Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Assumption of Mary

In planning to teach my children about the holy day of the Assumption of Mary, I realized I did not know very much about it from a historical standpoint. It is easy for me to believe that Mary is in heaven. I mean how could someone told by an angel that she was full grace, blessed and that the fruit of her womb would be Christ, not be in heaven? (and yes for arguements sake, I know that through faults of her own she could have ended up in hell, but I am not argueing)

In the 4th century in Jerusalem, the place of Mary's dormition (or falling asleep) was traditionally said to be on Mt. Zion. There the "Memory of Mary" was celebrated. For a time, the "Memory of Mary" was marked only in Palestine, but then it was extended by the emperor to all the churches of the East. In the seventh century, it began to be celebrated in Rome under the title of the "Falling Asleep" ("Dormitio") of the Mother of God.  The name was changed to the "Assumption of Mary," since there was more to the feast than her dying. It also proclaimed that she had been taken up, body and soul, into heaven.

There are apocryphial writings, (apocrypha means "hidden", "esoteric", "spurious", "of questionable authenticity", and "Christian texts that are not canonical") that say Mary died surrounded by the apostles and was taken into heaven by Christ after her death. There are Eastern and Western versions of this legend.

To be assumed into heaven is to enter heaven both body and soul, meaning complete personhood and not the soul alone, by a direct act of God. Thus "Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him away" (Gen. 5:24; cf. Heb. 11:5). Elijah was assumed into heaven, though in a more grandiose style (2 Kings 2:11). Catholics believe that Mary entered heaven in this same manner, though they generally believe that she died before being assumed. Mary is seen not as a petty goddess, but as a redeemed Christian granted a special privilege through the love of Christ.

A piece of papyrus was found in the early 20th century that had a prayer of intercession to Mary written upon it. (a copy is shown below) It is argued to be from between the 3rd and 4th centuries in age. Even at this point when oral histories would be alive and well, it was believed that Mary was an intercessor in heaven.

In 1917 there was discovered in Egypt a piece of papyrus dating to about A.D. 250. Its ten lines of Greek included this: "Under cover of your motherly heart we flee for refuge, Mother of God [Theotokos]; do not brush aside our entreaties in our distress, but rescue us from danger, you, peerlessly holy and blessed." This ancient version of the Sub Tuum is now housed in the John Rylands Library (Papyrus 470) in Manchester.) Adopting the title Theotokos into official dogma sparked an intense Marian devotion, out of which grew the Transitus Mariae literature.

Since we have texts in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic (Egyptian), and Arabic, there would seem to be little doubt that the Assumption was a catholic (i.e. universal) belief among early Christians. While popular Christian literature has never been entirely reliable historically or theologically (it rarely is even today), yet there is much to be learned from the Transitus about the faith of the average Christian sitting in the pew. For example, all the Transitus literature agrees that Mary was assumed after having died a natural death and was neither martyred nor immortal. No doubt if we could talk to a fourth or fifth century Christian today, this is what he would tell us about Mary.

But we have a different kind of “evidence” in the oldest–known Marian prayer—the Sub tuum praesidium:

We fly to your patronage , O holy Mother of God
Despise not our petitions in our necessities
But deliver us from all dangers
O glorious and blessed Virgin.

Discovered in 1938 in a third–century Egyptian papyrus, it’s a short prayer that says nothing about the Assumption. But it does presume that Mary has somehow attained a place of heavenly glory as the exalted Mother of God. And it presumes she is both capable of hearing prayers and of somehow answering them.

This is known as the John Rylands Papyrus 470

The bodily Assumption of Mary into heaven at the end of her life is neither explicitly taught nor contradicted by the Bible, though there are precedents (Hebrews 11:5 mentions the assumption of Enoch; 2 Kings 2:113 recounts that of Elijah; Paul admits the possibility of his own bodily assumption in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4). There is no indication that Mary's remains were venerated as relics (a customary practice in the early Church), and the belief in her Assumption is held both in the East (Orthodox) and in the West (Catholic).

Mary is perceived in Catholic thought as the proto-Christian and the symbol of the Church as a whole. Hence her Assumption is seen as a sign of the ultimate destiny of the Church: Christ will come at the end in order to take his Bride into the kingdom and to glorify her (2 Thess. 4:16-17). The belief in the Assumption is affirmed by all Christian communities having historic links with the ancient Church—which our Lord promised to lead into all truth (John 16:12-13; cf. Matt. 16:18, 28:20). The belief is very old as well as widespread, and those who deny this teaching do so without scriptural warrant, for Christians are to follow apostolic traditions, whether or not written in the New Testament (2 Thess. 2:15).

The coronation of Mary in heaven should be understood against the Jewish background of early Christianity. In Judah, partly because of the Fourth Commandment (Ex. 20:12), the mother of the anointed king had a function of considerable importance, and her name is with only two exceptions associated with the accession of the king in the official annals.6 The king's mother bore the powerful and prestigious title of Gebirah7 and received honors of the first order. She had an official place at the court, was mistress of the harem, had enough power to seize complete control over the nation (as did Athaliah in 842 B.C., 2 Kgs. 11:1-3), was sent into exile with the king (as was Nehushta in 597 B.C., Jer. 29:2), and could be deposed (as was King Asa's idolatrous grandmother, Maacah, who first became queen mother during the reign of her son Abijam,1 Kgs. 15:2, 10,13, 2 Chron. 15:16). The was a monarchical institution and had a throne and a crown.8

As Jesus is the ultimate King of the Jews, fulfilling the messianic prophecy in 2 Samuel 7:10-17, it would be strange indeed if Mary did not have this crown as the ultimate queen mother. The monarchical nature of the kingdom of God, complete with queen mother, may be difficult to appreciate for those who live in a democratic culture, but it was something accepted as natural in early Christendom, as witnessed by the art and literature.

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