The subject of Mary has often been an area of contention between the Catholic Church and many of the sects which were born out of the reformation. Accusations which often imply idolatry and pagan influence are flung in the face of the ancient church in complete disrespect of the this woman which the Bible testifies “Ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes”. Adding to the propaganda and pessimism which are the platforms of anti Catholicism are the facts that some of the church’s doctrines weren’t formally defined until later years. The Assumption is one of these, being formally defined in the Catholic Church in 1950.
At first glance this seems fairly convincing, after all if this were an ancient belief in the church why did it take so long to be dogmatically and infallibly defined? Even for myself, while in the process of returning to the catholic faith, beliefs about Mary seemed like a hurdle which would be difficult to cross over.
One of the first surprises in my research came from the Lutherans. It was almost a shock to find that a non catholic church, whose founder played a huge part in the reformation, still prayed his rosary, though he did shorten the “Hail Mary” to avoid actually requesting intercession. The Anglicans also retained the rosary for a while. Today the practice isn’t as popular but can still be found in both denominations.
Delving into the Orthodox and other Catholic rites; churches which were not part of the western empire, was also very helpful. After all most of the attack on Catholicism comes from people who never even considered the orthodox or eastern catholic rites. Here we find a common history, full of debates, councils, conflicts, controversies, but also a faith that was for the most part shared. All the proof that the Catholic Church’s beliefs were really consistent with early christianity could be backed up by simply looking at the beliefs of the churches which were not tagged with the stigma of “Rome”. The Real Presence in the Eucharist, the use of creeds, liturgy, priests, saints, monasticism, councils, art, and even beliefs about Mary are backed up by the tradition of the orthodox and easter catholic rites.
It was while seeking an Icon at a local Greek orthodox community that I first saw an Icon of the Dormition, or Kemisis. I remember thinking “Even this!”. It was true. Even I had my doubts about the Assumption; but the belief wasn’t a mere invention of some man in Rome. It was the defining of a belief that had been a part of the traditions of the church from the earliest times; and while there are some differences in the Dormition and Assumption, they are really talking about the same event, and celebrated on the same day, August the 15th.
The belief holds that Mary was bodily taken into heaven after her death, or falling asleep, which is what the word Dormition means.
The Dormition Icon has several startling elements that surround the central scene of Mary’s funeral. Apostles, Bishops and saints surround her, Peter holding incense on the left and Paul on the right. In the image at the top of the page an angel is seen cutting off the hands of a Jewish priest names Athonios. The traditional account relates that in hatred of the Theotokos, he attempted to knock over the funeral bier and the angel appeared and lopped his hands off. Seeing this miraculous intervention caused Athonios to repent, and his hands were healed and he became a faithful follower of Christ. This may also have something to do with the belief of Mary as the Ark, a typology mentioned by several early writers who saw the relation of Mary, as God bearer, to the Ark of the Covenant. Note the position of Peter and Paul like the cherubim on the Ark; Athonios like Uzzah, being struck down for touching the Ark.
What is most amazing is the juxtasposition of the most familiar iconic representation of the Mother and Child. Instead of Mary holding the infant Jesus, we see in the mystical light of heaven, Jesus, holding the soul of Mary, appearing like a child, in his arms. This to me is the most profound of all, for in everything concerning Mary there is a focus on her Son, and here is no different. Even in death, Mary points us toward Jesus, reminding us of the hope we all have in Christ.