A Defense of the Theotokos and Her Dormition

Calling to remembrance our all holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos and ever virgin Mary, will all the Saints, let us commend ourselves and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God (The Great Ektenia, Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, 5th Century

The Heresy of Patriarch Nestorius

To understand the Catholic Church’s teaching upon whom Mary is and why she was such a big role in the Early Church, which is the present day Catholic Church, let us examine the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus and first go over why it was called in the year 431 AD. In the years of 428-431, the heresy of Nestorianism was brought about. This heresy was advanced by Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople in who has emphasized Christ’s humanity and later suggested that God had not come into the world Incarnate (become Man), but that Jesus was selected by God to become His adoptive son.

When Christ had become the “adopted son” of God the Father, He later gained a separate nature in which was Divine, thus Christ wasn’t necessary both God and Man, but two separate persons: one being human and one being divine. Since Christ was “normally human”, Nestorius suggested that the human nature of Christ must be emphasized over His Divine Nature, thus the Virgin Mary must be called Christotokos (Greek for Christ bearer) rather than Theotokos (Greek for God bearer).

If anything, this suggests that the humanity of Jesus was possessed by a divine spirit. As we are aware, this is a doctrine of demons since Christ is both 100% Human and 100% Divine, two co existing natures in which cannot ever be separated. Since this heresy was on the rise within the East and caused a huge division within the Church, Nestorius suggested that Emperor Theodosius II call a council since he was being accused of heresy and even hoped that the emperor would prove his orthodoxy since he claimed that it was a biblical teaching.

When the council was finally called, the entire universal Church declared that Nestorius was, in fact, a heretic. The Council of Ephesus, through Saint Cyril of Alexandria third letter to Nestorius, states the following:

“Confessing the Word to be united with the flesh according to the hypostasis, we worship one Son and Lord, Jesus Christ. We do not divide him into parts and separate man and God as though they were united with each other [only] through a unity of dignity and authority… nor do we name separately Christ the Word from God, and in similar fashion, separately, another Christ from the woman, but we know only one Christ, the Word from God the Father with his own flesh… But we do not say that the Word from God dwelt as in an ordinary human born of the holy virgin… we understand that, when he became flesh, not in the same way as he is said to dwell among the saints do we distinguish the manner of the indwelling; but he was united by nature and not turned into flesh…

There is, then, one Christ and Son and Lord, not with the sort of conjunction that a human being might have with God as in a unity of dignity or authority; for equality of honor does not unite natures. For Peter and John were equal to each other in honor, both of them being apostles and holy disciples, but the two were not one. Nor do we understand the manner of conjunction to be one of juxtaposition, for this is insufficient in regard to natural union….

Rather we reject the term ‘conjunction’ as being inadequate to express the union… [T]he holy virgin gave birth in the flesh to God united with the flesh according to hypostasis, for that reason we call her Theotokos… If anyone does not confess that Emmanuel is, in truth, God, and therefore that the holy virgin is Theotokos (for she bore in a fleshly manner the Word from God become flesh), let him be anathema.”

Since Mary is the very vessel in whom God had come into the world, it explains why she plays a very important role in the Church since she is the Mother of God, Jesus Christ, in who is God Himself. This is why we as Catholics venerate her and love her so much, because she has given birth to Christ our Divine Savior, in whom has trampled death by death in order to save us sinners in this fallen world, in whom I am first.

Apostolic Tradition

Now recently, it was brought to my attention that a minister of a Protestant bible study had suggested that Catholic teaching upon Mary is unbiblical, in this case the Assumption of Mary. (In the Catholic East, we call this the Holy Dormition or the Falling asleep of Mary.) But the question remains, is this factual? What our dear protestant brother is not aware of is the fact that Mary was assumed into heaven after the scriptures were completed. If everything that is true must be within the scriptures alone, he must explain the deaths of the Apostles, especially Peter and Paul, since these are not recorded in scripture.

Apostolic Tradition tells us that Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome. Even though this isn’t strictly within the scriptures, does it make it any less true? Of course it does not. The fact of the matter is that even though it is not explicitly written in scripture in the words “Mary was assumed into Heaven”, it doesn’t mean that this Sacred Event did not happen and isn’t within scripture any less than the fact that Christ is Incarnate. If we are to depend on scripture alone, then scripture contradicts itself since the Chair of Moses cannot be found anywhere in the Old Testament. The chair of Moses wasn’t revealed until the New Testament scriptures were compiled.

Let us take a look at Scripture, Apostolic Tradition, and the early church fathers (the very disciples of the apostles, or the later disciples of the disciples of the apostles.)

First, we must understand what the Catholic Church teaches on Apostolic Tradition. Are these mythological manmade teachings that have come into play over time? No, for it is quite the contrary. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states the following:

“The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The First generation of Christians did not have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition”. (CCC 83)

I know what you are thinking: ‘Where is this in the bible?’ Let us start with John 21:25 in where Saint John states:

“But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” This scripture verse is suggesting that not all of the actions of Christ we’re recorded by the apostles by writing them down, but also by mouth. Later, in 1 Corinthians 11:2, Saint Paul states the following:

“I command you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.” In 2 Thess. 2:15, St Paul continues to emphasize the importance of the Traditions in which they handed down. “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.”

Continuing: “Now we command you, brethren, in in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” (2 Thess. 3:6)

As you can see, Saint Paul speaks upon Tradition being something that is handed down orally. These are the same traditions in which the early church fathers have passed down upon us in regards to Mary’s Assumption into heaven etc.

“If the Holy Virgin had died and was buried, her falling asleep would have been surrounded with honour, death would have found her pure, and her crown would have been a virginal one…Had she been martyred according to what is written: ‘Thine own soul a sword shall pierce’, then she would shine gloriously among the martyrs, and her holy body would have been declared blessed; for by her, did light come to the world.” Epiphanius, Panarion, 78:23 (A.D. 377).

“[T]he Apostles took up her body on a bier and placed it in a tomb; and they guarded it, expecting the Lord to come. And behold, again the Lord stood by them; and the holy body having been received, He commanded that it be taken in a cloud into paradise: where now, rejoined to the soul, [Mary] rejoices with the Lord’s chosen ones…” Gregory of Tours, Eight Books of Miracles, 1:4 (inter A.D. 575-593).

“As the most glorious Mother of Christ, our Savior and God and the giver of life and immortality, has been endowed with life by him, she has received an eternal incorruptibility of the body together with him who has raised her up from the tomb and has taken her up to himself in a way known only to him.” Modestus of Jerusalem, Encomium in dormitionnem Sanctissimae Dominae nostrae Deiparae semperque Virginis Mariae (PG 86-II,3306),(ante A.D. 634).

“It was fitting …that the most holy-body of Mary, God-bearing body, receptacle of God, divinised, incorruptible, illuminated by divine grace and full glory …should be entrusted to the earth for a little while and raised up to heaven in glory, with her soul pleasing to God.” Theoteknos of Livias, Homily on the Assumption (ante A.D. 650).

“You are she who, as it is written, appears in beauty, and your virginal body is all holy, all chaste, entirely the dwelling place of God, so that it is henceforth completely exempt from dissolution into dust. Though still human, it is changed into the heavenly life of incorruptibility, truly living and glorious, undamaged and sharing in perfect life.” Germanus of Constantinople, Sermon I (PG 98,346), (ante A.D. 733).

“St. Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, at the Council of Chalcedon (451), made known to the Emperor Marcian and Pulcheria, who wished to possess the body of the Mother of God, that Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles, but that her tomb, when opened upon the request of St. Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven.” John of Damascene, PG (96:1) (A.D. 747-751).

“It was fitting that the she, who had kept her virginity intact in childbirth, should keep her own body free from all corruption even after death. It was fitting that she, who had carried the Creator as a child at her breast, should dwell in the divine tabernacles. It was fitting that the spouse, whom the Father had taken to himself, should live in the divine mansions. It was fitting that she, who had seen her Son upon the cross and who had thereby received into her heart the sword of sorrow which she had escaped when giving birth to him, should look upon him as he sits with the Father, It was fitting that God’s Mother should possess what belongs to her Son, and that she should be honored by every creature as the Mother and as the handmaid of God.” John of Damascene, Dormition of Mary (PG 96,741), (ante A.D. 749).

“Venerable to us, O Lord, is the festivity of this day on which the holy Mother of God suffered temporal death, but still could not be kept down by the bonds of death, who has begotten Thy Son our Lord incarnate from herself.” Gregorian Sacramentary, Veneranda (ante A.D. 795).

“[A]n effable mystery all the more worthy of praise as the Virgin’s Assumption is something unique among men.” Gallican Sacramentary, from Munificentis simus Deus (8th Century).

“God, the King of the universe, has granted you favors that surpass nature. As he kept you virgin in childbirth, thus he kept your body incorrupt in the tomb and has glorified it by his divine act of transferring it from the tomb.” Byzantine Liturgy, from Munificentis simus Deus (8th Century).

The Dormition

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From James Seghers and Totus Tuus Ministries:

The Bible gives many examples of unusual departures. The first is the righteous Enoch. “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him” (Gen 5:24). St. Paul informs us that “by faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and ‘he was not found, because God had taken him’” (Heb 11:5).

There are also unusual circumstances surrounding the death of Moses. “He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Bethpeor, but no one knows his burial place to this day” (Deut 34:6). This mystery is augmented in the Epistle of Jude. “But when the archangel Michael contended with the devil and disputed about the body of Moses, he did not dare to bring a condemnation of slander against him, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you’” (Jude 9)! Finally, during Jesus’ transfiguration: “Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him” (Mt 17:3). The implication is that these two Old Testament saints, who represent the law and the prophets, appeared in bodily form. Finally, the parting of Elijah was also extraordinary. “As they [Elijah and Elisha] continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended into a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kgs 2:11).

These events regarding Enoch, Moses and Elijah lay a biblical foundation for accepting the reality that we will be both body and soul in Heaven, thus the resurrection of the dead. In Christian theology it finds a basis in Paul’s epistles. “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; Then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the cloud to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:15-17). “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor 15:52).

In portraying Mary as the ark of the covenant (Rev 11:19), she is described in bodily terms. “And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the son, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Rev 12:1). Scholars have interpreted the imagery of this vision in multiple layers referring to Mary, the Church and even Israel.4 However, the possibility of multiple meanings does not negate the specific application to Mary. It is she, alone, to whom it can be most accurately affirmed: “she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Rev 12:5).

 

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