The feast of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary is the last major feast day of the Orthodox Church year, occurring on August 15. As with most saints’ days in the Church, this most ancient day dedicated to the Virgin Mary Theotokos commemorates her bodily death, commonly designated as her “falling-asleep” (Lat., dormition; John 11:11, 14; 1 Cor. 15:20; 1 Thes. 4:15). So first of all, the Orthodox Church clearly acknowledges that the Virgin Mary did die a bodily death.
Second, because the Virgin Mary is the Theotokos (lit., Birthgiver-of-God), her falling-asleep, like the rest of her life, is emblematic of the ultimate Christian end. She fell asleep in bodily death and then three days later was bodily assumed in heaven. “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!” (Troparion [hymn] of the Feast).
Just as with her life so now with her death, the Virgin Mary Theotokos reveals the proper end for every Christian who trusts in God’s promises as she did. Her falling-asleep and bodily assumption into heaven demonstrate the promise of the resurrection to every believer. Even more, the Theotokos now body and soul in heaven demonstrates the unbroken communion and continuity of the faithful on earth with the saints in heaven of whom she is the foremost. “Neither the tomb, nor death, could hold the Theotokos, who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercession” (Kontakion [hymn] of the Feast).
The account of the Virgin Mary’s dormition is not recorded in the text of the Bible, but then again not every Christian truth retained and believed in the Church was (see John 20:30; 2 Thes. 2:15). All twelve of the Apostles were present to witness the Dormition of the Theotokos, and they along with that generation of Christians passed this knowledge to the next even to this present day. Importantly, no grave of the Virgin Mary exists, no bodily remains, only certain articles of her clothing (e.g., her sash and mantle) kept by the Church. The Theotokos living bodily in heaven has appeared numerous times to the faithful throughout the centuries, both in groups and individually, and many wonders have been worked through various icons of the Virgin Mary, several of which have exuded fragrant oil (myrrh) and continue to do so to this day.
Roman Catholics introduced the false notion that the Virgin Mary could not die being “immaculately conceived” without sin, and therefore she was assumed into heaven without experiencing a bodily death. This false doctrine perpetuates the wrong, non-Orthodox understanding of sin as damning guilt inherited and inevitably passed on from every human parent to their children in the act of procreation; consequently, in order for Mary not to pass sin on to her Child Jesus, she herself had to be sinless, making Mary the great exception to our common nature of humanity.
The Virgin Mary’s exceptionalism according to Roman Catholic teaching resulted in other abuses such as exalting the Theotokos to a rank of distinction rivalling God Himself. The doctrine of Papal Infallibility was promulgated in Roman Catholicism specifically to prove its doctrine of the Immaculate Conception thereby making proper honor given to the Virgin Mary commensurate with honor given to the Pope of Rome. Protestant reaction to these Roman Catholic errors was to discount the Virgin Mary’s exceptionalism altogether, dismissing all Church traditions not written in the Bible and reducing the Virgin Mary’s role in the Church’s confession and practice to that of a common maiden simply needed by God for the birth of His Son in the flesh.
In the Orthodox confession, the Virgin Mary Theotokos is the great example of what it means to be a Christian, especially at her dormition. After living her entire life in complete devotion to God, having given birth to God the Word, she peacefully and confidently fell asleep in death of her body as we mortals all must do. She was conceived and born with our common mortal nature corrupted by sin, yet she was able to overcome passions and sin through her faith and love of God, as we are all called to do (see Matt. 5:48; Jn. 8:11; Rom. 6; etc.). Thus God demonstrated in the Mother of God the reality of His promises to life and salvation through Christ Jesus her Son and our God. Death could not hold her, and she was then assumed body and soul to heaven, the proof of our resurrection in Christ for the faithful who remain devoted to Christ (see Rom. 8).