Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
“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 to heavenly glory.” With these words, Pope Pius XII officially and infallibly declared the Assumption of Mary, the Mother of God (Theotokos), to be dogma in 1950. In this pronouncement, Pope Pius was simply stating dogmatically what the Church, East and West, had believed devotionally for many years.
Although not unknown in the early Church, the earliest references to the Assumption of Mary appear in the 4th (or possibly late 3rd) century in Liber Requiei Mariae (The Book of Mary’s Repose), and in the writings of a Bishop Meliton. Some of the Church Fathers believed that the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) was assumed while still alive, others that she was assumed after she had died. Both views are permitted under the infallible definition of Pius XII. St. John of Damascus relates a tradition where, during the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), the emperor Marcian and his wife wished to find the body of Mary. He tells how all the apostles had seen her death, but her tomb was empty upon inspection.
Festivals commemorating the death of the Blessed Virgin Mary were common from the 5th century onwards, although the exact dates were never universally fixed. In AD 556 the patriarch of Alexandria, Theodosius, attests to two popular Marian feasts in Egypt: Mary’s death (January 16) and Assumption (August 9). Theodosius understood Mary to have died before being assumed, and according to the feast dates in Egypt at the time, she was assumed 206 days after her death.
In AD 600, the emperor Mauricius decreed that the Assumption was to be celebrated on August 15. Soon, the Church in Ireland adopted this date, and it was later introduced in Rome. As the cult of Mary grew in the West, there was more pressure for the Catholic Church to define the exact nature of the Assumption. Pope Pius did this in 1950, in terms that are still rather general, and can be accepted by Western Catholics, Eastern Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox.
The Orthodox Church teaches that the Virgin Mary died a fully human death, and celebrates the feast accordingly. According to various traditions known in the East, St. Thomas was not around when Mary passed away, just as he was absent when Jesus was raised from the dead. Because he was three days late to Mary’s funeral, he requested to see Mary’s body. However, when her tomb was opened, her body was not found. This is not viewed as a resurrection like her Son’s, but rather as the first fruits of our own bodily resurrection.
In one of the most complicated of Christian Hymns (utilizing all 8 Byzantine tones) the Orthodox are shown the story of her journeying to heaven as her funeral procession. The apostles act as her pall-bearers. As she arrives at heaven she is the first given the task of all the glorified saints, that of praying for us to her Son and our Lord. As a part of the interior mysteries of the Orthodox Church, the Assumption is not a point of dogma or debate, yet it is a commonly accepted belief among Orthodox Christians. Even as the faithful bury the Theotokos and see her translated to a life of intercession, we are reminded that it is through her that the Word was made flesh.