Celebrated every year on August 15, the Feast of the Dormition, or Assumption, of the Blessed Virgin Mary commemorates the death of Mary and her bodily assumption into Heaven, before her body could begin to decay - a foretaste of our own bodily resurrection at the end of time. Because it signifies the Blessed Virgin's passing into eternal life, it is the most important of all Marian feasts and a Holy Day of Obligation for all Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Christians.
The feast was originally celebrated in the East, where it is known, as it is today in the Byzantine Church, as the Feast of the Dormition, a word which means "the falling asleep." We don’t know how the feast first came to be celebrated. Its origin is lost in those days when Jerusalem was restored as a sacred city, at the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 285-337). By then it had been a pagan city for two centuries, ever since Emperor Hadrian (76-138) had leveled it around the year 135 and rebuilt it as “Aelia Capitolina” in honor of Jupiter. For 200 years, every memory of Jesus was obliterated from the city, and the sites made holy by His life, death and Resurrection became pagan temples.
After the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 336, the sacred sites began to be restored and memories of the life of Our Lord began to be celebrated by the people of Jerusalem. One of the memories about his mother centered around the “Tomb of Mary,” close to Mount Zion, where the early Christian community had lived. On the hill itself was the “Place of Dormition,” the spot of Mary’s “falling asleep,” where she had died. The “Tomb of Mary” was where she was buried. At this time, the “Memory of Mary” was being celebrated. Later it was to become our feast of the Dormition.
For a time, the “Memory of Mary” was marked only in Palestine, but then it was extended by the emperor to all the churches of the East. In the seventh century, it began to be celebrated in Rome under the title of the “Falling Asleep” (“Dormitio”) of the Mother of God. Soon after, the name was changed to the “Assumption of Mary,” since there was more to the feast than her dying. It also proclaimed that she had been taken up, body and soul, into heaven after her death.
The earliest printed reference to the belief that Mary's body was assumed into Heaven after death dates from the fourth century, in a document entitled "The Account of the Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God." The document is written in the voice of the Apostle John, to whom Christ on the Cross had entrusted the care of His mother, and recounts the death, laying in the tomb, and assumption of the Blessed Virgin. Tradition variously places Mary's death at Jerusalem or at Ephesus, where John was living. Eastern Christians, both Orthodox and Catholic, continue to refer today to the Feast of the Assumption as the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos.
The document written by St. John the Theologian about the Dormition of the Mother of God recounts how the Archangel Gabriel came to Mary as she prayed at the Holy Sepulchre (the tomb in which Christ had been laid on Good Friday and from which He rose on Pascha. Gabriel told the Blessed Virgin that her earthly life had reached its end, and she decided to return to Bethlehem to meet her death.
“All of the apostles, having been caught up in clouds by the Holy Spirit, were transported to Bethlehem to be with Mary in her final days. Together, they carried her bed (again, with the aid of the Holy Spirit) to her home in Jerusalem, where, on the following Sunday, Christ appeared to her and told her not to fear. While Peter sang a hymn, the face of the mother of the Lord shone brighter than the light, and she rose up and blessed each of the apostles with her own hand, and all gave glory to God; and the Lord stretched forth His undefiled hands, and received her holy and blameless soul. . . . And Peter, and I John, and Paul, and Thomas, ran and wrapped up her precious feet for the consecration; and the twelve apostles put her precious and holy body upon a couch, and carried it. The apostles took the couch bearing Mary's body to the Garden of Gethsemane, where they placed her body in a new tomb. And, behold, a perfume of sweet odor came forth out of the holy sepulchre of our Lady the mother of God; and for three days the voices of invisible angels were heard glorifying Christ our God, who had been born of her. And when the third day was ended, the voices were no longer heard; and from that time forth all knew that her spotless and precious body had been transferred to paradise.”
"The Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God" is the earliest extant written document describing the end of Mary's life, and as we can see, it clearly indicates that Mary died before her body was assumed into Heaven.
The earliest Latin versions of the story of the Dormition, written a couple of centuries later, differ in certain details but agree that Mary died, and Christ received her soul; that the apostles entombed her body; and that Mary's body was taken up into Heaven from the tomb.
That none of these documents bear the weight of Scripture does not matter; what matters is that they tell us what Christians, in both the East and the West, believed had happened to Mary at the end of her life. Unlike the Prophet Elijah, who was caught up by a fiery chariot and taken up into Heaven while still alive, the Virgin Mary (according to these traditions) died naturally, and then her soul was reunited with her body at the Assumption. (Her body, all of the documents agree, remained incorrupt between her death and her Assumption.)
We can still see the influence of "The Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God" in Eastern iconography today. I speak specifically of the icon of the Dormition, which you see enthroned here before you in the middle of the Cathedral. In the foreground, Mary's lifeless body lies on the couch, as the Apostles prepare to move her body to the tomb. Behind the couch stands Christ, surrounded by angels and cherubim (signifying Heaven), holding in His hands the soul of His Blessed Mother (presented as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, signifying Mary's birth into eternal life).
While Eastern Christians have kept these early traditions surrounding the Dormition (Assumption) alive, Western Christians have largely lost touch with them. Some, hearing the Assumption described by the Eastern term Dormition, incorrectly assume that the "falling asleep" means that Mary was assumed into Heaven before she could die. But Pope Pius XII, in Munificentissimus Deus, his November 1, 1950, declaration of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, cites ancient liturgical texts from both East and West, as well as the writings of the Church Fathers, all indicating that the Blessed Virgin had died before her body was assumed into Heaven.
The beliefs we hold concerning the death and assumption of the Mother of God into heaven are ancient, dating back to the Apostles themselves. What was clear from the beginning was that there were no relics of Mary to be venerated, and that an empty tomb stood on the edge of Jerusalem near the site of her death. That location also soon became a place of pilgrimage.
At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, when bishops from throughout the Mediterranean world gathered in Constantinople, Emperor Marcian asked the Patriarch of Jerusalem to bring the relics of Mary to Constantinople to be enshrined in the capitol. The patriarch explained to the emperor that there were no relics of Mary in Jerusalem, that “Mary had died in the presence of the apostles; but her tomb, when opened later . . . was found empty and so the apostles concluded that the body was taken up into heaven.”
In the eighth century, St. John Damascene was known for giving sermons at the holy places in Jerusalem. At the Tomb of Mary, he expressed the belief of the Church on the meaning of the feast: “Although the body was duly buried, it did not remain in the state of death, neither was it dissolved by decay. . . . You were transferred to your heavenly home, O Lady, Queen and Mother of God in truth.”
All the feast days of Mary mark the great mysteries of her life and her part in the work of redemption. The central mystery of her life and person is her divine motherhood, celebrated both at Christmas and on the feast of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, the day after Christmas. The Conception of the Theotokos (Dec. 9) marks the preparation for that motherhood.
The Dormition completes God’s work in Mary since it was not fitting that the flesh that had given life to God Himself should ever undergo corruption. The Dormition is God’s crowning of His work as Mary ends her earthly life and enters eternity. The feast turns our eyes in that direction, where we will follow when our earthly life is over.
The feast days of the Church are not just the commemoration of historical events; they do not look only to the past. They look to the present and to the future and give us an insight into our own relationship with God. The Dormition/Assumption looks to eternity and gives us hope that we, too, will follow Our Lady when our life is ended.