St Mary the Virgin

Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ

I had the opportunity to join the schola for the Extraordinary Form (‘Traditional Latin’) Mass at the local Roman Cathedral for the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary ( known in Orthodoxy as the Dormition, and in bcp1979 as the Feast of St Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ). Attending this Mass for the first time (under any appellation) prompted me to do a bit of reading on this feast and the doctrine it embodies, and their place in the Episcopal Church, the fruits of which I share below.

Lesser Feasts and Fasts (lff), the Episcopal Church’s Sanctorale, notes that

The honor paid to Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ, goes back to the earliest days of the Church


The Gospels tells us little about the home of our Lord’s mother...In the second century, a devout Christian sought to supply a fuller account of Mary’s birth and family, to satisfy the interest and curiostiy of believers. An apocryphal gospel, known as the Protoevangelium [that is, ‘Pre-Gospel’] of James or The Nativity of Mary, appeared.

This book included accounts of Mary’s parents ( Joachim and Anne) and childhood, additional details about the Nativity and flight into Egypt, etc. It asserted her perpetual virginity and Joseph’s status as a widower with other children (and his advanced age: ‘Joseph was an old man...’ says the carol).

The earliest surviving manuscripts concerning the death of the Virgin date from the fourth century, though the tradition they encapsulate may be earlier. The tradition is certainly old enough that no relics of the Blessed Virgin have ever been claimed. For those who are unfamiliar with this tradition, as I was, I summarize it here:

The Archangel Gabriel visited Mary and announced that in three days she would die. St John and then all the Apostles were miraculously brought together in Jerusalem by the Holy Spirit. The Blessed Virgin desired to be buried in Gethsemane near her parents and her spouse. Christ himself appeared to escort the soul of his Mother to heaven, and the Apostles buried her body. A sweet smell emanated from the tomb, and for three days the voices of angels were heard. When the angel voices ceased, all knew that her body had been taken up to heaven.

A variant tells that St Thomas had not been present for her death, but arriving on the third day wished to see her body – but when the grave was opened, it contained only the graveclothes, redolent with a sweet smell; all concluded that her body had been taken to heaven. Yet another variant tells that it was the will and prayer of the Apostles themselves that the body of Mary should be taken up into heaven.

Apparently no Fathers of the Church before the fourth century wrote of the Assumption, and occasionally thereafter some expressed doubts. St Epiphanius of Salamis (†403) noted the silence of the Scriptures upon the death of the Virgin. The feast originally celebrated primarily the Motherhood of Mary, rather than emphasizing the circumstances of her death (whence, no doubt, its title in bcp1979). St Gregory of Tours (†594); Modest, Patriarch of Jerusalem (†634); and St John of Damascus (†749) were among the first authorities to claim and promote the doctrine of the Assumption under their own names.

For Orthodox Christians, the Assumption – though firmly held, and strongly present in the liturgical texts – is assigned to the realm of tradition, rather than the core of the faith: part of the Church’s inner life rather than its public preaching, as Met. Kallistos Ware puts it. Because the doctrine has never been under attack or seen to be absolutely essential to the Gospel message – traditionally, the occasion when an ecumenical council would formally define a dogma – the Orthodox have never felt the need to do so. As for Roman Catholics, even as late as 1879 the III. Marquess of Bute, in his translation of the Roman Breviary (though it was not an official text), could note that ‘there is a common tradition... that both [Mary’s] body and soul are now where [Christ] is – but such tradition must be carefully distinguished from matters of faith’. In 1950, however, Pope Pius XII formally defined and made binding upon Roman Catholics the 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.’ The important texts, some of which made their way into the revised Mass for the feast in the midcentury reforms, included (given here in Bishop Challoner’s translation of the Vulgate commonly, though incorrectly, called the Douay-Rheims)...

I will put enmities between thee and the woman,
and thy seed and her seed;
she* shall crush thy head,
and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel

     Gn 3.15 [Offertory anthem]

*  Bp Challoner’s own note:
Ipsa, the woman; so divers of the fathers read this place, conformably to the Latin: others read it ipsum, viz., the seed. The sense is the same: for it is by her seed, Jesus Christ, that the woman crushes the serpent’s head.

Arise, O Lord, into thy resting place:
thou and the ark, which thou hast sanctified.

     Ps 132[131].8

And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman* clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.
     Rv 12.1 [Introit anthem]

*  Challoner:
The Church of God. It may also, by allusion, be applied to our blessed Lady...

In the absence of much (any?) formally promulgated dogma (the requirement for adherence to the Articles of Religion having lapsed in the Episcopal Church at least), the Anglican tradition has relied upon its authorized liturgical texts to carry the content of the faith. In the case of the Episcopal Church, these authorized texts include not only the Book of Common Prayer but also Lesser Feasts and Fasts as well as the Hymnal, whose texts are vetted by a Theological Committee and ultimately approved by General Convention. It is therefore important to examine what these texts have to say on any given point of faith and doctrine. (It is also true that official formularies and scholarly study papers often stand at some distance from the beliefs, concerns, and practices of rank-and-file lay – or even clergy – persons.)

lff, in its entry for the Commemoration of St Mary, characteristically takes a cautious and reasoned approach:

Later devotion has claimed many things for Mary which cannot be proved from Holy Scripture. What we can believe is that one who stood in so intimate a relationship with the incarnate Son of God on earth must, of all the human race, have the place of highest honor in the eternal life of God. A paraphrase of an ancient Greek hymn expresses this belief in very familiar words: ‘O higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim, lead their praises, alleluia.’

The English hymn in which that line appears, Athelstan Riley’s ‘Ye watchers and ye holy ones’ [618]*, however, immediately goes on to say ‘Thou bearer of th’eternal Word, / most gracious, magnify the Lord’. Similarly, the Hymnal cento of the late medieval ‘Jerusalem, my happy home’ [620] includes the line ‘Our Lady sings Magnificat / with tune surpassing sweet’ – all in the present tense.

The Collect itself (the Roman Collect) for this day takes an even more robust view, much closer to an outright doctrine of the Assumption, though it does not speak of the status of Mary’s body:

O God, who hast taken to thyself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of thy incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of thine eternal kingdom; through the same...

And Hymn 278, ‘Sing we of the blessèd Mother’ (George B. Timms), exhorts us to

Sing the chiefest joy of Mary
     when on earth her work was done,
and the Lord of all creation
     brought her to his heavenly home;
where, raised high with saints and angels,
     in Jerusalem above,
she beholds her Son and Savior
     reigning as the Lord of love.

The notion of Mary’s presence in heaven as presented in these texts – though it might raise the eyebrows of those coming from a Protestant background – is consonant with the Prayer Book’s understanding of the saints, for though many references to the saints throughout the bcp leave open the question of whether they already abide in God’s presence, the idea that some are already able and worthy to live in the full(er) light of that presence is found throughout the Prayer Book:

In the Prayers of the People, Form III –

We praise you for your saints who have entered into joy:
May we also come to share in your heavenly kingdom.  [387]

– in the Additional Prayers at the Burial of the Dead –

Almighty God, with whom do live the spirits of those who depart hence in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful, after they are delivered from the burden of the flesh, are in joy and felicity... [488]

O God, the King of saints, we praise and magnify thy holy Name for all thy servants who have finished their course in thy faith and fear; for the blessed Virgin Mary; for the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs; and for all other thy righteous servants, known to us and unknown; and we beseech thee that, encouraged by their examples, aided by their prayers, and strengthened by their fellowship, we also may be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light through the merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. [489]

– and in the Propers for the Common of Saints –

O God, who hast brought us near to an innumerable company of angels and to the spirits of just men made perfect: Grant us during our earthly pilgrimage to abide in their fellowship, and in our heavenly country to become partakers of their joy...
     Collect II of a Saint

O Almighty God, who by thy Holy Spirit hast made us one with thy saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may ever be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer...
     Collect III of a Saint

...who in the obedience of thy saints hast given us an example of righteousness, and in their eternal joy a glorious pledge of the hope of our calling.
     Preface II of a Saint.

It was around the time of the adoption of these texts (after the approval of the 1979 Prayer Book but before that of the Hymnal), in 1981, that the Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission (arcic), in an examination of Authority in the Church , had come to the following points of agreement (among others) regarding the person and role of the Blessed Virgin Mary:

We agree in recognising the grace and unique vocation of Mary, Mother of God Incarnate (Theotókos), in observing her festivals, and in according her honour in the communion of saints.

We agree that she was prepared by divine grace to be the mother of our Redeemer,
by whom she herself was redeemed and received into glory.

Further work by arcic (chaired for several years during this period by the then Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Rt Rev’d Frank Griswold, of notably Anglo-Catholic outlook) culminated in the document Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ (2004). That document asserts that the Assumption of Mary in body and soul is a theological, not a historical or philosophical, concept, and understands it from an eschatological perspective: that is, from a viewpoint outside linear time, from the heavenly perspective of things already fulfilled, the Kingdom already at hand, the feast already taking place all around us.

Though this document, as far as I can tell, has no official standing in either the Roman Catholic Church nor in any Anglican Church, ¶57 neatly summarizes the hope embodied in the doctrine of the Assumption:

The pattern of hope and grace already foreshadowed in Mary will be fulfilled in the new creation in Christ when all the redeemed will participate in the full glory of the Lord [cf. 2Co 3.18]. Christian experience of communion with God in this present life is a sign and foretaste of divine grace and glory, a hope shared with the whole of creation [Rm 8.18–23]. The individual believer and the Church find their consummation in the new Jerusalem, the holy bride of Christ [cf. Rv 21.2; Ep 5.27]. When Christians from East and West through the generations have pondered God’s work in Mary, they have discerned in faith (cf. Gift [the Gift of Authority, a previous arcic document] 29) that it is fitting that the Lord gathered her wholly to himself: in Christ, she is already a new creation in whom ‘the old has passed away and the new has come’ [2Co 5.17]. Viewed from such an eschatological perspective, Mary may be seen both as a type of the Church, and as a disciple with a special place in the economy of salvation.

*  The first stanza of the hymn appears to be based upon St John Damascene’s II. Sermon on the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as found in the Roman Breviary:

in company with [David, dancing before the Ark (=Mary)] the Angels dance, the Archangels sing aloud, the Virtues ascribe glory, the Princedoms shout for joy, the Powers make merry, the Lordships rejoice, the Thrones keep holiday, the Cherubim utter praise, and the Seraphim proclaim its glory.

The aforementioned second stanza is certainly based upon the Hymn to the Theotokos in the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom:

It is truly meet and right to bless you, O Theotokos,
Ever-blessed and most-pure mother of our God.
More honourable than the Cherubim,
And beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim,
Who without corruption gave birth to God the Word,
True Theotokos: we magnify you.