On August 15 the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates its final major feast of the Church year–the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. When my husband and I were in the process of converting, I literally had no idea of what those words meant!
The word Dormition means “falling asleep,” or in other words, the death. In Orthodoxy, we refer to Mary as the Theotokos, a term that comes from two Greek words. “Theos” means God, and “tokos” means bearer. We refer to Mary as the “God-bearer” because she carried Jesus in her womb. So the Feast of the Dormition could also be called the Falling Asleep of the God-bearer.
The Church fathers, after some debate, decided that the term Theotokos was the proper term to use for Mary because it demonstrated a correct understanding of the Incarnation–that God became Man. By referring to Mary as the God-bearer, we are demonstrating our complete belief in a real Incarnation.
The Story of the Feast
According to Church tradition, when the Theotokos was near death, all of the apostles (except Thomas) were miraculously brought to her bedside. They were able to be with her, pray with her, and receive her blessing before she died. Then they buried her in the Garden of Gethsemane in her family tomb.
Three days later Thomas arrived. When they went to show him her tomb, they found that her body was no longer in it. An angel confirmed that she had been taken bodily up to Heaven by her Son.
Orthodox Christians see in this feast an important teaching of the faith–namely the general resurrection of the body. We have hope in the resurrection and in eternal life, and the Dormition of the Theotokos helps us get a glimpse and a foretaste of our own.
Ways to Celebrate the Feast of the Dormition
1. Attend Divine Liturgy as a Family
If at all possible, make an effort to attend Divine Liturgy for the feast as a family. Some churches have Liturgy in the evening on feast days to better accommodate the work schedules of parishioners. If you are unable to attend the Liturgy, perhaps you can go to Vespers the evening before the feast.
When you are in church, you will be able to hear the Scripture readings for the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos and meditate upon them, sing the hymns for the feast and learn them to use in your home, and receive the Eucharist as the ultimate celebration of thanksgiving for the work of God in the world.
2. Read or Tell the Story of the Feast
In order to prepare your children for the feast, it is a good idea to read or tell the story of the Dormition of the Theotokos to them. There are a few excellent options for this:
- Ancient Faith’s The Saint of the Day podcast Ancient Faith radio has a fantastic podcast called The Saint of the Day that tells the story of that day’s saint. Each episode is only around five minutes. As a sidenote, this would make a wonderful addition to the daily family routine. Perhaps your family could listen to the episode immediately after dinner each evening or at breakfast in the morning. What a lovely way to learn more about the saints of the Church!
- Retell the story in your own words. You can also retell the story using your own words and knowledge of the feast. This could be done in the car on the way to Liturgy as a reminder to the children of why you are going to Church.
- The book Heaven Meets Earth One excellent resource for the entire Church year is a children’s book entitled Heaven Meets Earth: Celebrating Pascha and the Twelve Feasts by John Kosmas Skinas. The book has a section for each feast with the story, Scripture readings, facts, a bit of Church history, and an explanation of the festal icon. I highly recommend it!
3. Learn the Hymn of the Feast
Each feast day has a troparion, or special hymn, that is sung on that day. The hymns of the Church pass on important theology and the rich stories of the faith through music. Since children (and many adults!) remember things that are sung, they are a perfect way to bring the feast into your daily lives.
In our house, we try to sing the hymns of the feast during morning and evening prayers and occasionally at the dinner table. Through this repetition, even our youngest children are able to learn them–belting the hymns out at church (sometimes a bit too loudly!).
Here is the troparion for the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos:
“In giving birth you preserved your virginity.
In falling asleep you did not forsake the world, O Theotokos!
You were translated to life, O Mother of Life,
And by your prayers you deliver our souls from death.”
4. Make a Special Meal
Feasting often implies eating, so make a special meal to enjoy as a family! It can be easy to “go all out” for Pascha and Nativity, and forget to celebrate the other feasts of the year. However, celebrating with special foods can help remind us of the importance of those days. Particularly after the Dormition Fast, it can be nice to enjoy some of the foods we have been abstaining from for the past couple of weeks.
5. Display the Icon of the Dormition
If your family has an icon of the Dormition, place it in a prominent location in your house during the festal period. In our family, we place the festal icon so that it is the first thing you see walking into our house. This helps remind us to praise the Lord and pray to Him as we enter and leave our house.
If you do not have an icon of the feast, perhaps you can print an image off from the Internet or have your children color one and display it.
6. Bring Flowers to Church to be Blessed
In some traditions, flowers are brought to Liturgy on this feast to be blessed. If your church practices this, bring in some as a family. Go to the store, the farmer’s market, or your own garden to pick out a beautiful bouquet to give in honor of the Theotokos. Once the flowers are blessed, you can bring them home and place them next to the icon of the Dormition.
7. Decorate Your Home with Flowers
In keeping with this theme, a lovely way to honor the death of the Birth-giver is to fill your house with flowers. You can explain to your children that flowers are often given at funerals to show honor and respect to the loved one. However, we do not mourn as “those who have no hope.” The assumption of the Theotokos shows us that death is not the end.
8. Wear Blue
Finally, the liturgical color for feasts honoring the Theotokos is blue. If you attend Liturgy on this day, you will see the priest wearing blue vestments. Your family can also show their love for the Theotokos by wearing blue to Liturgy and throughout the day.
These simple ways of celebrating the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos can profoundly show our children that our family follows a different path, listens to a different rhythm in life. That we follow Christ and live our lives in His life and in His Church.
If you are interested in learning more about how to orient your family life to the life of the Church, be sure to check out my e-book. The book is called “Seasons of the Faith: Helping Your Family Celebrate the Feasts and Fasts of the Church.” It is designed to give you super practical, simple ways to integrate the life of the Church into the life of your family. Take a look here!
How does your family celebrate the Feast of the Dormition?