Dormition of the Virgin

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The phrase "Dormition of the Virgin," which literally means the falling asleep of the Virgin, figuratively refers to mary's death. From New Testament times Christians referred to death as sleep. St. Paul wrote of deceased Christians as "those who have fallen asleep through Jesus" (1 Thes 4.14). The deep faith that Christians had in life after death and the resurrection when the body would be eternally reunited to the soul, led them to view death not as the end of everything but as a transition into another life in which the body fell asleep and rested until awakened into eternal glory. Thus they looked upon the death of the saints and martyrs with joy and commemorated the day of their "falling asleep" as their "birthday" into a new life.

Exactly when the Dormition of the Virgin first occupied the attention of the Christians is not known, but by the end of the 5th century the event was vigorously present in religious literature and the sacred liturgy.

The most vivid concern for Mary's dormition appeared in a body of apocryphal literature called by modern scholars the Transitus Mariae the passing of Mary. These writings, some of which date back to at least the second half of the 5th century, were written to supply for the silence of Sacred Scriptures about Mary's death. They were highly imaginative and, by and large, fictitious. But they satisfied the yearning of Christians to know more about Mary's death. They describe in great detail Mary's last hours. Though they differ markedly from one another in length, language, and detail, they do manifest a similarity in narration that may be schematized thus: Mary's death is foretold by an angel or by Christ; some or all of the Apostles are miraculously gathered together to assist Mary and receive her blessing; Christ comes and takes Mary's soul into heaven; her body is carried by the Apostles to the valley of Josaphat for burial; the Jews plot to burn the body but are foiled by the Holy Spirit; the Apostles keep vigil at the grave; after a short or long period there is finally an assumption of Mary's body into paradise.

Such imaginative accounts of Mary's dormition, though not strictly historical, are not without value. Beneath their fiction they manifest the beliefs of the early Christians concerning the mother of god. In them especially is found early evidence of belief in the bodily as sumption of mary. This same belief is manifested in the liturgical feast of the Dormition of Mary.

As a liturgical feast the Dormition was celebrated at least as early as the end of the 6th century. At that time Emperor Maurice (582602) decreed that the feast be celebrated on August 15 throughout the entire Byzantine Empire.

The Emperor's decree became a stabilizing factor in a development toward this feast that had begun early in the 5th century. At that time a feast in honor of the Blessed Mother of God was celebrated on August 15 at a Jerusalem church called Kathisma (meaning in Greek "rest"). The feast did not commemorate any single prerogative of Mary, but all her perfections and privileges as the Mother of God. By the beginning of the 6th century one hears of a basilica in Gethsemane that claims to possess the cherished tomb of the Virgin Mary. It too celebrates Mary's feast of August 15, but, owing to the belief that Mary's tomb is there and to the widespread popularity of the apocryphal works on Mary's dormition, emphasis in the celebration is now put on Mary's death with its extraordinary circumstances.

With the Emperor's decree establishing the annual feast throughout the empire, preachers began to speak more often on Mary's dormition. From their discourses one gets a deeper insight to the meaning of the feast. Sermons by St. Modestus of Jerusalem (d. c. 634), St. Andrew of Crete (d. 740), and St. John Damascene (d. c. 750) show that the object of the feast was not only Mary's death but also the glorification of her soul and body.

The feast of the Dormition of Mary has continued to be celebrated in the Oriental liturgies to the present day, though it is now more commonly called the "Assumption" or the "Journey of the Blessed Mother of God into Heaven." The feast embodies belief in Mary's bodily Assumption.

The feast was adopted in Rome during the 7th century. Pope Sergius I (687701) ordered a solemn procession to be celebrated on the feast. From its beginning in the West the feast centered on Mary's bodily glorification, and thus by the end of the 8th century the title had already been changed from the Dormition to the Feast of the Assumption.

For a discussion of theological opinion on the question of Mary's death, see assumption of mary.

See Also: marian feasts.

Bibliography: m. jugie, La Mort et l'Assomption de la sainte Vierge: Étude historico-doctrinale (Studi e Testi 114; Vatican City 1944). r. h. chabot, "Feasts in Honor of Our Lady," j. b. carol, ed., Mariology, 3 v. (Milwaukee 195461) 3:2252. w. burg-hardt, "The Testimony of the Patristic Age concerning Mary's Death," Marian Studies 8 (1957) 5859. h. holstein, "Le Développement du dogme marial," Maria 6 (1961) 241293, bibliog. 291293. m. r. james, tr., The Apocryphal New Testament: Being the Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses (Oxford 1924).

[d. f. hickey]