Tell me, where is St. Mary buried? If you know anything about the ancient Apostolic Churches, you’ll know that they love to pay respect to the relics of heroes of the faith, “of whom the world was not worthy” (in the words of St. Paul [Hebrews 11:38]). You would think that with all the honor and adoration given to St. Mary, the Orthodox and Catholic Churches would be lining up in droves to get a glimpse of her bodily remains! Well, the answer to “where is St. Mary buried” explains why we celebrate her in August (15th in Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches, 22nd in the Coptic Church).
The answer is: she died and then in the presence of the apostles, Christ came and not only took her soul but also her body into Paradise). Thus, we celebrate two things on this feast: St. Mary’s DORMITION (Latin root meaning “falling asleep) and also the ASSUMPTION (i.e., the taking up) of St. Mary’s body into Paradise. (Note the following important distinction: She did not resurrect on her own like Christ, and she did not ascend by her own power. She died, her spirit left her body as normal, and her body was later assumed into Paradise).
The seventh century icon you see in this post is said to be Byzantine, although it is from the “The Church of the Holy Virgin” at the Syrian Monastery in Egypt (modern-day Byzantine icons are nearly identical to this one in its basic depiction). You’ll notice that Christ stands at the center holding what is understood to be the spirit of His mother. St. Peter is to the right bowing in reverence, and St. John the Beloved, who was commanded by the Lord to take care of St. Mary, is seen at her feet paying due respect.
The basic story is that St. Mary knew when she was about to die, and while she was with the disciples and some women, she delivered her soul in the hands of the Lord Christ. St. Mary was buried by the apostles, but Thomas was not among them. On his way back to Jerusalem he saw angels carrying St. Mary’s body to heaven, and one angel advised him to kiss her body before it was taken up to Paradise. When he arrived to meet the apostles, he persuaded them to open her tomb, which revealed her body was no longer there. St. Thomas then explained what he saw. (See this Coptic depiction which reflects this story, particularly Thomas’s role: Dormition and Assumption of Mary – Coptic Depiction)
AM I REALLY SUPPOSED TO BELIEVE THIS?
Now you may be asking, am I really supposed to believe this? Where does this come from?
Safe to say, this is a very early Christian belief.
The champion of one of the Eastern Orthodox Councils that came after the Council of Chalcedon, John of Damascus, records for us that the Bishop of Jerusalem during the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) attested to St. Mary’s assumption into heaven:
St. Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, at the Council of Chalcedon, 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 Saint Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven.
You will also read that even earlier mention (from possibly around the fourth century) of this belief can be found in certain writings deemed apocryphal. Don’t let this word “apocrypha” dissuade you. True stories can absolutely be adopted into a book that is rejected by the Church, without rejecting the true story. This is no different than the embellished films of Jesus’s life or other Biblical accounts where we find some core truthful story being depicted, yet embedded within a fanciful and often harmful depiction of what the producers and writers thought may have also happened. Mention of this account in apocrypha serves as evidence of the early traditional account of St. Mary’s dormition and assumption.
COMPARING EASTERN AND COPTIC ORTHODOX RITES
Readings. Both the Coptic Church and the Eastern Orthodox share similar readings during the feast. Both Churches read essentially the same selection of verses from Luke Chapter 1 where we are minded of Elizabeth’s attestation to St. Mary’s prominence when she said: “Blessed are you among women.” Sadly, the non-Orthodox, who are so vocal about their stringent adherence to Scripture, seem to bypass that verse, and also Gabriel’s declaration that St. Mary is “highly favored” (Luke 1:28) and St. Mary’s prophetic remarks that “henceforth, all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). Both the Coptic and Eastern Orthodox Churches also read Luke 10:38-42, where it seems the Church seeks to allude to St. Mary when speaking of Martha’s sister (also named Mary), about whom it was written: “One thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”
There is one Protestant reformer who is known to have attested to the belief in the assumption of Mary. Heinrich Bullinger wrote in 1539:
For this reason, we believe that the Virgin Mary, Begetter of God, the most pure bed and temple of the Holy Spirit, that is, her most holy body, was carried to heaven by angels
However, nearly all other Protestants reject this belief (Anglicans excluded; and note that while Martin Luther did not attest to this belief, Lutherans still retain a “Lesser Feast” in celebration of St. Mary on August 15th, the same day that the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox celebrate St. Mary’s Feast). They consider this story to be extra-biblical and therefore unreliable. This argument, “If it is not in the Bible then it can’t be trusted” does not conform with early Christian belief (I mean, think about this: the first few decades of Christianity there was no collection of written Scripture known as the New Testament. Everything was based on extra-biblical teaching and tradition). But discussing this is for another time.
No matter what you believe, there is one thing that is true. You won’t find Christians lining up to see a relic of St. Mary. Why that is depends on what you believe. For the Orthodox, Catholics, and some others (comprising arguably more than 2/3 of all Christians in the world), the reason is: St. Mary’s body is no longer on earth. Her body and soul are both with God.
Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), “Feast of the Assumption of Mary”
Mary: A Catholic Evangelical Debate, by Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson
The Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary (1996), George H. Tavard, Liturgical Press ISBN 0-8146-5914-4 ISBN 9780814659144, p. 109
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