The death, or ‘falling asleep’ of the Mother of God (dormitio in Latin) is commemorated on August 15th in the Eastern Church. It is the last of the great feasts in the liturgical year dating back to at least the fourth century. The central features are her death, the ascent of her soul to heaven and her subsequent bodily assumption. The Virgin’s bodily assumption prefigures the bodily resurrection of all people at Christ’s second coming. The fact that this important feast is not referred to in the Bible raises some crucial questions.
The Virgin’s bodily assumption was prefigured by Enoch and Elijah who had both been taken up bodily into heaven. The faithful are not required to believe in the literal historicity of every detail in the story only that it illustrates the doctrine of the Resurrection.
The narrative in Orthodox Tradition relates that Mary was living in the house of the Apostle John in Jerusalem when the Archangel Gabriel revealed to her that her death would occur three days later. The apostles, scattered throughout the world, are said to have been miraculously transported to be at her side when she died. The sole exception was Thomas who was preaching in India. When he arrived, Thomas was taken to his fellow apostles whom he asked to see her grave in Gethsemane. When they arrived at the grave, her body was gone and an angel informed them that the Theotokos (Mother of God) had already undergone the bodily resurrection, which all will experience at the Second Coming.
The Roman Catholic tradition concerning the Dormition came to differ from the Orthodox. Emphasis was placed more on Mary’s bodily assumption rather than her dormition. By the eighth century the feast’s name had been changed to the ‘Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven’. Later Roman Catholic theologians claimed that the Virgin did not die at all but was assumed directly into heaven. In 1950 Pope Pius XII in a rare ‘infallable declaration’ made the Virgin’s bodily assumption a dogma of the Church and not just a pious belief.
The Anglican position became confused when in 1549 and 1552 the Calendar initially removed all Marian feasts except the Annunciation and Purification (both events mentioned in the Gospels). This changed in 1561 when the Church of England again marked Our Lady’s Conception on 8th December, her Nativity on 8th September, and the Visitation on 2nd July. Only the Assumption remained excluded. The Church of England, since the Reformation, has never formally accepted the assumption of Mary and this has been one of the major divides with Rome and, in different ways, with Eastern Orthodox belief.
The importance of this feast in the Orthodox Tradition is affirmed by a two-week fast in preparation. At the beginning of the Liturgy the faithful are provided with posies of flowers which are held throughout the service. In spirit they stand with the Apostles beside the Mother of God and merge themselves, according to Orthodox Tradition with the Church Invisible, all her members past and present, in a supremely divine act.
Surely John Tavener’s sublime setting of the Orthodox (exapostilarion) hymn of light rises above all theological dispute.
“O ye apostles, assembled here from the ends of the Earth, bury my body in Gethsemane; and Thou my Son and God, receive my Spirit.”
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Feature Image: National Museum in Kraków, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons