THE ASSUMPTION AND THE DORMITION
FEAST OF THE ASSUMPTION OF MARY
1 Cor 15:20-27; Psalm 45; Rev 12:1-6; Lk 1:39-56
Today, August 15, we celebrate an important Marian feast day: The Dormition and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The past couple of days, I have received some inquiries from various people asking whether our parish will be celebrating the Dormition or the Assumption. Especially, since we possess Apostolic Succession from the East and West, to many it might become confusing as to which aspect of this feast day are we commemorating. Here are my personal thoughts on this question: With the separation of the East and West, the common view is that the Eastern Churches adhere to the Dormition of Mary (falling asleep of Mary, i.e., bodily death), whereas the Roman Catholic Church adheres to the Assumption of Mary (the bodily glorification of Mary). Based on a review of the history and the documents available to us, my personal thoughts are that the Dormition and the Assumption are not necessarily conflicting views.
Firstly, a review of the Eastern view: If we look at the beautiful and holy icons venerated by the Churches of the East, we see the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin portrayed: The Holy Mother is shown reclining on the bed, surrounded by the Holy Apostles who watch attentively during her last moments. Behind the bed, we then see her Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, cradling the soul of His Mother, represented by a baby. Just as the Theotokos held the baby Jesus, God made Man, in her arms when Almighty God came down for our salvation, the Glorified Christ now holds His Mother’s soul in His arms, as He brings her to eternal life and glory. However, if we really look into these Eastern icons more closely, some of them depict something in addition to the Dormition—many of the icons, not all, also show the Assumption of the Virgin. Mary is shown ascending into Heaven, surrounded by the choir of angels. Therefore, the Assumption of Mary does exist within the Eastern traditions. In fact, the liturgical texts used during the Feast of the Dormition do point to the bodily assumption of Mary. The Kondak/Kontakion for this Feast Day reads: “Neither the grave nor death could contain the Theotokos, the unshakable hope, ever vigilant in intercession and protection. As Mother of life, He who dwelt in the ever-virginal womb transposed her to life.”
Secondly, regarding the Roman Catholic view: The Assumption is thought to be a Roman invention because it was dogmatically proclaimed ex cathedra by Pope Pius XII in his Apostolic Constitution “Munificentissimus Deus”: “[B]y the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” (MD, 44) The Assumption was dogmatically proclaimed, but Pius XII did not definitively state anything concerning the Blessed Mother’s bodily death. However, Pius XII does cite a few sources that seem to suggest that the Blessed Mother did indeed suffer “temporal death, but still could not be kept down by the bonds of death.” (MD, 17) Moreover, Pius XII’s own proclamation does state that Mary was assumed into heaven after “having completed the course of her earthly life[…]”, which seems to imply that Mary did experience death. (MD, 44) From this, it appears that even though the East focuses on the Dormition, there was an awareness of Mary’s assumption. Whereas in the West, despite the focus being on the Assumption, there was also an understanding of her Dormition.
With that, I do not see any issue for us to commemorate the passing AND the assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Why do we need to choose between “dormition” and “assumption”, when the Church directly or indirectly acknowledges both events? One thing is for certain though, which I hope everyone remembers and differentiates: We must always remember that the Virgin Mary was bodily assumed into heavenly glory by the power of her Son. She was not assumed by her own powers. Jesus’s ascension and Mary’s assumption are very different.
Θεοτόκε Παρθένε, χαῖρε, κεχαριτωμένη Μαρία, ὁ Κύριος μετὰ σοῦ. εὐλογημένη σὺ ἐν γυναιξί, καὶ εὐλογημένος ὁ καρπὸς τῆς κοιλίας σου, ὅτι Σωτῆρα ἔτεκες τῶν ψυχῶν ἡμῶν. (Prayer to the Virgin Mary in Greek)
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen. (the latter half of the Ave Maria in Latin).
Bp. Robert Chung