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.