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Mary’s Assumption in the Eastern Tradition

In the great mystery and divine economy of the Christian faith, the role of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God (or Theotokos) is pivotal. It is from her that the incarnate Son of God received his human nature. The Church’s cycle of feasts pertaining to the life of Jesus are celebrated to some extent in the context of the symphony of Mary’s life, from holy beginning to holy end. We celebrate this holy end of Mary’s life today with the Solemnity of the Assumption, in the East called the Dormition.

Catholics of the Latin tradition often assume that Mary’s final end has been sufficiently addressed by the dogma of the Assumption, that is, her translation, body and soul, into heaven as defined by Pius XII in 1950. But as glorious as the mystery of her Assumption is, it represents only one dimension of the mystery of the end of Mary’s life. There is also her death and subsequent resurrection. On this subject, Pope Pius remained silent, choosing not to address the subject of Mary’s mortality. The Byzantine tradition, however, as part of the universal and fully Catholic patrimony of the Church, is not silent on this topic. It guards a rich treasury of teaching, iconography, and liturgy concerning the end of Mary’s life.

According to the tradition of the Byzantine East, the Assumption was the final stage of Mary’s transition into the glory of heaven. This Analepsis or “translation” of Mary to eternal life was preceded by what was called the Koimesis or “sleep” or Mary in death. These three events—her death, her resurrection, and her assumption into heaven—complete the mosaic of the holy end of Mary’s life. But what are the literary and historical bases for such a belief within the traditions of the Church?

Before the Council of Ephesus (third and fourth centuries)

It must first be said that Sacred Scripture is completely silent on the matter. No explicit reference to Mary’s death is ever mentioned in the New Testament.[1] Prior to the first Council of Nicaea, the only explicit references to Mary’s death come from Origen of Alexandria and Ephrem the Syrian who both mention her death (which seems to be assumed as fact) in the context of defending her perpetual virginity (which they were intent on defending.[2]

Although not entirely convinced of the fact of the Virgin’s death, Epiphanius of Salamis in the late fourth century wrote that three possibilities existed concerning the end of Mary’s life: death due to natural causes, death through martyrdom, or immortality without death. He was the first patristic source to posit the death of Mary as a question or a problem with a limited number of solutions due to the lack of evidence in Scripture.

Pseudo-Melito of Sardis, who wrote in the fifth century, related a distinct Palestinian tradition in favor of acknowledging the Virgin Mary’s death. His writing was the first and most explicit account of this tradition, which was probably a story orally transmitted over the course of several generations of Christians. His account is the first of what became known as the “Palm of the Tree of Life Tradition,” which represents a family of writings characterized by the distinctive palm branch given to Mary by the archangel Gabriel as a sign of the Lord granting her prayerful petition to pass from this life in death into paradise with him.

According to Stephen Shoemaker, a contemporary theologian who specializes in the area of the Dormition traditions, some of the common threads running through the Palm narratives are as follows:

  1. An angel meets Mary on the Mount of Olives and announces to her that her time of death has come and brings to her a palm branch from the Tree of Life in paradise;
  2. Mary goes back to her home in Jerusalem and informs her friends and family of the message of the angel, and the apostles, who were engaged in their respective missions all over the earth, re-gather miraculously in Jerusalem;
  3. Peter, who is treated as the head of the apostles, delivers a homily to those who have come the night before to pray as Mary prepares for her death;
  4. When the moment arrives, the crowds are put to sleep, all except the apostles and three virgins, who see Jesus and a host of angels appear;
  5. Jesus receives the immaculate soul of Mary, appearing in the form of an infant wrapped in white swaddling clothes, and gives it to Michael the Archangel;
  6. The apostles carry Mary’s body on a funeral bier to a tomb beside the Garden of Gethsemane;
  7. Jephonias, one of the Jewish leaders, attempts to upend the funeral bier but as he does so his hands are severed by an angel, then later restored by his conversion and prayers to Mary;
  8. After laying her body in the tomb, the apostles wait for Christ there for several days until he returns, resurrects Mary and takes her body, along with the apostles, to paradise;
  9. The apostles, after being shown heaven and hell, then return to earth with Mary remaining, body and soul, in heaven.

One of the later narratives also mentions a situation where Thomas arrives late. By the time he reaches the city and meets with the other apostles, Mary has been buried and he requests to see her body in the sealed tomb. When the tomb is opened, however, Mary’s body is not to be found, but rather the relics of her funeral robe and her girdle. The finding of the relics is also part of the Dormition traditions of Constantinople and Ephesus.

Byzantine homiletic literature (seventh and eighth centuries)

Following the advent of a special feast in honor of Mary’s Dormition, an enormous amount of Byzantine homiletic literature developed in the seventh and eighth centuries. Preachers and writers of the era generated a body of teaching on the Dormition that was unparalleled in patristic literature. This period in many ways represents the full flowering within the first millennium of the theological implications of Mary’s title of Theotokos. Patristic scholar and Jesuit Father Brian Daley notes several common themes that appear in these writings:

Mary’s glory and beauty, as the highest embodiment of an idealized humanity, reaching its divine destiny; Mary’s enthronement as lady and queen, and her share in Jesus’ Messianic rule over all creation; Mary’s continuing role in the everyday life of the Church, as intercessor, kindly patron, even mediator between Christians on earth and her glorified Son; the direct link between this new and glorious status for Mary and the purity of her earthly life—her obedience and fidelity, her total dedication to God, expressed  in her virginity, and freedom from the “corruption” of passion and self-interest; her role as the one who fulfills and epitomizes the hopeful imagery of the whole Bible, realizing the ancient promise of a transforming human intimacy with the God of life—as Ark of the Covenant, Mother Sion, Bride of the heavenly Bridegroom.

Father Daley also observes that “for all these preachers, the heart of the ‘mystery’ being celebrated in Mary’s name is the Mystery of redemption through and in Christ.”

The central meaning of this celebration was that, although Mary has received from her Son this great privilege of entry into the glory of heaven, this was done not for her sake alone, but also for the sake of her spiritual offspring in the Church. Mary’s Assumption, like all Marian mysteries, is an instrument for the salvation of souls. Her role of maternal mediation, made more powerful by her glorification in heaven, continues in the life of the Body of Christ and therefore merits a deep, rich, and public veneration by the Church.

[1] Mary’s presence in heaven as the glorified and crowned Woman of Revelation 12 implies her entry into paradise as the New Eve and Queen Mother at the end of her earthly life, but nothing indicates her translation through death and resurrection.

[2] See Walter J. Burghardt’s The Testimony of the Patristic Age Concerning Mary’s Death.

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