Sunday, August 15, 2010

Merry Marymas!

Today is the great feast commemorating the Dormition and Assumption of Our Lady.

Yes, Dormition. While the exact time-frame of all this is not really known except from legend, and while one might expect her own resurrection to occur on the third day, as with her Son, they are both commemorated today, showing their intimate connection.

Throughout history, however, people have had an almost natural impulse to wish to draw out this feast over a period or with a second feast sometime after. I'm not just talking about an octave with octave-day. Rather, there has been a very practical concern with a desire to commemorate both aspects of this feast that are abstractable one from the other: one, Mary's departure from this life and, two, her glorification in the next. And while these two sides of the same coin are both condensed into today, throughout history people have tried to find a liturgical way to emphasize one or the other on different days. The Catholic Encyclopedia article on the Assumption explains:

The Greek Church continues this feast to 23 August, inclusive, and in some monasteries of Mount Athos it is protracted to 29 August (Menaea Graeca, Venice, 1880), or was, at least, formerly. In the dioceses of Bavaria a thirtieth day (a species of month's mind) of the Assumption was celebrated during the Middle Ages, 13 Sept., with the Office of the Assumption (double); today, only the Diocese of Augsburg has retained this old custom.

Some of the Bavarian dioceses and those of Brandenburg, Mainz, Frankfort, etc., on 23 Sept. kept the feast of the "Second Assumption", or the "Fortieth Day of the Assumption" (double) believing, according to the revelations of St. Elizabeth of Schönau (d. 1165) and of St. Bertrand, O.C. (d. 1170), that the B.V. Mary was taken up to heaven on the fortieth day after her death (Grotefend, Calendaria 2, 136). The Brigittines kept the feast of the "Glorification of Mary" (double) 30 Aug., since St. Brigitta of Sweden says (Revel., VI, l) that Mary was taken into heaven fifteen days after her departure (Colvenerius, Cal. Mar., 30 Aug.). In Central America a special feast of the Coronation of Mary in heaven (double major) is celebrated 18 August. The city of Gerace in Calabria keeps three successive days with the rite of a double first class, commemorating: 15th of August, the death of Mary; 16th of August, her Coronation.

I think that the old Central American and Calabrian practice makes the most sense to me. I find it hard to believe that Mary was taken up 15 or 40 days after her Dormition. Perhaps the latter was trying to make analogy to the Ascension, but there is no evidence for a period of glorified life on earth for Our Lady after her resurrection as there was for Our Lord. And that only makes sense: the final Passion and Resurrection of the Church (which she typifies) will be followed immediately by Ecclesia's ultimate assumption to glory with Her Bridegroom, not by any intervening Age (such as exists between Our Lord's first coming and His final triumph at the End, as signified by the 40 days on earth between His resurrection and ascension). And surely she did not remain dead in a tomb that long (else she would have seen corruption). Furthermore, tradition now, for better or worse, associates this day with commemoration of both the Dormition and the Assumption, so having a separate commemoration of the Assumption in se so much longer after the first feast seems incongruous; it should be within the octave at least.

I also think that designating this "second feast" of the Assumption as the Coronation makes sense. This leaves one free to commemorate the Assumption today with the Dormition, in order to highlight their intrinsic connection, while still having a particular feast a few days later (ie, along a more "historical" time-line for the events in question) of her glorification in heaven separately. As, theologically speaking, the "Coronation" could not really be a separate event from her entrance into heavenly glory itself. I would be inclined, however, to put this feast of the Coronation on August 17th (in analogy to the relation between Good Friday and Easter).

One of my pet peeves surrounding the solemn extraordinary dogmatic definition of the Assumption in 1950 by Pius XII is that, since he phrased it so as to define only the Assumption and to leave out the question of Mary's death, you will now hear many Catholics state that whether or not she died is "up for debate" or an "open question," which implies and reinforces a notion of doctrine that is positivistic as regards the extraordinary magisterium, as if something isn't a doctrine or binding just because it has never been solemnly defined.

This notion is faulty. Just because the Dormition hasn't been solemnly defined by an act of extraordinary magisterium like the Assumption has, doesn't mean it is "up for discussion." It is actually infallible under the ordinary and universal magisterium. Father J. F. Bonnefoy, O.F.M., goes so far as to state that "the death of the Most Holy Virgin may be considered as historically proved and explicitly revealed: as such (explicitly revealed) it may be the subject of a dogmatic definition: there is no reason why it should not be."

This was not really questioned until the definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854. In another example of this sort of magisterial positivism among Catholics leading to serious theological sickliness, theologians took the "new" dogma of the Immaculate Conception as justification for debating whether Mary did in fact first die (for much of history it was just assumed; no pun intended).

This is poor theology; there is no reason that the absence of original sin would cause immortality. The baptized still die, Christ submitted to death. Immortality was one of the "preternatural gifts" superadded to human nature before the Fall (see the last paragraph of
this article). Non-glorified human bodies, being composite, still naturally incline towards dissolution, with or without sin; immortality and impassibility were positive additions by God above and beyond human nature in original innocence. And though they were lost with the Fall, they do not intrinsically go along with the question of presence or lack of original sin in itself.

While Mary's soul was created already in a state of grace, already without original sin or its spiritual effects, there is nothing to indicate that she also received the Edenic physical preternatural gifts: Mary still suffered hunger, thirst, fatigue, pain, unknowing, and sorrow in her life. There is no reason death itself would be any different.

This is one of those cases where the Orthodox see our fetishization of authority as really problematic and untraditional: just because it wasn't part of an extraordinary dogmatic definition in 1950, that leaves all sorts of Catholics saying that this leaves the question open (and, in fact, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many theologians did start to debate it). It doesnt. The Orthodox would find this absurd and an extreme rejection of tradition. Mary's dormition is infallible by ordinary and universal magisterium.

In fact, Mary's dormition was for a long time considered more certain than the Assumption (which even Catholic Encyclopedia in 1917 seemed to put only at the level of sententia probilior). The Feast was called the Dormition for a long time before it was the Assumption, after all. This from the Catholic Encyclopedia article on the Blessed Virgin Mary:
"St. Epiphanius doubts even the reality of Mary's death; but the universal belief of the Church does not agree with the private opinion of St. Epiphanius. Mary's death was not necessarily the effect of violence; it was undergone neither as an expiation or penalty, nor as the effect of disease from which, like her Divine Son, she was exempt. Since the Middle Ages the view prevails that she died of love, her great desire to be united to her Son either dissolving the ties of body and soul, or prevailing on God to dissolve them. Her passing away is a sacrifice of love completing the dolorous sacrifice of her life. It is the death in the kiss of the Lord (in osculo Domini), of which the just die."
I believe it has been pointed out before by many Saints that the sword of sorrow would have killed Mary right there on Calvary alongside her son, if God had not miraculously preserved her and held back the effects. In her death, the floodgates of that martyrdom of love were finally loosed, and she at last was allowed to die of the wound in her heart that she had received years before at the foot of the cross, crowning a lifetime of suffering for her son, and in conformity to Him. A true martyrdom indeed, as explained so wonderfully by St. Alphonsus. But if she died such a martyrdom in conformity to her son, so much more was she resurrected and glorified in conformity to the same and, with her, each of us and created nature itself, in the Church, are restored.


Sanchez said...

Thanks for this entry.
I also found an interesting article about the Dormition/Assumption providing a broad perspective on the feast’s history and the various ways it is observed. Worth checking out:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. It will nuance any future statements I make to the effect that the RC dogma of the Assumption leaves the repose of the Theotokos an "open question". Interesting how the "extraordinary magisterium" can so eclipse the "ordinary magisterium" (except when, as with "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" those pulling the levers of the former wish to highlight what they consider to be the latter). - Avva Greg

Michael D said...

Apparently Wikipedia has fallen over to the dark side:

" Pope Pius XII, in his Apostolic constitution, Munificentissimus Deus (1950), which dogmatically defined the Assumption, appears to have left open the question of whether or not Mary actually underwent death in connection with her departure"

A Sinner said...

Well, that statement is a commonplace among Catholics, so I'm not surprised.

In his dogmatic definition, Pius XII does word it so as to not address the issue one way or another ("at the conclusion of her earthly life")...but that's because he was intending to define her Assumption only at the level of solemn extraordinary definition.

But the dormition is clearly likewise infallible by ordinary and universal magisterium, and no one ever questioned it until Catholics started believing that anything that hadn't been specifically defined by an extraordinary definition...was "open to question." It's not.

sortacatholic said...

I wrote a whole paper on the "did Mary die?" question. In the apostolic letter munificentissimus deus that established the dogma, Pius XII avoids the question altogether. He just leaves the question open-ended. Nothing dark or mysterious about that.

A Sinner said...

Well, he didn't choose to include it as part of the dogmatic definition, and phrased that accordingly. For whatever motive.

That doesn't mean he "left it" an "open-ended" it was not his to leave open! It was closed a LONG time before him by the ordinary and universal magisterium, however presumptuously some magisterial-positivist theologians may have tried to pry it open again.