The Feast of Assumption, a day when Catholics around the world typically gather at Mass and celebrate Mary, Mother of God’s ascension into heaven after death, falls on August 15 of this year.
Here’s what you need to know about the religious holiday, including its history, connections to scripture, traditions and how the day is being celebrated amidst the coronavirus pandemic:
1. What Is the Feast of Assumption?
The Feast of Assumption, also referred to as “Assumption Day” or “St. Mary’s Day,” is a day which has been celebrated by devotees of the Roman Catholic faith for centuries. It is especially tied to historical writings of Mary’s “Dormition,” which is often how her death is described – as “falling asleep.”
Scripturally, the religious holiday is supported by ancient liturgies and homilies about Mary’s death as well as Transitus writings according to the University of Dayton. For example, in the Transitus Mariae, written by Melito of Sardes, Mary’s death and ascension into heaven are described like this:
In the presence of the apostles gathered around her bed, also in the presence of her divine Son and many angels, Mary died and her soul, rose to heaven, accompanied by Christ and the angels. Her body was buried by the disciples … On the third day, Christ returned. At the request of the apostles the soul of Mary is reunited with her body. Accompanied by singing angels, Christ brought Mary to paradise.
It is also supported by St. John Damascene, who repeated the legend during one his sermons, giving it great credibility. The legend goes that when materials from Mary’s tomb were requested by Emperor Marcian, her tomb was found empty: “St. Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, at the Council of Chalcedon (451), made known to the Emperor Marcian and Pulcheria, who wished to possess the body of the Mother of God, that Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles, but that her tomb, when opened, upon the request of St. Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven,” the Catholic Education Resource Center reported.
The holiday is named Assumption Day because of the Latin word Assumptio, which means “To take up,” or as another translation descried, “To take to oneself,” according to Webster’s Dictionary. It has now come to mean, the ascension of a person into heaven.
2. What’s the History Behind the Religious Holiday?
The Feast of Assumption, although celebrated long before it was officially recognized long before 1950, received its recognition, in large part, because of St. John of Damascus’ testimony on Mary’s tomb being empty, according to Catholic News Agency. For example, theologian and Eternal World Television Network (ETWN) contributor Matthew Bunson told CNA that the in Pope Adrian’s time, the church renamed the day of feasting from “Memorial of Mary” to the “Assumption of Mary.”
In November of 1950, Pope Pius XIII issued a statement proclaiming Mary’s assumption to be an infallible dogma of the Roman Catholic religion, which means the faithful are required to follow it:
By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.
Because it is a dogma, the Feast of Assumption is considered a Holy Day of Obgliation, which means Catholics are required to attend Mass, according to Office Holidays. However, in 1991, American bishops amended the church calendar so that if the day falls on a Saturday (such as in the 2020 year) or on a Monday, people can still celebrate it on Sunday and are only required to attend Mass again on the non-Sunday.
3. When Was The Holiday First Celebrated?
According to CatholicCulture.org, the first of an annual feast day for Mary, started in Palestine, based upon writings from the Bishop Theodore of Petra. Theodore had observed Palestinian monks celerbating the day, solmenly and with a feast.
Eventually, that tradition spread until Emperor Mauritius confirmed August 15 as the date in 602 and made it a public holiday, celebrating the “Falling Asleep of the Mother of God.” Seventh-century Romans accepted the festival, which underwent multiple name changes until the Latin Church connected it to “Divine Omnipotence,” or the belief that her soul and body were reunitde in a miraculous act.
Although the holiday mainly focuses on her death and ascension into heaven, it is often used to celebrate her coronation into heaven as well as the belief that for many, according to the University of Dayton, her devotion to Jesus did not end after her assumption: “After entering heaven, Mary has remained active in the service of her Son for the life of the Church. Many Christians believe that she has manifested her concern in visible appearances and miraculous cures.”
4. How Is Assumption Day Celebrated Around the World?
As noted earlier, Assumption Day is always celebrated with devotees attending Mass. The opening prayer, the University of Dayton described, is typically something similar to this:
All-powerful and ever-living God, you raised the sinless Virgin Mary, mother of your Son, body and soul to the glory of heaven. May we see heaven as our final goal and come to share her glory. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen
Along with the common religious customs, HolidaysCalendar.com reported that activities that may traditionally take place on this day include blessing the oceans, giving the sick flowers and blessed herbs, processional parades, brass bands and the blessing of fruits.
According to CatholicCulture.org, the holiday’s celebration can take many forms depending on the location:
A Hungarian legend states that the country’s first king, Saint Stephen made Mary the heavenly queen and the country’s patroness, referred to as Magna Domina Hungarorum (“Great Lady of the Hungarians”). On Assumption Day, which they call Nagyboldogasszonynap, or “Feast of Our Great Lady,” they celebrate with pageants, parades and other religious rites.
In France, participants would hold a pageant where angelic figures would go down into a sepulcher (burial room of sorts) and reappear with an image of the Mary in “dazzling robes.” It is also a tradition that her statue is carried through many of the country’s cities and towns as part of a procession accompanied by church bells and hymns.
In Armenia, the Feast of Assumption is one of the country’s five supreme festivals (Daghavár) of the year. The week before, Armenian Catholics fast, and the fast is broken with a three-day celebration, the second day of which, the feast takes place. According to Armedia, “the Holy Virgin is the embodiment of virtue, pious motherhood, and the protector of family sacredness.”
In Italy – and among Italian-American communities – processions are held. In rural areas in Italy, L’inchinata, or “the Bowing Procession,” is held where Mary’s statue is carried through the town and at the end of her journey, set down to face a statue of Christ under an arch of branches and flowers to symbolize “the gates of heaven.” The figures are then tilted downward three times to symbolize prayer, “Christ” takes his mother to the church, and the ceremony is concluded with a church service.
In the Latin countries, such as Portugal, and in the U.S., CatholicCulture.org reports, oceans and fishermen’s boats are blessed during the Assumption Day afternoon.
5. How Has The Pandemic Affected Celebrations?
In the past, processions and mass gatherings have typically been how the holiday was celebrated. However, the coronavirus pandemic has forced many churches to be more inventive in how they deliver their message to parishioners.
In Rwanda, which has a significant Roman Catholic population, Kigali Archbishop Antoine Kambanda announced that the religious pilgrimage to Kibeho (where three girls saw Mary as an apparition in 1981, according to The New Times, and where, in 1982, visions regarded as a foreshadowing of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi were made of “rivers of blood, sliced heads, etcetera.”) would not be made. Instead, he invited Catholics to follow a live broadcast on TV, Radio Malia and their YouTube channel.
Similarly, in Cleveland’s Little Italy, where there has been a 121-year-old tradition of holding a massive parade and street fair, organizers announced that this year, they would host a live-streamed mass and had decided to cancel the street festival (and later on, announced they would cancel the procession as well) because of coronavirus concerns:
We have decided to cancel the Feast of the Assumption street festival for 2020. This has been a difficult but necessary decision. The health and safety of our volunteers, vendors, and participants is our highest priority.
Others, such as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Michigan, are holding services outside in an effort to keep parts of their traditions alive.
According to the Vatican News, “Pope Francis asks the Blessed Virgin Mary to intercede so that humanity might overcome the novel coronavirus, as the Church prepares to celebrate the feast of her Assumption.”