I can't claim to be a theologian, just a cantor; but we can learn a lot from thescriptures we read in the services. It may be providence, as my kumabara's sister had a very similar question which I have been preparing to answer. I have only quoted the scriptures, and not the Fathers of he church to make the explanation easier for someone from a Protestant background to understand. I haven't specifically adressed the Dormition, but the veneration of the Theotokos in general. I apologize for any errors. Hopefully one of the clergymen who posts here can explain things more fully and acurately. I do hope this will be a help to you in understanding the Orthoodox veneration of the Mother of the Lord.
To understand why we venerate (not worship!) the mother of Jesus, we actually have to consider two questions. First, we need to understand the nature of the soul after death. Second we need to understand what it means to be holy, and what holiness is. Let’s start by looking at what the Bible says about the soul after death.
The Wisdom of Solomon says: “The souls of the righteous are in God’s hands, and there no torment may touch them. “ Wisdom of Solomon 3:1, (on page 895 in the Orthodox Study Bible – this book is not found in most Protestant Bibles). Our church teaches that after death, the soul is ‘torn’ from the body and exists separately from the body until the general resurrection on the last day. Some Protestant churches and some other groups teach that the soul is inanimate, that the soul is unconscious and unaware until the resurrection. They call this theory “soul sleep”. We might note that no Christian ever taught or believed this until after the Reformation, when the Protestants developed this theory to argue against prayers to the Mother of God. I will try to show that the idea of “soul sleep” is not taught by the scriptures; and in fact the scriptures prove that the “soul sleep” theory is wrong.
In the Old Testament, when King Saul had been abandoned by God for his disobedience, after the death of the prophet Samuel, Saul used a medium to call on the spirit of Samuel:
Then the woman said; “Whom shall I bring up for you? And he said, “Bring up Samuel for me”. When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman spoke to Saul, saying “why did you deceive me. You are Saul!” And the king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What did you see? And the woman answered him, “I saw gods ascending out of the earth” So he said to her: “What did you perceive? And she said: “A man is coming up, standing upright, and he is covered with a mantle. And Saul discerned it to be Samuel, and stooped with his face to the ground and bowed down to him. And Samuel said to Saul, “Why did you trouble me by bringing me up?”
I Kingdoms (I Samuel) 28: 7-20
Samuel then goes on to prophesy that Saul will be killed and that his kingdom will be given to David, because Saul had disobeyed God. We need to keep in mind that the scripture does not condone the practice of conjuring the dead, in fact it forbids it. But this passage tells us that even before Our Lord’s coming, the dead in Hades were aware; and that the prophets could still prophesy even after their death.
This fact is confirmed in the New Testament when Our Lord was transfigured on Mount Tabor. The Gospel tells us that when Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John on the Holy Mountain, “Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.” Matthew 17:3. As Luke describes it: “And behold, two men talked with Him, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Now we know that Elijah was taken up into heaven by the whirlwind. IV Kingdoms (II Kings) 2:10. Moses, however, died and was buried on Mount Nebo in Jordan. Deuteronomy 34:5-8. The transfiguration shows that Jesus is the God of both the living and the dead. What is more; both Elijah and Moses were conscious, aware and prophesied about the Lord’s Passion which was soon to happen in Jerusalem. Luke 9: 28-36
Let us look at the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Luke, Chapter 16: 19-31. Here we see the condition of the righteous and the unjust after death. Lazarus is comforted in Abraham’s bosom, and the rich man is afflicted in Hades. The rich man is aware and conscious of his own condition, of Abraham; and ironically of Lazarus, whom he failed to notice on earth.
Shortly before his Passion, the Sadducees (a Jewish sect, including many members of the Jewish priests, who had a strict interpretation of the Old Testament, and who did not believe in the resurrection) came to test Jesus and questioned Him about the resurrection. This is an important passage, so I’ll include it all:
The same day, the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection,
came to Him, and asked Him, saying: “Teacher, Moses said that if a
a man dies, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife and
raise up offspring for his brother. Now, there were with us seven brothers.
The first died after he had married, and having no offspring, left his wife
to his brother. Likewise the second, also, and the third, even to the seventh.
Last of all, the woman died also. Therefore, in the resurrection, whose wife
of the seven will she be? For they all had her.”
Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not knowing the scriptures
nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given
in marriage but are like the angels of God in heaven. But concerning the
resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God,
saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’.
God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. And when the multitudes
heard this they were astonished at his teaching.
We need to pay careful attention to Our Lord’s words here: He says: I am the God of Abraham…, not I was, not I will be; but I AM the God of the living. Thus Jesus declared that all who have died remain “alive to God in Christ Jesus”. Now, if Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were Jesus’ ancient ancestors, remain alive to God; how much more, then His very own Mother, who bore Him, nursed Him, and cared for Him even as He died on the cross! If the believers of the Old Testament are alive to God, how much more those who have died in Christ: the holy Apostles, the martyrs and the saints of the New Covenant!
Our Lord, Himself taught: “Do not fear those, who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul”. Matthew 10:28. As He hung from the cross on that first Good Friday, Jesus said to the wise thief: “Assuredly I say to you, today, you will be with me in Paradise” Luke 23:24. Note, Our Lord said today, not some time at the end of time. When Jesus came to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead, and Our Lord met Lazarus’ sister Martha on the way, He said to her: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me, shall never die.
As you can see from the Holy Scriptures, the souls of those who die are not inanimate and unaware; but are conscious of themselves, of God and of others. Thus the Protestant teaching of a “soul sleep” is altogether contradicted by the Holy Scriptures. Before Christ the souls of the dead were imprisoned in Hades; but since the resurrection they are in Paradise, as Our Lord himself said. There is much more that could be said about this, and if you are interested, there are two works I would recommend. First there is a short booklet by the late Patriarch Athenagoras, written in the 1930’s when he was still a parish priest. Secondly there is a longer work titled: “The Mystery of Death” by Nikolaos P. Vassiliadis. I think you can get either of these from Light and Life Publishing, or you might ask Fr Nick if he has one of them in his library.
Next, we need to consider the concept of holiness. What does it mean to be “holy”. Holiness is the primary attribute of God. It means purity, oneness and the power to give life. Holiness implies separation from any kind of evil or any association or contact with the ordinary messiness of this fallen world. In the Old Testament there were many examples to show that God’s holiness was not just an abstract concept; but an awesome and even dangerous power. Contact with God’s holiness could wound or even kill a mere mortal.
In the book of Genesis, when Jacob fled form his brother Esau to Laban, he lay down and dreamed of a ladder leading to heaven with the angels ascending and descending upon it, and the Lord Himself stood above it (Genesis28:10-22). Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “The Lord is in this place, and I did not know it”. So, he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of Heaven.” Genesis 28:16-17. On the eves of the Feast of the Mother of God, this lesson is read in church, since she is the ladder and the gate through which God, Himself, came to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Remember, Jesus did not fly down in a flying saucer or appear out of the blue. He was born of a woman, the Holy Theotokos.
Later in Genesis, when Jacob wrestles with the Angel of God (the Holy Fathers say that Jacob wrestled with Jesus, who is the Angel of Great Council); Jacob is wounded, and comes away limping, even though he is now triumphant and has the new name Israel. Genesis 32:22-32.
When God appeared to Moses and the children of Israel on Mount Sinai, God commanded them to take careful precautions to avoid the power of God’s holiness.
Again, the Lord said to Moses, “Go down and solemnly charge the people, and sanctify them today, and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes. Let them be ready for the third day, for on the third day the Lord will descend upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set bounds for the people all around saying,’ Take heed to yourselves, that you do not go up to the mountain or touch its base. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely die. Not a hand shall touch him; but he shall be surely stoned or shot with an arrow. Whether man or beast he shall not live… So it was that on the third day, in the morning, there were thunderings and lightnings and a dark cloud on Mount Sinai; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, and the people in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now, Mount Sinai was completely enveloped in smoke, because God descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the people were exceedingly amazed. And when the blast of the trumpet sounded long, and became louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by voice. Exodus 19:10-19
The holiness of God is not just powerful; it is dangerous, like radioactivity. Like radiation, God’s holiness can purify and heal; but if taken for granted it can even kill!
In the Old Testament, God’s holiness, his presence resided in the Tabernacle, and later the temple. The seat of this holiness was the Ark of the Covenant. (see Exodus , chapters 25 through 31). For brevity, I’ll quote St Paul’s description:
For a tabernacle was prepared: the first part, in which was the lampstand, the table, the showbread, which is called the sanctuary; and behind the veil, the second part of the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of All, which had the golden censer and the Ark of the covenant overlaid on all sided with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that had budded, and the tables of the covenant, and above it the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.
Now, when these things had thus been prepared, the priests always went into the first part of the tabernacle, performing the services. But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’s sins committed in ignorance. Hebrews 9: 1-9.
This ark, upon which God, Himself was seated, was so holy that no ordinary person could look upon it or touch it. When it was carried, it was covered with a shroud and was carried by the priests who used poles that slid through rings on the ark, so that no-one might touch it directly. Indeed, we read that when someone touched it inadvertently, he was killed outright. When King David decided to bring the Ark up to Jerusalem, “Uzzah and his brothers, the sons of Abinadab, drove the wagon with the ark, and his brothers went before the ark…. And when they came to Nachon’s threshing floor, Uzzah placed his hand on the ark of God to hold it steady when the oxen shook it out of its place. The Lord was angered against Uzzah, and there God struck him. And before God, he died there next to the ark of the Lord. II Kingdoms (II Samuel) 6:1-10
What has this to do with the Holy Virgin Mary? These stories are examples, and pre-figurations of the life of Christ. If the Old Testament ark was so sacred, because it held the tablets written by the finger of God, how much more sacred is the Holy Virgin who held within herself the very finger that wrote the law on the tablets of stone. If the ark was sacred because it carried the pot of manna from heaven; how much more the Holy Virgin who carried within her womb Jesus Christ, the very God, who gave himself as a sacrifice, the bread that came down from heaven, to be our food for eternal life.
Our Lord said, “Most assuredly I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from Heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world … I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst... Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give, is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven – not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever. John 6:47-59.
Thus the Holy Virgin is the New Testament temple and the ark of the new covenant, sealed with the blood of Christ shed on the Cross. Just as the glory of the Lord filled the temple, and rested above the mercy seat of the ark, she was told: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.” Luke 1:35. … and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Then she cried out wit ha loud voice and said “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Luke 1:42, and the Holy Theotokos herself cried out “… henceforth all generations will call me blessed… “ Luke 1:48.
These scriptures also address your sister’s other question about ‘open’ or ‘closed’ communion. The Holy church does not refuse communion to outsiders as a punishment or a rejection; but as a kindness and protection. That which is holy, (and what is more holy than God, himself?) can be sanctifying, healing, and life-giving. But on the contrary, if treated casually and carelessly, the holy things can become a condemnation, and dangerous to our health and to out very life. This is why our church only offers communion to baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christians. This is why we are exhorted to prepare for communion with prayer, fasting and confession of our sins, according to the direction of our spiritual fathers. St Paul explains all this in the First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 11.
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which he was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me”. In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes. Therefore, whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of he bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason, many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep (i.e. have died). For if we judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.
I Corinthians 11:23-33.
I hope all this helps.