As improbable as it may sound, I believe I may have discovered a new interpretation of the doctrine of the Dormition, or Assumption, of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I have investigated widely, and have not found a similar commentary in either Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican writings.
First let’s being with the background; the Feast of the Dormition, which means the ‘The Falling Asleep’, of the BVM is the title used for the doctrine by the Orthodox and Anglicans while the Roman Catholics refer to it as the Assumption. The ancient tradition states that the BVM at her death was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. The feast has been celebrated since the 5th century. The Emperor Maurice (539-602) finally confirmed August the 15th as the set date for the feast in the 6th century. The doctrine was first formulated in the West by St Gregory of Tours (d. 594). In the East a passage by Dionysius the Pseudo Areopagagite (c. 500) was taken by St Andrew of Crete (d. 740) to confirm the teaching. The doctrine was first upheld by St Augustine (354-430) and later defended by St Albertus Magnus (d. 1280), St Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-74) and St Bonaventure (c. 1217-74).
The Church of England dropped the feast in the first Prayer Book in 1549 but restored it in 1928 and it is currently in the Calendar of Common Worship. The Scottish Episcopal Church kept the feast. The Canadian Church contains the feast in the Book of Common Prayer as ‘The Falling Asleep of the BVM” and in the BAS it is kept as the principal Marian Feast but as just ‘The BVM’. The Orthodox, along with the Anglicans, consider the doctrine to be an aspect of traditional piety. In neither church is the doctrine precisely defined.
In the Roman Catholic Church the doctrine of the Assumption became a formal doctrine in 1950.With all due respect to my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, I am uncomfortable with the formal RC doctrine of the Assumption. My discomfort has more with the focus of the theological underpinnings of the doctrine than with the doctrine itself. The language used seems very ‘scientific’ and focuses on the ontological status of the BVM rather than on the personal spiritual significance of that status. For example, a RC argument for the doctrine states that as the BVM was immaculately conceived then she was not tainted with original sin and thus she did not have to suffer death as death is the direct result of original sin. Another argument is that as the BVM stood at the foot of the Cross at Our Lord’s Passion then, and as she loved him so much as she was his mother, then she partook in his death and thus did not have to die a bodily death herself. Very logical, but very A Priori (A fact proved within a closed system by reference to other facts with the same system, from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason published in 1781). There is little reference to how this effects us except that as the BVM did not have to die and undergo judgement she has already entered into glory and thus her intercessions for us are more powerful than any other Saint.
My position takes as its starting point the significance of the Dormition for individual Christians. What does it say to us? What is it a sign ‘of’? To understand my position, one more piece of the puzzle needs to be added. This is the doctrine of Deification. Deification is the normative term for the transforming effect of Grace on the Christian soul. The term was used primarily by the Greek Fathers (Patrisitcs) and in Eastern Orthodox liturgy. The scriptural evidence is found in the Second Letter of St Peter, Chapter 1, verse 4:
“that you may be partakers of the Divine nature.”
However, the idea is clearly similar to the idea found in the 8th Chapter of St Pauls Letter to the Romans that we are sons of God through the working of the Holy Spirit. In chapters 14-17 of St John’s Gospel we find the same idea in the ‘Indwelling of the Holy Trinity’. St Irenaeus (c. 130-200) argued that as God shared in our humanity in the Incarnation so we are destined to share in his Divinity. St Clement of Alexandria (c.150-215) understood this idea as being the same as the Platonic ideal of assimilation to God. They all believed that through the power of Grace man can overcome the effects of original sin and acquire ‘Divine’ attributes, especially incorruptibility and immortality. The main point is that the Incarnation of Christ has called mankind to share in the Divine life in Christ. St Athanasius (c.296-373) said:
“The Word became flesh...that we, partaking of His Spirit, might be deified.” De Decretis, 14
St Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) wrote:
“For we have all become partakers of Him in ourselves through the Spirit. For this reason we have become partakers of the Divine nature and are called sons”. In Joan. 9
In the East this doctrine received its definitive formulation in the writings of St Gregory Palamas (c.1296-1359) who argued that man can become united with the Divine energies rather than with the Divine essence. In the West this language became rarer although was still found in the writings of the Mystics of the church. The Patristic revival of the Oxford Movement in Anglicanism stimulated renewed interest in the doctrine of Deification by the Western church.
Jean Vanier often uses the phrase “The Word became flesh so that flesh may become Word” to emphasise the resulting acts of Christ’s grace working in us for the benefit of others that results from our acceptance of the Divine will. St Teresa of Avila emphasised the same charitable and missionary result of Deification.
I hold that the power of doctrine lies not in the conceptualisation of ontological (the nature of being) statements but rather in teleological (the nature of becoming) and soeteriological (the nature of salvation) understanding. Thus the importance of the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the BVM does not lie in the ‘fact’ of the encounter but rather what it says to us as Christians along the road to salvation. If the BVM’s acceptance of the total Will of God ,“Be it unto me according to Thy Word” (Luke 1.38), was the act of cooperation by the human race to participate in the salvitic plan of God then she is the model of every individual Christian who is called to do exactly the same thing. If by her acceptance of God’s will she was able to give birth to the Christ, then our acceptance of God’s will also allows for Christ to become manifest in the world as St Paul teaches us:
“For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2. 19-20
Thus the Annunciation of the BVM and the resulting Incarnation of Christ becomes the model of Christian salvation for all people.
Having laid the groundwork for my commentary, I am now ready to state the simple notion that has come to me: IF by her submission to the Divine Will the BVM became the model of the Christian life and, IF her acceptance and participation in both the joys and sorrows of the Incarnation showed her continued acceptance of the Divine Will, THEN her Assumption into the Divine Glory of God is also the model, sign, and hope of the fulfilment of the Christian life as understood by the doctrine of Deification.
She has become the ‘Firstfruits of His creatures’ as the Epistle of St James speaks. She has ‘finished the race’ and stands at the end of each Christian’s life as a sign of the eternal promise of God to mankind. From her unique vantage point she offers us hope, encouragement and strength to persevere. She stands, so to speak, at the finish line beckoning to those of us still in the race the way home.
It is our relationships that give meaning to our lives. To have our hearts stirred they must first be touched through relationships. So in conclusion I contend that what is more important to us than ‘what state’ the BVM is in is ‘what’ she has to say to us from that position. It is our relationship with her as the forerunner of every individual Christian that allows us to love her.
Now I need to make a disclaimer. After having finished this article I found the following quote by the great Orthodox writer Vladimir Lossky (1903-1958):
“The glorification of the Mother is a direct result of the voluntary humiliation of the Son: the Son of God is incarnate of the Virgin Mary and is made ‘Son of Man’, capable of dying, while Mary, becoming Mother of God, receives the ‘Glory which belongs to God’ and is the first among human beings to participate in the final deification of the creature.”
Well, so much for thinking I had stumbled across a totally new take on the Dormition. As the Preacher saith “There is no new thing under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1.9
The first, third and last photograph is taken from the Roman Catholic Church of the Dormition on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. There may have been a church here as early as the 4th century and by the 6th century a large Basilica was built. The Roman Church claims this as the site of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.
The second and fourth photograph is taken from the Orthodox Church of the Tomb of the BVM at the base of the Mount of Olives. This is one of the most atmospheric holy sites in Jerusalem. It is carved out of the rock of the mountain and descends 47 steps into the earth. The first tomb was made in the 1st century and was expanded in the 3rd and 4th century. It was destroyed by the Persians in 614, rebuilt by the Crusaders and destroyed again by Saladin in 1187. However the site is also holy to Muslims as legend says that the Prophet Muhammad saw a ‘light over the tomb of his sister Mary’ during his Night Journey. There is a mihrab in the tomb added by Saladin. The burial place of St Anne and St Joachim are here as well as the graves of many of the Latin Kings and Queens of Jerusalem. Services are held here by the Greek, Armenian, Coptic and Syrian Orthodox Churches.
I visited both churches recently while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.