15 Aug The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Today is the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary; also called in old liturgical books Pausatio, Nativitas (for heaven), Mors, Depositio, Dormitio S. Mariae. This feast has a double object: (1) the happy departure of Mary from this life; (2) the assumption of her body into heaven. It is the principal feast of the Blessed Virgin.
Regarding the day, year, and manner of Our Lady's death, nothing certain is known. The earliest known literary reference to the Assumption is found in the Greek work De Obitu S. Dominae. Catholic faith, however, has always derived our knowledge of the mystery from Apostolic Tradition. Epiphanius (d. 403) acknowledged that he knew nothing definite about it (Haer., lxxix, 11). The dates assigned for it vary between three and fifteen years after Christ's Ascension. Two cities claim to be the place of her departure: Jerusalem and Ephesus. Common consent favours Jerusalem, where her tomb is shown; but some argue in favour of Ephesus. The first six centuries did not know of the tomb of Mary at Jerusalem.
The belief in the corporeal assumption of Mary is founded on the apocryphal treatise De Obitu S. Dominae, bearing the name of St. John, which belongs however to the fourth or fifth century. It is also found in the book De Transitu Virginis, falsely ascribed to St. Melito of Sardis, and in a spurious letter attributed to St. Denis the Areopagite. If we consult genuine writings in the East, it is mentioned in the sermons of St. Andrew of Crete, St. John Damascene, St. Modestus of Jerusalem and others. In the West, St. Gregory of Tours (De gloria mart., I, iv) mentions it first. The sermons of St. Jerome and St. Augustine for this feast, however, are spurious. St. John of Damascus (P. G., I, 96) thus formulates the tradition of the Church of Jerusalem:
St. Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, at the Council of Chalcedon (451), made known to the Emperor Marcian and Pulcheria, who wished to possess the body of the Mother of God, that Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles, but that her tomb, when opened, upon the request of St. Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven.
Today, the belief in the corporeal assumption of Mary is universal in the East and in the West; according to Benedict XIV (De Festis B.V.M., I, viii, 18) it is a probable opinion, which to deny were impious and blasphemous. (1)
Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
“Today the Virgin Mary ascended to Heaven; rejoice, for She reigns with Christ forever.” The Church will close Her chants on this glorious day with this sweet antiphon, which resumes the object of the Feast and the spirit in which it should be celebrated.
No other solemnity breathes, like this one, at once triumph and peace; none better answers to the enthusiasm of the many and the serenity of souls consummated in love. Assuredly that was as great a triumph when Our Lord, rising by His own power from the tomb, cast Hell into dismay; but to our souls, so abruptly drawn from the abyss of sorrows on Golgotha, the suddenness of the victory caused a sort of stupor to mingle with the joy of that greatest of days. In presence of the prostrate angels, the hesitating apostles, the women seized with fear and trembling, one felt that the divine isolation of the Conqueror of death was perceptible even to His most intimate friends, and kept them, like Magdalene, at a distance.
Mary's death, however, leaves no impression but peace; that death had no other cause than love. Being a mere creature, She could not deliver Herself from that claim of the old enemy; but leaving Her tomb filled with flowers; She mounts up to Heaven, flowing with delights, leaning upon Her Beloved (Cant. 8: 5). Amid the acclamations of the daughters of Sion, who will henceforth never cease to call Her Blessed, She ascends surrounded by choirs of heavenly spirits joyfully praising the Son of God. Never more will shadows veil, as they did on earth, the glory of the most beautiful daughter of Eve. Beyond the immovable Thrones, beyond the dazzling Cherubim, beyond the flaming Seraphim, onward She passes, delighting the heavenly city with Her sweet perfumes. She stays not till She reaches the very confines of the Divinity; close to the throne of honor where Her Son, the King of ages, reigns in justice and in power; there She is proclaimed Queen, there She will reign for evermore in mercy and in goodness.
Among the feasts of saints, this is the solemnity of solemnities. “Let the mind of man,” says St. Peter Damian, “be occupied in declaring Her magnificence; let his speech reflect Her majesty. May the Sovereign of the world deign to accept the goodwill of our lips, to aid our insufficiency, to illumine with her own light the sublimity of this day.”
It is no new thing, then, that Mary's triumph fills the hearts of Christians with enthusiasm. If certain ancient calendars give to this Feast the title of Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we cannot thence conclude that in those times the Feast had no other object than Mary's holy death; the Greeks, from whom we have the expression, have always included in the solemnity the glorious triumph that followed Her death.
At Rome the Assumption or Dormition of the Holy Mother of God appears in the 7th century to have already been celebrated for an indefinite length of time; nor does it seem to have had any other day than August 15. According to Nicephorus Callistus, the same date was assigned to it for Constantinople by the Emperor Mauritius at the end of the 6th century. The historian notes, at the same time, the origin of several other solemnities, while of the Dormition alone, he does not say that it was established by Mauritius on such a day; hence learned authors have concluded that the Feast itself already existed before the imperial decree was issued, which was thus only intended to put an end to its being celebrated on various days.
At that very time, far away from Byzantium, the Merovingian Franks celebrated the glorification of Our Lady on January 18. However the choice of this day may be accounted for, it is remarkable that the Copts on the borders of the Nile announce on January 28, the repose of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and the Assumption of Her body into Heaven; they, however, repeat the announcement on August 21, and two weeks earlier they, like the Greeks, begin their Lent in honor of the Mother of God.
Some authors think that the Assumption has been kept from apostolic times; but the primitive liturgical documents are silent about it. The hesitation as to the date of its celebration, and the liberty so long allowed with regard to it, seem to point to the spontaneous initiative of divers Churches, owing to some fact attracting attention to the mystery or throwing some light upon it. Of this nature we may reckon the account everywhere spread abroad about the year 451, in which Juvenal of Jerusalem related to the Empress St. Pulcheria and her husband Marcian the history of the tomb which the Apostles had prepared for Our Lady at the foot of Mount Olivet, and which was found empty of its precious deposit. The following words of St. Andrew of Crete in the 7th century show how the solemnity of the Assumption gained ground in consequence of such circumstances. The Saint was born at Damascus, became a monk at Jerusalem, was afterwards Deacon at Constantinople, and lastly Bishop of the celebrated island from which he takes his name; no one then could speak for the East with better authority. “The present solemnity,” he says, “is full of mystery, having for its object to celebrate the day whereon the Mother of God fell asleep; this solemnity is too elevated for any discourse to reach; by some this mystery has not always been celebrated, but now all love and honor it. Silence long preceded speech, but now love divulges the secret. The gift of God must be manifested, not buried; we must show it forth, not as recently discovered, but as having recovered its splendor. Some of those who lived before us knew it but imperfectly; that is no reason for always keeping silence about it; it has not become altogether obscured; let us proclaim it and keep a feast. Today let the inhabitants of Heaven and earth be united, let the joy of Angels and men be one, let every tongue exult and sing Hail to the Mother of God.”
In 1870 an earnest desire was expressed to have the doctrine of Mary's Assumption defined as a dogma of faith; however, due to the Italian civil war, the Vatican Council was suspended too soon to complete our Lady's crown. This was accomplished in 1950, by His Holiness, Pope Pius XII. (2)
Image: Assumption of the Virgin, artist: Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1626.
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff