Since the 4th century the Byzantine church has refer to Mary as not dying; rather, she “fell asleep.” The Latinate phrase “Dormition of the Virgin” refers to images of this falling asleep, which art historians and museum curators sometimes tendentiously label “The Death of the Virgin.” Icons of Mary Sleeping are a classic image in iconography.
The Roman Catholic theologians of the middle ages deliberated in detail the Forever Virgin condition of Mary. How could this man/god be born of someone as common as one of us? Since Christ is all man and all God, His mother would have to be all divine. The early Byzantine theology behind the Icons of Mary Sleeping are a classic image in iconography and served the theological debate. When the church institution fashioned the idea of the Immaculate Conception it made her even closer to the divinity we find in Jesus.
The concept of her divinity was declared doctrine in 1854. The subject of Mary’s divine immunity from original sin at the moment of her birth was a theological creation which became dogma at considerable expense to women.
One Hundred years later another detail of her divinity needed clarification. If she was immaculately conceived then where would her divine body go at her death? The Byzantine theology of Mary Sleeping and not dying was the answer. It was decided Mary did not die but rather “slept” and afterwards her holy body was taken up to heaven with Christ. There He stands in the icon with her soul held in His arms This statement became an article of Faith in 1950, the Assumption of Mary into Heaven became dogma for Roman Catholicism: When the Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, her body and soul was assumed into heaven.”. The Church institution needed an example of undefiled sexuality, divine meekness, perfected womanhood; they found it in the Virgin Mary.
The theology of Mary Sleeping came to be a classic image in icons and seen closely through the eye of its theology makes Mary’s divinity unattainable for any women. I have to wonder if this elevated perfection will continue to help our spiritual life and desired union with God.
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