Mary’s Apocalypse – A Cautionary Tale

“The Assumption of Mary” Sano di Pietro (c. 1448-1452)

Holy is God Who has compassion on account of the Theotokos.  We give Thee thanks, O Son of God, that from eternity we did not see the light, and today through the Theotokos we have seen the light: and again they shouted with one voice, saying:  Hail, Theotokos, full-of-grace!  Hail, lamp of the inaccessible light!

Apocalypsis Mariae Virginae 23:1

The story of how Mary died, just like the story of how she was born, is not in the Bible. Christians generally rely on apocryphal legends for details about these things. The feast of Mary’s Dormition or “falling asleep” is a latecomer to Church history and Christians apparently did not really celebrate it until the 5th or 6th century. Like much of its dabbling in the apocrypha, the Church does not really admit which of many apocryphal sources ultimately influenced its liturgical commemorations, but we know that many of the traditions surrounding Mary’s death come from Jerusalem, although there are different local traditions. We also know that the Orthodox Church long credited Dionysius the Areopagite and Ignatius of Antioch with transmitting the tradition. 

Stephen Shoemaker, a professor from the University of Oregon who specializes in the study of early Christianity and particularly the role of Mary, once made available a number of these traditions in translation on his website which was linked through Wikipedia. However, he has updated since those translations have become a book, so I spent a lot of time yesterday, fruitlessly searching the internet for them. I may one day buy the expensive book, but in the mean time, while searching some classic (and free) sources, I found something even more interesting and surely unknown to many. Looking through volume 9 of the famed Ante Nicene Fathers collection I happened upon the “Apocalypse of the Virgin” translated by Andrew Rutherford from the text of M. R. James in Texts and Studies, ii., 3, (1893) from a manuscript in the Bodleian Library.

During these days of the Dormition Fast (Aug 1-14), it is customary to pray in alteration two supplicatory canons, or intercessory hymns to the Virgin Mary. These hymns are called the great and small Παρακλητικος κανων. Paraklētikos is an adjective coming from the word Παρακλητος or Paraklēte (“counselor” or “advocate”) which is usually an appellation of the Holy Spirit but is also applied to Christ (cf 1 Jn 2:1). These hymns of paraklēsis or fervent supplication are addressed to the Virgin Mary. Although I do not think she is usually called a Paraklēte, the Coptic Church does call Mary the Προστατης prostátēs which means “one who stands before.” (In case you are wondering: yes, that is where the English word “prostate” comes from). In Ezekiel 22:30 where Israel is likened to a furnace, God says “So I sought for a man among them who would make a wall, and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found no one.” Orthodox Christians who call the Mother of God “faithful advocate of the human race” believe that she is one of the pre-eminent ones who “stands in the gap” for us, as the Apocalypse of Mary will show.

The text we will be looking at is called Ἀποκάλυψις τῆς ἁγιας θεοτόκοῦ περὶ τῶν κολασέων (Apokalypsis tēs hagias Theotokou peri ton kolaseon): “The Apocalypse of the holy Theotokos concerning the punishments.” It was probably written in the 9th century.

“Announcement of Death to the Virgin” Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1308-1311)

According to several Dormition legends, the Virgin Mary would visit the Holy Sepulchre, Gethsemane, and Cavalry to burn incense and pray. (BTW: I really want someone to write and icon of the Theotokos with a censer, so if there are any artists reading, take notes.) Let’s turn to the text.

The all-holy Theotokos was about to proceed to the Mount of Olives to pray; and praying to the Lord our God she said, “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; let the archangel Gabriel descend, that he may tell me concerning the chastisements and concerning things in heaven and on the earth and under the earth.

And as she said the word the archangel Michael descended with the angels of the East and the West and angels of the South and the North, and they saluted the highly favored one and said to her:

“Hail (Χαιρε), reflection of the Father! Hail dwelling of the Son! Hail command of the Holy Spirit! Hail firmament of the seven heavens! Hail firmament of the eleven strongholds! Hail worship of the angels! Hail loftier than the prophets unto the throne of God!”

After the angel greets her in this way (in a manner reminiscent of the akathist hymn), she greets the angel in a similar manner.

And having greeted all the angels in like manner, the highly favoured one prayed the commander-in-chief regarding the chastisements, saying, “Tell to me all things on the earth.” And the commander-in-chief said to her,  “If thou askest me, highly favoured one, I will tell thee.” And the highly favoured one said to him, “How many are the chastisements with which the race of man is chastised?” And the archangel said to her, “The chastisements are innumerable. And the highly favoured one said to him, “Tell me the things in heaven and on the earth.”

Let’s look into this word “chastisement.” This vision is called the Apocalypse of the Theotokos concerning the kolaseon (κολασέων). Kolasis is an interesting word because it doesn’t mean “chastisement” in a straightforward way. Kolasis comes from the verb κολαζω which means actually means first and foremost

  1. to lop or prune as in trees or wigs
  2. to curb, check, or restrain
  3. to chastise, correct, or punish,
  4. to cause to be punished

The word kolazo actually comes from the word κολος kolos which means “dwarf.” The progression of meaning then is this: originally kolasis was a pruning or “dwarfing” of something bigger. In time this had the metaphoric meaning of checking, restraining, or curbing something. In time, this came to be seen as a punishment. The word kolasis is used sparingly but significantly in the New Testament, particularly in 2 Peter 2:9.

οἶδεν κύριος εὐσεβεῖς ἐκ πειρασμοῦ ῥύεσθαι, ἀδίκους δὲ εἰς ἡμέραν κρίσεως κολαζομένους τηρεῖν, (SBLNT)

The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished (κολαζομένους):” (KJV)

Here, κολαζομένους kolazomenous is a verb form derived from kolasis. The word also appears in 1 John 4:18 where it is translated as “torment.”

φόβος οὐκ ἔστιν ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ, ἀλλ’ ἡ τελεία ἀγάπη ἔξω βάλλει τὸν φόβον, ὅτι ὁ φόβος κόλασιν ἔχει, ὁ δὲ φοβούμενος οὐ τετελείωται ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ. (SBLNT)

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment (κόλασιν). He that feareth is not made perfect in love. (KJV)

It’s significant that kolasis or chastisement is related to fear. It is also significant to keep in mind that although kolasis or kolaseos is a modern Greek word for “hell,” Peter writes that kolasis is something that the wicked go through before the Day of Judgment. We are talking about something like the Purgatorio in Dante (but only like the purgatorio, since Orthodox reject the modern Catholic dogma of Purgatory).

Then Michael, the commander-in-chief, commanded the Western angels that revelation should be made, and Hades opened, and she saw those who were chastised in Hades:  and there lay there a multitude of men and women, and there was a great lamentation.  And the highly favoured one asked the commander-in-chief: “Who are these and what is their sin?” And the commander-in-chief said: Panagia, These, are those who did not worship the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and for this cause they are thus chastised here.

And she saw in another place a great darkness. And the Panagia said, “What is this darkness and who are they who are being chastised?” And the commander-in-chief said, “Many souls are lying in this darkness. And the Panagia said, “Let this darkness be taken away in order that I may see this chastisement also.” But the commander-in-chief said to the highly favoured one, “It is not possible, Panagia, that thou shouldst see this chastisement also.” And the angels guarding them answered and said, “We have a command from the invisible Father that they shall not see the light till thy blessed Son shall shine forth.” And plunged in grief the Panagia lifted up her eyes to the angels touching the undefiled Word of the Father, and said, “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, let the darkness be taken away, that I may see this chastisement also.” And straightway that darkness was lifted up and covered the seven heavens, and there lay a great multitude of both men and women, and there arose a great lamentation and a great cry began.

What I find fascinating about this account is that for some reason, the Theotokos wants to know the suffering of those in Hades. She calls on the angels to show her a tour of hell so to speak. The first people she encounters are those who do not believe in the Trinity. Now she has come to a darker place in the Underworld but is told that she is not permitted to see what lies in the darkness. Amazingly, this does not stop her. She calls on the Trinity and immediately the darkness is dispelled. Those whom she sees in the darkness are those who didn’t believe in the Trinity and did not believe Mary to be the Theotokos (Mother of God).

And seeing them the Panagia wept and said to them, “What are ye doing, wretched ones? Who are ye?  And how are ye found there?” And there was no voice or hearkening.  And the angels guarding them said, “Why do ye not speak to the highly favoured one?”  And those who were under chastisement said to her, “O highly favoured one, from eternity we see not the light, and we are not able to keep off that up there. And splashing pitch flowed down upon them. And seeing them the Panagia wept.  And again those who were being chastised said to her, “How dost thou ask concerning us, holy lady Theotokos?  Thy blessed Son came to the earth and did not make enquiry concerning us, neither Abraham the patriarch, nor John the Baptist, nor Moses the great prophet, nor the Apostle Paul, and unto us their light shone not. And now, Panagia Theotokos, Armour of Christians, the Bringer of great comfort on account of the Christians, how dost thou ask concerning us?” Then the Panagia Theotokos said to Michael, the commander-in-chief, “What is their sin?”  And Michael, the commander-in-chief, said, “These are they who did not believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and did not confess thee to be the Theotokos, and that the Lord Jesus Christ was born of thee and took flesh, and for this cause they are chastised there.”

After this, the Theotokos and the angel head South and see a river a fire in which people are submerged to different degrees, some up to the waist, others to the chest, some the neck, and some up to their head in fire. The different degrees correspond to various sins like committing adultery, exposing one’s infant (a common crime in ancient times), or swearing falsely by the Cross. Those who lend money at ridiculous interest rates (usury) are hung by their feet and those who gossip are hung by their earlobes.

And seeing these things the Panagia Theotokos wept and said to the commander-in-chief, “It were well for man that he had not been born.” And the commander-in-chief said:  Verily, all holy one, thou hast not seen the great chastisements.” And the Panagia said to the commander-in-chief, “Come, Michael, great commander-in-chief, and lead me that I may see all the chastisements.”

It must be incredible that they have seen a river of fire, but the angel basically tells Mary, “You haven’t seen the worst of it.” Mary and the angel head West where they see a cloud of fire which consumes those who never go to church. Those who don’t rise to respect the priests are stuck to flaming benches. Perjurers, blasphemers, and slanderers are hung by their tongues from an iron tree with iron branches. Then we come to a very important part of the Revelation: the place where clergy are punished.

And in another place the Panagia saw a man hanging from his four extremities, and from his nails blood gushed vehemently, and his tongue was tied in a flame of fire, and he was unable to groan and say the Kyrie eleïson me.  And when she had seen him the Panagia wept and herself said the Kyrie eleïson thrice. And after the saying of the prayer, came the angel who had authority over the scourge and loosed the man’s tongue. And the Panagia asked the commander-in-chief, “Who is this wretched one who has this chastisement?” And the commander-in-chief said, “This, Panagia, is the steward who did not the will of God, but ate the things of the church and said [to himself], ‘He who ministers to the altar shall be nourished from the altar’ (cf Lev 10:12; Num 18:7). and for this cause he is thus chastised here.” And the Panagia said, “Let it be unto him according to his faith.” And again he tied his tongue.

Throughout the next several episodes, the Virgin Mary always ends by saying, “Let it be unto him according to his faith.” She means this as a defense. If they really have faith, then their faith will save them. But in each instance, the people return to their punishment because they have no faith. Negligent priests are punished in a similar way.

And the Panagia saw a man and a winged beast having three heads like flames of fire. The two heads were towards his eyes and the third head towards his mouth.  And seeing him the Panagia asked the commander-in-chief, “Who is this, that he cannot save himself from the mouth of the dragon?” And the commander-in-chief said to her, “This, Panagia, is the reader who does not practice in his own habits according to what is worthy of the holy Gospel, and for this cause he is thus chastised here.”

This is a particularly harrowing chastisement for all of us who love reading but do not really put into practice what we read. Next are the punishments of bishops and patriarchs. This section is interesting because in it we learn of the punishments of the wives of priests and not only deaconesses but archdeaconesses. This is some comparatively early evidence for the existence of archdeaconesses. Next, Mary and the Angle go East toward the borders of Paradise.

And behold, there was a great river, and the appearance of the river was blacker than pitch, and in it there were a multitude of men and women. It boiled like a furnace of forges, and its waves were like a wild sea over the sinners. And when the waves rose, they sank the sinners ten thousand cubits and they were unable to keep it off and say, “Have mercy on us, thou Just Judge.” For the sleepless worm devoured them, and there was no reckoning of the number of those who devoured them. And seeing the all holy Theotokos the angels who chastised them cried out with one voice, “Holy is God who has compassion on account of the Theotokos. We give thee thanks, O Son of God, that from eternity we did not see the light, and to-day through the Theotokos we have seen the light,”  and again they shouted with one voice, saying, “Hail, highly favoured Theotoos! Hail, lamp of the inaccessible light! Hail to thee also, Michael, the commander-in-chief, thou that art ambassador from the whole creation! For we, seeing the chastisement of sinners are greatly grieved.”

This Revelation is significant because it is an indication that the angels, whom we sometimes portray as passionless, are grieved over the chastisement of sinners. Not only the Virgin Mary, but also the archangel Michael intercede for us.

And the Panagia said, “Let us see the sinners.” And the highly favoured one, coming with the archangel Michael and all the armies of the angels lifted up one voice saying, “Lord have mercy.” And after the making of the prayer earnestly, the wave of the river rested and the fiery waves grew calm, and the sinners appeared as a grain of mustard-seed. And seeing them the Panagia lamented and said, “What is this river, and what are its waves?”

When Mary and the angles join in praying “Lord have mercy” the waves of the river of boiling blackness is calmed enough for the sinners to catch their breath. Those in this horrible river are (not surprisingly for a Byzantine text) the Jews who crucified Jesus and did not accept Christ throughout history. Fornicators, debauchers, assassins, and mothers who murder their children are also in this river.

And the Panagia said, “According to their faith so be it unto them.” And straightway the waves rose over the sinners and the darkness covered them.

Again, there is not enough faith in the river of pitch to keep the waves off of them.

And the commander-in-chief said, “Come hither, Panagia, and I will show unto thee the lake of fire; see thou where the race of the Christians is chastised.” And the Panagia proceeded and saw, and some she heard, but others she did not see. And she asked the commander-in-chief, “Who are these, and what is their sin?” And the commander-in-chief said, “These, Panagia, are those who were baptized and arrayed under the oracle of Christ, but worked the works of the devil and wasted the time of their repentance, and for this cause they are thus chastised here.”

We are accustomed to thinking of the Lake of Fire as the deepest part of hell reserved for those like Judas or Brutus. Instead, in an unbelievable twist, the lake of fire is filled with Christians!

And [the Theotokos] said, “I pray, one request will I make of thee, let me also be chastised with the Christians, because they are the children of my Son.” And the commander-in-chief said, “Rest thou in Paradise, holy lady, Theotokos.” And the Panagia said, “I pray thee, move the fourteen firmaments and the seven heavens, and let us pray for the Christians that the Lord our God may hearken unto us and have mercy on them.”

This is unprecedented compassion. The Virgin asks to be punished in Hades with the Christian people because they are children of Jesus. When she is told by the angels that they pray seven times a day for the suffering Christians, she boldly demands “Move the fourteen firmaments and seven heavens and let us pray for the Christians.” Chariots of cherubim and seraphim raise the Theotokos up to heaven and she prays:

“Have mercy, O Lord, on the Christian sinners, for I saw them being chastised and I cannot bear their complaint.  Let me go forth and be chastised myself for the Christians… for the Christians I entreat thy compassion.” And there came a second voice from the invisible Father saying, “How can I have mercy on them, when they did not have mercy on their own brothers?” And the Panagia said, “Lord, have mercy on the sinners: behold the chastisements, for every creature on the earth calls upon my name:  and when the soul comes forth out of the body, it cries saying, ‘Holy Lady, Theotokos.'” Then the Lord said to her, “Hearken, all holy Theotokos, if anyone names and calls upon thy name, I will not forsake him, either in heaven or on earth.”

Still not totally content, Mary begins to solicit the saints for prayers. She recruits Moses and the prophets who gave humanity the Law, John the Apostle who gave us the Gospel (it is interesting that she doesn’t name the other Evangelists), Paul who gave us the Epistles. She even calls upon the personification of Kyriake, the Lord’s Day (Sunday), and on the power of the Life-Giving Cross. They all intercede, but there is a problem: Christians are judged by the same standards of the Law, Gospel, and Epistles. How are Moses, John, and Paul, supposed to pray for us if we do not keep the testimony they gave us? So Mary argues that the Christians who break the law and gospel are simple-minded children who did not know what they were doing. God agrees that if we can at least manage not to return evil for good that we are “innocent.” But otherwise, if we break the law but are not even merciful on each other, how can we be considered “innocent?” So Mary calls on Gabriel, Michael, and all the angels and they intercede for the Christian people. Finally, since the saints have no defense for us aside from saying “Lord have mercy!”

Then the Lord, seeing the prayer of the saints, had compassion and said, “Go down, my beloved Son, and because of the prayer of the saints let Thy face shine on earth to sinners.” Then the Lord came down from his undefiled throne, and when they saw Him, those who were under chastisement raised one voice saying: “Have mercy on us, King of ages!” Then the Lord of all things said, “Hearken, all ye sinners and righteous men. I made paradise and made man after My image, but he transgressed, and for his own sins was delivered to death. But I did not suffer the works of my hands to be tyrannized over by the serpent. Wherefore I bowed the heavens and came down and was born of Mary, the holy undefiled Theotokos, that I might set you free. I was baptized in Jordan in order that I might save the creature (nature) which had grown old under sin. I was nailed to the cross to free you from the ancient curse. I asked for water and ye gave me vinegar mingled with gall. I was laid in the grave. I trampled on the enemy. I raised up mine elect, and even thus ye would not hear me. But now, because of the prayer of my mother Mary, because she has wept much for your sake, and because of Michael my archangel, and because of the multitude of my saints, I grant you to have rest on the day of Pentecost to glorify the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Then all the angels and archangels, thrones, lordships, authorities, governments, powers, and the many-eyed cherubim and the six-winged seraphim and all the apostles and prophets and martyrs and all the saints raised one voice, saying, “Glory to thee, O Lord!  Glory to thee, lover of men! Glory to thee, King of ages! Glory be to thy compassion!  Glory be to thy long suffering! Glory be to thy unspeakable justice of judgment, because thou hast been long-suffering with sinners and impious men! Thine is it to pity and to save. To him be the glory and the power to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit for ever and ever.  Amen.

This is a weird and scary book. It is not scriptural or canonical or anything like that. Yet for me, it exercises an irresistible if not harrowing charm. I want to study the text more in the future, but for now I think one overwhelming insight speaks for itself: There are Christians in Hell. Or at least in a purgatory that is worse than most images of hell we can imagine.

At the same time, if we keep in mind the meaning of chastisement above, Hell is probably a very small place. From the vantage of heaven, i.e. from the perspective of Mary and the angels in this Apocalyptic vignette, the sinners in the river of pitch are the size of a mustard seed. In Hades, everything is according to your faith. You’ve either got it or you don’t, and it is this faith or lack thereof that damns you.

Everyone suffers unexpected, but eerily just, gruesome punishments for their various sins, and unexpectedly, Christians (except for maybe the Jews) seem to have it the worst. Yet this is a story with a strange, ambiguous, but optimistic ending. The saints and angels are always interceding for us. The Virgin Mary is so compassionate that she would rather go to hell for all the Christians than to allow the children of Jesus to suffer, even though they deserve it. And Jesus is not really a cold hearted judge. In his grand final address which sounds like an eastern Eucharistic anaphora, He recounts how He was born, baptized, and ultimately died for our salvation. We can be hard-hearted even to that love. But because of the communion of all the saints, on the feast of Pentecost which in the Byzantine rite is also the feast of All Saints, sinners in Hades have a reprieve from their suffering.

“Пакроў” (The Intercession). Belorussian icon, 1740.

Hopefully this weird, mythological, perhaps somewhat questionable intro to a long forgotten apocryphal version of Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio will help energize prayers as Christians ask the Mother of God and all the saints to intercede for them always.


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