Hey everyone! To open up my foray into the blogging world, I decided to focus on the Theotokos, our Mother Mary, the God-Bearer. For more info about the blog, click here. Check back here later for Part 2 and Part 3 of this reflection. And feel free to share or comment! Thanks,
In the summer of 2018, I wrote a reflection on the Grandparents of Christ and their Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Rather than focusing on the apologetics side of the dogma (as often happens with our Catholic-distinctive doctrines—where we need to prove why we believe XYZ thing), I decided to focus on three implications of the belief which we could apply to our lives as Christians. Rather than proving why we believe the teaching, I wanted to show its relevance for our daily lives. Ever since I have done that project, I have wanted to do the same for our other Marian Dogmas. So this time, let’s tackle the mystery of the Dormition and the Assumption of our Lady the Theotokos—the Solemnity we celebrate August 15!
What We Are Talking About: A Brief History Lesson
Before we get to the meat of the reflection, the question should be asked: What exactly are the Dormition and the Assumption? This mystery of Mary’s life is about the end of it. The two historical events remembered by the Church on August 15 are the Κοίμησις (koimesis) or Dormition, that is, the “falling asleep” or death of Mary—and the bodily Assumption, or the “taking up” of both her soul and body into heaven. The historical record of these events was not recounted in Sacred Scripture (with a few foreshadowings here and there, and a fuzzy reference to her fate in Apocalypse 12), but passed down through the oral tradition of the Church. The earliest references we have to the death of Mary come from the 200s AD—from both Origen of Alexandria (who references the fact that Mary died in his Commentary on the Gospel of John, Fragment 31) and some Gnostic texts bearing names like De Transitu Virginis (which give an early stylized account of the Dormition and the Assumption, mixed in with various Gnostic elements). Fathers in the 300s began to question and reflect more directly on the end of Mary’s life. St. Epiphanios of Salamis (an Island in Greece) did not know whether Mary died of natural causes, was martyred, or if “she [was] like Elijah, who was virgin from his mother’s womb, always remained so, and was taken up, but has not seen death”—he writes: “I do not assert [her preservation from death] absolutely, and I do not say that she remained immortal, but neither do I maintain stoutly that she died…Did she die? We do not know” (Panarion, 78 and 79). St. Ephrem the Syrian, on the other hand, playing with the words of Apocalypse 12, sings: “The Babe that I carry carries me, says Mary, and He has lowered His wings, and taken and placed me between His pinions, and mounted into the air; and a promise has been given me that height and depth shall be my Son’s” (Hymns on the Nativity, 12). According to St. John of Damascus, the Church came closer to a consensus about how Mary came to the end of her life at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Apparently, St. Pulcherria the Empress asked to have the relics of Mary transferred to Constantinople. St. Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, explained why there were no relics of Mary by going through the local tradition that had been passed down in the Church of Jerusalem: “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.” This simple account of what happened to Mary spread through the whole Church. The Feasts of the Dormition and Assumption were locally celebrated (at times separately) on many different days of the year in the early centuries—but by the 500s the Eastern Churches began to celebrate universally on August 15. This spread to the West by the 600s. This was held as the normative teaching for East and West from the 600s until Venerable Pope Pius XII defined the dogma in 1950. Pius XII defined the dogma in these words: “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” (Munificentissimus Deus, 44).
Others have written much more effectively on the history of the doctrine and the apologetics arguments for why we should accept it. But what does this doctrine have to say to us personally? We believe in the Dormition and the Assumption for the same reason that we believe in the Resurrection or Jesus walking on the water: they happened. We believe in them because they are true. But, there are of course other things that historically happened that we do not teach as dogmatic truths (for example, we do not have defined dogmas about the ascension of Elijah on the chariots of fire, about St. Paul surviving a shipwreck, or about the martyrdom of St. Stephen—even though all of these have a historical record). While Mary, as the Bearer of the Eternal God, has an interesting story, and a feast about this part of her life makes sense—why did the Church feel the need to define this as an essential dogma of the Christian faith? It is true and interesting historically, but what does it have to do with us? What does this have to do with my own faith? This series of posts will be dedicated to those questions.
Virgin Most Faithful and Mother of Hope
The first big thing I have learned from this mystery of the faith is seeing our Lady as an icon of patience and hope. But before I explain more about this, I should probably explain where/how I learned this lesson. A lot of my meditation on this feast came from praying with the Franciscan Crown and in the Little Office of Mary. In the Dominican (the normal) Rosary the Dormition/Assumption is the Fourth of the Glorious Mysteries, which celebrate the glories or triumphs of the faith. But I fell in love with reflecting on this mystery of the faith with its position in the Franciscan Rosary—also called the Franciscan Crown. This is a 7 decade Rosary (7 sets of 10 Hail Marys, rather than 5 sets), which reflect on two different things: the Seven Sorrows of Mary (1. St. Symeon’s prophecy of the sword piercing her heart, 2. The Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt, 3. Losing and Finding Christ at the Temple, 4. Mary meeting Jesus on the way to the Cross, 5. The Crucifixion itself, 6. The Piercing of His Side, and 7. The Burial of Jesus) and the Seven Joys of Mary (1. The Annunciation, 2. Visiting her cousin Elizabeth, 3. The Birth of Jesus, 4. The Adoration of the Magi, 5. The Resurrection of Jesus, 6. The Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and 7. The Dormition and the Assumption). During the Lent of 2018, I tried to pray the Franciscan Crown each day—reflecting either on the Sorrows or the Joys of Mary. And after Lent, I continued to reflect on those mysteries in the Crown. That summer, I also began to pray the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary—which is essentially an abbreviated form of the Liturgy of the Hours which specifically reflects on the great Marian feasts throughout the week—both with the prayers and antiphons connected with the various feast days, and more Patristic readings specifically about these feasts—which gave a lot of good material to chew on (especially as I prayed with it every week for roughly two and a half years).
As previously stated, while getting to know Mary’s heart in these prayers, I began learning two great virtues from her: patience and hope. Praying with the Franciscan Crown, I began to see how connected Sorrows and Joys were in her life. In her joys, you can always see a tinge of sorrow/hard times. In the Annunciation, she receives beautiful news: she will be a mother, even the Mother of God; God is finally coming to redeem His people, and she is invited to take part in it! But in this joyful news, there is that aspect of fear/sorrow/“it’s not all good news”: she is legally married (betrothal was the first part of marriage in Israel) to Joseph, and she had likely made a vow of married virginity (“How shall this be, since I do not know man?”—not something you would ask if you were planning on consummating a marriage in the normal way [Luke 1:34, cf. Numbers 30:1-16, 1 Corinthians 7:32-38, and John Bergsma, Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, 128-135]), meaning her pregnancy would likely be seen as an act of betrayal. In the Adoration of the Magi, there are the joys of seeing God’s promise to save the Gentiles beginning to be fulfilled, of receiving kingly gifts, of these pagan astrologers recognizing Who her Son was—but there was also the recognition that there are people actively hunting her family down, that there are rulers who want her Infant dead. And on the flipside, all of her Sorrows are tinged with hope. She and her Family flee the oppressive regime that wanted them dead into Egypt (and with more of my friends having kids/me helping to watch them—there is so much more meaning here: they were refugees running from Herod, but all the while they had a little Boy—Whom they needed to feed, to change, to try and get sleep, to keep quiet—and all of the connected feelings of fear for His safety)—yet they, in some way, know that God is taking care of them. At the Crucifixion, she is experiencing all of the terror of seeing her only Son being beaten and dying in agony, she experiences the cruelty of a spear being thrust into His body, and the finality of sealing Him in a Tomb—yet, she sees Him praying for His persecutors, she sees the conversion of the Centurion, and she holds on to hope, knowing the promises of the Angel, that even though the Tomb is sealed, the story is not over.
This is seen vividly in the Dormition and the Assumption. We don’t know how long Mary lived after the Resurrection. One Church historian from the 700s put it 11 years after (with his dating of the Passion in 30 AD putting the Dormition in 41 AD), other people argue for a later date (more like the early 60s—then the tradition of St. Luke using Mary as a reference for his introductory sections of the Gospel are more easy to explain and it explains why he wouldn’t have mentioned it in Acts of the Apostles)—but frankly we just don’t know. But we do know, however many years it was, Mary had to wait. She had to long for her Son. Reflecting on Mary as our Lady of Sorrows, St. Bernard of Clairvaux put it poignantly:
Truly, O blessed Mother, a sword has pierced your heart. For only by passing through your heart could the sword enter the flesh of your Son…The violence of sorrow has cut through your heart, and we rightly call you more than martyr, since the effect of compassion in you has gone beyond the endurance of physical suffering. Or were those words: “Woman, behold your son,” not more than a sword to you, truly piercing your heart, cutting through to the division between soul and spirit? What an exchange! John is given to you in place of Jesus, the servant in place of the Lord, the Son of Zebedee replaces the Son of God, a mere man replaces God himself. How could these words not pierce your most loving heart, when the mere remembrance of them breaks ours, hearts of stone and iron though they are!Sermon in the Octave of the Assumption, as quoted in the Little Office of the BVM
She received the Good News of her Son’s Resurrection—she knew His victory over sin and death. He was still with her and with His Church, but—He had ascended into heaven. Her Son, Whom she raised, Whom she taught how to walk, to eat, to pray—the One Whom she put to sleep at night, the One Who (if the tradition that Joseph had died before His public ministry is correct) had been a solace to her in sorrow—her Son the Carpenter, Whom she would eventually know as Teacher—her only Son was no longer there close at hand. He was there in the Sacraments, and even really there—but this was not the same. He was really there, but only perceptible by faith. Jesus entrusted her to John and John to her on the Cross, and she had the community of the faithful—but there was clearly something different—the son of Zebedee trying to fill the void of the Son of God. All at the same time, she knows what her Son said: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3 RSV). She knows that her Son promised He would return, that He would bring His people back to Himself. She knows that her Son keeps His word. And so, she faithfully waits. She didn’t know how or when, but she trusted what He said. For years, she stayed faithful. Despite any of the setbacks she may have lived through—whether the martyrdom of one of her Son’s closest friends (and brother of her adopted son), James the son of Zebedee (in 44 AD), or the great controversy of how the Gentiles ought to be admitted into the faith (at the Council of Jerusalem in 50 AD), or the increasing tensions between the Church and the Synagogue—she continued to trust in her Son.
When I was reflecting on all of this, my trust was being tested. Years before, I had gone to seminary, and was discerning what sort of life the Lord was calling me to. Through the discernment process, I received confirmation/the certitude of faith that Jesus is calling me to get married, to be a husband and a father (and I also received the desire to become some sort of teacher of the faith). In obedience to that call, I left seminary. That was in 2016. By the time I had really started reflecting on the Dormition and Assumption and what it meant for my life (starting roughly two years later), I had left a serious relationship, I had been to interview after interview for jobs that never panned out, I was going through the nightmares of online dating, and starting some work with a counselor—needless to say, I had to struggle with some doubts over that year. I knew what Jesus told me (“I want you to be married, I want you to be a teacher”), but nothing in my life seemed to be working out. His promise is this one thing, but reality is not looking like He is going to keep His word. Did I hear Him wrong? Or is He actually reliable in what He says?
Or on a broader, “less personal to me” level: Jesus promised that He would come back, that He would come again and fully reveal His glory. He said that one thousand, nine hundred, and eighty-seven years ago. The Apostles Creed even says, inde venturus est iudicare vivos et mortuos—He is soon to come to judge the living and the dead. 1987 years is soon? Or He promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church—yet so many of the supposed faithful are getting caught up in schismatic conspiracy theories and in nationalistic cults—is Jesus really faithful? Or He says that “Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin” and “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34, 36)—yet, have I really experienced freedom from sin? Is He really going to do what He says? How do we trust in His promises when they can seem so far off?
But in all of these, we are called to trust. We are called like Mary to patiently wait. To say, “Even though I do not see how it may happen, I will trust in You.” “For in this hope [hope for the redemption of our bodies] we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24-25). And in the Dormition, “having completed the course of her earthly life,” Mary saw the fulfillment of His promises. Her patient hope was rewarded. So too with us—we can trust in His promises, like Mary did, and someday we will see them fulfilled. It may not seem like there is much hope (whether for Christ’s return, the victory of holiness in our hearts, or being able to find our vocation), but uniting our longings/our desires to see His promises fulfilled with Mary, holding on faithfully, we will see His plans fulfilled.
Mary, faithful to the hour of your death and you who were assumed into heaven, “you remain in the midst of the disciples as [our] Mother, as the Mother of Hope. Holy Mary, Mother of God, our Mother, teach us to believe, to hope, to love with you. Show us the way to His Kingdom! Star of the Sea, shine upon us and guide us on our way!” Amen.
Our next reflection (published in the next few days) on the Dormition and the Assumption will be about how the Church’s way of picturing the feast (in iconography, liturgy, and the homiletic tradition) help us to see a healthy Christian understanding of death and mourning. Part 3 will be about how the mystery of the Assumption proclaims the dignity of the human body and reminds us of the beauty of Marian Devotion.
. I may repost it someday on this blog, but the three big lessons I drew from the Immaculate Conception were: 1. A perfect lived example of the Church’s response to Calvinism and Pelagianism, 2. A highlighting of the role and importance of a woman in our redemption, and 3. A beautiful affirmation of the value and salvific importance of Marriage.
. I am definitely indebted to Fr. Walter J. Burghardt, S.J.’s article “The Testimony of the Patristic Age Concerning Mary’s Death,” in Marian Studies, Vol. 8, Art. 8, for many of the ancient historical references. I would highly recommend it, and Pius XII’s Munificentissimus Deus if you want more historical information about this feast.
. At first glance, this can seem unsettling. One might ask, “Does this mean Marian doctrines are actually Gnostic?” But Craig Truglia, an Eastern Orthodox blogger, has a very good point: that there were not parallels to the veneration of saints/the Marian doctrines in Pagan Greek Cosmology. Generally, Gnosticism presented a syncretistic version of Christianity, with its wacky weird elements coming from Platonism, Pythagoreanism, and other Pagan modes of thought. “[The] veneration of the saints does not have clear Hellenistic precedents where it would be reasonable to assume that Greek Pagans influenced Gnostic Christians who then influenced mainstream Christians. Rather, it appears more reasonable to assume the Gnostics simply imported orthodox beliefs and tried to make it fit with their own esoteric and Hellenized view of the Christian religion. This is the same thing Gnostics did with Pythagoreanism, Platonism, and eastern mystery religions. The preceding is a profound point if one has a thorough understanding of what Gnosticism really is.” So these early recordings of the Dormition and Assumption of the Theotokos, even though they are filtered through a heretical weird lens, were likely carried over from Orthodox Christianity.
. This was to affirm/definitively state something which was already held by the Church. It is like how the Divinity of Jesus was not dogmatically defined until 318 at the Council of Nicaea. This does not mean that the Church invented Jesus being God in the 300s. It was simply clarifying and affirming what was already held to be the faith.
. Along with 1. the Resurrection of Christ, 2. the Ascension, 3. the Descent of the Holy Spirit, and 5. The Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven.
. It may be pious imagination, but reflecting on it (and following some of the poetic imaginings of the Church), I often connected the soldier who thrust the spear with the Centurion who said “Truly this was the Son of God.” That little “t” tradition that Longinus (the soldier who speared Jesus) converted—that even though he is guilty of thrusting a spear into God’s side, he (and all of us, who are also guilty for the crucifixion) can find mercy.
. As Abbot Anscar Vonier put it, “If we were met by Christ in Person in our churches, such gracious encounters would have nothing in common with what is called the sacramental Presence. His Presence in the sacrament must truly be such that at no time could it be seen otherwise than by the eye of faith.” A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, 21.
. Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 50.
. And just to give some sort of update to my own situation, things are a lot better. There are still a few things to work through, but I am getting very close to seeing the fulfillment of what Jesus has called me to. My decisions to entrust my hope to Jesus like Mary did has really helped me.