The sacred Tradition of the Church plays an important role in the daily celebration of our faith.
Linked integrally with Scripture and the magisterium, the Tradition is God’s revelation and thus acts as a source from which our knowledge and practice of the Faith is drawn. The feast of the Assumption, possibly the oldest celebration of the Virgin Mary, is rooted in the Tradition of Christian practice, supported by magisterial teaching and defined as one of four Marian dogmas.
Although Scripture makes no direct reference to the bodily ascension of Mary to heaven, several passages speak of the great dignity of her life, lending support to the idea that Jesus would have continued to reveal His glory by removing the corruption of the grave and extending the privilege of the Assumption to His mother. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Song of Songs contains passages which some scholars today say are prophetical references to Mary. We read, “Arise, my friend, my beautiful one, and come!” (2:10). Also, “Daughters see her and call her happy, queens and concubines, and they praise her” (6:9). The New Testament also provides evidence supportive of Mary’s special privilege. Gabriel’s greeting, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women” (Lk 1:28,42), and Revelation 12:1, in its description of “a woman clothed with the sun,” are illustrative.
The silence of history and Scripture concerning the death of Mary, coupled with the definition at the Council of Ephesus (431) of Mary as the Theotokos (Mother of God), most probably were the catalysts behind the rise of a wealth of apocryphal literature descriptive of the dormition (falling asleep) of the Virgin.
The title and the idea of “the sleep of Mary” is more formally known as “the Dormition of Mary.” (Dormition comes from the Latin dormire, meaning “to sleep.”) The title dormition can be misleading because it seems to focus more on the death and burial of Mary. However, the belief surrounding the dormition is intrinsically linked with the assumption of our Blessed Mother, body and soul, into heaven.
One body of apocrypha from the fourth and fifth centuries, attributed to one Leucius (whom Pope Gelasius I condemned in 494 as “a pupil of the devil”) is titled De transitu Mariae (“The Passing of Mary”). Transitus Beatae Mariae Virginis, falsely attributed to St. Melito of Sardis, was another popular account of the Virgin’s death.
The chief authority for information on Mary’s death comes from St. John Damascene (d. c. 750), who used the otherwise unknown scholar Euthymius for his data. Pulcheria, the wife of Emperor Marcian (450-457), ordered the construction of a church in a suburb of Constantinople called Blachenae to which she wanted brought the earthly remains of Mary. In speaking with Bishop Juvenal of Jerusalem during the Council of Chalcedon (451), the empress was informed that the Virgin’s body was not in Jerusalem. Buried in the Garden of Gethsemane in the presence of the apostles, save Thomas, it was discovered three days later, when the apostles came to venerate her body, that the tomb was empty. It was concluded that Jesus had taken His mother to heaven. These apocryphal accounts, although they contain no historical foundation, nevertheless serve an important function in demonstrating what the people believed, which became important for the development of the Tradition of the Church.
“Day of Mary Mother of God”
As with many Church feasts, the liturgical celebration of the Assumption began its evolution in the East. Church calendars of the ancient Armenian and Ethiopian Churches, as well as the schismatic Nestorian and Monophysite communities, contain a date to commemorate Mary’s death, which gives evidence that the feast had deep roots, even before the definition of Mary as Mother of God proclaimed at Ephesus.
The first concrete evidence which speaks of a Marian celebration on Aug. 15 is found in a mid-fifth century Lectionary in Jerusalem calling the feast “Day of Mary Mother of God.” This was transformed into a commemoration of the dormitio (falling asleep), which was extended to the entire Byzantine empire by Emperor Maurice in the late sixth century. Additional evidence to the widespread celebration of Mary’s dormition is found in the sermons of Modestus, Patriach of Jerusalem (d. c. 634); Andrew of Crete (d. c. 720); and Germanus, Patriach of Constantinople (d. c. 733). All testify to a feast celebrated to honor Mary’s death and her assumption.
A Gallic liturgy of the mid-sixth century is the first evidence of the celebration of the Assumption in the Western Church. This feast, held on Jan. 18, was called in a seventh-century Sacramentary the “Feast of Mary’s Assumption.” St. Gregory of Tours (d. c. 596), in his treatise “On the Glory of the Martyrs,” affirms Mary’s assumption: “The Lord bade the sacred body [of Mary] be borne aloft on a cloud and carried to paradise, where, reunited to the soul, and rejoicing with His elect, it enjoys the good things of eternity in unending bliss.”
Eastern influence led to the introduction of the feast at Rome in the mid-seventh century. Proclaimed as Natale Sanctae Mariae, this celebration was held, again as in the East, on Aug. 15. Pope Sergius I (r. 687-701), a Syrian who was instrumental in the introduction of many Eastern customs to the Roman Church, made the celebration a principal feast and added a procession to its liturgy. The Gregorian Sacramentary (Hadrianum) calls the Aug. 15 feast “the Assumption of Holy Mary.” The first prayer of this Mass says that Mary “could not be kept in the chains of death.” Still later, Pope Leo IV, in 847, added an octave to the feast as the celebration spread as far west as Spain.
“Assumed in Body and Soul”
During the medieval period, recognized scholars and leading Church officials continued to promote the celebration of the Assumption. The famous Dominican scholastic St. Thomas Aquinas referenced Psalm 131:8 (132:8 in modern translations), “Arise, Lord, come to your resting place, you and your mighty ark,” in promoting belief in the assumption of Mary, the true ark of God. St. Anthony of Padua, in a 13th-century sermon, stated: “The Lord arose when he ascended to the right hand of the Father. The Ark which he has sanctified arose when the Virgin Mother was assumed to the Heavenly bridal chamber.” Albert the Great, mentor to Aquinas, in commenting upon Luke, Chapter 1, wrote: “It is plain that the Most Blessed Mother of God has been assumed in body and soul beyond the choirs of Angels. And this in every way we believe to be true.”
The feast of the Assumption was a major feast of the 1570 Sacramentary published by Pope Pius V during the Counter-Reformation. Thus the Church, in eliminating abuse and defending Catholic teaching and tradition, reaffirmed its belief in this long-standing feast. The final page to the evolution of the Assumption was written on Nov. 1, 1950, when Pope Pius XII, in the apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus, stated, “We pronounce, declare and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”
Father Richard Gribble is a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross and a professor of religious studies at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. He holds a Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America.
The Perfect Model of Discipleship
The historical evolution of the feast of the Assumption is incomplete without some reflection on this celebration’s significance for people today. Mary’s role as the supreme model to follow in our common vocation to holiness and discipleship finds its ultimate triumph and reward in her assumption. Our certainty of Mary’s return to God, body and soul, prefigures our own resurrection and final union with God. In celebrating Mary’s assumption we not only celebrate the love that God showed her, but in more general terms the love that God has shown to all His children in granting the possibility of final resurrection to all. Jesus’ earthly life brought salvation history to its climax; Mary’s assumption gives us hope that in a constantly changing and ever more complex world God never abandons those who love Him, but rather rewards them with eternal life.
Our attitude must emulate the thanksgiving which was the Blessed Mother’s constant prayer. In her wisdom, the Church uses Mary’s Magnificat (see Lk 1:46-55) as the Gospel in the Eucharistic celebration of the Assumption. Mary knew that God had done great things for her and she was grateful. It is our challenge to express equal gratitude to God for what we receive in our daily lives, both the sorrows and the joys. Mary, the Sorrowful Mother, gave thanks to God and received the special privilege of resurrection. So, too, can all of us find final union with God through lives of thankful praise.
From ancient times the Church has proclaimed lex orendi, lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of belief). The feast of the Assumption, in its evolution from the common belief of the faithful, as represented by the proliferation of apocryphal literature to a dogma of the Church, is a manifestation of this time-honored dictum. Mary’s role as the Mother of God and the dignity of her life make the Assumption her privilege as she continues to serve as the perfect model of discipleship for all the faithful.