On the morning of a feast day many Orthodox parishes have a Matins service before the Divine Liturgy. Part of the Matins service involves the chanting of the festal canon for the particular feast to be observed. A canon is a hymn comprised of 9 odes based on 9 biblical canticles, mostly from the Old Testament canon, although the 9th ode is based on the Magnificant (Song of Mary) from Luke 1:46-55 & the prayer of Zecharias (father of St. John the Forerunner & Baptist) from Luke 1:68-79. Each of the Great Feasts has its own festal canon.
One of the earliest canons for the Dormition of the Most-Holy Theotokos was written by St. John Damascene (676-749 AD). St. John is perhaps best known for his work “On the Divine Images”, a series of 3 treatises defending the veneration of icons against the iconoclasts. For this he is known as the “Defender of Orthodoxy”. Thanks to his success in defeating the heresy of Iconoclasm the first Sunday of Great Lent is a feast called the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” in commemoration of the return of Holy Icons to the Churches. Those that believe the veneration of Holy Icons to be idolatry would do well to read his treatises. St. John also wrote probably what are the most famous & frequently read homilies about the Dormition of which he wrote 3 towards the end of his life. His trilogy on the Dormition of the Most-Holy Theotokos is also found in the same text from which I have taken the following canon.
Canon For The Dormition Of The Mother Of God by St. John of Damascus*
Ode 1: (Exodus 15:1-19)
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 to join them in singing the wonders we celebrate!
Come, maidens and choristers, join with the prophetess Miriam and raise up your voice in the song of her exodus; for this virgin now, God’s Mother, who is peerless, has come to the goal of her heavenward pilgrimage.
As heaven made womanly, heaven itself now has welcomed you and leads you, most holy one, into its sanctuary; there you stand beside the King in robes of splendor, God’s bride, without wrinkle or spot, for all ages.
Ode 3: (LXX-1 Kings [MT-1 Samuel] 2:1-10)**
All those, Mother of God, who would acclaim you, O living, undying spring of life, you strengthen charismatically: give them the power to celebrate, crowning their minds with glory by the holy touch of your memory.
Descended from mortals like your brethren, you showed us an exodus from death, a pathway supernatural; Mother of Christ, the source of life, you have now crossed death’s barrier to life divine, in reality.
Apostles, evangelists were gathered along with the angels from on high to Sion’s mount, your dwelling-place: brought at the nod of Providence—rightly, my Queen, and fittingly, to join the rights of your funeral.
Ode 4: (Habakkuk 3:1-19)
Lord of highest heaven, your mysterious will stood before the ages: to come to us born of a virgin; Holy Habakkuk exclaimed, full of prophetic clarity, “Glory to your power and your goodness, Lord!”
Shaken with amazement to see on the earth, raging through the valleys like animals, whirlwinds from heaven, living creatures of the King, he cried, “How great your handiwork!” Glory to your power and your goodness, Lord!
Taking you to heaven, O Mother of God, covering your holy and receptive, God-welcoming body with their many-splendored wings, angelic hosts surrounded you, shielding you with radiant modesty.
Once are very offspring, Mysterious God—He of whom the heavens gave prophecy—died and was buried, sharing willingly our lot; she, too, must share the sepulchre, she who had conceived him impurity!
Ode 5: (Isaiah 26:9-20)
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 end: grant to all who sing to you everlasting vitality.
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.
O vessel of Providence, truly such praise is justified; all of your virginity has risen, homeward to heaven, completely radiant with God: for us, you are a source of holy light, holding and revealing God as his mother most glorious.
Come here, good friends, let us celebrate, with all of God’s own faithful and holy ones, Mary’s great festival; come, sing to Christ, who was born of her, clapping our hands to praise him: glory to both of them!
From you the flower of life sprang forth, not bursting the gates of your virginity; source of vitality, how could your temple immaculate ever be made to share in death’s dissolution?
You sheltered life as a sanctuary; now life without end is your inheritance, life is your dwelling-place. Crossing this river mortality, you call your life your offspring, share his eternity.
Ode 7: (LXX-Daniel 3:26-56)***
When commanded not to adore him who created them, three sons of Israel chose, and their courage, to defy even furnaces, braving the fire, as they sang exultantly, “Praised be the God of Abraham; May the Lord be blessed forever!”
Come, young men and gentle maidens, join the festival; honor that maiden, the Mother of God today; come, elders and emperors, masters and magistrates, join our canticle: “Praised be the God of Abraham; May the Lord be blessed forever!”
Let the mountains, in the Spirit, blow a trumpet-call, fanfares and flourishes; joyously dancing like the hills, let the apostles now leap in their revelry; let our banqueting, sacred to Mary’s memory, fill the stay with consolation.
For the wonderful transition of your Mother, the holy and spotless one, calls to our revelry heaven’s company: Angels and archangels join our festival, singing with us the canticle: “May our God be blessed forever!”
Ode 8: (LXX-Daniel 3:57-88)***
The lads who were cast into the furnace were rescued by Mary’s Son, who guides the universe—then by a prefiguring, now becoming flesh in her, waking the world to victory, inspiring anthems of praise; O come, acclaim the works of the Savior, and call him blessed forever and forever!
Your name, too, O spotless, holy Virgin, the powers and principalities now celebrate, Angels with the archangels, thrones and dominions all, Cherubim, too, and Seraphim, aglow with awe-struck, burning acclaim; so we, mere men and women, dear praise you and call you blessed forever and forever!
The one who mysteriously has entered within you, to take his flesh from your virginity, he it is who welcomes you, taking your immaculate soul in his hands, embracing you— a loving, dutiful Son. How justly we exalt you, holy Virgin, and call you blessed forever and forever!
O marvel of marvels past all-knowing: God’s mother and yet a virgin, you are wonderful! Entering your sepulchre, you leave it as a paradise! All who today are privileged to gaze enjoy at that tomb acclaim her, and acclaim him who made her, and call them blessed forever and forever!
Ode 9: (Luke 1:46-55, 68-79)
Come now, bring a torch, come join the festivity, sons of mortality; dance in exultation now, O race of spirits free of our history, acclaim the great transition of her who is Mother of God. Let us greet her: “Hail to you, Most Holy One, Virgin Mother of God for eternity!”
Come now to the shrine, this mountain of holiness, Sion all-glorious; today let us celebrate, our faces shining with Mary’s radiance! For to a greater sanctuary, and to a holier tent Christ now brings his tabernacle glorious—to the temple in heaven’s Jerusalem.
Come, people of God, draw near to the sepulchre filled with her memory; show it veneration with the lips, the eyes, the heart of fidelity, and in sincere humility, let us now draw from the spring of God’s healing, spiritual probity—let us drink of God’s gifts at his mother’s tomb.
Take from our hands this solemn processional, Mother of mysteries! Keep us in the shade at your protecting hand, from shadows deliver us; and to our King give victory, to all your people give peace, to us sinners, pardon and deliverance; bring us all to that bliss which we celebrate!
End of the Canon For The Dormition Of The Mother Of God
* On The Dormition of Mary: Early Patristic Homilies (Popular Patristics Series #18), Brian E. Daley, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998, pp. 241-6.
** Ode 2 (based on Deuteronomy 32:1-43) is penitential in nature & seldom used outside of Great Lent. Therefore, most festal canons do not have an Ode 2. In such cases the numbering continues with Ode 3 as here.
*** Found only in the LXX.