Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Assumption of the Virgin Mary (a.s.)

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The 15th August is the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven, commonly known as the Assumption.   This feast day is celebrated by the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and parts of the Anglican Church from among the Protestant denomination.  It commemorates the Virgin Mary (a.s.) bodily rising into Heaven at the end of her earthly life.  In many countries the feast is also marked as a Holy Day of Obligation.

It is Catholic dogma that the Virgin Mary (a.s.), at the end of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into “heavenly glory”.  Pope Pius XII dogmatically defined it on the 01st November, 1950, in the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, exercising his papal infallibility.  Both the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church believe in the doctrine of Dormition of the Theotokos, which is essentially the Assumption.  However, the alleged physical death of Mary (a.s.) has not been dogmatically defined.

In Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII quoted Genesis for scriptural support for the dogma in terms of Mary’s (a.s.) victory over sin and death:

Genesis 3:15
15 And I will establish a feud between thee and the woman, between thy offspring and hers; she is to crush thy head, while thou dost lie in ambush at her heels.

He also stated that this is also reflected in the New Testament:

1 Corinthians 15:54
54 Then, when this mortal nature wears its immortality, the saying of scripture will come true, death is swallowed up in victory.

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul was reiterating Isaiah.

Isaiah:7-8
7 Gone the chains in which he has bound the peoples, the veil that covered the nations hitherto; on the mountain-side, all these will be engulfed; 8 death, too, shall be engulfed forever.  No furrowed cheek but the Lord God will Wipe away its tears; gone the contempt his people endured in a whole world’s eyes; the Lord has promised it.

The Assumption has only been defined as infallible dogma by the Catholic Church relatively recently.  This is in spite of a statement by St. Epiphanius of Salamis in 377 CE that no one knew if Mary (a.s.) had died,

There were apocryphal accounts of the Assumption of Mary (a.s.) into Heaven circulating since at least the 4th century.  The Catholic Church interprets the 12th chapter of the  Revelation as referring to it.

Revelation 12:1-18
1 And now, in heaven, a great portent appeared; a woman that wore the sun for her mantle, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars about her head.  2 She had a child in her womb, and was crying out as she travailed, in great pain of her delivery.  3 Then, a second portent appeared in heaven; a great dragon was there, fiery-red, with seven heads and ten horns, and on each of the seven heads a royal diadem; 4 his tail dragged down a third part of the stars in heaven, and flung them to earth.  And he stood fronting the woman who was in childbirth, ready to swallow up the child as soon as she bore it.  5 She bore a son, the son who is to herd the nations like sheep with a crook of iron; and this child of hers was Caught Up to God, right up to His Throne, 6 while the mother fled into the wilderness, where God had Prepared a place of refuge for her, and there, for twelve hundred and sixty days, she is to be kept safe.  7 Fierce war broke out in heaven, where Michael and his angels fought against the dragon.  The dragon and his angels fought on their part, 8 but could not win the day, or stand their ground in heaven any longer; 9 the great dragon, serpent of the primal age, was flung down to earth; he whom we call the devil, or Satan, the whole world’s seducer, flung down to earth, and his angels with him.  10 Then, I heard a voice crying aloud in heaven, “The time has come; now we are Saved and made strong, our God Reigns, and power belongs to Christ, his anointed; the accuser of our brethren is overthrown.”  Day and night, he stood accusing them in God’s Presence; 11 but because of the Lamb’s blood and because of the truth to which they bore witness, they triumphed over him, holding their lives cheap until death overtook them.  12 Rejoice over it, heaven, and all you that dwell in heaven; but woe to you, earth and sea, now that the devil has come down upon you, full of malice, because he knows how brief is the time given him.  13 So, the dragon, finding himself cast down to earth, went in pursuit of the woman, the boy’s mother; 14 but the woman was given two wings, such as the great eagle has, to speed her flight into the wilderness, to her place of refuge, where for a year, and two years, and half a year she will be kept hidden from the serpent’s view.  15 Thereupon, the serpent sent a flood of water out of his mouth in pursuit of the woman, to carry her away on its tide; 16 but earth came to the woman’s rescue.  The earth gaped wide, and swallowed up this flood which the dragon had sent out of his mouth.  17 So, in his spite against the woman, the dragon went elsewhere to make war on the rest of her children, the men who keep God’s Commandments, and hold fast to the truth concerning Jesus.  18 And he stood there waiting on the sea beach.

The apocryphal narrative may likely have been composed as early as the 3rd century.  The earliest versions of this apocryphon are preserved by Syriac manuscripts of the 5th and 6th centuries, although the text itself probably belongs to the 4th century.  Later apocrypha based on these earlier texts, including the six books of the Dormition narratives, include the De Obitu S. Dominae, attributed to John of Patmos, the author of Revelation.  This was a work probably from around the turn of the 6th century, a summary of the Six Books narrative.  The story also appears in De Transitu Virginis, a late 5th century work ascribed to Melito of Sardis.  It presents a theologically redacted summary of the traditions in the Liber Requiei Mariae.  The Transitus Mariae tells the story of the apostles being transported by white clouds to the deathbed of Mary (a.s.), each from the town where he was preaching at the hour.  The Decretum Gelasianum, a decree by Pope Gelasius I in the 490s, declared some parts of the Transitus Mariae apocryphal.  An Armenian letter attributed to Dionysus the Areopagite also mentions the event, but this is a much later work.  It was likely written sometime after the 6th century.  John of Damascus is the first church authority to advocate the doctrine under his own name.  His contemporaries, Gregory of Tours and Modestus of Jerusalem, helped promote the concept to the wider church.

Some versions of the story place the event in Ephesus, in the House of the Virgin Mary (a.s.), a Christian shrine and Muslim maqam.  This is a recent and localised tradition.  The earliest traditions all locate the end of Mary’s (a.s.) life in Jerusalem at Mary’s (a.s.) Tomb, which is believed by Eastern Christians to be the place of her burial.  The Sacred Tradition of Eastern Christianity teaches that the Virgin Mary (a.s.) died a natural death, the Dormition of the Theotokos, the falling asleep; and that like any human being, that her soul was Received by Christ upon death; and that her body was resurrected on the third day after her repose, at which time she was Taken Up, soul and body, into Heaven in anticipation of the general resurrection of all mankind.  Her tomb, according to this teaching, was found empty on the third day.  This contrasts with the Catholic view of her Assumption.

By the 7th century, a variation emerged, according to which one of the apostles, often identified as Thomas (r.a.), was not present at the death of Mary (a.s.), but his late arrival precipitated a reopening of her tomb, which is found to be empty except for her grave clothes.  In a later tradition, Mary dropped her girdle down to the apostle from Heaven as testament to the event.  This incident is depicted in many later paintings of the Assumption.

Teaching of the Assumption of Mary (a.s.) thereafter, became widespread across the Christian world.  It is known to have been celebrated as early as the 5th century and been established in the East by Emperor Maurice around 600 CE as a Feast Day.  It was celebrated in the West under Pope Sergius I in the 8th century and Pope Leo IV then confirmed the feast as official.

Following the Reformation, theological debate about the Assumption continued as it did for many other aspects of Catholic theology by the Protestants.  This climaxed in 1950, when Pope Pius XII defined it as dogma for the Catholic Church.  The Catholic Church has never asserted nor denied that its teaching is based on apocryphal accounts.  The Church documents are silent on this matter and instead rely upon other sources and arguments as the basis for the doctrine.

Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption of Mary (a.s.) as a dogma on the 1st November, 1950, in the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus.  Since the 1870 solemn declaration of Papal Infallibility by Vatican I, this declaration by Pope Pius XII has been the only ex cathedra use of Papal Infallibility.  Pope Pius XII deliberately left open the question of whether Mary (a.s.) died before her Assumption.

Although the Assumption of Mary (a.s.) is not an Anglican doctrine, the 15th August is observed by some within Anglicanism as a holy day in honour of Mary (a.s.).  The Scottish Episcopal Church’s and the Anglican Church of Canada’s versions of the Book of Common Prayer mark the date as a commemoration of ‘The Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary’.  Episcopal Church in the United States of America observe the day as the holy day of ‘St. Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ’.  For the Church of England, the day is a ‘Festival of the Blessed Virgin Mary’.  In some churches of the Anglican Communion and the Continuing Anglican churches, Anglo-Catholics observe the Feast Day as the Assumption.  The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission agreed statement on the Virgin Mary (a.s.) assigns a place for both the Dormition and the Assumption in Anglican devotion.

Most modern Protestants neither teach nor believe in the Assumption of Mary (a.s.), as they see no Biblical basis for it.  While most Lutheran churches do not teach the Assumption of Mary (a.s.), 15th August is a Lesser Feast in celebration of ‘Mary, Mother of Our Lord’, according to the Calendar of Saints.

From a Catholic theological perspective, Mary (a.s.) had to die even though she was free from Original Sin and its stain because being free of Original Sin and its stain is not the same thing as being in a glorified, deathless condition.  The Catholics believe that Jesus (a.s.) was also free of Original Sin and its stain, but he could and he did die.  As Ludwig Ott, the noted Catholic theologian wrote, “For Mary, death, in consequence of her freedom from Original Sin and from personal sin, was not a consequence of punishment of sin.”  However, Mary’s (a.s.) body, which was by nature mortal, was in conformity with that of her Divine Son, subject to the general law of death.

There is no definitive doctrine in Islam that addresses the Assumption of Mary (a.s.).  Muslims are ignorant of it, and theologically, there is no basis in the Qur’an or ahadits on it.


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