David's Weekly Reflection #19
August is the month of Our Lady, and next Saturday is the 15th, the feast of the Assumption, as it is named in the West, or the Dormition, as it is called in the Eastern churches. Call it “the taking up” or “the falling asleep”, it is the same celebration of the close of Mary’s life on earth and her entry to glory. Over the centuries the tradition about the close of Mary’s life on earth started in Palestine, spread to the Byzantine Empire, and then to Rome in the West.
The eastern Orthodox believe that, when Mary died, her soul was immediately united with her Son while her body was buried outside the walls of Jerusalem. It then on the third day that her body was raised into heaven, so that body and soul she was with her Son in heaven.
The last mention of the Mother of Jesus in the Scriptures is in the Acts of the Apostles, in the Upper Room where she awaits the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost in the company of the Apostles, Jesus’ “brothers” and “the women”, (Act 1: 14). There is nothing about the years that followed Pentecost, other than the indication in the fourth gospel that the dying Jesus entrusted her to John’s care from then on. During the dynamic expansion of the infant Church in those early years, Mary’s role as a woman, a widow and the mother of the founder of a religious movement among the Jews was to live in seclusion, and devote her time to a life of prayer and reflection on the life, death and resurrection of her Son. Protestants follow the bias against the veneration of Mary and the saints by objecting to the Catholic dogma of the Assumption, arguing that it is not found in the New Testament but is a man-made addition.
The earliest writer to enquire into the last years of the Mother of Jesus was St Epiphanius, who was the bishop of Salamis in the island of Cyprus from 365 to 403 AD. Both the Orthodox and Catholic churches venerate him as a saint and a learned defender of the Faith, and an important source of information about the Church’s life during the fourth century.
He wrote about his search to find a reliable tradition about the end of Mary’s life, and identified three possible ones; that Mary died a peaceful death, that she died a martyr, and she did not die at all. He concluded, “No one knows her end.” What his search did show is that there was considerable discussions among Christians in local churches of the East about how Mary’s life ended.
In the sixth century, certain semi-heretical writings, not approved as inspired scriptures, added the tradition by describing the passing away of Mary and her empty tomb in the Cedron Valley in Jerusalem. So, in a more sober version: "Mary died in the presence of the Apostles, but her tomb, when opened, upon the request of St Thomas, (who had been absent from her death) was found empty; where upon the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven.” The feast of the Dormition on August 15 becomes the celebration of Mary’s death, burial and her body being taken to heaven. The feast was celebrated in the East and the date of August 15 was set by the Emperor Maurice around 600 AD, and later passed on to Rome and the western Church.
Two traditions about the life of Mary after Pentecost exist, the older being the Jerusalem tradition, and a later one, the tradition of Ephesus.
According to the first tradition, Mary lived in the house of John the Apostle for about 11 years in Jerusalem. In a highly imaginative account, she died in the presence of all but one of the apostles, miraculously transported to be with her for her last hour. She was buried in a tomb carved out of rock in the Cedron valley, not far from Gethsemane, as she had requested. When the apostle Thomas arrived three days later, he asked to see where Mary was buried, and they found the tomb empty.
The ancient church of the Tomb of the Virgin Mary lies in the Cedron Valley, overlooked on the East by the Mount of Olives and in the West by the Temple Mount, the site of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. The area is a very ancient graveyard for Jews, going back to the time of King David, and would have been a natural choice for Mary’s final resting place.
Gethsemane soon became a place of pilgrimage for the early Christians, having a major connection with the last days of Our Lord, his agony and arrest as well as the burial place of his mother.
The tomb of Our Lady is now the inner chamber of an underground church, but originally was the crypt of the original church, destroyed and rebuilt many times over the centuries. This saved the tomb from destruction many times. The Muslim conquerors had no scruple in demolishing churches but respected graves, especially that of the mother of “the prophet Isa” (Jesus). The crypt, now a church, is owned by the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian churches, having expelled the Franciscans in 1757 who only were left with the nearby Grotto of Gethsemane, not to be confused with the Church of the Nations on the Mount of Olives.
A later tradition speaks of Mary leaving Jerusalem with John the apostle and settling not far from Ephesus, then a strong Christian centre. This tradition is mentioned by Epiphánius who acknowledged the departure of John from Jerusalem but pointed out that, were Mary still alive, it would have been most surprising not to have mentioned her. The building venerated today was described by the German mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich who died in 1824. The ruin of an ancient building was discovered in 1881 by a French priest who followed the directions of the mystic. The oldest part of the building goes back to apostolic times, when it could have been a meeting place for persecuted Christians. The local people called the building, the Doorway to the Virgin. Recent popes have given it their blessing as a “holy place”.
The Apostle John is known to have lived in or near Ephesus in his later years, but the presence of the Mother of Jesus and when and where she died is highly conjectural.