--Venerable Pope Pius XII
Munificentissimus Deus, 44-45
And so, by dogmatically declaring the Assumption of Mary as an article of faith, for many non-Catholics, they mistakenly see this as a fairly new teaching, one that was apparently *invented* by the Pope in 1950. For instance, one Anglo-Catholic parish in Newark, NJ disagrees on the Assumption of Mary (among other things) and calls the Pope's dogmatic declaration "blatant Roman sectarianism". However, like many things that we've discussed on this blog, often times people will reject a teaching of the Church, not so much because they don't believe it, but because of who is defining it. As often is the case, Rome is usually "Johnny Come Lately" when it comes to certain feasts on the liturgical calendar. To counteract the absurd and bigoted charge that the Assumption (and Lent, and Easter, and Christmas, et al) are "Romanish" inventions, I often turn to our brothers and sisters in the East in order to show that there is nothing new or "papist" about what Catholics believe - it is merely, as Pope Pius XII said, "divinely revealed".
It won't make much sense to explore the history of this feast if we don't first understand why we should care. Most non-Catholics and non-Orthodox ask, "Why should we care? Why make such a big deal about Mary?" I'll let Martin Luther, Protestant father, answer that: "[She is the] highest woman and the noblest gem in Christianity after Christ...She is nobility, wisdom, and holiness personified. We can never honor her enough. Still honor and praise must be given to her in such a way as to injure neither Christ nor the Scriptures" (Sermon, Christmas, 1531). For many Christians, we believe the time-honored truth that without Mary's "yes" to the Archangel Gabriel, the Lord would never have been incarnated; her "yes" set us free. The Body and Blood that was shed on the cross, that we feast on at Holy Communion, was taken from his earthly Mother, Mary. Jesus is fully human and fully divine - where did that humanity come from? His mother, Mary.
The Orthodox Churches don't call it the Assumption (where Mary's body and soul were assumed into heaven by Jesus Christ); instead, they call it the dormition of the Theotokos (God-bearer). Dormition, or "falling asleep in the Lord" is the way the Eastern Christians refer to a person dying. So, the feast commemorates the day that Mary died. The Coptic (Egyptian) tradition follows:
As she [Mary] was always praying in the holy sepulcher, the Holy Spirit informed her that she was about to depart from this temporal world. When the time of her departure arrived, the virgins of the Mount of Olives came to her, with the apostles, who were still alive, and they surrounded her bed. The Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom is the glory, with a host of thousands and thousands of angels came to her and comforted her and told her about the eternal joy that was prepared for her, and she rejoiced. The apostles and the virgins asked her to bless them. She stretched her hand and blessed them all, and she gave up her pure spirit in the hand of her Son and God, and He took her spirit to the heavenly mansions. The apostles prepared the body in a fitting manner and carried it to Gethsemane. Some of the Jews blocked their way to prevent them from burying the body. One of the Jews seized the coffin with his hands, which were separated instantly from his body and they remained attached to the coffin. He regretted his evil deed and wept bitterly. Through the supplications of the saintly apostles, his hands were reattached to his body, and he believed in the Lord Christ. When they placed the body in the tomb, the Lord hid it from them. Saint Thomas the Apostle was not present at the time of Saint Mary’s departure. He wanted to go to Jerusalem and a cloud carried him there. On his way, he saw the pure body of Saint Mary carried by the angels and ascended to heaven with it. One of the angels told him, “Make haste and kiss the pure body of Saint Mary,” and he did. When Saint Thomas arrived where the disciples were, they told him about Saint Mary’s departure and he said to them, “You know how I conducted myself at the resurrection of the Lord Christ, and I will not believe unless I see her body.” They went with him to the tomb, and uncovered the place of the body but they did not find it, and everyone was perplexed and surprised. Saint Thomas told them how he saw the holy body and the angels that were ascending with it. They heard the Holy Spirit saying to them, “The Lord did not will to leave her body on earth.” The Lord had promised his pure apostles to let them see her in the flesh once again. They were waiting for this promise to be fulfilled, until the 16th day of the month of Misra, when the promise was fulfilled and they saw her. The years of her life on earth were 60 years.
In a Church, Catholic or Orthodox, where relics of saints are prized - even fought over - there are no first class relics of Mary (that is, there are no fragments of bone) in any church anywhere in the world. Had she really not been assumed into heaven (or, as fundamentalists like to say, had she not been raptured), surely her relics would be a prized possession of Rome, Constantinople, or Moscow.
Like with the feasts of the Incarnation and Christmas, various dates where in use for this feast throughout the East until the year AD 588, when the Byzantine Emperor Maurice asked that the Feast of the Dormition be put on August 15 in the liturgical calendar throughout the Byzantine Empire. It wasn't until nearly the 700s when Rome first started to celebrate this feast; and, once Pope Sergius I approved of this feast, it spread throughout the West. The Gregorian Sacramentary was given to Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor (died AD 814), in the 790s so that the Roman Rite could be celebrated throughout his empire; within it is the passage on the Assumption: Venerable to us, O Lord, is the festivity of this day on which the holy Mother of God suffered temporal death, but still could not be kept down by the bonds of death, who has begotten your Son our Lord incarnate from herself.
In both east and west, fasting in preparation for this feast began on August 1, with a slight reprieve on the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6. As I've said before, if you want to see some tough fasting, look at the Eastern Christians. It is the current observance in the Orthodox churches to fast from all meat, dairy, oil, or wine during the fast (except that on the Transfiguration they are allowed some fish and they can have oil and wine on weekends). Currently, the Catholic Church does not fast prior to the Assumption, although prior to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, there was still a fast on the vigil (the 'eve') of the Feast of the Assumption.
For most non-Catholics and non-Orthodox, all of this is moot because it's not in Scripture - if it's not in Scripture, according to them, then it is probably not true. However, in the Apostolic tradition, Catholics and Orthodox see Sacred Tradition as part of the divine deposit of faith that God has revealed to his Church. In the East, the sources of *proof* they use for this feast are the writings of Saints Dionysius the Areopagite (baptized by St. Paul, died AD 96), John the Damascene (died AD 749) and Andrew of Crete (died AD 726).
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America do a good job explaining why we should celebrate this holy feast day - because Mary's story is our story. "This great Feast of the Church...celebrates a fundamental teaching of our faith — the Resurrection of the body. In the case of the Theotokos, this has been accomplished by the divine will of God. Thus, this Feast is a feast of hope, hope in Resurrection and life eternal. Like those who gathered around the body of the Virgin Mary, we gather around our departed loved ones and commend their souls into the hands of Christ. As we remember those who have reposed in the faith before us and have passed on into the communion of the Saints, we prepare ourselves to one day be received into the new life of the age to come. We also affirm through this Feast as we journey toward our heavenly abode that the Mother of God intercedes for us. Through Christ she has become the mother of all of the children of God, embracing us with divine love."
As Martin Luther declared, "There can be no doubt that the Virgin Mary is in heaven."
Let's continue to look into the East's theology regarding the Assumption/dormition and why it should mean something to all Christians. I have stolen this generous tract from the website of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese:
The...Dormition of the Theotokos [is] an eschatological event that confirms the destruction of hades and the defeat of death. The Dormition of the Theotokos confirms the reality of the transformation of death from a fearful enemy into a joyous passage to eternal life. The eschatological nature of the feast of the Dormition is evident, not only in the hymnography of the feast, but also in the mysterious gathering of the apostles, who gathered to witness how Christ, himself, comes to escort His mother to the kingdom. They are mysteriously gathered to witness, again, to the truthfulness of resurrection of Christ and his victory over death.
The liturgical text of the Feast of the Dormition depicts the feast as a Paschal event. The hymns of the feast assert that the Virgin Mary experienced her own personal Pascha by passing through death and rising to eternal life. Being alive in heaven, as a queen and mother of Christ, we, now, can ask her intercessions to help us transform our own forthcoming death into a Paschal victory over death. In the ecclesiastical tradition, the feast of Dormition of the Theotokos is called the "Summer Pascha." This name is derived from the fact that the Theotokos experienced her own Pascha; "Passover" from this life into life eternal.
Lastly, we should pause and think of why the Church in the East and West hold Mary with such honor; it is because God holds her with such honor. As the Byzantine liturgy says, "God, the King of the universe, has granted you favors that surpass nature. As he kept you a virgin in childbirth, thus he has kept your body incorrupt in the tomb and has glorified it by his divine act of transferring it from the tomb." And the 9th Reading of the Matutinum Hour of the Breviary celebrates, "O blessed day which raised up and so highly exalted this most humble handmaiden of the Lord that she might become the most glorious Queen of Heaven and the mistress of the world." Blessed John Henry Newman, while still an Anglican, wrote: "There was a wonder in heaven; a throne was seen, far above all created powers, mediatorial, intercessory; a title archetypical; a crown bright as the morning star; a glory issuing from the Eternal Throne; robes as pure as the heavens; and a sceptre over all...The vision is found in the Apocalypse (Rev 11:19-12:5), a Woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars."
Therefore, seeing as how East and West have declared the Assumption/Dormition to be true for centuries, Venerable Pius XII felt it time to proclaim that which the Christian West was considering optional, or (at worst) fabricated, that of our Blessed Mother's place in the Lord's work:
Since the universal Church, within which dwells the Spirit of Truth who infallibly directs it toward an ever more perfect knowledge of the revealed truths, has expressed its own belief many times over the course of the centuries, and since the bishops of the entire world are almost unanimously petitioning that the truth of the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven should be defined as a dogma of divine and Catholic faith--this truth which is based on the Sacred Writings, which is thoroughly rooted in the minds of the faithful, which has been approved in ecclesiastical worship from the most remote times, which is completely in harmony with the other revealed truths, and which has been expounded and explained magnificently in the work, the science, and the wisdom of the theologians - we believe that the moment appointed in the plan of divine providence for the solemn proclamation of this outstanding privilege of the Virgin Mary has already arrived.
None of this is because the Virgin has this power and prestige; it is because the Lord is great enough to grant it to her. As she says in her Magnificat, "He has looked with favor on his lowly servant." Mary completely and freely abandons herself to God's will; "I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." Christ will often tell a suffering person, "Your faith has saved you;" Elizabeth, marvelling at Mary's great faith, says, "Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord." In having great faith in the Lord, Mary exclaims His Goodness, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior...For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.”
And all generations have called her blessed - the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. The Theotokos, our Mother. And her Assumption is proof that Jesus will raise the dead and those worthy enough to enter heaven will be there with him - and his Mother - for all eternity, body and soul. But it starts first with the New Adam and the New Eve.
Arise, O Lord, into your resting place: you and the ark, which you have sanctified (Ps 131:8).