great faith!

She would have need of such strong faith throughout her life; for being the Mother of God would not be a calling free of suffering. Simeon said it well in prophesying of her grief: “A sword shall pierce thy own soul also.” Indeed, Mary witnessed the Crucifixion of Christ in a way no other human being will ever truly understand. For Mary was, as John Donne says, “God’s partner here, and furnished thus half of that sacrifice which ransomed us.” She did not watch Christ’s Passion the way we do. We see the Crucifixion as external observers; but Mary sees it as the death of her Son. Mary’s sorrow at the Crucifixion can be second only to God the Father’s, for they alone see the Cross as the place where their holy, innocent, beloved Son dies.

We see the Crucifixion as external observers; but Mary sees it as the death of her Son.

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Mary weeps at the death of Jesus. From the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

So too her joy at the Resurrection must be greater than ours. For she receives back not only her Saviour, but also her Son. Indeed, her faith for the rest of her life must be a remarkable thing. For the God to whom she prays is also the Child she cradled in her arms. The God who provides her daily needs is the Child she nursed. The God in whom she places hope for eternal life is the Child whose death she mourned at the Cross.

What a mystery it is to consider Mary’s faith in Her Son! It speaks of a familial love for God that all are called to embrace and imitate; but none this side of heaven must ever truly see God as family so nearly as did she. Well can we imagine her recounting the words of her own prayer again and again: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden; for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is might hath done to me great things; and holy is his name” (Luke 1:46-49).

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An icon of the “Falling Asleep of the God-Bearer” (which is what the Greek reads) in the Abbey of the Dormition in Jerusalem. As the Church looks upon her body, Christ receives her soul.

Amen. So it is that we reflect upon Mary this day, the remembrance of her falling asleep. And as we do so, we must, with the generations before us and the generations to come, indeed call her blessed. For she was blessed to be the bearer of Christ. Because of this, she understands the personal intimacy that is God’s love for His people in a way the rest of us can only wonder at—as a Son to His Mother. We too know that we are children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ. Yes, we know we are part of the family of God; but Mary experienced it in a way we cannot this side of heaven. Still, her example of deep, familial love with God is one we must strive for, even though we know the perfect realization of it must wait until we follow Mary to the Father’s mansions.

We remember Mary this day, and we thank God for her—for her faithful surrender to the will of God, for bringing into this world the Saviour of us all, and for the familial love she teaches us God has with His people. And so we honour her his day, the commemoration of her passing into sleep. We can only imagine what it must have been like: Christ welcoming His beloved Mother home!

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