Tomorrow is the Feast of the Dormition of Virgin Mary (of the Theotokos). But, this post is not so much about the Dormition as about the poetry associated with the Dormition. It is an Eastern tradition to sing three sets of Lamentations about the death of Mary. If you have ever been to a Middle Eastern funeral, you know that there is (as it says in the Bible) weeping and a metaphorical tearing of clothing. Unlike the West, mourning is open, outward, and can be very loud. You are not only allowed to show your feelings, but encouraged to show your feelings. At times it was overdone, this is why the New Testament talks about professional mourners being hired to be present at the funeral of a loved one. The more weeping and wailing, the more it was clear that you loved the person who had died. That practice has fallen away over the centuries, however, the idea of profound weeping and wailing has never left the Middle East. That is what is behind the chanting of the Lamentations. It is a public remembrance of the sadness that the Church felt at the passing of this most important personage.
Now, here is an important point. I am not asking you to agree that she is the Queen of Heaven. I am not asking you to agree that her body was assumed. But, I am asking you to adhere to what even the Reformers said, that Mary was a quite important personage. The Lamentations of this day are a recognition of the importance of Mary in this history of salvation. And, the Lamentations are expressed in an older form that we rarely see nowadays, POETRY. Yes, poetry! In our modern milieu, we have trouble acknowledging poetry, with its similes, metaphors, allusions, and allegories as begin worthy of consideration as something that can be used to bear truth. So, we often have trouble with celebrations, such as The Lamentations of this day because they are not clear propositional statements. They ask you to dig farther and look closer to figure out what they are trying to communicate in that language, because plain language cannot communicate it as well. Let me give you a couple of examples from the chanted words from today, then I will stop.
In your womb you held him
who cannot be contained;
you are life to all the faithful: how can you die,
and your body be contained within a tomb?
In the words just quoted, a mystery is expressed, which has not been resolved to this day. How can the God who is infinite and created the whole universe be held in a human womb. Yet, standard Christian theology–whether Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant–holds that it was God in Mary’s womb, and not merely a human shell that was later inhabited by God. The claim that it might have been but a microscopic part of God contained within her womb is also rejected. But, that leaves us with a mystery, “you held him who cannot be contained.” More than that, because of her containing the source of life, she herself brought life to the faithful. But, how can she who gave life to God, herself die, and her body be placed in a tomb? In poetic imagery, in just four lines, much theological pondering is contained, better than in the many paragraphs that have been written.
Wonder strange and new!
For the Door now passes through the Doorway,
Heaven enters Heaven! We stand in awe
as the Throne of God ascends the Throne of God!
I am ready to gush about the verses above. “For the Door,” that is Mary, who became the door for God to enter this world, “now passes through the Doorway,” who is Christ, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved.” So the door passes through the door, that is poetic metaphor for you. “Heaven enters Heaven,” for anywhere in which God is fully present is Heaven. Since God was fully present in Mary’s womb–which is standard Christian theology–then Heaven was present in her womb, and when she died, why, Heaven entered Heaven! Again, this is poetry not propositional theology. But, can you see the true and actual theology being presented? The same is true of the final phrase, “the Throne of God ascends the Throne of God!” Anywhere the King is present and residing is his throne room. Thus Mary’s womb was his Throne every bit as much as his Throne in the heavens. Thus the Throne ascends to the Throne. Again, poetry, not propositional reasoning.
Some of the later poetry makes sense if you consider that Jesus is Mary’s son. The poetry speaks of a son coming to fetch his mother.
Angels shook with fear
to behold their God again descending;
with His mother’s soul carried in His hands,
He arose again in glory most divine.
The poetry is romantic, but my little Latino soul enjoys it. What son would not come to fetch his mother in her hour of death. What King would not descend from his throne to escort his mother to the heavens. One need not believe that Mary is the Queen of Heaven to see the romantic truths expressed in these verses. Frankly, I have read much more piously romantic–and significantly less well written–poetry from Evangelical sources about how Jesus will be right there to embrace you and welcome you in. It is not difficult, then, to imagine that the welcome of a mother by her son would be ever so much more tender. And from there flows the poetry one reads above.
Down into the earth
You, the Lord’s unplanted land, descended,
Out of you has sprung forth the Grain of Life,
and unto the Land of Heaven you arise.
I leave you the verses above to unravel. I will just give you a hint that the, “Lord’s unplanted land,” speaks of Mary’s virginity. But, what are all the verses above telling you?
I heartily recommend that you read the Eastern Orthodox Lamentations for the Dormition. Once you take the time to understand and interpret them, you will see much truth expressed in a very poetic form to which we are no longer accustomed.