Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Notes on the Dormition of the Theotokos.

In liturgical and spiritual terms, August 15th is a date on which the Church breathes with both lungs. In recognition of this fact, I'm going to church twice today. This morning, I walked a few blocks down Sheridan Road from Loyola University Chicago (where I'm staying for the week) to attend a Divine Liturgy commemorating the Dormition of the Theotokos at St. Andrew's Greek Orthodox Church. This evening, I'll be at St. Benedict the African (East), home parish of my brother Jesuit and novitiate classmate Eric Styles, for a Mass commemorating the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Today Christians of East and West, Orthodox and Catholic, commemorate one and the same event - Mary's departure from earthly life and appearance, body and soul, in the heavenly company of her son.

The fact that the Dormition of the Theotokos and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary are one and the same feast has been lost on many. Indeed, I've even heard some Roman Catholics argue that one cannot believe both that Mary died - an idea inherent in her Dormition or "falling asleep" - and that she was bodily assumed into Heaven. The basis of arguments for what I'll call the 'Marian incompatibility thesis' seems to lie in a misunderstanding of Catholic dogma on the Assumption combined with insufficient knowledge of Eastern belief regarding the Dormition. Guided by a popular tradition maintained by centuries of Western religious art, many Roman Catholics believe that the Assumption took place while Mary was still alive. The Church neither endorses nor condemns this view. Defining the dogma of the Assumption in the 1950 apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII stated that "having completed the course of her earthly life, [Mary] was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory." Whether or not Mary underwent physically death before her Assumption is pointedly left undefined by Munificentissimus Deus, recognizing divergent beliefs and traditions on this point. By contrast, the key element of belief in the Dormition is the idea that Mary, like her son, died in the flesh and was bodily resurrected three days later. Following her resurrection, Mary joined her son in Heaven. In this regard, belief in the Dormition of Mary is entirely consistent with acceptance of the dogma of the Assumption. Though many Catholics still hold to the belief that Mary never died in any sense, no one is bound to accept this view as a matter of faith.

Over the course of my "two-lunged" celebration of the Dormition and Assumption of Mary, I'll be praying in a special way for the monks of Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. This century-old Benedictine monastery is located on what is traditionally held to be the site of Mary's death. I had an opportunity to visit Dormition Abbey when I was in Jerusalem seven years ago, and I've often reflected back on my experience there (in fact, the monastery even came up in a dream I had during the Long Retreat I made as a novice). If you would like to learn more about this beautiful place and the monks who make their home there, I highly recommend that you visit the Dormition Abbey website. Whether or not you ever visit Dormition Abbey in person or online, I ask you to join me in praying for the monks there and their witness for peace in a land torn apart by violence. AMDG.


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