Assumption of Mary, Dormition of Theotokos: Christians celebrate Jesus’s mother

Statue in front of pillars and below stained glass dome in church

The Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Chartres Cathedral, France. Photo by Joe deSousa, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 15: The Eastern Orthodox Dormition Fast (begun Aug. 1) has ended, and Christians bow their heads, today, for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Dormition of the Theotokos. Two names for the same event, both the Assumption and the Dormition proclaim that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was assumed into heaven in body and soul. Whether or not Mary died before being assumed does vary by tradition—for Catholic Christians, the question remains open, while for Orthodox Christians, firm belief holds that she did, in fact, die a mortal death.

No evidence of Mary’s Assumption exists in scripture, yet the belief has been engrained in both branches of Christianity for centuries. With no scriptural evidence, the Church points, instead, to passages in Revelations, Genesis and Corinthians, to mention of a woman “caught between good and evil” and to those fallen asleep after Christ’s resurrection. Theologians and Christians have pointed out that a woman so close to Jesus during his earthly life would have naturally been assumed into Heaven, to be with him there.

MARY THROUGH THE CENTURIES

Apocryphal accounts of the Assumption of Mary into heaven have circulated since the 4th century, and teachings of the Assumption have been widespread since the 5th century. Theological debate continued in the centuries following, and though most Catholic Christians had held belief in the Assumption for quite some time, it wasn’t until 63 years ago—on November 1, 1950—that Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary to be an infallible dogma of faith.

EAST AND WEST: THE DORMITION VS. THE ASSUMPTION

In the East: Eastern Christians believe that the Virgin Mary died a natural death, and that her soul was received by Christ upon death. Three days following, Mary’s body was resurrected, and she was taken up into heaven, bodily. (Learn more from the Orthodox Church in America.)

In the West: Catholics are divided in thought as to whether or not Mary died, bodily, as this theory has not been dogmatically defined either way. (Global Catholic Network has more.)

A HEAVENLY BIRTHDAY

To many Christians, Eastern and Western, the Assumption is also the Virgin Mary’s heavenly birthday. Mary’s acceptance into the glory of Heaven is viewed as the symbol of Christ’s promise that all devoted Christians will be received into Heaven, too. The feast of the Assumption is a public holiday in many countries, from Austria, Belgium, France and Germany to Italy, Romania and Spain. The day doubles as Mother’s Day in Costa Rica and parts of Belgium.

No details suggest the day or year of Mary’s Assumption, though it is believed that when Mary died, the Apostles flocked to her bedside. At the moment of her death, Jesus Christ descended, and carried her soul to Heaven.

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Assumption of Mary, Dormition of Theotokos: Christians honor Virgin Mary

Painting Mary falling asleep

A depiction of the “falling asleep” of Mary. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

TUESDAY, AUGUST 15: The Eastern Orthodox Dormition Fast has ended, and both Eastern and Western Christians bow their heads, today, for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary / Dormition of the Theotokos. Two names for the same event, both the Assumption and the Dormition proclaim that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was assumed into heaven in body and soul. Whether or not Mary died before being assumed does vary by tradition, though—for Catholic Christians, the question remains open, while for Orthodox Christians, firm belief holds that she did, in fact, die a mortal death.

Did you know? In 588 CE, the Emperor Maurice officially adopted the commemoration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (Assumption of the Virgin) into the liturgical calendar of the Byzantine Empire.

No evidence of Mary’s Assumption exists in scripture, yet the belief has been engrained in both branches of Christianity for centuries. With no scriptural evidence, the Church points, instead, to passages in Revelations, Genesis and Corinthians, to mention of a woman “caught between good and evil” and to those fallen asleep after Christ’s resurrection. Theologians and Christians have pointed out that a woman so close to Jesus during his earthly life would have naturally been assumed into Heaven, to be with him there.

To many Christians, Eastern and Western, the Assumption is also the Virgin Mary’s heavenly birthday. Mary’s acceptance into the glory of Heaven is viewed as the symbol of Christ’s promise that all devoted Christians will be received into Heaven, too. The feast of the Assumption is a public holiday in many countries, from Austria, Belgium, France and Germany to Italy, Romania and Spain. The day doubles as Mother’s Day in Costa Rica and parts of Belgium.

THE ASSUMPTION: FROM THE 4TH CENTURY TO 1950 A.D.

Apocryphal accounts of the Assumption of Mary into heaven have circulated since the 4th century, and teachings of the Assumption have been widespread since the 5th century. Theological debate continued in the centuries following, and though most Catholic Christians had held belief in the Assumption for quite some time, it wasn’t until 63 years ago—on November 1, 1950—that Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary to be an infallible dogma of faith.

IN THE NEWS: A 2017 INTERFAITH (CONTEST) OPPORTUNITY

The Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical & Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has announced a contest, open to individuals of all faith traditions, for submission of a video, photo or thesis that best captures the Orthodox Church’s commitment to interfaith cooperation and dialogue. Three winners will each be awarded $500, in the categories of “Original video,” “Original photography” and “M.A. thesis.” Submissions must be turned in by September 21, 2017. (Find more details here.)

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Nativity of Mary: Eastern and Western Christians celebrate a holy birth

Full white statue of adult Virgin Mary holding out hands

A statue of the Virgin Mary in New York. Photo by Slice of NYC, courtesy of Flickr

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 8: The Eastern and Western branches of Christianity celebrate Mary’s birth on the Nativity of Mary. Down through many centuries, churches honored three figures on both their birthdays and death anniversaries: Jesus, John the Baptist and Mary.

Catholic and Orthodox Christians know her as the Virgin Mary and she remains the only woman in Christian history to receive the honor of a holy birth (i.e. Immaculate Conception). Ironically, the modern canon of scripture gives no mention of exact details concerning Mary’s birth, as the earliest known account is contained in an apocryphal text from the second century. (Readings for the day and more are at USCCB.org.) The Church holds that the Virgin Mary was born without Original Sin, to Sts. Anne and Joachim in Jerusalem.

A feast for the Nativity of Mary began in the fifth century, and by the seventh century, it was recognized by Byzantine Christians to the East. For Eastern Orthodox Christian, September brings the first month of the Ecclesiastical Year. In France, the grape harvest is at a peak, and winegrowers refer to the Nativity of Mary as “Our Lady of the Grape Harvest.” (Wikipedia has details.) Prime grapes are brought to a local church to be blessed, and in some regions, bunches of grapes are attached to the hands of statues of Mary.

NEWS: APPARITIONS & A VATICAN REPORT

On a scale that has garnered attention from the Vatican, the small town of Medjugorje, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, has been the site of mass tourism since the report of six youths over three decades ago that the Virgin Mary appeared to them. (New York Times has the story.) Unlike most apparitions, this one is reported to have lasted for 34 years—and continues today. Millions have traveled to Medjugorje with dozens of reports of miraculous healings and conversions, though the Vatican has exercised caution and is expected to soon make public its findings on the investigations concerning the apparitions.

 

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Assumption of the Virgin & Dormition of the Theotokos: A Christian feast for Mary

Painting of tiers of heaven, Jesus and Mary at top, apostles below looking at Mary's empty casket

Francesco Botticini’s The Ascension of the Virgin, 1475-1476 CE. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SATURDAY, AUGUST 15:  Orthodox Christians have been fasting in preparation for the past two weeks; for Western Christians, today’s solemnity emphasizes an infallible dogma: for the billions of Christians worldwide, today is the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven (or, the Dormition of the Theotokos).

Shared historically by Eastern and Western branches of Christianity is the belief that the Virgin Mary was bodily taken into Heaven at the end of her life on earth. As her son ascended to Heaven after his earthly death, so Mary was assumed into Heaven following her “falling asleep.” Starting August 1, Orthodox Christians began the strict Dormition Fast, in honor of today’s feast; in Eastern Christianity, Mary is often referred to as the Theotokos, or “God-bearer.” Both Eastern and Western Christians popularly observe today’s feast as Mary’s heavenly birthday, while religious parades and festivals celebrate the day. (Wikipedia has details.) In Costa Rica and parts of Belgium, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary is combined with Mother’s Day.

AN ANCIENT STORY

Apocryphal accounts of the assumption of Mary into Heaven have circulated since the 4th century CE, and although the Catholic Church interprets chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation as referring to this event, there is no specific Scriptural account. Tradition points to Jerusalem as the most likely place of Mary’s death, though at no time in history has Christendom venerated a tomb of the Virgin Mary. In addition, no relic of Mary has ever been found or claimed.

In Catholicism: The Assumption of Mary was widespread belief in Christianity for centuries before being dogmatically defined for Catholicism by Pope Pius XII, in November of 1950. In Pope Pius XII’s Munifecentissiumus Deus, it was declared that the Assumption of Mary was dogma; still, the question of whether or not Mary had died before her Assumption was left unanswered. In Catholicism, either belief—that Mary died before her Assumption, or that she did not—is acceptable. (Get a Catholic perspective from Catholic Culture and Global Catholic Network.)

Did you know? In 588 CE, the Emperor Maurice officially adopted the commemoration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (Assumption of the Virgin) into the liturgical calendar of the Byzantine Empire.

In Orthodox Christianity: Eastern Christians believe that Mary died a natural death, and that afterward, Christ received her soul. On the third day after death, Mary’s body was resurrected. In Orthodox tradition, the Dormition of Mary is not defined in dogma, but rather liturgically and mystically. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.) In some churches, the service of the “Burial of the Theotokos” is celebrated during an All-Night Vigil.

Interested in prayers, devotions and family-centered activities for today’s feast? Find related items at Women for Faith and Family.

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Dormition Fast: Orthodox Christians fast for Mary, Mother of God (Theotokos)

Gold background foreground painting of icon of Virgin Mary holding child, halos around their heads

Painting of an Orthodox Christian icon of the Virgin Mary, or Theotokos. Photo by Duckmarx, courtesy of Flickr

SATURDAY, AUGUST 1: As Orthodox Christians look to the Feast of the Dormition, millions enter a fasting period stricter even than that before the Nativity (Christmas).

For Eastern Christians, including many families in the U.S., the two weeks prior to the feast recalling the “falling asleep” of the Virgin Mary are focused on prayers to the Theotokos (“God-bearer”). In this fast, the observant abstain from red meat, poultry, dairy products, fish, oil and wine. The Dormition Fast continues until the Feast of the Dormition, on August 15. (Note: Certain restrictions of the fast are lifted on the Feast of the Transfiguration, on August 6).

The first day of the Dormition Fast hosts the Procession of the Cross, during which an outdoor procession complements the Lesser Blessing of Water.

END OF MARY’S LIFE

The first four centuries of Christianity lack notable reference to the end of Mary’s life, and in most manuscripts, it wasn’t until the 5th century that Dormition traditions begin getting mention. (Wikipedia has details.) Orthodox Christians believe that Mary died a natural death and that her soul was received by Christ upon her death; that her body alone was taken into heaven by Christ on the third day after her death. While some Roman Catholics agree with this belief—as was confirmed by Pope John Paul II, during a General Audience in June 1997—others hold that the Virgin Mary did not experience death and was, instead, assumed into heaven in bodily form.

Did you know? Jerusalem houses Mary’s Tomb and the Basilica of the Dormition.

Christian tradition holds that after Mary spent years serving and raising awareness of the new Church, she received a visit from the Archangel Gabriel, who told her that her death would occur in three days. It is believed that the apostles—many who were not in Jerusalem at the time, but preaching abroad—were miraculously transported to Mary near the time of her death. (Learn more from the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) Three days after her death, her body was gone and a sweet fragrance was emitted from the tomb. In many regions, it is still custom to bless fragrant herbs on the Feast of the Dormition.

IN THE NEWS: A MIRACLE?

Claims for miracles associated with Mary surface in news publications frequently, and recently, churchgoers in Sydney, Australia have been posting videos and talking about a painted portrait whose lips moved with the congregation’s recited prayers. (ChristianToday has the story.) The painting, depicting the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus in her arms, is reported as having moved under various lighting; the Catholic Church has reaffirmed that only the bishop of a diocese can officially declare it a miracle.

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Feast of the Immaculate Conception: 150 years later, Mary still infallibly pure

Painting of woman in yellow-hued clouds with angels and biblical creatures at her feet and surrounding her

The Immaculate Conception, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, DECEMBER 8: As the weeks of Advent continue, Catholic Christians pause to focus on the Virgin Mary in the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Catholic dogma holds that the Virgin Mary was born via a sinless conception, and that she is without Original Sin. Around the world, this feast day is greeted with fireworks, processions and celebratory liturgies.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the proclamation by Pope Pius IX, as Roman Catholic dogma, that: “the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.” The statement is considered infallible.

A HISTORY OF THE FEAST:
EAST AND WEST

A feast for the conception of Mary was being observed in the Eastern Christian Church as early as the fifth century, though the original title of the feast referred to Saint Anne and the Virgin Mary. Popularity of the feast increased in the seventh century, and the conception of Mary was being described as “immaculate” from the 11th century. (Wikipedia has details.) Today, Orthodox Christians do not believe that Mary was free from original sin prior to birth, but rather that she is filled with grace. Following the Great Schism of 1054, some sects of Western Christianity embraced Mary’s sinless conception.

Did you know? Catholics hold that Mary is the Patroness of the United States.

A Holy Day of Obligation, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception requires that all Catholics attend Mass for the occasion. (Learn more from Fish Eaters.) Mary is seen as a guide on the path to salvation; a beacon of hope in times of conflict and doubt.

MARY’S CANDLE AND MORAVIAN SPRITZ

A designated candle for Mary sits at the center of the table as the scent of freshly baked gingerbread Moravian Spritz wafts through the air: the Marian feast brings to mind the aromas of cinnamon and myrrh, as many believed that Mary emitted these sweet smells. Families or parishes honoring the feast may decorate in blue or with symbols of her purity, such as lilies or roses. For additional resources, prayers, recipes and children’s activity suggestions, visit Women for Faith and Family or Catholic Culture.

IN THE NEWS:
EXHIBIT EXPLORES MADONNA

The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. will feature through April 2015 an exhibit of portraits of the Virgin Mary, greatly varied and spanning through six centuries. (National Geographic has the story.) Entitled “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea,” the exhibit showcases 70 works of art—some lent from such esteemed establishments as the Louvre and the Vatican Museums.

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Eastern and Western Christians observe Birth of Mary, Nativity of Theotokos

“It’s Blessed Virgin’s Birthday,
The swallows do depart;
Far to the South they fly away,
And sadness fills my heart.
But after snow and ice and rain
They will in March return again.”
An Austrian children’s rhyme, for September 8

Painting of women in fancy room, gathered around woman with young baby, one woman pouring water into a bowl

Birth of Mary, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, c. 1486-1490 CE. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 8: Most of the world’s 2 billion Christians rejoice today in recalling the birth of Mary. In traditional Catholic and Orthodox teaching, Mary is regarded as a figure foretold in passages as ancient as Genesis. And this holiday is known as the Birth of the Virgin Mary among Western Christians, as well as the Nativity of the Theotokos among Eastern Christians.

Though the Bible contains no record of Mary’s birth, the Protoevangelium of James—an apocryphal writing from the second century—describes Mary’s birth, as well as the story of her parents, St. Anne and St. Joachim. (Learn more from Catholic Culture and Fish Eaters.) Accounts detail that St. Anne and St. Joachim, though faithful and pious, were without children. Anne and Joachim prayed for a child; though older, they conceived a child, whom they would call Mary. Tradition tells that Mary was born in Jerusalem.

Did you know? The birth of Mary also is included in the Quran. She is a major figure in Islam. (Wikipedia has more about Mary in Islam.)

The feast for Mary’s Nativity originated in Jerusalem, in the fifth century, and records point next to Syria and other parts of ancient Palestine, both of which were observing a feast for Mary’s birth by the sixth century. By the end of the seventh century, the feast was accepted by the Roman Church, and it slowly spread through Europe. By the 12th century, Mary’s birth was observed in all Christian countries. (Get the Eastern Orthodox perspective from Orthodox Church in America and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.)

The Christian Church marks most saints’ feasts on the date of their death, or return to God. To this rule, there are three exceptions: Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist, as they are recognized in the Church on both their death date and their birth date.

OUR LADY OF THE GRAPE HARVEST,
‘DOWN-DRIVING’ & THANKSGIVING

In the wine-growing regions of France, Mary’s birthday is affectionately called “Our Lady of the Grape Harvest,” when the best grapes are brought to the local church for blessings and bunches of grapes are tied onto the hands of Mary statues. In the Alps, September 8 begins “down-driving,” when cattle and sheep are led from their summer pastures, down the mountain slopes, to their winter residence in the valleys and stables. In several regions of central and eastern Europe, the Feast of Mary is associated with harvest, fall planting and thanksgiving.

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