Assumption, Dormition, Mary & Pascha

The Catholic and Orthodox churches are days away from a solemnity, the feast of the Assumption on August 15. The title for this feast in the Orthodox world is Dormition, or Koimesis, a reference to Mary’s falling asleep.

The feast is significant enough in the Catholic Church to warrant a an Apostolic Constitution by Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus (1950), one of three papal infallible teachings. A sign of solemnity in ordinary, daily life: I recall having to plan around Assumption as a graduate student at The Catholic University of America, which would close in honor of this solemnity.

The Dormition feast is a big deal in the Eastern Orthodox world, too. In some churches, the burial rite for Mary is celebrated. This burial rite follows the pattern of the one celebrated at the Orthros and Lamentations of Holy Saturday, when the Church stands before Jesus’ tomb and simultaneously laments his death while anticipating his rising from the dead. A two-week fasting period precedes the Dormition feast in Orthodoxy, one of four designated seasonal fasts (in addition to the forty days of Lent, the forty-day fast before Christmas, and the fast preceding the feast of Saints Peter and Paul).

What does this feast mean for Catholics and Orthodox? Catholics and Orthodox affirm that Mary did not suffer bodily corruption in the tomb and that Jesus translated her to eternal life. For Orthodox, Mary’s Dormition is a summer Pascha, a liturgical commemoration evoking the memory of the apostles gathering for the end of her life, the Church surrounding her mother to witness to her translation to life.

In reflecting on this feast and its deep roots in global Christian liturgical tradition, I am moved to the painful confrontation with death each of us faces on a daily basis. The hymns of the Byzantine rite emphasize the apostles gathering for Mary’s death and translation to life, and the icon of the Dormition depicts the risen Jesus appearing to escort Mary to life. One essential element underpins the Orthodox commemoration of the feast: Mary died. The act of remembering her death refers the liturgical participants to Jesus’ confrontation with death, culminating in his victorious rising. In other words, the Dormition feast is a celebration of the gift of Christ’s Pascha given to all, beginning with his mother, a sign of hope and promise for all humankind. Ultimately, that’s what the feast means to me.

What does Mary’s Assumption/Dormition mean to you?

12 comments

  1. “…one of three papal infallible teachings…”

    This is a rather astonishing thing to say. Rather: “…an exercise of the extraordinary papal magisterium, expressed in an ex cathedra definition…”

    There are many, many things the popes have taught with their ordinary (and infallible) teaching authority.

    1. @Joshua Vas:
      To my knowledge, the history of this rite and its provenance has yet to be written. I sought to research the history, and the burial rite, which is the highlight of the office, is absent from several important medieval Byzantine sources. I have found it in modern Russian sources. I do not like to speculate, so what I’m about to say is a hunch: I think it might have originated in Gethsemane. However, a Byzantine liturgiologist friend of mine thinks it originated in Kyiv, at the Monastery of the Caves, which has a venerable tradition of liturgical devotion to Mary. Hopefully someone will adopt this project. One interesting tidbit: the source for the narrative story of Mary’s dormition comes from Coptic and Syrian homilies, not the Protoevangelium of James, which is the source of Mary’s birth and entrance into the temple.

  2. Why have western Christians (a broad category) focused on Mary assumed into heaven, and why have eastern Christians (again another broad category) focused on her death?

    I’ve mused that when western Christians of the “medieval” period assimilated certain eastern Christian feasts and devotions, fundamental distortions were inevitable. I think of the transmutation of the Pantokrator to Christus Rex. While the doctrinal, metaphysical, and philosophical force of the Pantokrator is clear to see in his iconic representation (ie. his display of the gospels), Christus Rex in iconic representation perhaps is analogous to a feudal king ruling over his kingdom (the Church) and not necessarily Christ as the ex nihilo creator of the universe.

    Stephen Shoemaker introduces his book The Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption (Oxford Early Christian Studies, 2006) with one of the, if not this basal question of Munificentissimus Deus: did Mary die. (1) Certainly then, the western Assumption is conditioned on the Immaculate Conception. If the tradition and later solemn dogma of the Immaculate Conception did not develop, the question of whether or not Mary died in dormition would not be as difficult to promulgate.

    As Pius XII declares, cum Deipara Virgo ex hoc terrestri exsilio ad superna pertransiit, sacro eius corpori ex Providentis Dei consilio ea contigisse, quae cum Incarnati Verbi Matris dignitate consentanea essent cum ceterisque privilegiis eidem impertitis. (AAS 43 [1950] 758-759) pertransit suggests some hesitation about Mary’s death. I would suggest that the western focus on the Assumption logically and perhaps necessarily avoids the question of Mary’s death. Still, is this avoidance purposeful or merely the evolution of the feast and dogmatic concept?

    1. @Jordan Zarembo:

      Interestingly enough, Jordan, there was a feast of the “Transitus” of the Virgin that was observed for at least a century and a half in the Latin proper calendar of Portuguese East India, either on the Sunday before the Assumption or the 13/14 of August (the date depended on the the prevailing norms on the liturgical calendar in Rome). This apparently survived right until the Second Vatican Council.

      One of the reasons I inquired about the provenance of the Orthodox ritual was that I was wondering if there might be a connection between that and dramatic ceremonies of the Transitus feast. Historically, as part of the ceremonies of the day, the Blessed Virgin was often depicted as lying on a coffin (sometimes with figures of the Apostles surrounding, etc., etc.) – not unlike the figure in the crypt of the Dormition Church in Jerusalem. This was then processed and left for the veneration of the faithful, until the Assumption, when the statue was first “raised” and then finally “assumed”.

      The lectiones at that Office made a mention of the death of the Virgin (they are from Damascene) but a stronger connection with the *death* of the Blessed Virgin was seen in the fact that the Latin texts for the older feast in the Goan archdiocesan Proper were cast in the light of praying for a “happy death”. That is also how the devotion is named in the (unfortunately few) churches in Goa that continue with a remnant of this tradition at present – “Morte” from the Portuguese term “(de) Boa Morte” (less frequently heard). I have heard that some of the older people used to also use the Portuguese word “Dormicio” in connection with the day.

      Although to my knowledge this feast was was peculiarity of Portugese East India (not that I’ve extensively looked), a decent number of Proper calendars either historically or still celebrate an observance of “Our Lady of a Good Death” or “Our Lady of Agonies” or some similarly named feast (I would include even “Health of the Sick”, “Refuge of Sinners”) in August – I suspect influenced by the same rationale as this Transitus feast, namely the death of the Virgin. It would seem that in at least in some parts of the Latin Church there was a very clear belief historically in the death, or at least the death agonies, of the Virgin.

  3. “What does this feast mean for Catholics and Orthodox?”

    One of the more compelling arguments against the liturgical reforms of Pius XII (you read that right) concerns the changes to the Assumption Mass. Prior to the definition of the dogma, the Mass texts were clearly complementary to the Orthodox tradition of Dormition. For the better part of history, Assumption and Dormition were the same thing. The revised Mass of Pius XII leans more in the direction of Assumption in a strictly Latin sense – the escape of bodily death and entrance into heaven. In this respect, the Mass texts went somewhat further than Munificentissimus Deus, although the encyclical came very close to hedging its bets towards a strictly Latin interpretation.

  4. Returning to an article I published on the Dormition feast in 2013, I am reminded that several terms were used for the feast among middle-Byzantine homilists including “metastasis.” Furthermore, the synaxarion of the Great Church in Constantinople (dating to the ninth-tenth centuries) denoted this feast as “Metastaseos,” or change of state.

    The Byzantine homilists seemed to accept Mary’s death since there are references to her lying in the tomb. There is some inconsistency among the homilists on whether or not her body suffered from corruption. The synthesis that emerged was that she could not have been incorrupt, just as her son’s body lay incorrupt in the tomb. I have no doubt that we see an application of the narrative of Jesus’ Pascha on both the theological and the liturgical tradition. It is quite possible that the emergence of the burial rite in Orthodox was inspired by the theology (lex credendi influencing the lex orandi). Since Gethsemane was the center of the cult of Mary’s Dormition, one can easily see how the burial rite used for Jesus on Holy Saturday would be adopted for Mary’s death – all of the patterns converge.

    Perhaps the most intriguing theological takeaway is the connection between Mary and Jesus in their bodily incorruption in the tomb.

  5. As yesterday’s festival has now passed, I would like to add something. In the wake of the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Assumption gives us a glimpse of the glory those events denied. The obliteration of the material world, even of the atoms that make it up, are nothing compared to the glorification our bodies will receive when we are with Christ and his mother.

    This is more poignant when we recall the Shoah, the Holocaust that marred the world before those atomic bombs. From Mary, Jesus was a part of the Jewish people. From Mary, the Jewish people are forever a part of our redemption, not just spiritually but in their body. To the great evil that sought to burn the bodies of the Jewish people, the Assumption declares the dignity and glory of the body of a Jewish woman.

    That is what the Assumption says to me.

    I have a question though. Three? “One of 3 papal infallible teachings” or exercises of ex cathedra authority, or however you want to say it? The Immaculate Conception’s definition was the model, the Assumption’s was an explicit exercise of that authority, but what was the 3rd?

  6. There are many ex cathedra teachings of the Catholic Church, not just three. Almost every ecumenical council of the 21 universal councils defined dogmas, from Nicea to Vatican I.

    1. “Ex cathedra” means “from the chair” and refers to papal definitions of dogma. Teachings of councils are not ex cathedra because they come from a council, not a pope.
      awr

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