Sunday, August 15, 2010

Celebrating the Dormition/Assumption of Mary the Godbearer/Theotokos

Today, August 15, is one of the big feasts of the Catholic world. In the Latin communion it is known as the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic communions it is known as the Dormition or falling asleep of the Theotokos or Godbearer (but those who still use the Julian calendar won't celebrate it until Gregorian August 28). In the Anglican communion, it's the Feast of the Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As well as marking the death of the Virgin Mary the day also celebrates her Assumption, being taken up, resurrected, body and soul into the heavenly realm. The Roman communion teaches that she was resurrected on the day of her death but the Orthodox communions teach that she was resurrected three days after her death. In 1950, Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption a necessary item of belief for the Roman communion, a declaration welcomed by Carl Jung (curiously, this Papal declaration is the only instance of a dogma declared invoking Papal Infallibility since it was affirmed in 1870 at Vatican I). Many Anglicans and some Lutherans too believe that Mary was resurrected after her death. Some Catholics, mostly in the Roman communion believe that Mary didn't die at all but was translated alive into the heavenly realm, something like Enoch in Genesis and the Enoch literature and also Elijah (but without the chariot). This is an old idea, the first clear instance of which is found in the 4th century when Epiphanius of Salamis said that no one knew whether Mary had died or not. According to the Wikipedia entry on the Assumption, the day is a public holiday in many countries including Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chile, Republic of Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Croatia, Colombia, Cyprus, East Timor, France, Gabon, Greece, Republic of Guinea, Haiti, Italy, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Republic of Macedonia, Madagascar, Malta, Mauritius, Monaco, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Tahiti, Togo and Vanuatu (I must admit I kind of like the idea of having a public holiday to celebrate an obscure peasant woman from 1st century Roman Palestine). As it falls on a Sunday this year I hope those countries follow the Australian practice of observing a compensatory holiday on the Monday. In Ethiopia, the day is also marked by a women's festival called Ashenda. I can't find out much more about Ashenda but Ethiopian Christianity is itself some 1600 years old so perhaps it derives from the pre-Christian past or maybe it is an Ethiopian Christian invention.

Mary, of course might be an obscure peasant woman from 1st century Palestine but for Catholic Christianity her very obscurity is key to her status. She is the model of what it means to be Christian who, in the words of the medieval German mystic and theologian, Meister Eckhart, are called to give birth to God in their lives. It's important to recall too that in Catholic teaching, both East and West, Mary freely works with God in a synergy. Hers is not a mere obedience or submission but a free consent, willing trust and active collaboration that are fundamental to her role. Through her Assumption, Mary models the entire Christian hope of deification, a deification that will extend to the entire cosmos. Mary instantiates the ancient deification principle that the glory of God is humanity fully alive. While she might seem like a goddess and no doubt has drawn on a variety of ancient goddesses as Christianity spread, she is greater than any goddess, precisely because she is human and indeed she humanises those old goddesses, mother goddesses, virgin goddesses, wisdom goddesses. Thus she demonstrates that Christianity is a form of applied Kabbalah, drawing out, releasing and lifting up (humanising) the sparks of the divine throughout creation, including within the deities and powers of the old religions.

It's these 'pagan' associations that lead many, particularly Protestants, to dismiss Mary and her cult. However, I would argue that to be true to its Jewish origins Christianity can only ever be both sacramental and Marian, Catholic. When Jesus stepped into that 1st century messianic gestalt, it would automatically incorporate his mother. I have written before on miraculous motherhood and ancient Judaism. But I also want to point you to an excellent essay by Margaret Barker, "Images of Mary in the Litany of Loreto" (pdf). Here's a sample to whet your appetite:

The world of the temple and the teaching of its priests was a sophisticated theology that now has to be reconstructed from many ancient texts, but it is clear that this is where Christianity has its roots. The Christians saw in Jesus the fulfilment of temple rites, which foreshadowed his work of salvation (Heb. 9.11–14),10 and they described him as Melchisedech, the high priest of the ancient royal house who was, in a way we no longer fully understand, the presence of the Lord on earth (Heb. 7.11–22). It was therefore to be expected that Mary was described as Wisdom, the Queen of Heaven, the Mother of the Lord on earth. The titles in the Litany of Loreto, and in many other praises of Mary, were drawn from the Wisdom tradition...

In this article I shall show that Wisdom was a fundamental figure in the ancient faith of Jerusalem, that the Church claimed Wisdom’s titles for Mary from the very beginning, and that by the time the Litany of Loreto was composed, the meaning of some of these titles was fading and their significance already lost. The titles in the Litany seem to be a summary of a much older tradition.

I don't agree with all of Barker's historical reconstructions of ancient Israelite Temple religion but I think her overall picture fits quite well with an understanding of ancient Judaism evolving out of an older Palestinian/Canaanite 'pagan' milieu, an evolution that was still happening even in Jesus' and Mary's own time. If Christianity could subsequently connect with 'pagan' traditions within and without the Roman Empire, it was precisely through its Jewish background/origins and not in spite of it.

In her essay, Barker refers to two Christian prayers or hymns, the Litany of Loreto and the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God. For those unfamiliar with them, I've embedded links to the texts. The Akathist Hymn probably dates back to the 6th century and is important in the liturgy of Eastern Christianity. Akathist means not sitting and is a genre of hymnody in the East. One recurring Marian title in the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God that I really like is Unwedded Bride.

Here is an excerpt from the hymn in English with visuals of some marvelous icons:

And here is another beautiful version in Arabic, again with some stunning icons:

And a Russian version, note the fabulous image of Mary on the bishop's vestments at the start:

And here's some more Marian music to celebrate the Dormition/Assumption, mostly from the East as a reminder that Western Christianity is not and never has been all there is to Christianity.

Here is a hymn specifically for the Dormition:

In giving birth thou didst preserve thy virginity; /
in thy dormition thou didst not forsake the world, O Theotokos. /
Thou wast translated unto life, / since thou art the Mother of Life; //
and by thine intercessions dost thou deliver our souls from death.

Kontakion, Tone 2:
The grave and death could not hold the Theotokos, /
who is sleepless in her intercessions and an unfailing hope in her mediations. /
For as the Mother of Life she was translated unto life //
by Him Who dwelt in her ever-virgin womb.

O ye Apostles from afar, being now gathered together
here in the garden of Gethsemane, give burial to my body;
and Thou, my Son and my God, receive Thou my spirit.

And here is an Arabic hymn to Mary from Egypt which features a stunning image of Mary from the doe of the Coptic church in Zeitoun Cairo where in 1968-70 millions of Christians and Muslims saw a series of Marian apparitions:

(To find out more about the apparitions you can go here)

And here is another Egyptian hymn, Shere Ne Maria

I found this English text for it on a Coptic site

Shere Ne Maria Holy Virgin Mary
Shere Ne Maria Who art all Holy
Shere Ne Maria Due to you the glory
Shere Ne Maria Ethmav Empi Mayromi
Shere Ne Maria Sweet mother of light
Shere Ne Maria Who art always bright
Shere Ne Maria Standing on his right
Shere Ne Maria Asking day and night
Shere Ne Maria Hail full of grace
Shere Ne Maria Show thy glorious face
Shere Ne Maria Most kind in any case
Shere Ne Maria Intercede for thine poor race
Shere Ne Maria Through thy intercession
Shere Ne Maria Hear my petition
Shere Ne Maria And save from perdition
Shere Ne Maria Any pure Christian

As I said before, in Ethiopia the Assumption is the occasion for a women's festival called Ashenda. Here's a clip with music and dance for Ashenda:

And moving to the West, here is a beautiful setting of the Angelus with Ave Maria (Hail Mary), one of the great Marian prayers of the West, by the 20th century composer Franz Biebl:

And I thought I'd finish with a clip of Nina Hagen singing Ave Maria live. Love her work!

And if you want to read some ancient Christian texts about the Dormition you will find a collection at Stephen Shoemaker's site here.

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