Assumption, Dormition of Mary: Christians pay tribute to the Blessed Virgin, Theotokos

Icon of the Dormition by El Greco, 16th century (Cathedral of the Dormition, Ermoupolis).

Virgin Mary Assumption

An image of the Assumption of Mary, portrayed in a window in the Church of St Aloysius in Somers Town, London. Photo by Lawrence OP, courtesy of Flikr

SUNDAY, AUGUST 15: It’s been 70 years since Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary to be an infallible dogma of faith, and today, Catholics are part of the observance that both branches of Christianity—West and East—acknowledge, in an event that is known as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary / the 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.

NEWS 2021: In what is being called a “cultural revival,” the Virgin Mary is rapidly becoming a type of icon for a younger global generation, as clothing, hats and more, all featuring images of the Virgin Mary, become increasingly more popular. Seen by some as a figure for values like social justice, the Virgin Mary is being called a “relatable” figure of faith. While the iconic popularity is controversial, Catholic author and University of California, Berkeley lecturer Kaya Oakes, in an article at Broadview.org, voiced no surprise at the new attention paid to Mary: “Mary represents this side of God that is nurturing and will stay with you when you’re in pain,” Oakes said. “We’re coming out of this really traumatic phase in world history with the pandemic, and people have needed images of God that were more resonant with that compassionate, rather than judgmental, side of the divine.”

MARY THROUGH THE MILLENNIA

While no evidence of Mary’s Assumption exists in scripture, the belief has been engrained in both branches of Christianity for centuries. The Church points 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.

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 70 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.

In the West: The Catholic Church teaches as dogma that the Virgin Mary, “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” Within Protestantism, views often differ. 

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 specify 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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Advent: Preparation for Christ’s coming begins for Western Christians

Wreath of greens with five lit candles, in building

An Advent wreath with all candles lit. Photo by Christine McIntosh, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 3: Advent wreaths glow and the anticipation of Jesus’s birth begins as Western Christians around the world begin the season of Advent. In the four Sundays leading to Christmas, many Christians light a new candle upon the wreath. Often, these wreaths are a part of congregational worship during this season—but many families also make their own wreaths at home.

One unusual question in 2017 is: At what time of day will families light the fourth and fifth candles? That’s an issue because the final Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve this year. (This convergence will occur again in 2023.

Coming in 2018:
50th Anniversary of Apollo 8

Already, plans are being made to mark the 50th anniversary of the famous Christmas Eve message from the crew of Apollo 8, December 24, 1968.

Click the image to learn more about the historic reading.

A new book by Jeffrey Kluger, Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon, already has racked up more than 170 reviews on Amazon with an average of 4.7 out of 5 stars. The book’s Amazon description tells the story:

In August 1968, NASA made a bold decision, launching humankind’s first flight to the moon. Only the year before, three astronauts had burned to death in their spacecraft. President Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade seemed sure to be broken. But when Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were summoned to a secret meeting and told of the dangerous mission, they instantly signed on. Then, on Christmas Eve, a nation that has suffered a horrendous year of assassinations and war is heartened by an inspiring message from the trio of astronauts in lunar orbit.

That “inspiring message”? On December 24, 1968, in what was the most watched television broadcast at the time, the crew of Apollo 8 read in turn from the Book of Genesis as they orbited the Moon. Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman recited Genesis chapter 1, verses 1 through 10, using the King James Version text.

THE MEANING OF ADVENT

For Western Christians, Advent focuses on both the ancient arrival of Jesus and the Second Coming; on both spiritual longing and alertness. Most churches are draped in purple and/or blue during the Advent season, representing penitence and hope.

Did you know? Eastern Christians began the Nativity Fast—the Eastern equivalent of the Western Advent—on November 15. The Nativity Fast lasts 40 days, and incorporates prayer and strict fasting.

Each Sunday during Advent, a new candle is lit on the Advent wreath. Typically, an Advent wreath is fashioned of evergreens and contains three purple candles and one rose one, with an optional white pillar candle at its center. The rose-colored candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete (rejoice) Sunday, and the white candle may be lit on Christmas Eve. (Tradition varies: in Protestant churches, candles are often red, and in Anglican and Lutheran churches, blue candles are common. Wikipedia has details.)

Origins of the Advent wreath are believed to be Germanic, though opinions vary. The wreath’s circular nature now represents the eternity of God, and the increasing glow of the candles symbolizes a people previously living in spiritual darkness and, at last, witnessing the coming of the Light of the World. Advent calendars and Jesse Trees have also gained popularity of use during this Christian season.

Make a DIY Advent wreath, with information on structuring a base, candle-holders, greens and decorations at Catholic Culture.

Create a chic Advent calendarno matter what your taste—with the multitude of ideas suggested by Martha Stewart. For European flair, check out the related article from the UK’s Daily Express.

Blessings for the Advent wreath, for a Christmas tree and more are at the official site for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Paschal Triduum: Christians enter The Three Days, prepare for Easter

crucifix against sunset

Photo by Waiting for the Word, courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, MARCH 24 and FRIDAY, MARCH 25 and SATURDAY, MARCH 26: Holy Week began on Palm Sunday, March 20, for more than a billion Christians around the world who follow the Western traditions of Catholic and Protestant churches. (Eastern Orthodox Christians just began Great Lent on March 14 and are about a month later in this traditional cycle of holidays, in 2016.)

Western Christians traditionally refer to the three-day cluster of holidays coming this week as the Easter Triduum. This period runs from Thursday evening through the evening of Easter Sunday. During this time, Christians will perform centuries-old rituals and review the final events in the life of Jesus. From foot washing to the Stations of the Cross, Christians lament the tragic events of Jesus’ final days. In the days of solemnity, the faithful prepare for the most joyous holiday of the year: Easter, which Christians mark as the Resurrection of Christ.

MAUNDY THURSDAY:
THE LAST SUPPER AND DIVERSE EVENTS

For Christians, Maundy or Holy Thursday recalls the Last Supper and Jesus’s washing the Apostles’ feet. In fact, the word “Maundy” is believed to derive from the Latin mandatum, meaning “commandment”: the first of the words the Bible says Jesus used to describe the purpose of washing his disciples’ feet. (“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you.”)

Interestingly, Maundy Thursday is observed in a diversity of ways by American Christians. In evangelical and Protestant churches, Holy Thursday is barely observed. For Catholics, Maundy Thursday begins the intense series of Easter-related customs associated with the Triduum. Today’s liturgies include colorful services, the blessing of holy oils and the washing of the feet. Protestants and Methodists remember the institution of the Last Supper.

Did you know? Jehovah’s Witnesses observe the anniversary of the Last Supper on the first night of the Jewish Passover, because that was the night the first Last Supper was held. The date of Passover—Nisan 14—varies annually on the Gregorian calendar, and this year, it falls on the evening of April 22.

Stained glass Judas kissing Jesus

Jesus is betrayed by Judas’s kiss. Photo by Lawrence OP, courtesy of Flickr

On Holy Thursday night, after Mass, some devout Catholics sit in Adoration. Many Protestants follow a related custom, and recall Jesus’s request that his disciples sit with him while he prayed at the Garden of Gethsemane. Following Maundy Thursday service, the altar is stripped in preparation for Good Friday.

Fast fact: On Holy Thursday, the Catholic Chrism Mass is celebrated in each diocese, during which holy oils are blessed. The blessed oils are used on Holy Saturday, at the Easter Vigil and for baptisms and confirmations.

GOOD FRIDAY: THE WAY OF THE CROSS

While in the Garden of Gethsemane on Thursday night, Christian tradition tells that Jesus was located by Romans—led by Judas Iscariot—and arrested. This led to interrogations, torture and the crucifixion of Jesus. In the Catholic Church, Good Friday is a fast day of the deepest solemnity.

Did you know? The Way of the Cross takes place at the Colosseum in Rome and in many other places around the world.

In many parishes, the Stations of the Cross recount Jesus’ journey to the site of the crucifixion. In countries such as Malta, Italy, the Philippines and Spain, processions carry statues of the Passion of Christ. In Britain, Australia and Canada, hot cross buns are traditionally consumed on Good Friday.

HOLY SATURDAY: STILLNESS IN THE TOMB

Holy Saturday, or Black Saturday, ushers in with the darkness of Good Friday, commemorating the day that Jesus’ body lay in the tomb. The altar remains bare, or is draped in a simple black cloth. In Catholic parishes, the administration of sacraments is limited. Holy Saturday is a time of suspense, quiet and solemnity, as Christians continue to mourn the death of Jesus Christ.

Fast fact: In Catholic tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows is given the title Our Lady of Solitude, for her grief at the earthly absence of her son, Jesus.

At approximately 6 p.m. on Holy Saturday, the Easter Vigil begins. A service that begins in darkness is illuminated, in Christian tradition, with the Light of Christ—the Paschal candle. After prayers, chants and biblical readings, “Gloria” is sung for the first time since Maundy Thursday. The church is flooded with light, statues covered during Passiontide are unveiled and the joy of the Resurrection begins.

HOLY WEEK NEWS 2016

  • This year, Pope Francis will reportedly preside at all ceremonies of Easter (learn more here). Pope Francis will, once again, preside over the most intense papal liturgical periods of the year during this time.
  • Don’t forget refugees during Holy Week, Pope Francis told attendees of Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square earlier this week. According to Reuters, Pope Francis relayed, “I am thinking of so many people, so many marginalized people, so many asylum seekers, so many refugees. There are so many who don’t want to take responsibility for their destiny.”
  • During Holy Week and in the Easter season, the Vatican will take part in several initiatives highlighting the importance of ecology and the care for creation, news sources reported. The tens of thousands of flowers brought in for Easter morning Mass will be repurposed and replanted; the Vatican will also participate in “Earth Hour 2016.”

Ash Wednesday: Western Christians begin the Lenten journey toward Easter

Woman with glasses standing with eyes closed, hand with white sleeve touching her forehead

A woman receives ashes on her forehead at an Ash Wednesday service. Photo John Ragai, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 10: Ashes on-the-go?

As the majority of the world’s Christians enter Lent, fasting and abstinence open the season leading to Christ’s Passion and Easter. Today, many Christians commemorate Ash Wednesday by receiving ashes on their foreheads—a tradition held since the Middle Ages. In today’s busy world, however, more and more people may be unable to attend a weekday mass, and so congregations are heading to the streets or delivering ashes in “drive-thru” style.

For Ash Wednesday services, though it is custom to burn palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday to prepare the ashes,  the process can be messy for those not accustomed to the procedure. As a result, the majority of churches these days order ashes in sealed containers prepared by Christan-supply companies. During Lent, Christians reflect, pray and renew their commitment to Christ.

Eastern and Western Dates: Though dates for the Eastern and Western Christian observances of Lent and Easter (Pascha) coincide some years, they fall more than one month part in 2016. This year, the Western Christian Lent begins February 10, with Easter slotted for March 27; in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Great Lent begins on March 14 and Pascha falls on May 1.

WHO ARE ‘WESTERN’ & ‘EASTERN’ CHRISTIANS?

Our reporting often refers to Western and Eastern branches of Christianity and, especially in Lent 2016, these two huge branches of Christianity around the world are on distinctively different schedules.

How many ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ Christians are there? Roughly one third of the world’s population identifies as Christian. That’s 2.2 billion people, according to the worldwide study of religious populations by Pew researchers. The “Eastern” or “Orthodox” branch of Christianity usually is estimated at a little more than 250 million adherents, which means that most Christians around the world follow “Western” customs.

ASHES: DRIVE-THRU AND ‘TO-GO’

Silver bowls of ashes on wood

Bowls of ashes for Ash Wednesday services. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

As more people globally have busy schedules and less free time during the week, congregations are coming up with new ideas to bring the Church to the people. In Novi, Mich., the Novi United Methodist Church will be one congregation offering “Drive-Thru Ashes” this Ash Wednesday, from 7 a.m. -11 a.m. Pastors and volunteers will provide ashes and prayers and, according to the church, people do not need to exit their vehicles to receive the services.

In 2010, three Chicago-area Episcopal congregations took to the streets with prayer and ashes for people in suburban train stations, with efforts that evolved into the global website AshesToGo.org. Here, people can find lists of participating churches and their locations, in the U.S., UK and more. Though the website has not been updated since last year, the overwhelming news is that more and more congregations are bringing Ash Wednesday services outside of church walls.

Looking for a reflective resource? Check out Our Lent: Things We Carry, a 40-day and 40-chapter inspirational book that connects stories from the life of Jesus with the real things we experience today.

Corpus Christi and All Saints: After Pentecost for Western and Eastern Christians

Stained glass window with yellow fancy goblet and wheat beneath, blue tinted background

A stained glass window of the Eucharist. Photo by stainedglassartist, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, JUNE 7: Pentecost has passed for both Eastern and Western Christians, and today, the faithful observe the Sunday of All Saints and the Feast of Corpus Christi (respectively). While Western Christians observe All Saints’ Day in November, Eastern Orthodox Christians honor this feast on the Sunday following Pentecost. On this first Sunday of June, Eastern Christians honor all saints—known and unknown—and Western Christians set aside a day for sole veneration of the Eucharist, in the Feast of Corpus Christi. Note: The Feast of Corpus Christi is liturgically celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday—this year, June 4—but is moved to a Sunday in places where it is not a holy day of obligation.

EASTERN: SUNDAY OF ALL SAINTS

On the first Sunday following Pentecost, Eastern Orthodox Christians mark the Sunday of All Saints. What began as the Sunday of All Martyrs now includes all saints whose works honor God—the righteous, the prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, shepherds, teachers and holy monastics, both known and unknown. Eastern Christians honor them for their examples of virtue, and as intercessors for the behalf of the living with God.

WESTERN: THE FEAST OF CORPUS CHRISTI

In Christian tradition: Known also as The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, the Feast of Corpus Christi celebrates the tradition and belief in the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and his real presence in the Eucharist. While the Eucharist is recognized and honored on Holy Thursday, its celebration can be overshadowed by the approaching Paschal (Easter) Triduum. Thus a day was designated with the sole purpose of recognizing the Eucharist. At the end of Mass on the Feast of Corpus Christi, Catholic churches may hold a procession of the Blessed Sacrament, followed by a Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

The institution of a day for the Eucharist in the Church calendar began with the decades-long work of Juliana of Liege, a 13th-century woman of Belgium who was orphaned and raised by Augustinian nuns. With a special veneration for the Blessed Sacrament, Juliana reported having a dream of the Church under a full moon, with one dark spot: the absence of a solemnity for the Eucharist. For 20 years, Juliana had visions of Christ, and she relayed these to her confessor. (Wikipedia has details.) Word passed, and Pope Urban IV instituted the Solemnity of Corpus Christi on the Thursday after Pentecost for the entire Latin Rite. Pope John XXII promulgated a collection of laws in 1317 that made the feast universal.

Easter: 2 billion Western Christians rejoice for the Resurrection of Jesus

Upward vantage point of churchgoers in congregation raising their hands and responding to activity at the front of the church

Churchgoers rejoice for the Resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday 2013 in Seattle, Washington. Photo by Mars Hill Church Seattle, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, APRIL 20: East meets West this year as more than 2 billion men, women and children celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, on Easter. Hot cross buns, chocolate bunnies and brunch souffles fill tables and baskets of plenty on this joyous holiday, as families and friends gather to mark this, the focal point of the entire Christian calendar year. Lilies adorn altar spaces and remind churchgoers both of resurrection (blossoms from dormant spring bulbs)—and that Jesus enjoyed a form of lily himself as is evidenced in the Gospel of Luke. The 50 days following Easter are called Eastertide.

Though termed Pascha in the Eastern Christian Church, the themes are similar across East and West.

Pink, thick-cut slice of lamb with brown meat gravy on a dinner plate

A traditional Easter meal features lamb, in memory of Christ, the Paschal Lamb. Photo courtesy of Flickr

AROUND THE WORLD:
FROM EGG HUNTS
TO LAMB

Easter in America may be characterized as much by the Easter Bunny and pastel-hued candies as it is by Christian joy in Christ’s Resurrection. Egg hunts, treat-filled baskets and festive brunches mark Easter for many American families, although for Christians, shared meals most often involve white-and-gold settings, fresh lilies on the table and, in many homes, a sacred Paschal Candle. A traditional Easter menu also often features lamb—a symbol of Christ at this time of year as the Paschal Lamb. However, these days, Easter hams far outpace cuts of lamb. Whether at church or at a post-service feast, Christians dress in their best apparel on Easter day.

In France and Belgium, the bells that “went to Rome on Maundy Thursday” return home for the evening Easter Vigil, only to bring Easter eggs to boys and girls—or so, the story has it. (Wikipedia has details.)

In most countries with a substantial Christian population, Easter is a public holiday.

IN THE BIBLE:
THE WITNESS OF AN EMPTY TOMB

The New Testament describes the events of the resurrection of Jesus, which Christians believe verify him as the Son of God. There is no recorded “moment of resurrection,” but rather, the discovery by Mary Magdalene (and possibly others) early on Sunday morning—that the tomb was empty.

In his crucifixion, Jesus died on a Roman cross. That evening, according to Christian tradition, Joseph of Arimathea asked the Roman official Pilate for the body, wrapped it in linen cloth and laid it in a tomb. Saturday passed, and early on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene (and, some Gospels attest, other women in attendance) visited the tomb of Jesus. Much to their surprise, the tomb’s stone was moved, and a messenger announced that Jesus had risen from the dead. Gospel accounts vary regarding the messenger’s specific message and the women’s response, but all emphasize that the empty tomb was witnessed. To this day, sunrise services are popular in some regions on Easter Sunday, echoing the traditional stories of the empty tomb.

Did you know? Ukrainian legend has it that after Christ resurrected, He threw Satan into a pit and chained him with 12 iron chains. Throughout the year, Satan chews at the chains, but just as he gets to the final chain, Easter arrives and the people shout, “Christ is risen!” If devotees ever cease this Easter acclamation, the end of time has come.

First evidence of the Easter festival appears in the mid-2nd century, and today, an elaborate Vigil usually begins in darkness and gives way to the singing of “Alleluia,” trumpets and unfettered joy.

Pile of colored eggs in basket with green Easter grass, table blurry underneath with three chocolate foil-wrapped eggs

Eggs are a widely recognized symbol of Eastertime. Photo by Nomadic Lass, courtesy of Flickr

EASTER HOW-TO:
EXTRAVAGANT EGGS,
TABLE DECOR,
RECIPES & MORE

  • Feeding a crowd—or a few? Flavorful recipes for pastries, elaborate egg dishes and even a bunny house are at Food Network.
  • The sophisticated palate will likely find pleasing combinations at Food and Wine, with ideas ranging from lamb dishes to Boston lettuce salad with herbs to a creamy quiche.
  • Marbleized, glittering and chalkboard eggs are a snap to create, thanks to tips from Martha Stewart, Reader’s Digest and Home and Garden Network.
  • Glow-in-the-dark eggs for a nighttime hunt are more feasible than they might sound: Wiki How offers instructions.
  • Set your Easter table a little more creatively this year, with help from Martha Stewart and HGTV.
  • Real grass in Easter baskets? Why not? Try your hand at this unique project, with a simple how-to from the Mom-centered blog, HowDoesShe.
  • Homemade chocolate Easter eggs are made easy, thanks to directions from the BBC.
  • Kids can get into the bunny spirit with craft ideas from Spoonful.com.

IN THE NEWS:
A VALUABLE GOLDEN EGG,
WHITE HOUSE EGG ROLL UPDATES

For the first time in more than a century, a Faberge Easter egg—one that once belonged to Russian royalty—will be on display, reports BBC News. A scrap metal dealer in the United States bought the egg for approximately $14,000, with plans to melt it for gold, but soon discovered that it was one of only 50 created for the Russian royals, with a value of approximately 20M pounds, or $33M.

Tomorrow—Monday, April 21—the First Family will host the 136th annual White House Easter Egg Roll, with the theme, “Hop into Healthy, Swing into Shape.” The 2014 White House Keepsake Eggs come in four colors—pink, orange, blue and green—and include, of course, the signatures of both the President and First Lady. The Keepsake Eggs were incorporated into this White House tradition in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan and his wife hosted a hunt for wooden eggs. Find more information here.

Note: Easter is followed by the 50 days of Eastertide, which comes to an end on Pentecost Sunday.

Annunciation: Christians recall Gabriel’s visit to Mary

Painting of woman sitting in the dark by a doorway with a white angel looking at her through the doorway

A depiction of the Annunciation. Photo by Waiting for the Word, courtesy of Flickr

TUESDAY, MARCH 25: Jesus’s Passion and Easter (Pascha) may be on the horizon for the world’s 2.1 billion Christians, but today the Church turns to an event much earlier in the story of Jesus: the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Delivered by the angel Gabriel, the Annunciation informed Mary that she would soon conceive and bear a son; this son, to be named “Jesus,” would be the savior of mankind, according to Christian tradition. The Gospel of Luke describes how Mary, though frightened at first, listened to Gabriel’s words and then replied: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” In the Church’s calendar, the Annunciation falls precisely nine months before Christmas.

Gospels give no concrete evidence of the location of Mary’s Annunciation, though most agree that it took place somewhere in Nazareth. (Wikipedia has details.) While Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John the Baptist, the Annunciation was given to Mary: It’s written that John “leaped” inside Elizabeth upon hearing Mary’s news. As part of the Annunciation, Gabriel assured Mary that she had found favor with God, and the Catholic church emphasizes God’s decision to not only place the Son of God in her womb, but to “enrich her soul with a fullness of grace,” as well. (The Global Catholic Network has more.) The Annunciation is held in such high esteem, in fact, that it is observed as a feast in the Eastern Church even if it falls on Great and Holy Friday. The Annunciation is also described in the Quran, and Muslims tradition relates the Annunciation as having taken place during the month of Ramadan.