The Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary
What might it have to say to us?
Thursday, 15th August, was the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary. The teaching of the Assumption of Mary is held by Roman Catholics, the Eastern Churches – both Orthodox and Catholic – and some Anglicans. The teaching expressed in this Solemnity does not have a basis in Scripture, and for that reason Anglicans are divided over it. In the Roman Catholic Tradition, it is something that developed in the hearts of the faithful over many centuries and was finally declared dogma by Pope Pius XII in 1950. In his document, Munificentissimus Deus, Pius XII declared that Mary, “when the course of her earthly life was run, was assumed in body and soul to heavenly glory”. This teaching expresses the belief in the intrinsic goodness and virtue of Mary who, chosen by God to bear and give birth to Jesus, is therefore considered to have been born free of the effects of original sin. This teaching is called the Immaculate Conception. Because of this, it is held that Mary was spared the normal process of bodily decay and was ‘assumed’ into heaven.
In the Orthodox Tradition, it is called the Dormition, the Falling Asleep of Mary. Among Eastern Christians, both Eastern Catholic and Orthodox, the traditions surrounding this belief are drawn from a fourth century document, The Account of Saint John the Theologian of the Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God. This document, written in the voice of John the evangelist, the one to whom Jesus entrusted his mother as they both stood at the foot of the cross, recounts how the Archangel Gabriel came to Mary while she was praying at the tomb in Jerusalem in which Jesus had been laid and from which he rose, and told Mary that her earthly life had reached its end. Mary then returned to Bethlehem for her final days. All of the apostles were caught up in clouds by the Holy Spirit and transported to Bethlehem to be with Mary and together they carried her bed, again with the help of the Holy Spirit, to her home in Jerusalem where, on the following Sunday, Christ appeared to her and told her not to fear. While Peter sang a hymn, “the face of the mother of the Lord shone brighter than the light, and she rose up and blessed each of the apostles with her own hand, and all gave glory to God, and the Lord stretched forth His undefiled hands, and received her holy and blameless soul … And Peter, and I John, and Paul, and Thomas, ran and wrapped up her precious feet for the consecration; and the twelve apostles put her precious and holy body upon a couch, and carried it”. They took Mary’s body to the Garden of Gethsemane where they placed it in a new tomb, “and behold, a perfume of sweet savour came forth out of the holy sepulchre of our Lady of the mother of God; and for three days the voices of invisible angels were heard glorifying Christ our God, who had been born of her. And when the third day was ended, the voices were no longer heard; and from that time forth all knew that her spotless and precious body had been transferred to paradise”.
This fourth century Eastern text is the earliest extant version of the story. The earliest Latin versions of the story of the Assumption were written a few centuries later. They differ in some detail but also proclaim that Mary died, that Christ received her soul, that the apostles entombed her body and that her body was taken up into heaven. From the fourth century onwards the Eastern churches held steadily to this tradition and we also find homilies on the Assumption going back to the sixth century. In the West, however, there was some hesitancy, but by the thirteenth century there was universal agreement.
Ms Kerry McCullough
Spirituality and Liturgy Coordinator