In the Orthodox tradition, icons often are referred to as windows to heaven. This is because, through their visual depictions, icons help us understand complex matters of our faith, which are hard to comprehend and grasp. Today, we celebrate the Assumption of the Holy Mother of God into heaven. The icons and miniature paintings portraying the Assumption of St. Mary are extremely rich in elegant and ancient symbolism, guiding our minds and teaching us about the spiritual significance of the feast. This is especially important since the Assumption is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible, and we must rely on the church tradition and religious art to help us learn about this very important and sacred event.
The Assumption icons offer a great message of hope and have been used to explain the Christian view of death to children as well as adults. They portray Mary in a coffin surrounded by the apostles and sometimes three early church bishops. Above the Theotokos, we always find Jesus, holding in his hands the soul of his mother, pictured as a baby in swaddling white clothes. This symbolizes St. Mary’s birth through death into new and eternal life with God. It is important to note the reversal of the roles. While typically it is Mary portrayed holding baby Jesus, in Assumption icons, this changes, and it is Jesus holding baby Mary.
Death is the ultimate enemy of life. It is irrational, ugly, violent and destructive. And no matter how informed we are and how much we believe, death is also always very painful. If you lost a loved one, if you struggle with grief, how comforting it is to reflect on the hope that the Assumption icons offer. How consoling it is to learn that our loved one is in the loving embrace of Jesus, who cares for them and carries their soul in his hands to a place of safety and peace. Ultimately, these icons are a reminder that the feast of Assumption is not merely a story about what happened to St. Mary but also an invitation to believe and desire God, so we too, one day, will be greeted and embraced by Christ and find rest and refuge in his loving arms.