Byz-y Mama: On the Death and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

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Before we even start on this, let me just take a moment to address the anxiety that some of you out there are having right now upon seeing this title:

“On the death and assumption? No, no, dear, Mary didn’t die before she was assumed into Heaven. Oh dear. Who edited this?”

Some creative optimists are on the other side saying, “Oh, I get it! She’s going to talk about Mary’s death to self here on Earth before she was assumed, not a physical death, and she was just trying to reel us in with the title!”

What I actually, truly mean by that title–other than, yes, an attempt to reel some more of you in–is that I’m going to discuss what Eastern Catholic theology teaches and what I believe wholeheartedly:

Mary died. She died a true, physical death prior to her body being assumed and reunited with her soul in Heaven.

An icon of the Dormition. Mary's body is surrounded by the apostles, while Christ holds her soul, shrouded in white.

An icon of the Dormition. Mary’s body is surrounded by the apostles, while Christ holds her soul, shrouded in white.

Many of you probably already know we Easterners believe that and why, but I thought I would explain for those who are (rightly) confused and for us Easterners who need a catechetical review that it’s completely legitimate for us Byzantine Catholics to believe this and still be in union. We believe it for a couple of reasons:

1. There is a substantial tradition behind this belief.

One of the best sources is Chapter 40 of the Euthymiac History, which tells the basic story behind Mary’s death and assumption celebrated on August 15th as the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. This text explains that, at the moment Mary died, all of the apostles except Thomas were at her side. They buried her in Gethsemane amidst the singing of angels.

Thomas–always late–arrived three days after her burial and asked that they open Mary’s coffin so that he could reverence his mother’s body. When they opened the coffin, all that was left were her burial wrappings and a beautiful fragrance.

Other than this text, there are homilies from numerous Church Fathers that reference her death. A great resource on all of this is On the Dormition of Mary, Early Patristic Homilies, from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. This book also includes the excerpt from the Euthymiac History discussing Mary’s dormition, so called because the Church Fathers believed it was important to distinguish Mary’s death from that of any other person.

2. An assumption of Mary into Heaven without natural death would be far less compatible with our theology on what Adam and Eve’s first sin did for the human race.

Rather than believing with the Roman church that every man has inherited the guilt of the sin of Adam, we believe that every man has inherited that sin’s consequences of suffering and death while still remaining innocent of that first sin. (Incidentally, this causes differing views between Byzantine and Roman Catholicism in many other areas.) So it is fitting for Mary as a human being, despite having no personal sin whatsoever, to undergo death according to Byzantine theology.

Facing these major differences many years ago when I first made my spiritual journey to the East completely ruined my world, but I pressed on because I figured if the pope was okay with it, I needed to be okay with it. So I completely understand if any of you are very concerned or confused, and, as always, you are welcome to address any of your questions or concerns to me in the comment section.

So here we are approaching the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos on August 15th, and hopefully you’ve been doing much better with your Dormition Fast than I have. (And if not, well, I guess our big, meaty burgers will be really well done in hell, won’t they? JUST KIDDING! We still have at least one more day to get it right…)

I’ve been reading the book I mentioned a little earlier, and the introduction written by Brian E. Daley, S.J., has been really helpful for better understanding the common themes running through each of the Fathers’ homilies. Daley points out two main reasons for the magnitude of this feast:

First, he says, “Several of the homilies make it clear that the significance of Mary’s entry into glory is not simply the privilege it bestows on her, but the fact that it makes possible her continuing role within the community of believers as royal patron and gracious intercessor, a ‘bridge’ between Christ and his people.”

Secondly, “All of them see the reason for Mary’s present glorification in the eschatalogical inclusivity of Christ’s Paschal Mystery itself. Because her humanity stands closest to the humanity of Jesus, which has passed through death to a new, indestructible life suffused with his own divinity, because she is still ‘one body’…with Jesus, Mary is the first to experience the full transformation of body and spirit–the ‘divinization’ of what is human–that is promised to everyone who becomes ‘one body’ with him through faith and baptism.”

In other words, this feast signifies a sort of solidification of Mary’s role as our mother and intercessor as well as celebrating and reminding us of Christ’s Paschal promise through its fulfillment in his mother.

What does this mean for us as contemporary Byzantines?

I think first and foremost it calls us to a deeper reflection on the massive significance of these mysteries. For myself, I really took Mary’s role as our mother and intercessor for granted until I became involved through my dance career with a very vibrant and faith-filled community of Protestant Christians. I had been used to discussing Mary’s intercession the year prior when I had many Catholic friends close by. In this community, despite everyone’s kindness and  continued affirmation of the way I lived my faith, I felt the greatest taboo would be saying, “I’ll say a Hail Mary for you” (I was Roman at the time).

In a way, I lived a large part of my faith life with a limited relationship with Mary, and it was awful. Living so much of my daily life having to discuss my relationship with Jesus without talking about how Mary was playing a role in that was straining at its best and completely dreadful and tear-inducing at its worst. I realized in a profound way the gift of God giving us his mother to be our own.

Still, despite this realization, the fact is that none of us will be able to completely and worthily appreciate that gift. So how do we dispose ourselves to grace and to cultivating and appreciating that relationship to the best of our abilities? I think one answer is to pray the liturgies we’ve been given as Byzantine Catholics: Matins, Vespers, Compline, other hours, the Akathist to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of course, the Divine Liturgy.

That’s not to say we should pray all of those, because I know few of us have that amount of time, but just to point out the variety of options that we have at hand! Many Eastern churches also have “Rules of Prayer” for people who find themselves without the time or resources to pray one of the full liturgies everyday.

Because there are so many different ethnic churches in the East, each with varying translations and melodies, it is probably best to ask your priest for resources that are relevant to your particular church in order to pray these liturgies.

Each liturgy contains multiple prayers to the Theotokos, and incredibly beautiful prayers at that. Take, for example, this prayer from Small Compline (which is probably one of the more practical liturgies for a busy mom):

O chaste and spotless Lady never touched by blame or corruption or defilement, O Bride of the Most High himself, you brought forth the Word of God into this world in a marvelous and mysterious way, thus uniting him to us and joining our nature to the divine. You are the only hope of those who have no hope, always ready to come to the aid of every Christian who seeks refuge in you. Though I have often defiled myself with all sorts of impurities – thoughts, words, and deeds– though slothfulness has enslaved me to lust, though I often find myself weighed down by despair and depression, do not despise me. As the Theotokos, your heart is filled with love and compassion for all mankind. Therefore, pity me in spite of my sinfulness; accept this prayer from these impure lips of mine. With boldness that only a mother could manifest, implore your Son, our Lord and God, to show me his deep and tender mercy. Entreat him not to regard the numberless times I have fallen, but to lead me to true repentance, that, as his friend and follower, I may be always conscious of his precepts and ever ready to observe them. And you, sweet Lady, in your graciousness, stay with me. Take my part at all times. Enable me to repel all temptations, to achieve my eternal salvation. At the moment of my death, embrace and comfort my sorry soul, and drive off the terrifying specters of the evil one. On that awesome day of judgment, save me from everlasting punishment; reveal me as a true heir of that ineffable glory which your Son has promised in his grace and love. To him, to his eternal Father, and to his all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit is due all glory, honor, and worship, now and ever, and forever.
(Available from: http://www.metropolitancantorinstitute.org/sheetmusic/general/SmallCompline_seminary.pdf)

Better yet–and this is as much a reminder to me as it is to any of you–pray these things in front of an icon of the Theotokos if at all possible so that you can reach out and touch her hand, and so that you can gaze into her eyes and experience her gaze into yours as well.

It’s important to note that for Byzantine Catholics, there are other, more Eastern ways of developing a relationship with Mary than the Rosary. I would go so far as to say, echoing the words of a spiritual director I know, that anyone committed to being Byzantine shouldn’t pray the Rosary at all, although you may want to ask someone who knows you and who knows Eastern spirituality very well for advice on this matter.

The Rosary is an absolutely beautiful and effective prayer within the confines of Roman spirituality, but, despite its appearance in a few Byzantine churches, all remixed and mashed up to even give it a more Byzantine feel, the intellectual focus of the Rosary in either of these forms is not congruous with the noetic spirituality of the East. (A good resource on this is Orthodox Spirituality by Metropolitan Nafpaktos Hierotheos. Please feel free to comment if you have questions about this).

I think praying the Byzantine liturgies also lends itself to a better appreciation of the gift and mystery of death and resurrection, a mystery in which Mary has led the way for us as non-deities:

“The grave and death did not detain the Theotokos. She intercedes without rest and is our unfailing hope of protection; for he who dwelt in the˙womb of the Ever Virgin transferred to life the Mother of Life.” (Kontakion for the Dormition of the Theotokos)

Any other suggestions for how we can better appreciate the mysteries of this feast?

Copyright 2014, Brittany Balke

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8 Comments

      • Catholic or Orthodox? on

        Thank you. I am a Catholic inquiring into Orthodox Church. This is a good article. I don’t have to believe the Roman dogma of immaculate and I can still remain Catholic. Maybe.

        • Thank you. Byzantine Catholics do still believe that Mary was without sin and full of grace, we just believe that she still suffered the effect of sin in death and then was raised body and spirit to be with God. Many Orthodox also believe this, though some believe a later-developed theology that Mary only became “immaculate” at the Annunciation rather than at her birth.
          Before going Orthodox, you may want to look into the Eastern Catholic Churches, as we share most Orthodox principles and beliefs while remaining in union with the Catholic Church.

  1. Very interesting to learn! However, I am a convert to the Roman Catholic Church, and I was taught that Mary’s body was assumed to heaven, but we aren’t sure if she died first or not. Sources support both is what I was taught, so we focus on Mother Mary’s assumption. Just wanted to throw that out there! Thanks so much for your post!

    • Thanks, Jaime, for that point! I was writing strictly from a Byzantine Catholic perspective, but it’s important to keep Roman theology in mind as well. My understanding is that Roman Catholicism teaches that Mary did not die prior to being assumed body and soul into Heaven and that, indeed, there are valid reasons that support this theology, too.

      I think it’s really beautiful that our Church is one in which we can be united in our belief in Mary’s presence in Heaven and have different ideas about exactly how that happened.

      • I know that you wrote this over a year ago, but I came across it today and wanted to clarify something. I’m a Byzantine Catholic and have been researching this issue for a debate that I’m having on the subject. Roman Catholic theology does not teach that Mary did not die prior to her Assumption. It is a bit of a fringe opinion and is apparently an acceptable one, but the general consensus, East and West, is that she did die first. Her death was referenced a number of times in Munificentissimus Deus, the document in which the dogma was promulgated. Pope Piux XII taught it. Pope John Paul II taught it – there really is consensus in both the East and the West that she did die.

  2. Pingback: “Why Don’t Eastern Catholics Celebrate the Immaculate Conception?” | CatholicMom.com

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