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The Feast of the Assumption
A friend of mine refers somewhat irreverently to August 15 as “The day we assume Our Lady went to heaven!” This is not so far off the mark. On August 15 the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the belief that the Blessed Virgin Mary, having completed her earthly life, was in body and soul “assumed” into heavenly glory.
It is now generally agreed that this belief was unknown in the earliest years of the church. While there is evidence that the Church in Jerusalem celebrated the death of Mary from the 5th century, the doctrine of her assumption was first formulated in the west by Gregory of Tours in late 6th century. In Rome there was only one general feast in honour of Mary (on January 1) until the Byzantine feast of the Assumption on August 15 was introduced into the universal calendar at the end of the 8th century. In the Eastern Church, the feast corresponding to the Assumption is the Dormition (literally ‘falling asleep’) of Mary. It is included among the twelve principal feasts of the year.
The earliest form of the celebration focussed on Mary’s death as a share in Christ’s paschal mystery. Later developments used scriptural imagery to make Mary’s entrance into heaven more explicit. On 1st November in the Marian year 1950 Pope Pius XII defined the doctrine of the Assumption and provided a new Mass for the feast which portrayed Mary as an image of the Church. Vatican II enriched the celebration with an extensive selection of readings and prayers and a new preface.
The Assumption is one of 54 Holy Days of Obligation in the liturgical calendar for Australia, the others being every Sunday of the year and Christmas. The importance of a celebration in the liturgical calendar is determined by its rank (solemnity, feast, memorial). Designating a feast as a “holy day of obligation” does not change its rank; it simply means that the solemnity is celebrated like a Sunday.
The readings for the solemnity emphasise what God did in Mary. The first reading, from the Book of Revelation, depicts “the woman” in the process of giving birth to a son and being threatened by a dragon. God rescues them, evil is foiled, God’s reign is established and Mary rejoices. In the second reading from Corinthians Paul reminds us that Mary’s privilege will be shared by all who follow Christ.
The Gospel emphasises that Mary’s greatness comes from her participation in God’s plan. Mary responds to Elizabeth’s greeting with a splendid hymn of praise, the Magnificat, which Christians have sung at the Church’s Evening Prayer from earliest times. The feast is a good time for singing one of the many musical settings of the Magnificat.
The preface of the Assumption gives us words of hope:“Today the virgin Mother of God was taken up into heaven to be the beginning and the pattern of the Church in its perfection, and a sign of hope and comfort for your people on their pilgrim way.”