(Melkite-Newton) - An increasing number of Byzantine churches are observing the Feast of the Dormition by conducting the Burial Service of the Theotokos. This observance comes to us from the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the traditional site of her death and burial.
On the morning of August 14 a procession sets out from the Patriarchate, bearing the icon of the Dormition. They leave the Old City and cross the Kedron Valley, arriving at Gethsemane and the tomb of the Theotokos. There the people, passing beneath the icon, enter the church where the burial shroud of the Theotokos has been displayed for veneration. On the closing of the feast, August 23, another procession returns the icon and the shroud to the Patriarchate.
THE TOMB OF THE HOLY VIRGIN
We do not know when the site of the Virgin’s tomb in Gethsemane, at the foot of Mount Olivet, became a place of Christian devotion. Some say that the first church there had been built by St Helena in the fourth century. There was clearly a church there in the fifth century. It is well documented that the first Patriarch of Jerusalem, St Juvenal, had taken the veil of the Theotokos from this shrine and sent it to the Empress Pulcheria who had asked him for the Virgin’s “relics” after the Council of Chalcedon (451). The patriarch replied, “Three days after her repose, the body of the Holy Virgin was raised up to heaven, and the Tomb in the Garden of Gethsemane bears only her Veil.” The patriarch then sent this relic to Constantinople where it was then enshrined in the church of the Theotokos at Blachernae, a district of Constantinople.
A church was built at the site of the virgin’s tomb in 582 by the Byzantine Emperor Maurice. Thus church was destroyed during the Persian invasion of 614 but rebuilt soon afterward. During the Crusades it was destroyed again, leaving only the crypt – the actual place of the tomb – and the steps descending to it. Today the crypt-church is served jointly by the Greek Patriarchate and the Armenian Patriarchate. The church also contains chapels used by the Coptic and Syriac Orthodox.