by Fr. David A. Fisher
When your saving plan was accomplished, you returned to your Father, and then drew your Mother, who was full of grace, to yourself and seated her at your right hand. – Maronite Ramsho of the Assumption of the Virgin
Every year, on 15 August, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Assumption or Dormition of the All-Holy Mother of God. In remembering the “falling asleep” and bodily assumption of Mary, the Church calls us to contemplate the power and majesty of God’s grace in the greatest of our race, the Holy Virgin of Nazareth.
Like John the Baptizer, Mary’s life never pointed toward herself but to her Son and Lord, Jesus Christ. As the Mother of the Word-Made-Flesh, she is the Mother of the Church, which is the Body of Christ on earth. From the time of the early Church, Christians have realized that she alone represents what a life “full of grace” can achieve: death without bodily corruption and fullness of life in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Four Marian Dogmas
Dogma is an essential expression of the foundations of our Catholic faith. The Catholic Church has proclaimed four Marian dogmas of faith. Two have been proclaimed by ecumenical councils of the Church and two by popes.
Mary, the Mother of God
The first dogma concerning Mary is that of being proclaimed Theotókosrendered in English as Mother of God, by the Second Ecumenical Council of Ephesus 431. The teaching of the Council was to protect the Christological truth of the two natures of Christ: Jesus in his Incarnation is truly eternally the Son of God and now also truly human, and as God made Man, was born of the Virgin Mary:
begotten from the Father before the ages as regards his Godhead, and in the last days, the same, because of us and because of our salvation begotten from the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, as regards his manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church goes on
Called in the Gospels "the mother of Jesus," Mary is acclaimed by Elizabeth, at the prompting of the Spirit and even before the birth of her son, as "the mother of my Lord." In fact, the One whom she conceived as man by the Holy Spirit, who truly became her Son according to the flesh, was none other than the Father's eternal Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly "Mother of God" (Theotokos).” (n. 495)
Mary ever Virgin
The second Marian dogma defines Mary as “Ever Virgin” or Aeiparthenos. The Church’s belief that Mary retained her virginity before, during, and after the birth of Jesus is found in the earliest baptismal formulas, in the teachings of the early Church father St. Ignatius of Antioch, and in the teaching of the Lateran Council of 649, which stated that Mary, "without any detriment to her virginity, which remained inviolate even after his birth.” In his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, St. Ignatius of Antioch remarked of Mary:
You are firmly convinced about our Lord, who is truly of the race of David according to the flesh, Son of God according to the will and power of God, truly born of a virgin. . .
The Catechism of the Catholic Church drawing upon the Second Vatican Council writes:
The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary's real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man. In fact, Christ's birth "did not diminish his mother's virginal integrity but sanctified it.” (n. 499)
And so the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the ‘Ever-virgin.’
The third dogma associated with Mary is that of her Immaculate Conception. This dogma was proclaimed in 1854 by Blessed Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus, which teaches:
that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege from Almighty God and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, was kept free of every stain of original sin.
This dogma is interesting from an ecumenical perspective; it is the only one of the four Marian dogmas not totally shared with the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Orthodox Christians speak of Mary as being immaculate and by that they mean she did not commit sin. The Orthodox Churches have a different theology of “original sin,” understanding the sin of Adam resulting in death, rather than a passed on compulsion towards sinning; this means the doctrine is understood in a slightly different manner. However, both traditions Orthodox and Catholic would agree that Mary is “All-Holy” and totally obedient to God from the moment of her conception and throughout her entire life.
The Assumption of Mary
The fourth Marian dogma is that of her Assumption or what is commonly referred to in the Eastern Churches, especially those of Byzantine origin, her Dormition (“falling asleep”). In the Syriac Churches, the termShunoyo(Soonoyo)is often used, literally meaning “departure.” For the Catholic Church, the dogma was solemnly proclaimed by Pope Pius XII on 1 November 1950, with the dogmatic constitution Munificentissimus Deus. The pope avoids references either to sleeping or dying:
Mary, Immaculate Mother of God ever Virgin, after finishing the course of her life on earth, was taken up in body and soul to heavenly glory.
The Second Vatican Council in its Dogmatic Constitution of the Church,Lumen Gentium, elaborates on the role of Mary in heaven:
Taken up to heaven, she did not lay aside her salvific duty… By her maternal love she cares for the brothers and sisters of her Son who still journey on earth.” (n. 972)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes Mary as an “eschatological icon of the Church.” This attribute of being an icon teaches that Mary draws the Church into reflecting upon its own mission and calling, that being to prepare each person and all creation for the “end-of-time” and the fulfillment of God’s plan.
The Syriac Tradition: Jacob of Sarug
In the tradition of Aphrahat, St. Ephrem the Syrian, St. Isaac of Nineveh and others, Jacob of Sarug (451-521) stands as one of the great poet-theologians of the Syriac tradition. While St. Ephrem is known as the Harp of the Holy Spirit, Jacob was given the epithet Flute of the Holy Spirit.
His theology of the Virgin Mary is beautiful, extensive, and always reflective of her life being united to the saving mission of her Son. He writes of her Assumption:
The heavenly company performed their ‘Holy, Holy, Holy,’ unto the glorious soul of this Mother of the Son of God. Fiery seraphim surrounded the soul of the departed and raised the sound of their joyful shouts… They shouted and said: Lift up, O gates, all your heads, because the Mother of the King seeks to enter the bridal chamber of light.’ - On the Death and Burial of Mary
Jacob of Sarug poetically imagined that at Mary’s deathbed the prophets and apostles arrived to escort her to her place of burial, yet her tomb is empty of all relics for her Son arrived and took her to the Kingdom of Heaven. Jacob taught that it was necessary for her first to die like all human beings, so that she might fully share in his Resurrection. He writes in “Unto the Mother of this Jesus Christ, Son of God, death came that she might taste his cup.”
The “All-Holiness” of Mary, which is realized in her Assumption sheds light for Jacob’s understanding of Mary’s ministry within the Church, which is twofold. First, Jacob sees her as the conduit of the Holy Spirit, given imagery here with Jesus in the womb of Mary giving the Holy Spirit to John the Baptist (the Forerunner) in the womb of Elizabeth:
By the mouth of Mary, her Son stretched forth the Spirit to his envoy, from the womb to womb; and he received it while he was in his mother. With Mary’s voice the Holy Spirit was sent out unto the barren one and she was filled with great strength.– On the Visitation
Secondly, Mary is for Jacob the spokesperson (literally, the “mouth”) of the Church:
The beauty of the matter which appeared openly is because of her; she was the reason that it was explained to us by the angel. By that question, the wise one became the mouth of the Church; she learned that interpretation for all Creation. – On the Virgin
By asking an explanation from the Archangel Gabriel for the words he spoke to her, and understanding that the angel was bringing the message of salvation to all, she consented to give birth to the Redeemer of the world, making her the perfect spokesperson of the Church—“let it be done unto me as you say.”
The dogmas and doctrines of the Church concerning the Holy Virgin Mary are teachings of hope and love. Scripture tells us that the Christian life can be understood in this way:
He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:37-39)
Mary lived her whole life in love of God and in love of neighbor, offering her Son, who was also her Lord; as her heart was pierced as if by swords, as He offered the perfect offering and sacrifice of love upon the altar of the Cross. She who is Queen of Angels and Queen of the Apostles, was present with them when Jesus appeared to them in the upper room and breathed upon them the soft of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit by which he was conceived in the womb of he Holy Mother of God.
Each step of our life, each step of the Church’s life is guided by the beacon of Mary’s holiness. "Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women.” (Luke 1:28)
Father Fisher, a Maronite priest and Adjunct Professor of Theology at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Ss. Cyril and Methodius, is a regular contributor to The Maronite Voice.