A historic perspective on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin

The Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, which we celebrate on 15 August, is the fourth great feast in the liturgical year, after Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. We celebrate that Mary was taken into heaven with soul and body. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians (n. 966).

The Assumption of Mary became dogma, ecclesiastical doctrine of the highest rank that all Catholics are held to believe, in 1950 – but this was preceded by a long history which starts as early as the fifth century, in the East where all Marian devotion has its roots. The popular devotion to the Mother of God, which existed from the start, was recognised by the Church at the Council of Ephesus (431) which recognised Mary as the Theotokos (in Greek), Mater Dei (in Latin), Mother of God. Mary had not given birth to the man Jesus, but to the God-man Jesus. Throughout this official recognition runs a body of apocryphal literature which extends the parallel between Eve and Mary from Adam to the second Adam (Christ), of which St. Paul already speaks. The bond between Mary and Christ is so strong that it can not be broken by death. Her body did not decompose but was assumed with Christ in Paradise, so it is believed.

At the start of the fifth century a book appears, De Transitu Beatae Mariae Virginis (BMV), originally in Syrian, about the transition of Mary from this life to the next. At that time there is already a memorial of the Mother of God known in Syria, a feast which, under the influence of the Council of Ephesus, spreads throughout the entire East and is the predecessor of the feast of the koimesis (the falling asleep of Mary), as the Greeks call it, or the dormitio in Latin. The apocryphal texts unanimously refer to Jerusalem as the place where Mary died and where the orthodox venerate the so-called grave of Mary in a cave at the foot of the Mount of Olives. According to another tradition Ephesus, in modern Turkey, is the location of Mary’s falling asleep.

In that same century, around 434, a feast is known in Jerusalem of Mary Theotokos. Shortly later this becomes the memorial of the passing of Mary from this earthly life and her transition to heavenly glory. In the West, Gregory of Tours is the first western writer who seems to know the aforementioned book De Transitu BMV only at the end of the sixth century. In Rome Pope Theodore, who had been part of the clergy of Jerusalem, introduced the feast of 15 August in Rome around 650.  A few years later, the Syrian Pope Sergius established a procession on the feast of the Dormitio of the Mother of God, as a document reports. An important witness of the faith of the Church of Rome is the prayer Veneranda of that same Pope: “Venerable in our eyes, Lord, is the feast on this day, on which the Holy Mother of God underwent temporary death but could not be held by the bonds of death, because she had given birth to Your Son, our Lord, who has assumed the flesh from her.”

Under Charlemagne the Roman liturgy is introduced in the entire empire and therefore this feast is spread across the entire West.

Then there is some stagnation surrounding this fact, especially under the influence of Paschasius Radbertus,, because Holy Scripture says nothing about the fate of Mary’s body. But the incorruptibility of it is upheld regardless. Theological doubts do not limit the faith of the people and that is confirmed in the twelfth century by a  theological work, De Assumptione BMV, with which authoritative writers like Abelard and Hugo of St. Victor agree, as well as the theologians of high scholasticism in the thirteenth century.

Written clues are found in Genesis 3:15:  “I shall put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers”. Mary is the new Eve, the favoured one (Luke 1:28), blessed among women (Luke 1:42),  “from now onwards all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:28), letters of St. Paul (1 Cor. 15:20-26 etc.), Apocalypse (11:19a, 12:1-6a). And also in the Old Testament the Song of Songs and the Psalms (45 a.o).

The feast, then, was celebrated in the entire Church but there was no certainty yet about the bodily Assumption. At the First vatican Council (1870) there had already been a petition from 200 bishops for a dogmatic definition. This found its culmination in the dogmatic declaration by Pope Pius XII on All Saints, 1 November, 1950. We see how this fact of faith developed over the course of the centuries, gained a shape and was confirmed after 1500 years, which means that it no longer floats about but is rooted in the teaching of the Church. The Orthodox churches of the East, as an aside, also know the feast and celebrate it with us on 15 August.

The promise of Easter is confirmed in the Assumption of Mary and with it our future. 15 August is the feast day of the triumph of God’s loving mercy.

Father R.Wagenaar

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