There is some confusion among Episcopalians about the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary celebrated on 15th August and often transferred to the nearest Sunday. On social media recently I saw clergy colleagues comment on the Feast, “she died; get over it; God still loves you” and “the Assumption/Dormition is simply a feast day to get theologians out of a hole”, a hole which involved wombs being dirty and Mary not having original sin so not being able to die. Certainly the distinctively British theological principle, ‘potuit, decuit, ergo fecit’ ([God] could do it, it was fitting so God therefore did it), used by Eadmer of Canterbury and John Duns Scotus to defend Mary’s immaculate conception, does suggest the possibility of extreme theological inventiveness, but it is worth looking at what the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary actually means.
Firstly we might ask why a Roman Catholic doctrine, defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950 “as a dogma revealed by God”, is being celebrated by Anglicans who have rejected papal authority since the sixteenth century. The Book of Common Prayer in its various early versions removed the Feast of the Assumption on the 15th August, leaving 8th September as the main Marian Feast. August 15th returned in the twentieth century with the Scottish Prayer Book of 1929 leading the way and calling it the ‘Falling Asleep of the B.V.M.’, a title also used by the 1954 South African Prayer Book. The 1979 American Prayer Book called the Feast ‘St Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ’, the 1989 New Zealand Book ‘St Mary, the Mother of Jesus’ and the 1995 Australian Book ‘Mary, Mother of Our Lord’. The 1991 Revised Scottish Calendar simply has ‘Mary the Virgin’ and the Church of England finally caught up with all this in Common Worship (2000) when it moved its main Marian Feast to the 15th August and called it ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary’, although in a typically Anglican fashion it noted that one could replace it with 8 September and that “controversial doctrinal implications should not be inferred” from the change to the 15th August (A Companion to Common Worship (2001) edited by Paul Bradshaw, vol 1 p.43). Meanwhile many Anglican churches around the world have ignored the timidity of modern liturgists and cheerfully joined most other Christians in celebrating ‘The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary’, as we find in The Day Office of the Church (1871) used by the Episcopalian nuns of the Society of Reparation in Aberdeen.
This move to transfer the main Anglican Feast of Mary to the 15th August was done to fit with ‘wider ecumenical practice’ as noted in Bradshaw’s Companion to Common Worship. This means that as Roman Catholics and Orthodox, and thus most Christians, have their main Marian Feast on 15th August, it is odd for Anglicans not to do the same. The problem is that the Anglicans have a strange prudishness about the title and meaning of the Feast, even if we put to one side the crypto-Nestorianism of some of the modern names for the day which hint at doubts about Mary being truly the Mother of God as defined by the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. The Anglican retrieval of the 15th August started well with Scots and South Africans using the Orthodox title of the Dormition, ‘falling asleep’, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which fits well with the Scottish Episcopalian respect for Eastern Christianity, but the general move to make this a non-specific Feast of Mary is regrettable and unecumenical, akin to making Easter just a day when we think about Jesus without mentioning the resurrection.
What is commemorated on the 15th August is the end of Mary’s life when she was taken body and soul into heaven. The Eastern Churches hold that she died first, with the Church of Ethiopia having two Feast of her death on 16th January and bodily assumption on 15th August. The Roman Church, however, leaves it open whether she died or was taken up like Elijah, simply saying it happened “when the course of her earthly life was finished” (from the 1950 Papal Bull, Munificentissimus Deus). Any suggestion that the doctrine of the Assumption necessarily involves believing that Mary did not die is not true; that she did die a bodily death is the patristic tradition and is common among Roman Catholic theologians. The suggestion that the doctrine of the Assumption comes from a squeamishness about the body and sex is absurd because the doctrine is about the body of a real woman and mother entering the realm of the Godhead, far above the angelic choirs. It is also not true that belief in the Immaculate Conception (Mary was freed by the anticipated merits of Christ from original sin from the moment of her conception) necessarily leads to a belief she didn’t die, it only means that bodily death for her was not a consequence of the punishment of sin. Why then the Anglican bashfulness, is it just the product of these sorts of misunderstandings?
Part of the problem is that the belief that Mary was taken up into heaven body and soul is not explicitly mentioned before the fourth century, or perhaps the third if we include some apocryphal texts. Epiphanius of Salamis wrote in 375 that the nature of Mary’s end is not known but he also implied that there were traditions that she died and others that she did not (Panarion 78). Belief in her bodily assumption, however, became current soon after throughout the Christian world to the extent that by the time of John of Damascus, who died in 749, it was taken for granted as part of the Christian faith in East and West. This should not cause any problems for Anglicans as the doctrine has sound grounding in the patristic period and is at least as well established as the modern canon of Scripture. The fact that the doctrine was accepted by the whole Church suggests that it should be taken seriously, as Augustine said against the Donatists, “securus iudicat orbis terrarum” (“the verdict of the [Christian] world is conclusive” – Contra epistolam Parmeniani, 3.24).
The real problem is that the doctrine has been associated with papal authority, not only since 1950 because the doctrine was firmly taught by the papal magisterium before then. I would suggest that this is the real reason for the Anglican hesitancy about the Feast and then about the name of the Feast. What I have said above suggests that this is a spurious motive: the Feast is ancient and does not depend on a particular view of the authority of the Bishop of Rome. Some might attempt to argue that it is not in accordance with the Scriptures and the oldest traditions of the Church, but the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission examined this in their ecumenical discussions and issued an ‘Agreed Statement’, Mary, Grace and Hope in Christ (2004), which taught that, “the teaching about Mary in the two definitions of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception, understood within the biblical pattern of the economy of hope and grace, can be said to be consonant with the teaching of the Scriptures and the ancient common traditions”. If we are serious about being a ‘branch’ of the Catholic Church” (Canon 1 of the Scottish Episcopal Church) or ‘part’ of the Catholic Church (Church of England ‘Declaration of Assent’) and if we are serious about our ecumenical responsibilities, we should accept the content as well as the date of our main Marian Feast. It is the ‘Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ or the ‘Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos’. As the heritage of our Churches is that of Western Christianity, it seems better that the Feast should appear in our calendars as the Assumption. I wonder if the preference for the Dormition actually comes from ignorance – either thinking the Assumption means she did not die or that the Dormition doesn’t involve her bodily resurrection.
This leaves us with the problem of historical veracity – did it really happen? There can be no doubt that Mary was a real person, hence the historical basis of the celebrations of her conception (8th December), birth (8th December), conception of Jesus (25th March), giving birth to Jesus (Feast of 25th December), and death or at least passing from this earthly life (Feast of 15th August). Revelation and the mind of faith garland all these events with supernatural meaning, just as they do with the intertwined life of her divine Son from which her life, and the life of any disciple of Christ, takes its meaning. The real problem of historicity is with the life of Christ, did he really raise the dead, feed five thousand with five loaves and two fish, walk on water, turn water into wine, and himself rise from the dead and ascend to heaven? Liberal theologians have tried to explain all these supernatural events in natural terms but these are all ultimately unconvincing – walking on a sandbank in a storm is as strange as walking on water and persuading the five thousand to share their packed lunches is nice but not really worth remembering.
The real question is not historicity but meaning. The mind of faith believes that the resurrection and miracles of Jesus actually happened but we cannot prove they did, and it is a rather poor view of the world that confines truth to history. Dante is a better guide to Christianity than Rudolf Bultmann. Problems with the bodily resurrection of Jesus are of a similar order as problems with the bodily assumption of Mary. What is really important is what they tell us about God and creation, and as such the great dogmas of the Christian faith are more like the truth of poetry which exceeds the veracity of a string of dates. Another priest friend on social media this week defended the Assumption of Mary by saying, “Of course, if you want reason as well as tradition, where would a good Jewish boy put his mother except on a great golden throne in heaven?” This is pushing ‘potuit, decuit, ergo fecit’ to the limits, but the Feast of the Assumption and Dormition means that Mary, the poor Jewish girl from Nazareth, is actually in heaven with God in the fullness of her being. She is a sign of hope for us all, poetic proof that the promises of Jesus are real and for us.
Who would not want to celebrate and name that hope?
Assumpta est Maria in caelum: gaudent Angeli laudantes benedicunt Dominum. Gaudete et exultate omnes recti corde quia hodie Maria Virgo cum Christo regnat in aeternum!
Mary has been taken up into heaven, the angels rejoice, singing songs of praise they bless the Lord. Rejoice and exult, all you of good heart, because today the Virgin Mary reigns together with Christ for ever!