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23674Dormition and Assumption of St. Mary

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  • Sinu P. John
    Aug 3, 2012
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      Coptic Orthodox church celebrates the Dormition and Assumption of St. Mary on two different dates, January 30th for Dormition and August 22 for the Assumption. This tradition stems from the traditional belief followed in the Oriental Orthodox churches, especially in the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches, regarding St. Mary's death and Assumption. According to St. Theodosius, Patriarch of Alexandria (AD 535-565), St. Mary died (falling deep sleep=Dormition) in the presence of apostles like St. Peter and St. John and in the presence of a number of virgins from the mount of Olive. As per this legend, during the death, Jesus Christ appeared in a chariot of light together with Moses and all the prophets to receive her soul and informed the apostles that he will come back to re-unite the soul of St. Mary back to her body. Syriac Orthodox Church and many other churches, including the Eastern Orthodox Churches also believe that St. Mary died just like anyone else, before her body disappeared. Many intercessory prayers seen in the SOC books points Death and Assumption as two separate events. St. Jacob of Serugh's (AD 451-521) poems in Syriac shows death as a separate event: "When the virgin was on her death bed, Angels, the righteous, prophets and fathers descended on her from high upon the order of God. The twelve Apostles and Evangelists came; they buried her in a rocky cave". This shows that the traditional belief explained by Coptic Patriarch, St. Theodosius I about her death and burial was prevalent among all the oriental Christians in the fifth century.

      However, the traditional belief in the Coptic and Ethiopian churches regarding the number of days St. Mary's body remained without the soul after death has difference from that of other churches. As per St. Theodosius, when St. Mary died, Jesus said to the apostles St. Peter and St. John: "Carry the body of my holy Mother, put it in the tomb of stone, close the tomb and stay by it in prayer until I have fixed the time of her Assumption. In two hundred and six (206) days time, I will come with her blessed soul to unite her with her body and raise her gloriously to heaven by my good Father and the Holy Spirit"
      There are different legends regarding the number of days St. Mary's body remained without soul after death. Some believe three days, like that of Jesus Christ's death; some believe that death and Assumption took place on the same day; some believe she did not die but was taken to heaven with her body. Roman Catholic Pope, Pius XII in his declaration of St. Mary's Assumption as a Roman Catholic Dogma, left the question unanswered, whether or not St. Mary underwent a natural death and burial before she was taken to the heaven with her body. Coptic tradition which is believed to be mainly from St. Theodosius follows 206 days before the resurrection of St. Mary after death. Some Copts have a different belief than the general Copts. They believe that the body was transferred (without resurrection or re-union of body and soul) by Jesus and her soul is in the paradise but awaiting resurrection. The other tradition, which is the most prevalent, tells that St. Thomas saw St. Mary ascending in her body to heaven. Most believe the death of St. Mary happened around AD 56, when she was about 70 years old. According to the traditional belief, St. Thomas was in India during this time. St. Thomas was `transferred' from India to Jerusalem to witness her Ascension to heaven. Although the transfer of St. Thomas to Jerusalem from India may sound unbelievable to common man, it is worth to remember a similar transfer narrated in the Bible about Philip during the baptism of the eunuch (Acts 8: 26-40). When St. Thomas said to other apostles that he saw her ascending into heaven, they all went to check the body in the tomb and found her body disappeared from there. It is believed that, in the council of Chalcedon (451), Juvenal, the bishop of Jerusalem reported to Emperor Marcian and his wife Pulcheria that the tomb of St. Mary when opened on the request of St. Thomas, found empty and that the Apostles concluded that her body was taken up to heaven. Although the early records describing this story do not tell when this happened, most believe that her ascension happened a few days (~three days) after her death. Lack of consensus among the scholars regarding St. Mary's Assumption and lack of proper records may be the reason why Syriac Orthodox Church or Coptic Orthodox Church does not want to declare Assumption of St. Mary as a doctrine.

      Roman Catholic Church and many other churches, including Syriac Orthodox Church and other Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate both the Dormition and Assumption of St. Mary on the same day-August 15th. This practice probably started in the Syriac Orthodox Church with the decree of the Emperor Maurice, to celebrate the assumption of the Virgin to be solemnly on August 15th. This date corresponds to the construction by the emperor of a new church at Gethsemane (near the tomb of St. Mary) the dedication of which took place on 23 October but in which the celebration of the Virgin is placed on 15 August. The exact date of St. Mary's Dormition (Death) is still debated by many, but Coptic Church celebrates it on January 30th and the assumption on August 22nd, the Ethiopian Orthodox church also follows somewhat similar feast days.

      In St. Theodosius' tradition, as per the command of the Lord, apostles took her body to put in the tomb. However, on seeing the dead body of St. Mary, some Jews decided to burn it to avoid Christians building a shrine with it. When they approached the body with fire and lights, God intervened, and those who approached to burn the body caught fire and got hurt. Upon seeing this affliction, they left the body of St. Mary, which was later entombed by apostles in a tomb. On the 206th day after St. Mary's death, Jesus Christ descended from heaven with the soul of St. Mary in his bosom.

      St. Theodosius wrote: "The Lord revealed Himself on the Cherubim's chariot, with the Virgin's soul in His bosom, adorned with her heavenly garment". St. Mary's body embraced her soul and became one. When she was resurrected, Jesus ascended into heaven and took her with him.

      Many early church fathers, including St. Theodosius, believed the Psalms 132:8 as a prophecy related to St. Mary's Assumption. Psalms 132: 8 "Arise, Lord Jehovah, to your rest, you and the ark of your might! (Aramaic translation)". In consistent with this, many hymns of both Syriac Orthodox Church and Coptic Orthodox Church also relate St. Mary as the `ark of holiness'.

      (Chapters of Psalms are differently arranged in Orthodox Bible and Protestant Bibles, which are based on two different ancient Biblical texts; Greek Septuagint and Masoretic (Hebrew) texts. Thus, 132:8 in commonly available Bibles and 131:8 in Orthodox Bible, including the Peshitha translation of Kaniamparambil achan)

      A very interesting mention about the tomb of St. Mary can be seen in St. Theodosius I's writing. Before ascending into heaven, Lord said to the apostles: "Peace be with you my companions. I give also my peace to the tomb that has been the dwelling place of my Mother's body. I will set there forever and ever my blessing, my grace and my support for the visitors whose heart is full of straightforward trust in me and who glorify me in the indivisible unity"

      Although the number of days St. Mary's body remained in the tomb remains as a subject of debate, most scholars nevertheless agree that her body was entombed before disappearing. The tomb, believed to be that of St. Mary, is present even today near Jerusalem,near the Garden of Gethsemane, on the foothills of Mount of Olive. It is believed that St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, built a church over the tomb during the 4th century. Later, a chapel was built by Juvenal, the bishop of Jerusalem in the fifth century where the tomb exists. Archaeological excavations of this site have confirmed the origin of this cemetery to the first century. A miracle working icon of St. Mary is also present near the tomb. Currently, Greek Orthodox Church controls this shrine, although other Orthodox churches have minor control, including Syriac Orthodox Church. (Visit the videos of the Syriac Orthodox H. Qurbono at the tomb of St. Mary:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrc4cH9PlyU

      Although variation of belief exists about St. Mary's last days and her Assumption into heaven, members of both Roman Catholic Church and all Orthodox Churches in the world believe in her capability for intercessory prayers. May the tomb of St. Mary be a blessing for all who visit there, forever!
      With prayers (Mort Mar-yam e-meh daloho et-ka-shaf hlo-fayn hnan hatoye hosho wabsho'to dmaw-tan, Amin)

      Sinu P. John, PhD
      Boston, USA
      Member ID: 0076