St. John of Damascus (c. 675/676-749), a Syrian monk and priest who spent years living near Jerusalem, made special note of the healing power of icons of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, in his treatises defending the veneration of icons.
Heralded as a Doctor of the Church, St. John is also, Brian Daley writes, a great thinker of the early Church, a theologian who has influenced the Church east and west, and the writer “of the most celebrated of all the ancient homilies for the feast of the Dormition.”*
Along with St. John’s three interconnected homilies for the feast Daley includes, in his collection On the Dormition of Mary: Early Patristic homilies, his translation of the saint’s intricately shaped and elaborate, but remarkably accessible, “Canon for the Dormition of the Mother of God.”
Like the festal icon for the celebration, the canon has a special purpose in the feast of the Dormition, or the falling asleep of the Most Holy Mother of God, which is one of the great fixed feasts of the Eastern Churches. The feast is celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church and by some Christian denominations as the Assumption.
Held each year on August 15 (August 28 under Julian calendar), Eastern Christians prepare for the feast with up to two weeks of fasting, one of four major annual fasts of the Eastern churches, and the singing of a special canon to Mary called “The Paraclisis” daily.
St. John’s is one of the canons sung at Matins on the morning of the feast. His canon – which Daley calls “a poetic distillation of the main themes of his three homilies for the feast” – is truly a song of love sung with joy.
The canon, Daley explains, is a poetic form used by some of the early Church Fathers, including St. John, St. Andrew of Crete (c. 650-712, 726 or 740), with whom the form is generally associated, and St. Germanus of Constantinople I (c. 634- 733 or 740), whose work was included by Pope Pius XII when he announced the Catholic dogma of the Assumption.
Canons have eight or nine odes or songs of several stanzas each, with each stanza having five to eight lines. The length of lines varies, as does the metrical pattern. In translating St. John’s canon, Daley says he worked within these traditional boundaries to create an English translation that remains true to St. John’s Greek content and the “distinctive character” of the form.
The opening lines of the canon in Ode 1 set its tone:
“I open my lips today:
Fill them, O spirit, with energy
To utter this hymn to the Mother who governs us,
To cry out among the throng of those who praise her,
And join them in singing the wonders we celebrate!”
In Ode 4, St. John gives us the reason for her death from a Christological perspective:
“Once her very offspring, mysterious God—
He of whom the heavens gave prophecy—
Died and was buried,
Sharing willingly our lot;
She, too, must share the sepulcher,
She who had conceived him in purity!”
While Mary must die as we do, Ode 5 speaks of how she, as the Mother of God, will not remain in the grave where her body will corrupt like our bodies. Instead, similar to how her son ascended by his own power, she ascends into heaven by God’s power:
“The world is revivified,
Seeing your holy majesty;
You, unmarried mother, holy virgin,
Rise now above us, into your heavenly home,
Ascending to life without an end:
Grant to all who sing to you
He continues in this Ode sounding the call celebrate:
“Evangelists, waken us,
Sounding your trumpets joyfully!
Tongues of many nations, sing her praises,
Tell of her glory; let there be joy in the air,
And let it be radiant with light;
Angels, sing the mystery
of the death of God’s holy one.”
Brian Daley has succeeded in creating a masterful English version of the canon worthy of Mary, St. John, and this great feast. It should inspire all who read it.
St. John’s canon is reason enough for spending time in reflection with Daley’s excellent collection. On the Dormition of Mary: Early Patristic Homilies, however, also includes important works by St. Andrew of Crete and St. Germanus of Constantinople I, which makes the collection essential reading for those seeking to deepen their knowledge and celebration of the feast of the Dormition.
*Editor’s note: Apologies to Deacon Bezner for posting this the day after the feast of the Dormition.