The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Perspectives and Origins

(Address given to the Society of Mary, Portsmouth Diocese, by Bishop Kenneth Stevenson, Anglican Bishop of Portsmouth at S. Saviour's, Stamshaw, on 8th December 1998)

[1] Introduction

I want to begin with three anecdotes from my youth.  The first is a short liturgical text with which I grew up.  The second is a piece of liturgical art that I have known all my life.  The third is a conversation that I had at university with a Jesuit.

First of all the text: And chiefly in the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord and God, and in the Holy Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles and Martyrs ... I have known these words ever since attending the Eucharist as a small boy in S. Anne's Episcopal Church, Dunbar, at the age of nine years, with my dear late lamented friend, Edmund Ivens, as the celebrant.  The words still have a resonance for me and they helped to convey to a growing lad the importance of the Communion of Saints in general, and the place of the Virgin Mary in that Communion in particular, which will never leave me.

Secondly, the piece of liturgical art.  Every summer, we would spend most of August in Denmark with my grandparents.  In Arhus Cathedral, where my grandfather was bishop, there stands a large and rich reredos behind the high altar, carved and painted by one of the most famous artists of his time, Bernt Notke of L├╝beck, in 1479.  Right at the top, in a Cathedral dedicated to Clement of Rome, Christ is depicted holding a crown over the Virgin Mary's head.  It is astonishing that this survived the Lutheran Reformation.

Thirdly, the conversation with the Jesuit.  I was sitting in a noisy University Hall of Residence talking with my friend, Bernard Van Dorpe, from Louvain, about the Virgin Mary.  He had come hot-foot from a tutorial with a deeply Presbyterian Professor.  I didn't get the impression that they had come to blows.  But Bernard - with his customary sharpness - said to me, 'is Mary not the first of the Redeemed'?  And our minds leaped to Luke 2:28-38, the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation.

 (Reredos in Aarhus Cathedral)

[2] The Virgin Mary - No Optional Extra

These are the three shreds of personal testimony that I bring you tonight.  An awareness from an early age of the need to commemorate the Blessed Virgin Mary in the liturgy - even though in words that, in the Scottish Prayer Book, were optional, and only to be used on Festivals of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints and - surprise, surprise, 'with the bishop's consent'.  It wasn't until later that I learned that those words in the 1929 Scottish Prayer Book were proposed by the English Church Union in 1923 for the revision of the English Prayer Book, not as an option at all, but part of the definitive text! - (words which the E.C.U. had got from the First English Prayer Book of 1549).

Then the example of liturgical art, that magnificent reredos, which the Danes spend a great deal of the money on recently to re-gild.  Yet Danish Lutherans on the whole have little time for the Virgin Mary though the great preacher and hymn-writer, Nikolai Grundtvig, tried hard to redress that balance in the nineteenth century.

And then the conversation with my Jesuit friend, which lays the foundation for all the best of what we are doing here tonight, namely to honour Our Lady as the God-Bearer, the one who accepted the call of the Angel Gabriel.  How did she do it?  First of all with modesty - she is too troubled to respond to Gabriel's initial greeting.  But when told she will conceive and bear a son, she responds cautiously but willingly with the question 'how'?  Finally, when the details are spelt out, she responds in faith, 'I am the hand-maid of the Lord'.  Here is no easy faith, but one that is both trusting and enquiring.

These perspectives reflect the recovery of the Virgin Mary among all the Western Churches today.  And I mean all.  For just as Churches of the Reformation run the risk of treating her as if she were no more than a dead Roman Catholic, so there has always been a tendency in the Roman Catholic Church to exaggerate her position, so that she almost seems - not that she ever could - to come between ourselves and Christ.  More specifically the Virgin Mary has long stood for the place of the feminine in the life of faith as well as in the life of God.  And if we - men and women - are truly made in the image of God, then that means a God who combines both male and female attributes.

Thomas Traherne, an Anglican priest and poet of the mid-seventeenth century, in his 'Church's Year Book', writes as follows:

And first O Lord I praise and magnify thy Name
For the Most Holy Virgin-Mother of God, who is the Highest of thy Saints.
The most Glorious of thy Creatures.
The most Perfect of all thy Works.
The nearest until Thee in the Throne of God...

[3] The Festivals of the Virgin Mary

But how should the Virgin Mary be specifically celebrated in the Calendar?  This is an appropriate question to ask, not only because different answers are given in the Eastern as well as the Western Churches, but because there is nothing that she does recorded in the gospels that is not directly related to Jesus himself.

Nearly all the principal Marian Feasts that we know are Eastern in origin.  Christians in Rome in the early centuries only knew of one all-embracing festival of the Virgin Mary, namely on the 1st of January, the 8th day after the Feast of the Nativity of Christ.  That is why since the Second Vatican Council, January 1st has been kept in the Roman rite as the Feast of 'The Motherhood of Mary', a kind of memory back to an earlier tradition.  So the recent Anglican tendency to name August 15 simply as 'The Blessed Virgin' isn't all that far off the mark, at least according to early Roman tradition!  It wasn't until the end of the seventh century, in the time of Pope Sergius I - to whom we owe the hymn, 'Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world' - that the Marian Feasts were properly installed at Rome: on February 2nd (Presentation of Christ in the Temple/Purification of the Virgin Mary), March 25th (the Annunciation), August 15 (the Assumption), and September 8th (the Nativity).  Later on, December 8th (the Conception, much later on to be called The Immaculate Conception), entered the calendar, as well as other festivals, even later still.

That is quite a list.  But it was always there for reason, namely to show Mary's essential role in relation to Christ himself, as at the Presentation in the Temple and the Annunciation.  It became vital to locate her in history, as a real historic person in the mystery of salvation - hence her Conception, and Nativity, marking the beginning of her earthly life, and her Assumption, marking the end of it.

So there you have the first part of the tale, starting with a general all-embracing feast on January 1st, and then, at Rome in the seventh century, a cluster of other feasts focussing on different aspects of her life and its meaning.  She went on to hold a special place in medieval England, hence those large Lady Chapels in our Cathedrals, as at Glouchester and Ely.  And when the Cathedral itself was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, as at Salisbury, the chapel beyond was - as if to balance things out - dedicated to the Blessed Trinity.  It is all a question of holding everything together, pointing to the Virgin Mary, and yet pointing to Christ, giving her due place, but never place her above God.

Some words from one of Augustine's sermons come to mind:

Mary is Holy, she is blessed.  Yet the church is better than the Virgin Mary.
Because Mary is a part of the Church, a holy member, an excellent member, of the Body. (Sermons 72A, 7).

("Assunta" by Titian)

[4] The Assumption

But what of the origins - and purpose - of the Assumption?

First of all, the origins.  For these we have to look to the East, where the Feast was already well established in the fifth century at Jerusalem, before its arrival in the West.  In addition to the New Testament, there were a number of books in circulation among early Christians that appealed to the imaginative and devotional climate of Christian piety.  Among these were the 'Lives of the Virgin Mary', which expanded considerably on what little is given to us about Mary's life in the gospels.  In the fifth and sixth centuries, we can see a three-stage development towards the Feast of the Assumption.  First of all, the Virgin Mary, already dead, is taken into heaven.  Next, she does not die but falls asleep - hence the title 'Dormition' throughout the East to this day - and her body is taken to heaven.  Finally, she does not die at all, but is taken into heaven alive.  Interestingly the definition of the dogma of the Assumption, which was only as recent as 1950, by Pope Pius XII, does not seem to come down on any one of these three versions, but only refers to the bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary when her earthly life was 'completed'.

But what of the purpose of the Festival.  In the Dormition or Assumption we see a kind of human parallel, a unique disciple's parallel, witht he death and resurrection of Christ.  Mary's conception and birth correspond with the Annunciation and Christ's Nativity.  They mark the beginning of Mary's earthly life.  But because she is the first of the redeemed, the end of her earthly life came to be held out to Christians as a kind of foretaste of our own.  She is not raised from the dead, as Christ was.  But she is assumed into heaven by him, a promise of the kingdom of God, bestowed by Christ on the one who brought him into the world, the God-Bearer.  Thus, whatever we may believe about the Assumption in detail, we can only celebrate it if we see ourselves as part of the seemingly never-ending queue of people waiting to be received into heaven by the Lord himself.  The Assumption at its richest is not a fairy story about a portrayal of Mary in Elizabeth Frink's statue outside Salisbury Cathedral, where Mary strides forth from the empty tomb to help form the Easter Community, a community in which we ourselves have a part, both now, and in the hereafter.  Mary is an Easter figure, pointing to the crucified, risen, ascended Christ, and devotion to her can ensure that we do not concentrate too much on the much on the humanity of her Son, as has often been the case in the Catholic and Protestant West.

We have noted the important role taken by Pope Sergius I in the late seventh century in developing the Marian feasts in the West.  Like several of the Popes of his time he was of Greek origin, from the South of Italy.  It may be to him - and his Eastern origins and interests - that we owe one of the oldest prayers for the Assumption.  Sadly not used anymore, it is known as the Veneranda, from its opening word.  It appropriately sums up much of what I have so far said:

It is right, Lord that we should keep this Festal Day when the Holy Mother of God underwent death in this world of time, yet the bonds of death had no power over her because from the substance of her body she gave flesh to your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

+Kenneth Portsmouth


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