The Feast of 15th August existed in all Christian liturgical calendars Eastern and Western for 1400 years until the 16th century, and since then it has been retained in Prayer Books of the Anglican Communion: the 1929 Scottish, the 1954 South African, and the 1962 Canadian Books of Common Prayer all celebrate it, for example. It has long been celebrated in the American Church with supplemental texts from the Missals, which have been perennially authorised in this country. The Assumption, Dormition, or Falling Asleep of Our Lady is most definitively an Anglican feast day.
In short, the 15th August feast is the ‘heavenly birthday’ of Our Lord’s Mother. She died and went to heaven. The final destiny and glorification of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the first believer and Christian, the model and pattern of Christian faith and discipleship, is recorded in Holy Scripture in the Book of Revelation…
The passage describes the Mother of God as the Ark of the New Covenant, the one who bears God in her womb in the Incarnation, the Temple and Throne of God, who has been taken up into heaven, resplendent with the glory of God. The light of Christ, the sun, illuminates her, the moon signifies her reflection of God’s glory, and the twelve stars represent the fullness of God’s covenant completed in her childbirth, the twelve patriarchs and tribes of the Old Testament and the Twelve Apostles of the New. She is portrayed as the Virgin Daughter of Zion, the Davidic Queen Mother whose Divine Son, the Messiah, is the New Creation, the King and Lord of all. Here, the Mother of Our Lord is shown forth as the image of the Church – and what happens to her is promised to happen to all who are conformed to Jesus and follow the Lord as faithful disciples and witnesses. In the Book of Revelation, Mary is presented as the first believer fully to experience what is offered to all who are in Christ.
‘And the temple of God was opened in heaven, and there was seen in his temple the ark of his testament: and there were lightnings, and voices, and thunderings, and an earthquake, and great hail. And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne’ (Revelation 11.19-12.5).
The Assumption (assumptio) or Dormition (koimesis – Falling Asleep) of Our Lady is not a dogmatic revelation, but a doxological mystery, expressed liturgically in prayer and intended for those who have been initiated into the Christian verity and who live in the heart of the Church. The bodily death and glorification of the Holy Virgin is an ancient component of Christian doctrine and teaching and has been universally held as true by both the Eastern and Western Churches since the fourth and fifth centuries – it is undoubtedly possessive of orthoodox consensus.
For example, Saint Germanus of Constantinople and Saint John Damascene, the Seal of the Fathers and the great synthesiser and expositor of patristic tradition, preach beautiful homilies affirming the death and bodily glorification of the Mother of God.
Even protestants such as Martin Luther believed and taught that Our Lord’s Mother was exalted to heaven in her body.
Enoch (Genesis 5.24) and Elijah (II Kings 2) experienced the same reality of assumption in the times of the Old Testament.
All Christians have believed in the Assumption in one form or another since the patristic age, a belief reinforced by the lack of relics of the Holy Virgin, and the veneration of the place of her repose and glorification, going back to the beginnings of church-building and public liturgies after Roman persecution. Our Lady died and was physically raised and glorified after death as a sign and promise of our own resurrection and glorification on the Last Day. Mary’s Assumption is the foretaste of the assumption of the whole Church. What Jesus does for her, He will do for us.
This is because Our Lady is the icon and type of the Church, the prototypical Christian, whose passage through death, judgement, and glorification anticipates the future glory of the whole Church as Christ’s Body and Bride. Our Lord did not wish to see the one from whom He assumed His human nature corrupted by death, nor His flesh found in His own Mother subject to destruction, and so the Church has ever taught in her ancient Tradition.
Although the Assumption or Dormition is a consentient and universal part of ancient Tradition, it does not stand on the same level as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Virginal Conception and Birth of Our Lord, or the Resurrection of Christ, and thus it is not acknowledged either by Anglicans or Eastern Orthodox as an essential article of the Faith and Creeds. Neither Anglicans nor Eastern Orthodox desire to dogmatise the mysteries of Our Lord’s Mother. These are mysteries of love. Therefore we do not recognise the necessity of believing any version of this ancient doctrine for eternal salvation and it is not accounted a dogma, or revealed truth necessary for salvation, of the Gospel. But it is a beautiful and comforting belief which points squarely to the glory of Christ’s Resurrection and its power to save all who are united to Him.
An Anglican is free to believe or not believe in Our Lady’s corporeal Assumption, but all agree she died and went to Heaven! And that heaven-going, hers and ours, is what we celebrate on 15th August.