Saturday, August 27, 2005

Eastern churches
The Falling Asleep* (and Assumption) of the Mother of God
Which the Julian-calendar Eastern Orthodox such as the Russians (the world’s biggest Orthodox church) and some Byzantine Catholics (in the Ukraine for example — the biggest Byzantine Catholic group) celebrate today, as in the Julian calendar this is the 15th August!

The story of the Assumption (that at the end of her earthly life the immaculate Mother of God was assumed into heaven body and soul) originally came from the Christian East sometime around the middle of the first millennium A.D. As with many other common Catholic beliefs the Christian East never dogmatised (defined doctrine about) it because nobody denied it... until Pope Pius XII defined it for the Roman Catholic Church in 1950. Then defensive Eastern European xenophobia kicked in and you started hearing some Orthodox make Protestant-like denials of it.

The original Eastern story is much more elaborate than the Pope’s definition (the latter is simply stated in the first parentheses in the first paragraph of this entry) with details obviously parallelling the Resurrection: the apostles whisked on clouds to Mary at her death and holding a funeral... then finding the tomb empty three days later as doubting Thomas is the last to arrive. Icons of the feast show the funeral. The Pope left whether she died or not and indeed most of the details of the Eastern story open questions.

The Assumption, the logical outcome of Mary being made the immaculate Mother of God, is the beginning of the resurrection of the body we all expect in the end as the West says in the Apostles’ Creed. She was the first Christian and the perfect Christian (thus to be a good Christian is to be a good Marian), and where she is now we hope one day to be, likewise in body and soul. ‘...the same reward that awaits all the righteous on the Last Day’.

The historical evidence is pretty thin for it but that’s also true of the Resurrection — only Jesus’ followers saw him, etc. There’s no evidence that the Resurrection or the Assumption didn’t happen.

Back to the Protestant-like denials out of spite: as an amateur Russian-speaker I picked up a religious newspaper in Russian recently in which there is one mean little article in English about the feast that acceptably outlines the history of Marian devotion but then denies the Assumption (summary: Mary died and the apostles had a funeral for her, full stop), while three preceding pages in Russian present the whole Eastern version which of course includes the Assumption! The редактор must not have been paying attention.

But anyway, съ праздникомъ!

*Byzantine Rite idiom for death (Greek koimesis, Russian/Slavonic успение), often rendered in English as the Latinate word Dormition.

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