What is the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God?
By Larry Peterson
On November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII, writing and speaking ex-cathedra, solemnly defined in the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, the dogma that “the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” We know this as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and it is a Holy Day of Obligation.
The sidebar to this solemn definition is the fact that it does not address the question of whether or not Mary physically died before being assumed. All the document says is, “having completed the course of her earthly life."
Interestingly, we are not bound to a definitive answer. However, the Feast of The Dormition (Sleep) of the Mother of God is a major feast in the Eastern Catholic Churches and in the Armenian Apostolic Church. They celebrate the feast on August 15. So, did Mary actually die first before being assumed? Did she simply fall asleep? Is it possible that she was buried?
We Roman Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Assumption on August 15. Does the Roman Catholic Church accept or reject the Dormition of the Mother of God? Two of our greatest popes accept it. Venerable Pope Pius XII refers to Mary’s death at least five times while Pope St. John Paul II stated Mary experienced natural death before her Assumption into Heaven. Lastly, let us go to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 966) which gives us these words from the Byzantine Liturgy:
“In giving birth you kept your virginity; in your Dormition, you did not leave the world, O Mother of God, but were joined to the source of Life. You conceived the living God and, by your prayers, will deliver our souls from death.”
What follows is this beautiful testimony from the early Church. This example is from the sixth century and gives us insight into what Christians believed in the ancient church about Mary’s Dormition and Assumption:
“The course of this life having been completed by Blessed Mary, when now she would be called from the world, all the Apostles came together from their various regions to her house. And when they had heard that she was about to be taken from the world, they kept watch together with her. And behold, the Lord Jesus came with His angels, and taking her soul, He gave it over to angel Michael and withdrew.
At daybreak, however, the Apostles took up her body on a bier and placed it in a tomb; and they guarded it, expecting the Lord to come. And behold, again the Lord stood by them; and the holy body having been received, he commanded that it be taken in a cloud into paradise: where now, rejoined to the soul, [Mary] rejoices with the Lord’s chosen ones, and is the enjoyment of the good of an eternity that will never end.” (Saint Gregory of Tours, Bishop; A. D.595-A.D. 594); Eight Books of Miracles; A.D. 575-593;
We must remember that the Ascension of Jesus was accomplished through Jesus’ own power as God. The Assumption of The Blessed Mother was done for her by the Power of God, not under her own power. It is also said that Mary’s death lasted forty hours, the same as her Son’s and that during that time her soul visited the souls in Purgatory to release some and comfort others.
No matter what actually transpired so long ago we know that Our Blessed Mother was taken into heaven body and soul after passing from this life. Once more, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 967):
By her complete adherence to the Father’s will, to His Son’s redemptive work, and to every prompting of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary is the model of faith and charity. Thus she is a “preeminent and wholly unique member of the Church”; indeed, she is the “exemplary realization” of the Church.
As people of Faith, the recognition of the splendor and importance of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary can take your breath away.
Copyright©Larry Peterson 2019,2023