Mary’s Dormition: Why Should We Care?

On Sunday, August 15, 2021, millions of Christians celebrated the feast of Mary’s Dormition (Assumption). Pastors and scholars have spoken and written at length on the meaning of this feast. 

For those who want to nerd-out on Mariology, the Dormition offers quite the package. 

The New Testament and the Protoevangelion of James do not mention Mary’s death. The earliest sources come from Syriac and Coptic homilies of the mid-sixth century. 

Multiple words are used as titles of the feast, such as koimesis, metathesis, metastasis, and analepsis.  

Some Byzantine-rite Christians use an elaborate rite to celebrate the Dormition vigil. The Dormition vigil uses the blueprint of Byzantine Matins and Lamentations of Holy Saturday. It is a dramatic and engaging service featuring the chanting of poetic verses, psalmody, and the veneration of a shroud. 

Did Mary Die?

Those interested in confessional differences might pose the question: did Mary die? There is no ambiguity in the Orthodox tradition. Yes, Mary died, and this is why the apostles were gathered to sing her into the kingdom in Gethsemane. (Note also the reliable aspect of sacred topography). 

There is some ambiguity on the details of Mary’s ascension. Some of the homilies claim that Mary’s soul ascended while her body awaits the general resurrection. Others assert that Christ raised her from the tomb on the third day. 

We could go on – there is much more to be explored here. But maybe we should pause here, and get to the heart of the matter – why should we care?

Still a Death-Denying Culture

We should care because the Dormition feast reminds us of an event we must confront: we are going to die. We might do everything possible to avoid it. Others have and will exploit this reality – each passing day witnesses to the invention of a new diet or lifestyle that can prolong your life. 

Accepting the inevitability of death does not mean that we live carelessly or irresponsibly. Live well. Live smartly. Respect and honor the body God gave you, as a temple that honors God. 

None of this changes a cold fact: we are a death-denying culture. 

Why Wasn’t Mary Spared from Death?

The power of the Dormition feast is the apparent absence of justice that someone as righteous as Mary must die. Didn’t her incomparable and unrepeatable “yes” warrant exemption from death? Is not her reception of the Holy Spirit to to give birth to the Divine Logos so that he could make his dwelling among us reason enough to offer her a chariot ride to heaven? After all, the Byzantines proclaim her to be “more honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim” each and every day.

Mary as Our Common Mother

Perhaps the answer to this rhetorical question lies in the Church’s ancient sense of deep communion with Mary, long after her death. Ordinary Christians have shared stories of Mary’s appearances, healings, and interventions. They confess her as their trustworthy advocate. She pleads for all before God’s throne, the exemplar of a loving mother. 

Mary epitomizes a point made by some of the best modern ecclesiologists. The Creed doesn’t lie: there is only one Church, of both heaven and earth. The global sense of Christian connection to Mary in heaven confirms the unity of heaven and earth. She is there with God, and here, with us. Her death only changed the manner of her presence to us – not its reality. 

Mary died because she had to die – and we will die because we have to die. The event of Mary’s death was the ultimate liturgy: the apostles gathered around her and sang her into the kingdom, depicted marvelously by the festal icon, of Christ bearing his own mother into heaven. 

Mary’s Dormition remind us of the promise of resurrection. God gave us life on earth; we are to live well, and live faithfully. 

A Good Death

God calls upon Christians to die well, and die faithfully, too. Mary showed us how to submit to death when the appointed time arrives. Perhaps one way to live faithfully before the appointed time is to make a dignified, Christin death possible for peoples who experience only brutality. God grant that the following prayer become reality for all – especially people who suffer from oppression.

A Christian ending to our life: painless, blameless, and peaceful, and a good defense before the awesome judgment seat of Christ, let us ask: Grant this, o Lord.  

4 comments

  1. Before 6th century homilaries evidence of a feast on this day was already in the 5th century Armenian lectionary.

    Mary’s assumption is more than a promise of resurrection – it is a promise of the resurrection of the Body (Nicene Creed). It’s not simply a feast about dying well.

  2. My one question is, what about St. Paul’s comment in Romans about death being the wages of sin (Romans 6:23). Is he referring here to physical death? If physical death, then how could the sinless Virgin physically die. Christ (although sinless) died as part of the Paschal Mystery, but Mary’s death is not part of that. I don’t know if Paul’s comment in 1 Cor 15:56 about the sting of death is sin would be relevant here. In spite of what JPII says, I wonder if the physical death of Mary had to occur as a prelude to her Assumption. Elijah in the OT was taken to heaven without dying, if we are to understand that story literally. Genuinely curious to see others’ responses to this point.

  3. Understand the story literally? For centuries, wisdom was conveyed in stories that were overloaded with meaning–and that weren’t meant for literal understanding. Look at the Midrash. Look at the reception of the sayings of Jesus. In our scientific, technological age, we assume texts have a single meaning, a literal significance. We assume that in order for a text to be ‘true’, it must be empirical, literal. Wisdom isn’t conveyed like that. This assumption only leads to an impoverishment of the texts at hand, and serves to close off possible insights and richer meanings we might gather at a later moment in our lives. What does it mean to be assumed into Heaven? We don’t know. But I don’t see Mary blasting off like a rocket. God is more subtle. My guess is, Mary’s assumed body is/was more subtle as well.

    1. … and, incidentally, puts most people off taking them seriously.

      It is really difficult for modern youngsters, trained to be exclusively empirical and read texts in literalist ‘single meaning’ ways, to access the ‘Wisdom’ in the Scriptural accounts, to say nothing of patristics. To read is to extract meaning or to find guidance. Maybe that’s why Islam makes so many converts. It’s how you read the Q’ran. Christian fundamentalism is very simiar. The Bible was written yesterday to be immediately accessible to me.

      AG

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *