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Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin

15 August 2010

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The earliest references to the Bodily Assumption of Mary and the titles given her appear as early as the fourth century, and their roots are traced back to the time of the Apostles. Some of the early Church Fathers believed that the Blessed Virgin was assumed into heaven; some while she was still alive: others that she was assumed, soon as, or later after she died. Festivals commemorating the death of the Blessed Virgin were common from the 5th century. In AD 556 Theodosius, the Patriarch of Alexandria, attests to two popular feasts of our Lady in Egypt: Her death and her Assumption.

Theodosius understood Mary to have died before being assumed, and according to the feast dates in Egypt at the time, he believed she was assumed 206 days after her death. St. John of Damascus (an 8th century saint) tells how it was believed all the Apostles had witnessed her death. And he relates a tradition where, during the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), the Emperor Marcian and his wife wished to find the body of Mary. But when her reported tomb (Ephesus) was opened, it was found empty upon inspection. In AD 600, the Emperor Mauricius decreed that the Assumption was to be celebrated August 15th. Soon the Church in Ireland adopted that date, and later that date was introduced in Rome.

Numerous historical records by the Church, both East and West, attest that the tombs many of the revered departed had been opened years after their deaths and the bodies of many have been found intact and incorrupt. A phenomenon which the Church believes to be a miraculous sign verifying the individual to be indeed a Saint. The Eastern Orthodox Church teaches that the Virgin Mary died a fully human death, but that her body saw no corruption – no matter how long it may have rested in the tomb. With the Blessed Virgin there is an added aspect to her death and entombment: The evidence of its incorrupt state being, when the tomb was opened, her body was not even to be found! This was the shared belief of the Undivided Church, and continues to this day among both the Orthodox and Catholic branches of ancient Christendom. A belief befitting the honor due the One who was chosen to bear the Son of God into the world.

Martin Luther and many of the Continental Reformers rejected the belief, not of her death, but rejected belief in the Bodily Assumption of Mary, probably, if not primarily because it is not explicitly biblical in its source of origin. Yet the Assumption is solidly within the biblical tradition of a holy and unique individual being taken bodily into heaven, such as was Elijah. Unless one wishes to dispute or simply dismiss a most unique occurrence that is clearly biblical in its origin. She who is ‘Mother of the Lord,’ and pronounced by Gabriel as being ‘full of grace,’ and whose own lips foretold ‘all generations shall call her blessed,’ is worthy of honor.

The Tradition which descends to us from the time of the Apostles develops in the Church through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, because Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would lead his Church into all truth. But not all truth is immediately self-evident. There is a development in the understanding of the realities which have been handed down. It took a hundred after Jesus’ birth for a gospel record clearly outlining Jesus’ Divinity to appear, even though the earliest gospels hint at Jesus having the authority and attributes of God. It was over 300 years after Jesus’ birth when the Holy Trinity was clearly defined, even though the Church had been baptizing ‘in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost’ since Apostolic times. This delay in asserting his Divinity, or in dogmatizing the Holy Trinity, does not mean that God was not a Trinity until AD 325, when the Church canonized the dogma officially. Oftentimes, sometimes even spanning centuries, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church comes to a deeper understanding and formal recognition of certain ancient truths, as when the Church, building upon the Apostles Creed, hammered out the articles of the Nicene Creed over a period of 400 years. Hence, later enunciations of certain truths will be more complex than earlier explanations may first have been.

And so we come to a final look at what was found, or to be more exact not found, in the tomb where the Blessed Virgin had been placed immediately following her death. The Church believed early on that her body had been taken, incorrupt, to be united with her eternal soul in heaven. As our own bodies one day shall be, following the General Resurrection at the Last Day. One of the numerous early Church Fathers who believed her Dormition (her falling asleep or death) to have involved also her bodily Assumption, was St. John of Damascus. Here in brief are some of the thoughts he expressed in three sermons on the established belief. First of all, Solomon, the wisest from among ancient kings, patriarchs and prophets, had proclaimed, as would David, ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.’ The angel had proclaimed her ‘full of grace,’ and she herself prophesied she would be ‘blessed among women.’ Indeed as the chosen Mother of God, she was highly blessed. Before his death, as Jesus from the Cross had commended her to the care of the Beloved, so he after her death, himself received his Mother, body and soul, thru the gate of Heaven. The third chapter of Wisdom declares, ‘the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them: in the sight of the unwise they seemed to die: but they are at peace.’ How much more is her soul in the hands of her Son and her God, considering her state of grace and what role she willingly played in God’s Plan for our salvation. For it was in the fullness of time that God sent the angel unto her, to commence those events that would lead to our salvation – beginning with the Incarnation of the Son of God.

In St. Paul’s words, ‘O the depth of the riches, of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God.’ ‘How unsearchable His ways’, Who called what was not INTO being, Whose throne is in heaven, and Whose footstool is the earth…and made the womb of His own servant, and in it the mystery (of our salvation) is accomplished. Being God he becomes man, and is marvelously brought forth without detriment to the Virginity of his Mother. ‘Born of a virgin’ as foretold by Isaiah. Exclaims St. John Damascene, ‘What, O holy Mother and Virgin, is this great mystery accomplished in thee? Indeed, thou art ‘blessed’ from generation to generation. Says the saint, “The prophets foretell thee. The angels announce to thee. (The Spirit overshadows thee. The Child fulfills thee). Apostles minister to thee. The Angels and spirits of the just, patriarchs and prophets surround thee in thy departure to thy Son. We may believe that the choirs of angels waited to receive her departing soul. The Powers (welcome) thee, Principalities praise thee, Thrones proclaim thee, Cherubim exclaim thee and the Seraphim magnify (thee) the true Mother by nature and by grace of the Lord.”

“For those who gainsay the miracle, consider this. Must she be subject to the law of nature, who in conceiving Christ had already surpassed the boundaries of Nature? O holy Mother and Virgin, what then is this mystery of thine?” insists John Damascene. Thy blessed soul is naturally parted from thy blissful and undefiled body, and the body is delivered to the grave, yet it does not endure in death, nor is it the prey of corruption. When thy pure and (spotless) body was carried to the tomb, like the priests of old lifted the Ark on their shoulders, the Apostolic band lifted the true Ark that once contained the Incarnate Lord on theirs, and as if crossing the final Jordan, placed thy body in a tomb. Yet thy soul did not descend, neither did thy flesh see corruption. Thy pure spotless body was not left in the earth, but thy final abode was fixed in the Kingdom above. The Virgin Mother, now as Queen, the Angels with archangels bear thee up!

We too approach the blessed Mother, the Queen of Heaven as the Church has titled her. We keep today the feast of her blessed and divine transit from this world. The Divine Word himself taught us to honor our fathers and mothers, and too that honor shown to servants is honor shown to the Lord. ‘ In as much as ye did it to one of these.’ How can we fail to honor his holy Mother?; the Servant of the Lord. She who, after all, bore in her own body the Cause of our everlasting Joy? Yet it is not she in her purity who needs our praise; it is more we sinners that need her prayers.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

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