Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Feast of the

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Feast of the

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: August 15
Where Celebrated: Britain, Europe, United States, and by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox Christians around the world
Symbols and Customs: Assumption Plays, Bowing Procession, Fruits of the Harvest
Related Holidays: Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Feast of the


The Feast of the Assumption is celebrated by all branches of the Christian church. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

The Feast of the Assumption represents a long tradition of speculation about how Mary died and what happened to her body. Legend says that after the Crucifixion of Jesus, Mary lived with the Apostle John in Jerusalem, revisiting many of the places associated with her son's life. Finally she became so lonely that she prayed Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

for death. An angel visited her and promised that within three days, she would enter heaven, where Jesus awaited her. The angel presented her with a palm branch, which Mary in turned handed to St. John, requesting that it be carried before her at her burial.

Mary also requested that all the Apostles be present at her death, and the message reached them miraculously even though they were scattered all over the world. Only St. Thomas missed the final gathering at her deathbed. Arriving after the funeral was over, he was so filled with grief and regret that he asked to have the tomb reopened so that he might have one last look at her body. The tomb was empty-proof that rather than being subjected to the usual process of physical decay, her body had been "assumed" into heaven, where it was reunited with her soul. The commemoration of this event is called the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God in the Eastern Church, a reference to Mary's "falling asleep."

The choice of August 15 as the date of this event is significant, since it roughly coincided with the gathering of the harvest in southern Europe. There is some evidence that the date might have been chosen to replace an old harvest festival in honor of Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt, on August 13 (see FRUITS OF THE HARVEST ); in some parts of Europe, the feast is still called Our Lady of the Harvest. Farther north, where the harvest is delayed until autumn, the harvest rites dedicated to Mary were performed at the Feast of the Nativity on September 8.

Although belief in the Assumption was widespread by the fifth century and the feast was observed throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, it didn't become an official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church until Pope Pius XII ruled it so in 1950. The English suppressed the celebration of "Mary-Mass," as it was known in medieval times, because it took laborers away from their work in the middle of the harvest; but in Catholic countries, the Assumption became one of the most popular festivals of the year.

In Christian art, Mary's body is usually shown being carried up to heaven by angels-in contrast to the ascension of Christ, who rose up to heaven by his own power (see ASCENSION DAY).


Assumption Plays

In the fourteenth century, miracle plays dramatizing the death, assumption, and coronation of the Virgin were common. They usually showed Mary as she summoned the Apostles to her deathbed from all parts of the world, and often reflected the legendary belief that St. Thomas was carried to her from India on a cloud. Similar plays in honor of the Dormition and the Coronation of Mary were a regular part of the popular play cycles performed in York, Towneley, and Chester, England at the time.

In France, a traditional pageant used to be performed in many places on Assumption Day. Figures of angels descended from the roof of the church to a flowery sepulcher or tomb and then reascended with the image of the Virgin Mary dressed in white. It was not uncommon for an image of the Virgin standing on a platform before the high altar to be drawn up through an opening in the roof-undoubtedly the same opening used to dramatize the Ascension of Christ in the spring (see ASCENSION PLAYS under ASCENSION DAY).

An assumption play is still performed at Elche in southern Spain, where the church is transformed into a theater for the annual event. A blue cloth is stretched across the dome to represent the sky, and there is a small trap door through which the angel makes his 60-yard descent on a golden pedestal called the Ara Coeli. The play, which is more like an operetta, concludes when Mary is raised from her tomb, and the Ara Coeli carries her to heaven.

Bowing Procession

In rural areas outside Rome, the Feast of the Assumption is celebrated with an annual Bowing Procession, known as L'Inchinata. A statue of Mary is carried through town, symbolizing her journey to heaven. She meets a statue of Christ under a gaily decorated arch of branches and flowers representing the gate of heaven. Both images are inclined toward each other three times, after which Christ accompanies his mother back to the parish church, symbolic of their joint ascent to heaven.

A similar procession in Sardinia, Italy, is called Candelieri because several huge candlesticks, each supporting a 100-pound candle, are carried to the Church of the Santa Maria. The candles are placed beside Mary's shrine, a tradition that dates back to 1580.

Fruits of the Harvest

The ancient Roman festival in honor of the goddess Diana held at this same time of year was known as the Nemoralia, after her temple on the shores of Lake Nemi outside of Rome. In addition to celebrating Diana's power, the Nemoralia was observed to protect the vines and fruit trees. Other symbolic rites designed to ensure good weather for the reaping of fall fruits were carried out between midAugust and mid-September as well. According to popular legend, this thirty-day period was a "blessed" time when animals and plants were believed to lose their harmful traits. Food produced during this period would remain fresh longer than at other times of year. The Christian Feast of the Assumption eventually incorporated the harvest-blessing element of this ancient festival, and many Assumption Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

shrines show Mary wearing a robe covered in ears of grain. It is still common in the Orthodox Christian Church for worshippers to make offerings of new wheat, a symbol of prosperity and the bounty of the earth, on August 15.

Grapes are another harvest fruit associated with autumn. Along with wheat, they symbolize the consecrated bread and wine used in the celebration of the Eucharist. In Armenia, no one will taste the new crop of grapes until Assumption Day, when a trayful of grapes is blessed in the church. In Sicily, people traditionally abstain from eating fruit altogether during the first two weeks of August, in honor of the Virgin Mary. On the feast of her Assumption, they serve fruit that has been blessed in the church for dinner and present each other with baskets filled with a variety of fruits.

In Austria, Assumption Day is known as The Blessing of the Herbs. A statue of Mary is carried on a litter out to the fields, where four altars (representing the four Gospels) have been set up. Prayers are offered for good weather and crops, the Gospels are read, and the blessing is given. At one time in central Europe, the Feast of the Assumption was called Our Lady's Herb Day, based on the medieval belief that herbs picked in August had the power to heal.

In Latin countries, especially Portugal, where the primary "harvest" is fish, the ocean and fishing boats are blessed on Assumption Day. The Blessing of the Fleet also takes place in many coastal American towns on or around August 15.


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