It is the 15th of August 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
On this, on the 15th of August we see a divide in the universal church with many, many, many Christians celebrating and possibly venerating Mary the mother of Jesus, who is also called the mother of God (the Theotokos). Across Europe and South America in many countries, this is a national holiday in her honor.
And then, across the world and especially in America many, many, Christians ignore this high holy day for other Christians because they consider Mary almost irrelevant to their faith.
Today is the feast of the Assumption of Mary. It is also the feast of the Dormition of Mary. It is also a general day of remembrance for Mary. Let’s break it down.
Marian devotion is a topic that has fascinated me for some time. I found it curious in grad school seeing how many historic Protestants held Mary in esteem unknown to most modern Protestants.
[If I can plug cross network and across shows I work on, if you go to season 1 of the Soul of Christianity you can hear an interview I produced between Debi Winrich and Aaron Zimmerman about how we might think of the BVM].
So, in the inter-denominational battles over the place of Mary the two doctrines that tend to rustle feathers among non-Roman Catholics are the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.
Protestants are likely to dismiss the former as extra-Biblical and the second as overly speculative.
[And can I cut off any Prot that would say “oh man, dumb Catholics, that stuff isn’t even in the Bible!” You are correct that it isn’t but so much of what the church has often believed is affected by tradition and authority. And if you think this is only a Catholic thing I’d like to show you some pretty fantastical End Times schemes]
The question at the heart of this celebration is “what happened to Mary at the end of her life?’
The celebration of Mary and the belief that she may have escaped natural death has been noted since at least the 4th century. But the codification of “a bodily Assumption” as infallible doctrine is as old as of November 1st, 1950. So the church has had a lot of time to play with the idea. But the codification and distinction between the Eastern Churches and the Roman Catholic Church is surprisingly easy to understand and there is a surprising degree of latitude.
Here it is:
The Roman Catholic doctrine is thus: “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”
Did she die a physical death? You are, in the Catholic Church free to believe that she did or did not.
In the RC tradition, following the idea of an Immaculate Conception, there is a belief that Mary was free from the stain of original sin and thus an assumption pre-death is possible.
In the Eastern tradition, the formulation is thus: "Mary died in the presence of the Apostles, but that her tomb, when opened, upon the request of St Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven”
So here we have the same ambiguity here, too. This is why the Eastern churches call this the feast of the Dormition- that is she “fell asleep” which can mean different things in the New Testament. (When Orthodox saints die we often see them marked not as “died” but “in dormition”).
Across Anglican and Lutheran Churches today is a day of remembrance and celebration of God’s work in and through Mary both in the nativity and her ministry.
I have a mailbag question about Mary that I’ve been fiddling with and trying to dig deeper into the history of Marian devotion. Regardless of your own position, it’s an important idea to pin down and we shall do that shortly.
In the meantime- today we recognize the millions celebrating the Assumption or Dormition of Mary the Mother of Jesus on this the 15th of August.
The last word for today comes from the Gospel of Luke. Mary has just been told by an Angel that she will give birth and she then goes to the house of Elizabeth, we read:
39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. 40 She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. 43 Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 15th of August 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite extra-Biblical Mary’s include: Lou Retton, Todd Lincoln, Tyler Moore, and Baker Eddy. He is Christopher Gillespie
The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis who was once told what happened when you assume
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.