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August 15: Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary



Today, Catholics and many other Christians celebrate the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This significant feast day recalls the spiritual and physical departure of the mother of Jesus Christ from the earth, when both her soul and her body were taken into the presence of God.


August 15th is the Feast Day of the Assumption of the Virgin. Though not made official church doctrine until 1950, several apocryphal gospels written between the 2nd and 4th centuries report how Mary’s body was taken up into heaven after her earthly life ended. These events comprise three image types: The Dormition, The Assumption, and the Coronation. A fourth image shows a second Annunciation, in which Gabriel brings Mary a palm branch to foretell her death. According to the “Discourse of St. John the Divine,” Mary did not die, but fell asleep. Dormition images show her body laid out on a bier as if at a funeral, while Assumption iconography shows her rising triumphantly into heaven to the surprise of the apostles. Upon her arrival, she was crowned Queen of Heaven by her son. All of these events have been portrayed by numerous Italian artists over the centuries.


The Assumption (August 15) refers to the Blessed Virgin Mary being assumed — body and soul — into heaven at the end of her earthly life. “Assumption” is different than “ascension” because one is passive (i.e. one is assumed) and the other is active (i.e. one ascends). It is by the power of God Mary was assumed.


Although the bodily assumption of Mary is not explicitly recorded in Scripture, Catholic tradition identifies her with the “woman clothed with the sun” who is described in the 12th chapter of the Book of Revelation.


The passage calls that woman's appearance “a great sign” which “appeared in heaven,” indicating that she is the mother of the Jewish Messiah and has “the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” Accordingly, Catholic iconography of the Western tradition often depicts the Virgin Mary's assumption into heaven in this manner.

Eastern Christians have also traditionally held Mary's assumption into heaven as an essential component of their faith. Pius XII cited several early Byzantine liturgical texts, as well as the eighth-century Arab Christian theologian St. John of Damascus, in his own authoritative definition of her assumption.


“It was fitting,” St. John of Damascus wrote in a sermon on the assumption, “that she, who had kept her virginity intact in childbirth, should keep her own body free from all corruption even after death,” and “that she, who had carried the creator as a child at her breast, should dwell in the divine tabernacles.”


In Eastern Christian tradition, the same feast is celebrated on the same calendar date, although typically known as the Dormition (falling asleep) of Mary. Eastern Catholic celebration of the Dormition is preceded by a two-week period of fasting which is similar to Lent. Pius XII, in “Munificentissimus Deus,” mentioned this same fasting period as belonging to the traditional patrimony of Western Christians as well.


The feast of the Assumption is always a Holy Day of Obligation for both Roman and Eastern-rite Catholics, on which they are obliged to attend Mass or Divine Liturgy.


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