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Feast of the Assumption

What You Don’t Know About the Assumption

We pronounce, declare and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. – Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII, 1950

On August 15th we celebrate the Assumption of Mary, a feast that has been celebrated as far back as the fifth century. In the East the feast is also called “The Dormition” which means “Falling Asleep”. This isn't to say that Mary didn't die, both the East and West agree that she did physically die.

The Death and Assumption of Mary

Icon of The Dormition of MaryIn Orthodox tradition, Mary died in her 50's and the Apostles, except for Thomas, were miraculously brought to her deathbed where they witnessed Jesus take her soul to Heaven. The apostles then buried her near Gethsemane. St. Thomas was absent but he arrived three days later and because he wished to see her body, the apostles opened the tomb and found Mary's body to be gone.

In the West, according to some venerable visionaries, Mary died when she was 63 and as in the East, St. Thomas was not present because he was returning from the Orient.

The History of the Feast of the Assumption

Emperor Mauricius FlaviusThe Feast of the Assumption has been celebrated in the East since the fifth century. Emperor Mauricius Flavius (582-602) ordered that it be celebrated on the 15th of August throughout the Byzantine Empire. A basilica was built over her tomb and after this church was destroyed, a new church was built in the eleventh century by the Crusaders (see below).

The Church of the Assumption in Jerusalem

Rome officially adopted the feast in the seventh century and the name was officially changed to the Feast of the Assumption by Pope St. Adrian in the eighth century.

The celebration of the feast has always assumed (no pun intended) the bodily assumption of Mary into Heaven as writers in both the East and West were in almost unanimous agreement about this from the earliest times that the story of her death was discussed.
By the sixteenth century, the Feast of the Assumption had become the most prominent Marian feast and one of the most important feasts on the liturgical calendar.

Celebrating the Feast of the Assumption

In the Eastern Church, as is common before major feasts, a time of fasting is required. The Eastern Church holds a two week fast leading up to this feast with only a slight break where fish is allowed on the Feast of the Transfiguration. In some parishes, the people bring flowers to be blessed which they then use to decorate the icon of the Dormition in their homes.
In the West the Assumption of Mary is celebrated as a Holy Day of Obligation.
Listen to the Byzantine Chant for the feast:

Traditions Related to the Feast of the Assumption

Poland: In Poland, the Feast of the Assumption is also known as the Feast of Our Lady of Herbs because people bring herbs to be blessed at Mass on this day, similar to the flower blessing in the Eastern Church.
Italy: In the city of Siena, an annual horse race called the Palio is held in the main square of the city. During the pageant, the horses from each of the parishes around the city are blessed at the cathedral before the race. The participants wear mideaval costumees and race on a dirt track around the shell-shaped piazza. In many cities statues of Mary are carried in procession.

Armenia: On the Sunday closest to the feast, grapes are brought to the churches for a blessing before the parishioners take a bunch home. Following the blessing there are feasts in the vinyards and the first grapes of the season are eaten. (Picture source)

Blessing of the Grapes in Armenia

The making of the Dogma of the Assumption of Mary

As when any dogmatic statement is made by the Church, it is necessary to remember that the Church doesn't, and can't, make up theological propositions out of thin air. All dogmatic statements are made after long discussion and reflection and are only made because the Holy Spirit, as guardian of the Faith, allows such decrees to be made.

The first thing that makes this dogma notable is the lack of controversy surrounding its proclamation. Many things that have been dogmatically declared throughout Church history including the nature of Christ, the Queenship of Mary, the Infallibility of the Pope and others have all been subject to long disagreement, schism and sometimes wars but the Dogma of the Assumption avoided all of that.

From the earliest records – parchment fragments from the late 500's, the narrative of Mary's death and assumption have remained consistent and free from dispute. Homilies from this time are unified on addressing the topic and the celebration of the feast has always been about both Mary's physical death and her miraculous assumption.

May saints, including St. Bellarmine, St. Francis de Sales and St. Alphonsus Liguori all promoted the teaching and between 1849 and 1950, when the dogma was proclaimed, thouasands of petitions were sent to Rome asking for the declaration. The petitioners included 113 cardinals, 18 patriarchs, 2,505 bishops, 32,000 priests and brothers, 50,000 women religious and over 8 million lay people.

In 1946 Pope Pius XII issued the encyclical Deiperae Virginis which asked the bishops of the world if the Dogma of the Assumption should be officially defined. After receiving an overwhelming “yes”, the Pope issue Munificentissimus Deus on November 1st, 1950.

Encyclopedia of Mary

Encyclopedia of Mary

The Life of Mary as Seen by the Mystics

The Life of Mary as Seen by the Mystics


  1. Thanks, Ian. Good stuff.
    The various traditions are definitely interesting to ponder. In addition to the traditions relating to Our Lady being in her 50s or 63, for example, the Franciscan Crown Rosary, with seven decades for the seven joys of Our Lady, has two extra Hail Mary’s for a traditional belief among some that Our Lady was 72 at her assumption.
    Thanks again, and God bless—

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