Grief, Hope, and the Dormition of the Theotokos

What does it really mean to have hope? So often when the word “hope” is used it sounds wishful or sometimes even naïve or foolish. People who are hopeful are often viewed as being out of touch with reality.

There is a jarring line in the Orthodox funeral service that says: “Let us go forth, and gaze into the tombs: man is naked bones, food for the worms, and stench; and we shall learn what are riches, and comeliness, and beauty, and strength.”

In our culture it seems so uncouth to mention the dead body at a time set aside to remember someone’s life and grieve their loss, even more so to mention the decay that will happen to the body as it transitions from life to death. We sing though repeatedly in multiple languages each service during the Paschal season that “Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” What does this mean though? We look around, and death looks and feels far from trampled. We live in ephemeral bodies in a world full of disease and suffering and death. Why think on death any more than we have to? Where is the hope in that? Where in a tomb could riches, comeliness, beauty, and strength possibly be?

We are about to celebrate the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. This feast is such a beautiful joining together of grief and hope during loss. The Theotokos, the first to have Christ dwell in her when He physically dwelt in her womb, shows us through her death how we can be translated to life. In the icon for the Feast, her body is seen in death surrounded by Christ and the grieving apostles. She is also seen though depicted in swaddling clothes in her Son’s arms, her soul being born into new life. What grief and what hope mingled together! This image is such a powerful one. She bore Christ into earthly life then Christ bore her into eternal life. As the hymn says:

Neither the tomb, nor death, could hold the Theotokos, who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions. For being the Mother of Life, she was translated to life, by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb (Kontakion).

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what it truly means to have hope. I keep coming back to this verse, and it’s come to mean more and more to me over time:

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” –Romans 5:1-5 (RSV)

I love the picture of hope that is painted here. It does not describe hope as a flighty, foolish refusal to see reality. The word “hope” here conveys a richness and a rootedness; it is full of grit, born of a process that begins in suffering. It is not the mark of naïveté, but of the most well-formed maturity and experience of the goodness of God. True hope is an unshakeable conviction of God’s goodness that can look at even a tomb and instead of finding terror and despair, find Christ and life. This does not mean of course that we don’t grieve over death now; the mourning of those who knew the Theotokos is clear in the icon of her death. Refusing to grieve or avoiding grief is not hopeful. Grief is a heavy weight that in many cases never fully leaves us. There may be days of grief where all you can do in prayer is weep and in your broken-heartedness try to turn your heart towards God just a little. In that suffering is where and how the true hope that doesn’t disappoint begins forming in us.

In accounts of her later life after Christ’s ascension, it is said that the Theotokos often went to pray at Christ’s empty tomb. It is such a beautiful thought to me that even the mother of Jesus who had full certainty that death did not have the final say for her Son, still missed him and wanted to be in places she felt closer to Him. I know I still have a long way to go in really understanding what it means to look at a tomb and find “riches, and comeliness, and beauty, and strength.” This Feast helps me see a little more though how that is possible. During this Feast of the Dormition, may we know our grief has a place and that God is with us in it, forming hope in us through it. Christ is in our midst.

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