Today, for Anglicans, is the Feast of Our Lady, the Mother of God, the ever-virgin Mary without sin, the tabernacle of Christ. The other churches that hold the feast have rather clear definitions of what occurs today: the celebration of Mary's departure from this world. As it often happens in Anglicanism, the theology behind this is more vague, most churches in the Anglican Communion commemorate this day as the Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary”, some believe in her Assumption, which for us in an adiaphora (a thing different), the closest we have to a dogma.
Assumption of the Virgin Mary. London, Skinners' Company. c.15th century.
The joint Anglican-Roman Catholic document Mary: Hope and Grace in Christ states that the origin of the teachings concerning the Dormition or the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary are not particularly clear but their earliest traces can be found no later than the fourth century, possibly in a Syrian or Jewish Christian group. The end of the Virgin is disputed, the point is that the flesh that gave life to God could not be corruptible and therefore was assumed into heaven, for she was greater than Moses or Elijah who were taken into heaven and then so should she. Both in the West and in the East Mary is believed to share the glory of the heavens, though in the second case there is little concern over details. If the Incarnation is truly revealed through Mary and her history in Israel, then it is consistent with the economy of God’s revelation works for our salvation and how the figure of the Mother of God shares in the divine glory. The document gives for Anglicans a place for both the Dormition and the Assumption. Anglican theology had been vague over this previously, although the departure of Mary was not commemorated in the Book of Common Prayer, as it placed more importance on other Marian feasts - before the Reformation a theology of the Assumption was already spread in England as we can see from the later Sarum, York and Hereford Missals, after the Reformation, the position on this was not clear - perhaps in a very Anglican way - the followers were drawn to think that [Saint] Mary the Virgin (as the Prayer Book refers to her), the Mother of God, was now above with her Son, how this happened was not important.
The lowly maid who gave us Jesus the Christ; God the Son, with whom she shared a body and for who she was chosen then she has to share that heavenly sphere as also the Book of Revelation reveals: a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. The Mother and the Son’s lives interlink and this gives us enough of an answer.
As Anglicans, I believe we really are lucky to have the freedom of choosing between two splendid theologies: that of the Dormition and that of the Assumption, which really are not so different and could be complementary to an extent.
The Dormitio in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome.
The Dormition of Mary, perhaps the earliest theology regarding Mary’s departure from the earth, is today mainly upheld by the Eastern churches - it commemorates the Falling Asleep of Mary. In Orthodox and Catholic language of Scripture, [spiritual] death is often called “falling asleep”, in Greek and Latin coemeterium means a place of sleeping. A prominent example is also the Dormition of St. Anna, Mary’s mother. Although it is indeed a spiritual death, as Mary was very much into a deep sleep - the body that was shared and became a tabernacle of that of the Christ could not die, as death was the fruit of the original sin and being Mary the first redeemed by the Son.
Until the 5th century the Fathers of the Church do not mention the Dormition and it was until the 6th century that it was not celebrated as a holy day.
Epiphanius of Salamis, a Palestinian Jew, states that in Scripture there is nowhere one can find about the Virgin’s death or burial - he realises that silence might be the key to the holy Virgin’s heavenly fate.
The events from the Dormition can be found in the apocrypha and therefore the Church did not take all their contents but only the basic and common idea that her soul was adopted by Christ through the Dormition.
Emperor Maurice (582-602) set the first date for the Feast of the Dormition on August 15, that is when commemorations for the departing of the Virgin officially began, Rome borrowed the tradition from Constantinople during the pontificate of Pope Sergius I (687-701), the feast was called “Dormitio Beatae Virginis”. The Council of Ephesus was instrumental in spreading this particular Marian devotion.
The Dormition is associated with various places, notably with Jerusalem; the Tomb of Mary and the Basilica of the Dormition as well as Ephesus in Turkey, which contains the House of the Virgin Mary and also with Constantinople, where a shrine dedicated to her girdle survived until the fall of the Empire in the 15th century.
Christian iconography regarding the Dormitio follows the belief of the Church that Mary spent her life after her central role during the Pentecost, living at the house of Saint John in Jerusalem, when the Archangel Gabriel came back to reveal to her her coming death after three days. The apostles, scattered throughout the world, were suddenly taken at her side, except Thomas who arrived three days later. He saw a cloud above the tomb and her body being assumed into heaven. He asked her “where are you going, O Holy One?” and she gave him her girdle saying “receive this my friend” only to disappear suddenly. Then Thomas and the apostles went to see her grave in Gethsemane (another tradition sets it by her Ephesus), where she had been buried at her request, but her body was gone, leaving a sweet fragrance in the air. An apparition informed them that her body reunited with her soul in heaven after the third day.
This is the tradition of East, but for long it has also been that of the West, indeed the iconography of the Madonna of the Girdle, extremely popular in late Medieval and Renaissance Italy, was very much western. This theology tells us that the Theotokos has already undergone the bodily resurrection we will experience at the final judgement, as she was without sin, she stands in heaven with all the holy ones and on a privileged place by the Trinity.
Madonna of the Girdle - Sebastiano Mainardi - c.1490 - Fresco - Baroncelli Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence.
The Assumption of Mary into Heaven is the way in which the Western church describes the completion of Mary’s earthly life, while her soul and body were assumed into heavenly glory. A doctrine that has become dogma of the Roman Catholic Church since 1950 with the constitution Munificentissimus Deus (1950) by Pope Pius XII in which Mary’s triumph over death and sin is based on 1 Corinthian 15:54: then shall come to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.
Saint Epiphanius of Salamis (he was really called that) in AD 377 states that we could not know whether Mary had died or not, but apocryphal accounts of the Virgin’s assumption circulated since the 4th century, notably the Book of Mary’s Repose. The Church interpreted Revelation 12 as a scriptural basis for this doctrine.
Apocrypha of the 5th, attributed to St. John and St. Melito of Sardis presents further documents on the Assumption of the Virgin - both tell of Mary being transported into the clouds from her deathbed. Later in the 6th century, Dionysus the Areopagite and John of Damascus mention the same event, they are the first church authorities to advocate this doctrine, backed by none other than Gregory of Tours who helped to spread it.
The story is originally set at Mary’s deathbed in Jerusalem, though later accounts suggest the House of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus. By the 7th century, a variation of the Dormition’s story of St. Thomas appears, showing how by now the theologies of the Dormition and Assumption are still very much interlinked, and the first celebrations of the Assumption are in fact celebrations of the Dormition, the first recorded being that established in the East by Emperor Maurice around AD 600. In the West the Assumption was celebrated under Pope Sergius I in 8th century and Pope Leo IV made the feast official. In England, even more so than the continent, the Assumption was a widespread and common iconography since the 1300s, in Italy the two coexisted into the 1500s. Throughout the Middle Ages, well into the Renaissance, the Dormition and Assumption, were still not very distinct but seemed rather like two moments of the same story, especially in Christian iconography the Falling Asleep often takes places around the Virgin’s deathbed, set in dull landscapes, as portrayed by Filippo Lippi in Spoleto Cathedral, with St. Thomas famously arriving later! The scene seems void of any hope, it is truly a death, can we really tell the Virgin is sleeping?
Dormition of the Virgin Mary - Filippo Lippi - c.1467 - Fresco - Spoleto Cathedral.
But the story continues and if we look at an Assumption from roughly the same time, let’s take Pintoricchio’s Assumption in Santa Maria del Popolo, we do see the Virgin being assumed into heaven, out of a sepulchre (which is always present in the iconography of the assumption), reminder of the first scene, the dormition (then the two theologies weren't really defined as different, instead were more vague), but now surrounded by joyful saints and adoring angels, as well as a bright background - joy fills the scene - Mary is with Christ and all sadness is gone. She becomes active part in God’s revelation unto humanity and his economy of Salvation. Dormition and Ascension are very much part of the same event, it would seem that one is the natural continuation of the other, and they do not antagonise one or the other but rather complete each other beautifully. The Dormition is complete in the Assumption.
Assumption of the Virgin Mary - Pintoricchio - c.1490 - Fresco - Basso della Rovere Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.
The scriptural basis for both the Mary’s departure is not only found in the Scriptures as Pius XII reminds us in Munificentissimus Deus: All these proofs and considerations of the holy Fathers and the theologians are based upon the Sacred Writings as their ultimate foundation. -- Precedent to this, he cited many passages that have been offered in support of this teaching. But indeed in the very commonality of so many sources regarding this subject and the very work and the revelation of the Holy Spirit through the Tradition of the Church.
Although, some passages do announce Mary’s special way of leaving us to become Queen of Heaven if we look closely: in 1st Corinthians 15, Saint Paul recalls Genesis 3:15 where it is foretold that the seed of the woman will crush Satan with his feet. This is a reference to the Son of God and how Mary will share in this role in heaven. Psalm 132 is also rather revealing: Arise, O Lord, into thy resting place: thou and the ark, which thou hast sanctified (v. 8). Just like the Church is the New Covenant, Jesus the new Temple, Mary is their Ark - taken to heaven in soul and body. Finally, Revelation 12 that already tells us of a woman with a crown of twelve stars announces of a woman clothed with the sun. This is how Mary’s bodily assumption is understood from a scriptural point of view - it is a very poetic way of doing theology in my opinion, a subtle and profound way to discern the mystery of God.
Assumption of Mary - English - 15th century - Alabaster - Victoria&Albert Museum, London.
As Anglicans we are fortunate to make use of this great patrimony of the Tradition of faith of the Church, a patrimony in which God is mysteriously revealed to us day by day, on this day by the Virgin the Mother with whom, her Son shared this holy tabernacle, now partaking in the work of Salvation from the highest point of the celestial sphere right below you. Happy Feast of the Dormition and the Assumption. I like to think that today, as the Apostles, we witness the Assumption of Mary, from below, whereas the departed and the saints witness the Coronation of the Virgin above, as she leaves us, she is crowned into glory. Our earthly path ends with the heavenly vision in the sight of God, although it's not yet time for us to see beyond, for the moment we are here below, but this is what awaits us, there are always two sides to the Christian story. Mary departs from us to be a woman with a crown of twelve stars. The end is only the beginning. Salve Regina!
Coronation of the Virgin - Lorenzo Monaco - c.1414 - Tempera on Panel - Uffizi Gallery, Florence.