Quick Facts and Stats
Summary: A Feast commemorating the death of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and her subsequent assumption into heaven.
2018 Date: 15th August
Celebrated by: Christians (Primarily the Orthodox and Catholic churches)
Background and Theological Significance
Mary is a figure of profound importance in Christian Theology having literally brought God, in the form of Christ, into the world. In the Orthodox Church her title is Theotokos meaning ‘God-bearer’ or ‘Mother of God’. Other churches go for the less controversial Christotokos or ‘Mother of Christ’, ‘Christ bearer’.
This veneration extends to the idea in the Roman Catholic Church that Mary herself was unique across humanity as being born without original sin (the doctrine of the immaculate conception). As a result there is speculation, especially in the Catholic Church, as to whether she died before being brought up (Assumed) into heaven. Both Orthodox and Catholic traditions maintained that Mary did not suffer at the end of her life; this is why the Orthodox Church refers to this event as the Dormition, or ‘falling asleep’ of Mary. But the dogmatic statement by Pope Pius XII intentionally left the question of Mary’s death open, referring to this event as the end of Mary’s ‘earthly life’. This again would make her unique across humanity.
Mary is often said to mirror Eve in Christian theology. Just as Eve disobeyed and rejected God, by accepting the offer of a rebellious archangel (Lucifer) thus bringing about the Fall of humanity into Sin, so Mary accepted God’s calling by accepting the offer of a righteous archangel (Gabriel) and thus brought about the Salvation of Humanity.
The death of Mary is not recorded in Canonical Christian Scriptures, meaning that the texts accepted as part of the Bible by all Christians do not refer to this event. Instead the date is drawn from texts that are openly questioned by the Church as accurate sources. This is because they all emerged in and around the fifth century, and offer different accounts of what happened at Mary’s death. This is why only the idea that Mary died peacefully and was taken to heaven is accepted as true by the mainline churches.
The fact that there is nothing scriptural about the event reflects what appears to be a lack of knowledge among the apostles about what happened to Mary after the Pentecost. According to later traditions she is thought to have worked to expand the Church and lived with the Apostle John in Jerusalem while he was writing what would later become parts of the New Testament.
The Angel Gabriel visited Mary for the final time with the message that she was going to die in three days. This is when the Apostles, who were spread across the world, are said to have been miraculously transported to her side. The only exception being Thomas who arrived three days late from India, at just the time that Mary was bring assumed into Heaven. After arriving late, Thomas was confused and asked her where she was going. Instead of responding she gifted him her girdle which is supposedly now kept as a relic in Prato Cathedral in Tuscany.
Afterwards, the Apostles went to her gravesite in Gethsemane, but found her tomb empty. This conforms with the belief that Jesus came to resurrect his mother and bring her bodily into heaven.
The date of August the 15th was set by Emperor Maurice (582-602) as the feast to commemorate this event.
In the Orthodox Church the Feast is preceded by a two week fast. The Dormition fast, as it is called, is one of the more strict fasts of the Orthodox liturgical calendar. Those undertaking the fast stay away from all meat and dairy products, as well as fish, oil, and wine. The first day of the fast, the 1st of August, is marked by the Procession of the Cross and in the Greek tradition a small service is held each night, excluding saturdays and the eve of the Dormition.
In the Roman Catholic Church the Assumption isa day of obligation. This means all Catholics are expected to attend mass and abstain from work. Due to the day not having a sound scriptural basis, the various Protestant Churches do not officially recognise it in the liturgical cycle apart from as a general feast day in Mary’s honour, without explicit mention of the Assumption. This is true of the Anglican and Lutheran Churches.
The 15th of August is a holiday in many countries across the world, usually ones with a strong Christian, especially Catholic, heritage. It is a time to commemorate one of the most significant and important figures in all of Christian Theology, giving her the respect and attention that was missing from early accounts of Church history.
‘Dormition of the Holy Mother of God‘ is in the Public Domain