Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Feast Day of Something About Mary

Today is a major feast day in the Anglican and Catholic Churches. The Eastern Orthodox churches also consider it a major feast, though for those still on the Julian calendar, the date on the calendar may be slightly off from the August 15th date that Anglicans and Catholics use.

Assumption of Mary
What this feast commemorates in Catholic and Orthodox theologies is the Assumption of Mary. The Eastern Orthodox refer to it as the Dormition of the Theotokos. Basically, they are the same event with a bit of a twist. The Catholic church has labelled the Assumption of Mary a dogma. A dogma is an article of belief revealed by God that is said to be central to faith.

For hundreds of years, Catholics observed the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on August 15 — celebrating Mary’s being taken bodily to Heaven after her death — but it was not until 1950 that the Church proclaimed this teaching a dogma of the Church — one of the essential beliefs of the Catholic faith. The official Catholic teaching by Pope Pius XII in his Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus is that Mary "having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory."

Icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos
While Catholic dogma leaves open the question of whether Mary physically died before rising to Heaven (like Jesus' Resurrection) or not (like Elijah's chariot of fire), the Eastern Orthodox tradition of the Dormition of the Theotokos teaches that Mary died and then rose to Heaven. Dormition of the Theotokos literally means "the falling asleep of the God bearer." By comparison, the Catholic Church dogmatically defined the Assumption of Mary, while in the Eastern Orthodox tradition teaches that the Dormition is less dogmatically but more liturgically and mystically defined.

The Assumption is important to many Catholic and Orthodox Christians as the Virgin Mary's heavenly birthday (the day that Mary was received into Heaven). Her acceptance into the glory of Heaven is seen by them as the symbol of the promise made by Jesus to all enduring Christians that they too will be received into paradise.

Mary and Medieval Dominican Piety at the Foot of the Cross
Though it was almost universally believed for more than a thousand years, the Bible contains no mention of the assumption of Mary into heaven. The idea of the Assumption of Mary into heaven after her death is first expressed in narratives of the fifth and sixth centuries. The first Church writer to speak of Mary’s being taken up into heaven by God is Saint Gregory of Tours (594). Other early sermons on the Feast of Mary’s entry into heaven are those of Ps.-Modestus of Jerusalem (ca. 700).Even though these were never official, they bear witness to the very early belief in a teaching of the Catholic Church which was not formally defined as a dogma (a teaching essential to the Catholic faith) until 60 years ago.

As usual, Anglicans cannot figure out what to do with it. Unlike most Protestants who prefer to chuck all notions of Mariology, Anglicanism still retains part of the idea. Although the Assumption of Mary is not an Anglican doctrine per se, Anglicans still observe August 15th as a Holy Day in honour of Mary. The Books of Common Prayer of the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada mark the date as the "Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary" with no official reference to the Assumption. In the Church of England the day is a Festival of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In the Episcopal Church in the United States, the day is observed as the Holy Day of Saint Mary the Virgin.  No official reference is made to either the Falling asleep or the Assumption of Mary. We just relegate the day to one being like any other major day commemorating a major saint. I guess we feel that there must be something to this tradition stuff, but that's about all. Unofficially, some Anglicans don't even believe Mary was a Virgin, much less any other aspect of Mariology like the Assumption. Anglo-Catholics like myself on the other hand often observe the feast day as the "Assumption of Mary."

At the very least, the Anglican-Roman Catholic agreed statement on the Virgin Mary assigns a place for both the Dormition and the Assumption in Anglican devotion. You can read that entire joint agreement that came out in 2004 here. In short, that document suggests the following points of agreement concerning the Assumption between Catholics and Anglicans on Mary:

-- We have reviewed the growth of devotion to Mary in the medieval centuries, and the theological controversies associated with them. We have seen how some excesses in late medieval devotion, and reactions against them by the Reformers, contributed to the breach of communion between us, following which attitudes toward Mary took divergent paths.
Statue of English Marian Apparition "Our Lady of Walsingham"

-- the teaching that God has taken the Blessed Virgin Mary in the fullness of her person into his glory as consonant with Scripture, and only to be understood in the light of Scripture.

-that the teaching about Mary in the two definitions of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception, understood within the biblical pattern of the economy of hope and grace, can be said to be consonant with the teaching of the Scriptures and the ancient common traditions.

- that Mary has a continuing ministry which serves the ministry of Christ, our unique mediator, that Mary and the saints pray for the whole Church and that the practice of asking Mary and the saints to pray for us is not communion-dividing (paragraphs 64-75).

-We agree that doctrines and devotions which are contrary to Scripture cannot be said to be revealed by God nor to be the teaching of the Church. We agree that doctrine and devotion which focuses on Mary, including claims to ‘private revelations’, must be moderated by carefully expressed norms which ensure the unique and central place of Jesus Christ in the life of the Church, and that Christ alone, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is to be worshipped in the Church.

The final sentence says a lot, which is, in itself, a devotion on the Feast Day of the Blessed Virgin Mary and contemplation on the Assumption of Mary:

Our hope is that, as we share in the one Spirit by which Mary was prepared and sanctified for her unique vocation, we may together participate with her and all the saints in the unending praise of God.

Basically, that is the Magnificat, or Song of Mary, in a nutshell:

The Visitation in the Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry; the Magnificat in Latin
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
    for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
    the Almighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
    in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
    he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
    and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
    for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
    to Abraham and his children for ever.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
    as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

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