On November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII solemnly proclaimed the centuries-long belief that the “Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-Virgin Mary, having completed the course of Her earthly life, was assumed body ad soul into heavenly glory” (Apost. Const. “Munificentissimus Deus,” n. 44) This Solemn proclamation of the dogma of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven fittingly describes the crowning event in the life of the Most Holy Mother of God, whose liturgical veneration originated in the East.
The origin of the feast of the Dormition or the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is closely connected with her public veneration since the beginning of the fourth century. It developed from early celebration of Christmas in which the “Theotokos,” the Mother of God our Savior, played an important role. The solemn proclamation of Mary as the “Theotokos” at the Council of Ephesus (431) greatly enhanced Her public veneration as the “Mother of God.” This is evidenced by the fact that few years later Her divine maternity was celebrated in Jerusalem as the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God, on August 15. (cf. Armenian Lectionary, 434 A.D.)
In Egypt, the same Feast of Mary was celebrated on January 18 under the influence of St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) who presided at the Council of Ephesus. In Constantinople, the veneration of Mary’s divine motherhood was promoted by St. Anatolius (d. 458) who also composed the first liturgical hymns in honor of the Theotokos.
A the beginning of the sixth century, a magnificent basilica was erected over the tomb of Mary in Gethsemane. With this, the feast of Mary celebrated on August 15 took on a new meaning and became the solemn celebrated of Mary’s death and assumption into heaven under the name of the Feast of the Dormition. In some liturgical calendars of the East, the feast was referred to as the Journey of the Theotokos into Heaven, or the Deposition of Mary, i.e. the interment of Mary into Her grave.
In Constantinople, the Empress St. Pulcheria (d. 433) promoted devotion to the Blessed Mother and built three churches in Her honor. Being present at the sixth session of the Council of Chalcedon (451), she asked St. Juvenal of Jerusalem (d. 458) for some relics of the Blessed Mother to be enshrined in St. Mary’s Church at Blachernae, near Constantinople. The saintly Bishop replied:
“We have received the ancient and the most reliable tradition that at the time of the glorious dormition (falling asleep) of the Mother of God, the whole company of the Apostles were brought together in Jerusalem. So, amid divine and heavenly praises, they commend Her holy soul to the hands of God and, taking Her God- conceiving body, they carried it in procession to Gethsemani and there placed it in a little tomb.
For three days a choir of Angels continued to sing above Her tomb. After the third day, when finally St. Thomas arrived, (he had been absent and desired to venerate the body that had borne Christ God), they (the Apostles) opened the tomb and found no trace of Her blessed body. Thus, taking the winding sheets, which were filled with fragrance, the Apostles closed the tomb.
Wondering at this mystery they could only think that He, Whom it had pleased to be born of Her in the flesh, the Lord of Glory, desired that after Her departure from this life, Her immaculate and all-pure body would be honored by incorruptibility, being translated (to heaven) before the universal resurrection of the dead.” (Cyril of Scythopolis, The History of St. Euthymius III, 40, written about 515)
Only July 2, the Byzantine Church commemorates the Deposition of the Venerable Mantle of Our Lady, the Mother of God at Blachernae. It seems that, instead of the holy relics requested, the imperial city had received Mary’s vestments which were found in Nazareth and brought to Constantinople in 474,i. e. after the death of Juvenal and Pulcheria.
The solemn celebration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God was extended to the entire East during the sixth century. Since the feast was celebrated on different days, it was decreed by Emperor Maurice (582-602) that, in the entire Byzantine Empire, the feast will be celebrated on August 15 under the name of Dormition (Old. Slav. “Uspenije”) which, literally translated, means the falling asleep. (1 Thess 4:14) St. Modestus of Jerusalem tradition concerning Mary’s wondrous departure and the assumption of Her purest body to heaven. (cf. Migne, P.G. 86, 3277 ff.)
In the middle of the seventh century, the Feast of Dormition was introduced in Rome from where it gradually spread to the entire West. However, at the end of the eighth century, the Western Church changed the name of the Feast to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven.
In the East, the celebration of the feast was enhanced by the famous homilies of St. Andrew of Crete (d. about 720), St. Germanus of Constantinople (d. 733), and especially St. John Damascene (d. 749) who became the main champion of the traditional belief in the bodily assumption of Mary. According to his testimony, the tomb, which harbored the purest body of the Mother of God for only a short time, became an object of the public veneration and the source of numerous miracles and special graces. (cf. Homily on Dormition 1,13) St. John Damascene, in the homily he delivered at the Basilica of the Dormition in Jerusalem, pointed to Mary’s tomb and said: “Her immaculate body was placed here, in this renowned and all-glorious tomb, from whence after three days it was taken up to the heavenly mansion.” (Homily on Dormition, 2:14)
The liturgical hymns extolling the wondrous dormition of the Blessed Mother, most part, were composed during the eight and ninth centuries by such renowned hymnographers as St. Germanus of Constantinople (d. 733), St. John Damascene (d. 749), St. Cosmos of Maiuma (d. 760), St. Theophanes Graptos (d. 845) and others. In their hymns, these inspired writers clearly revealed the traditional belief in Mary’s “translation from earth to heaven.” (cf. 2nd Stichera of Vespers)
Through these liturgical compositions, the general belief in the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven remained well preserved and provided sufficient historical evidence for the proclamation of the dogma in 1950. The principal arguments from Byzantine tradition and liturgy in support of the dogma were collected by our Ruthenian theologian, Msgr, Nicholas Russnak, S.T.D. (1872 – 1952) and were submitted to the Holy See by Bishop Paul P. Goldich OSBM of Prjashev (1927-1960) on January 25, 1932. (cf. G. Hentrich-R. De Moos, Petitiones de Assumption Corporea B.V.M., Vatican 1942, vol 1, p.770-779)
Concerning the petition of Bishop Gojdich, the authors write: “The Importance of this petition is obvious since it comes from the Ruthenian Hierarch, well versed in the Greek and Old Slavonic liturgical texts, starting with the ninth century, are in constant use by both Catholic and Orthodox. And these texts ‘clearly and absolutely’ contain the doctrine of the bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Thus, we can conclude that the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, based on the deduction from Holy Scriptures, is a logical development of the centuries-long tradition deeply rooted in the liturgical prayers and minds of the people.
The Feast of the Dormition is one of the twelve Major Feasts of the Byzantine Rite and is celebrated with uncommon solemnity. In preparation for the feast, a two weeks period of fasting is prescribed for the faithful, called the Fast of Dormition. (“Uspenskij Post”), which begins on the first day of August. Since the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, popularly known as “Spasa,” fell within this time, the people in the Old Country referred to this fast as the “Spasovaka,” meaning the Savior’s Fast. Historically, the Fast of the Dormition can be traced to the ninth century but it was officially introduced into the Byzantine discipline by the Synod of Constantinople in 1166.
Liturgically speaking, the Feast has one day of pre-festivity and eight days of post-festivity during which time the mysteries of Mary’s wondrous death and Her Glorious assumption to heaven are celebrated. The Vespers of the Feast, celebrated with Litija, repeatedly implore the intercession of the Mother of God: “O Lady, do not forget the kinship with those who commemorate your all-holy Dormition with faith.” (Stichera of Litija)
Accord to an old custom, flowers and medicinal herbs are blessed after the Divine Liturgy on the Feast of the Dormition. This custom most probably originated from the traditional belief that after Mary’s glorious assumption into heaven, Her holy tomb was filled with a “heavenly fragrance” and flowers. (St Germanus, 1 Hom on Dormition.) The herbs, used by our people as natural medicine, are blessed in commemoration of the numerous healings and extraordinary graces bestowed on the pilgrims at Mary’s tomb. (St John Damascene, Hom. on Dor 1,13)
(Tomb of the Virgin Mary at Gethsemane)
The blessing of herbs on the Feast of Dormition was introduced by the Fathers to combat he superstitious incantations and charlatanism among our people. Preaching at the tomb of Mary, St. John Damascene reminded the people that: “Divine power is not circumscribed by any place and neither is the inexhaustible goodness of the Mother of God. For if the graces were restricted only to Her tomb, only a few people would gain them. Now Her graces are poured out in every place throughout the world.” (Hom. on Dom 2,19)
In his Homily on the Dormition, St. John Damascene makes the Tomb of Mary talk:
“Why do you seek in the tomb what has been assumed into heaven? Why do you exact from me an account of Her dissolution? I had no power to go against the divine command. Leaving the winding sheet, that holy and sacred body, which filled me with myrrh, sweet fragrance and holiness, has been caught up and has departed with all the power of heaven accompanying it. Now the angels keep watch over me. Now the divine grace dwells in me. I have become a well of healing for the sick, defense against demons, a refuge to those who fly to me. Draw near in faith, you people, and you will receive grace in streams.” (Hom. on Dormition 11,17)
(Byzantine Leaflet Series No.11, August 1979, Byzantine Seminary Press)