Today, August 15th, is a big day for the three streams of the Catholic Church. Today, we are all united in veneration of Our Most Holy Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. However, if you take the time to look at the names of the feasts dedicated to her you will see that there are plenty of differences in that Marian unity.
For those of us in the Episcopal Church, today is the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin. For our brothers and sisters in the Roman Church, today is the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. For our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox Church, today is the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God.
Why the different titles? Because we hold different theologies on Mary, or possibly no theology at all.
First, the Roman Catholic Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This feast celebrates the unique act of Jesus to assume His Mother bodily into Heaven. The doctrine of the Assumption was pronounced by Pope Pius XII on November 1, 1950 in his Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus.
“By 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.”
This proclamation was given ex cathedra, meaning from the throne, and constitutes an infallible statement by the Holy Father which every Roman is required to believe. Perhaps the most important thing to notice is what is not said. Pope Pius XII asserts that Mary was assumed body and soul into Heaven after “having completed the course of her earthly life”. The official proclamation does not say whether Mary had died before the assumption. It seems from my perspective; the popular view is that Mary was assumed into Heaven before she died, and this would stand to reason as the Roman Church has also declared her free from Original Sin and thus pure. If the punishment of Original Sin is death and Mary was not guilty of Original Sin, then it stands to reason that she would be free from death. Then God, in honor of her role as Theotokos (God-bearer), assumed her into Heaven.
However, in his General Audience on Wednesday, July 2nd, 1997, Saint Pope John Paul II said,“The dogma of the Assumption affirms that Mary's body was glorified after her death.” He also said, a few paragraphs later, “On 1 November 1950, in defining the dogma of the Assumption, Pius XII avoided using the term "resurrection" and did not take a position on the question of the Blessed Virgin’s death as a truth of faith. The Bull Munificentissimus Deus limits itself to affirming the elevation of Mary’s body to heavenly glory, declaring this truth a "divinely revealed dogma"”. John Paul acknowledges that Pius XII side-stepped the issue of Mary’s death and it seems that John Paul, for his part, believed that the Blessed Virgin did experience an earthly death.
If Mary did die, then God granted to her the gift the Bodily Resurrection which we all will receive after the Second Coming. Surely God did this for Our Lady in honor of her role as Mother but also so that her body would not experience corruption.
Realistically then, while all Romans are required to believe that Mary was Assumed body and soul into Heaven after her earthly life had run its course, they are not required to believe that she was alive or dead at the Assumption.
Second, the Orthodox Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God. Unlike the view above which is uncertain about Mary’s state at the Assumption, the Orthodox believe that Mary died a physical death without pain and in a state of spiritual peace.
Immediately after her death, while her soul undoubtedly entered into Heaven, God also took her physical body. Whether her soul and body were reunited in Bodily Resurrection or if her body is kept in a place free from corruption until the Bodily Resurrection of all humanity at the end is up for contemplation.
You will notice that there is not much to say on the subject because the Orthodox tend to be more comfortable with Sacred Mystery while we in the West desire to know how things happened and why. No doubt we find reason for this behind the Eastern emphasis on philosophy and the Western emphasis on Law.
Third, the Episcopal Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin. The Anglican Tradition is all over the map regarding Mary. Some Anglicans venerate her much in the same way as Romans, while some see her as a principle saint whose life we are to emulate, and still others who don’t give much thought to her. Because of this we have settled on a generalized feast for Mary that is celebrated on the same day as the Assumption/Dormition.
Perhaps our best agreed to theology on the Blessed Virgin is found in the Collect for her feast in The Book of Common Prayer:
“O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”
We acknowledge that Our Lady passed from this realm (though we don’t say that she died), we refer to her as the Virgin Mary (which at the very least acknowledges her virginity at the birth of Jesus), we acknowledge that she is the mother of Jesus, God made Man (Theotokos), and in our asking for God’s mercy we confess that she is currently existing within the glory of God in Heaven.
Realistically, in a church that affirms diversity of belief, this is probably the best we can expect. That being said, I encourage everyone who reads this blog (*crickets*) to consider beginning a devotion to Our Blessed Mother. You don’t have to start with the Rosary or with a Novena, maybe just light a candle on Sunday at our Marian Shrine. Try to make yourself open to presence of Mary in your life, not as a substitute for God, but as a way to God. When the Blessed Virgin said ‘yes’ to the Archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation, God made her a conduit of God’s grace. This conduit goes both ways. Through Mary, God can reach us and through Mary, we can reach God. Something to think about.
I wish you all a blessed Feast of the Assumed Dormition of the Blessed Saint Mary the Virgin, Mother of God!