In today’s Gospel we read of the visit of Jesus and his disciples to the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany, a village a short distance to the south-east of Jerusalem. On the face of it, it seems a rather strange Gospel for the Church to prescribe for the Dormition, the falling asleep of the Mother of God.
However, it is a fact that very little is known from Scripture of this lady apart from, in connection with the Nativity, the birth of her son, Jesus Christ, and a few “walk-on” episodes in the Gospels. She then appears finally at the Cross where Jesus makes provision for her future by committing her into the care of the Apostle, St John, the one whom he loved. “From that moment he took her into his own home”. It is not clear, of course, where “his own home” was. As the brother of James, the two sons of Zebedee the fisherman came from Galilee where Jesus had first called them, it is possible that he may have eventually returned with Mary to that area.
On the other hand, as we are told that he took her into his own house the suggestion is that his house was in the Jerusalem area. John, as an apostle, would have shared the responsibility with the other apostles of guiding the Church through its early months and years following Pentecost and, from the Book of the Acts, it seems clear that they were based in Jerusalem so that Mary would have lived in John’s house there.
Ancient traditions seem to agree that Mary lived to be at least 65, and no older than 70 This means that, assuming Mary was 16 when she gave birth to Jesus, and 50 at the time of the Crucifixion, she might have lived for about another 15 to 20 years in the care of John before her Dormition.
So the Dormition must have been somewhere between the year 33, unlikely and no later than the year 53 by which time John, still a relatively young man, would have been free to travel in the service of the young Church and eventually taken up residence in Ephesus
There are two traditions concerning the place of death of the Theotokos. By far the oldest, I believe, is that she reposed in Jerusalem where, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, in the Garden of Gethsemane, there is a church containing her empty tomb. This stands on extremely ancient foundations and has a high claim to authenticity.
The other tradition favours a small church near Ephesus. The first reference to such a building was by St Gregory of Tours (538-94). He wrote, “On the summit of a mountain near Ephesus are four walls without a roof. John lived within these walls.” It is known that John lived in Ephesus during the last years of his long life. But if the Theotokos was with him during at least part of this period surely Gregory would have mentioned the fact – even perhaps referred to it as “Mary’s House”.
Nevertheless the Christian inhabitants of a village about twelve miles away make an annual pilgrimage on August 15th to the place that they call the “Chapel of the All Holy” from where they believe that Mary was raised to heaven. The site was re-discovered in the 19th century and has since become a major place of pilgrimage for Roman Catholics and provided with a roof and extended to form a chapel since. It has been visited by two popes.
For what it is worth, my feeling is that the church at the foot of the Mount of Olives has the greater claim to authenticity.
Now to address the Gospel reading that we heard this morning. I have used the Gospel for the feast of the Dormition itself which was, of course on 15th August, five days ago. There is no record of the Dormition in the New Testament, and it relies entirely on the ancient tradition of the Church of both East and West, including written material.
As far as Gospel readings for the day are concerned, The Roman Catholics hear of the visit of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, concluding with the Magnificat. We have just heard a reading which, on the surface, does not seem to bear any relationship to the Dormition either. We heard the account of Jesus’s visit to the house of Mary of Bethany and her sister Martha, the myrrh-bearers and their brother, Lazarus.
These two ladies were very different in nature. Martha was the busy one, and very practical, aware of the immediate need to feed twelve guests. Mary, however, could only sit at the feet of Jesus, listening to his words. When Martha complained to Jesus, his loving response was “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things, but only one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen the good part which will not be taken away from her.”
It may seem strange that neither of the readings for the
Dormition, Orthodox or Roman Catholic actually refer to the event. The reason is that, as I have already said, there is no mention of the Dormition in the New Testament. This because the purpose of the New Testament Gospels is to portray the Life of Jesus Christ from the Annunciation to his Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. The Theotokos appears in the Gospels at important moments where she is involved. The Dormition occurred some years, perhaps a decade or more, later than the end of the Gospels.
So today’s Gospel reading tells us of the visit of Jesus and the apostles to the house of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. It is unlikely that the Gospel writer identifies this Mary with the Mother of God, yet one reference I looked up suggested that the Gospel “blatantly conflates the two Marys”.
I suggest that to avoid any confusion the episode uses Mary’s part, Mary who sat at the feet of Jesus as the one out of the two sisters who had the better part. This is a possible comparison with the other Mary, the Theotokos The last two verses of the Gospel reading take us away from Mary and Martha to a later occasion to a woman who broke out of the crowd shouting, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breast that nursed you….”, obviously a direct reference to his Mother. To this the response of Jesus was, “More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it”.
Today we celebrate the Dormition, the fact that after her death the body of the Theotokos was taken up into heaven to be transformed and re-united with her soul. This is an event that was observed throughout two thousand years by both East and West until, in the West it came to be rejected by the Protestant Reformers, although it is today accepted by a minority in the Anglican Church of England. Although not recorded in the New Testament, it is borne witness to by a number of early documents.
From our meditation on the subject today, we are to see a reference to the belief and the fact that when our times come as they certainly will to die, as the soul leaves the body, the body is to be treated with due reverence as the body of Mary was treated with reverence. Just as the body of Mary was taken up after only a few days so, in due time will our bodies be taken up.
This is why the Orthodox Church does not permit cremation. Cremation involves the reduction of the body to a small heap of ashes, mainly bone residue, whilst the other elements are dispersed into the atmosphere. It is not for us to destroy the body even after death.
The body interred in the earth is deposited entire for the natural processes to take place. We do this confident that when at the End, when “the trumpet shall sound, the dead will be raised, incorruptible” and at that time, body and soul will be re-united for eternity to be with the Lord. Even so, come Lord Jesus.