Today, August 15, is one of the great Marian feast days. The Eastern Orthodox call it the Feast of the Dormition while Roman Catholics call it the Feast of the Assumption. They deal with the same event but the interpretation is a bit different. The Rev. Patrick Comerford offers the following distinction:
The Orthodox Church teaches that Mary died a natural death, like any human being; that her soul was received by Christ upon death; and that her body was resurrected on the third day after her burial, at which time she was taken up, bodily only, into heaven, so that her tomb was found empty on the third day.
On the other hand, Roman Catholic teaching says Mary was “assumed” into heaven in bodily form. Some Roman Catholics agree with the Orthodox that this happened after her death, while others hold that she did not experience death. In his dogmatic definition of the Assumption in Munificentissimus Deus (1950), Pope Pius XII was not so dogmatic, for he appears to leave open the question of whether or not she actually underwent death and even alludes to the fact of her death at least five times.
So what about the Episcopal Church? We too celebrate this day but, in typical Anglican fashion, do not try to explain too much. This is clear from the introduction of the collect for this day: “O God you have taken to yourself the blessed virgin Mary mother of your incarnate Son.” Was it dormition or assumption? We do not know. What we do know is that God took the Blessed Mother to himself.
There are some beautiful stories and prayers from the Tradition related to this great feast day. By one account Mary prayed to her Son that he would let her know three days before she was to die. Christ granted her request on a Friday while Mary prayed on the Mount of Olives, a place she frequently visited. On this day the Archangel Gabriel came with a message from Jesus saying, “He calls thee unto Him, to His Kingdom, to His ineffable glory, that thou might sit at the right hand of His throne. He awaiteth thee. Therefore, do not be troubled over these words.” Then Mary offered the following prayer:
I would not have been worthy to receive Thee, O Lord, into my womb, unless Thou Thyself had mercy on me, Thy slave. I kept the treasure entrusted to me and, therefore, I have the boldness to ask Thee, O King of glory, to protect me from the power of Gehenna. If heaven and the angels tremble before Thee, how much more man, made of dust, who has nothing good of his own except what he has been given by Thy goodness. Thou, O Lord, art God, blessed forever.
It is said that she knelt to pray this. When she did the olive trees on the Mount of Olives bowed down. When she arose the trees straightened. “Thus, even trees revered and honored the Lady and Mistress of the universe.”
Mary returned home and prepared for her repose. The faithful gathered around her. She made a will leaving her two garments to two poor widows who had faithfully served her. Following a loud clap of thunder the apostles, scattered to the ends of the earth, were bought to the house on clouds by the angels of God. Celebration, joy, prayers, and praise ensued.
On August 15 about the third hour (9:00 a.m) her Son, with angels and archangels and all the heavenly powers, appeared. Beautiful prayers filled the room. “The Lord stretched forth His undefiled hands and received her holy and blameless soul. She felt no pain whatsoever, but it was as if she had fallen into a sweet sleep. He Whom she conceived without destroying her virginity and bore without pain, now received her soul from her pure body.”
O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)