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The Assumption

This is to wish you a blessed feast of the Assumption — a feast celebrated by our ancient ancestors in the time of the Fathers. In Palestine, Christians marked August 15 under the beautiful title of the feast of “The Memory of Mary.” They were doing this long before the Marian definitions of the Council of Ephesus in 431.

I’m always out to steer you toward good books, and I can’t resist doing it today. I’m currently (quite coincidentally) reading Stephen J. Shoemaker’s remarkable study, The Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption. It’s an exhaustive and technical analysis of the patristic paper trail and archeological record. It’s a very demanding read, but very rewarding, too.

Those of you who want to spend less time and money, might just go directly to the patristic writings themselves, which Father Brian Daley collected in an excellent and affordable little volume.

We should take the time to trace the dogma of the Assumption/Dormition to its deepest roots. Why? I’ll let The Man, David Scott, explain.

On November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII declared a new dogma of the Catholic Church — a truth revealed by God to be believed by the faithful: that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the end of her time on earth, was assumed, or taken up, into heaven.

But it was Protestants, not Catholics, who set the tone for the world’s reaction. And Protestant reaction was just this side of apocalyptic.

Rev. Marc Boegner, president of the World Council of Churches, repeatedly called the new dogma a “scandal.”

The don of cold–war American Protestantism, Rev. Reinhold Niebuhr, called it a species of idolatry.

The dogma, he declared, “incorporates a legend of the Middle Ages into the official teachings of the Church, thereby placing the final capstone on the Mariolatry of the Roman Church.”

Scholars, too, apparently struggled to remain charitable—without much success.

Rev. R.L.P Milburn, delivering the 1952 Bampton Lectures at Oxford — then the most distinguished lectureship in Protestant theology — said the Pope had made “fantasy, however pious, to masquerade as fact.”

His verdict: “The grave difficulty concerning the doctrine … is that … something has been solemnly stated as assured historical fact that has no other strictly historical basis even pretended than a Coptic romance.”

To this day, our understanding of the Assumption’s origins languishes in the long shadow of these early polemics, which so often betrayed a deep–seated animus against Catholicism.

From the Encyclopedia Britannica to the daily newspaper—the received wisdom is that the Assumption belief has no basis in the Bible, but instead grew out of the colorful imaginations of unlettered medieval Catholics with an overzealous devotion to the Virgin.

In fact, Stephen Shoemaker, who teaches religion at the University of Oregon, says the whole field of early Christian studies suffers the lingering effects of inherited “anti–Catholic prejudice” — particularly when it comes to studying Mary.

In an important scholarly book, Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption (Oxford, 2003), he writes: “There is a palpable tendency in much scholarship to minimize the strong devotion to Mary evident in the ancient Church [and to] ‘trivialize any early mention of [Mary] so as to reduce its import for mariology.'”

There are signs, however, that all this might be changing.

Shoemaker’s book is part of a new wave of books, dissertations, academic articles and translations that seeks to look at Mary and the early Church through a new lens.

For sure, Shoemaker has no interest in defending Catholicism or the dogma.

But by simply taking an honest look at Mary’s place in the culture and worship of the early Church, he and others promise to shake up settled assumptions about the Assumption — and may unintentionally bring new appreciation for the papal proclamation.

Already, their findings should lay to rest the charge that the dogma was a popular fantasy based solely on a “Coptic romance.”

In fact, their findings would seem to support what Pope Pius said back in 1950—that belief in Mary’s Assumption was based on the Scriptures, was rooted in the minds and hearts of the earliest generations of Christians, and was part of the prayer and worship of the Church from the earliest times…

Read the rest of David’s essay here. He goes on to give a nice summary of the early Marian texts. It’s wonderful stuff — as is David’s most recent book, The Catholic Passion: Rediscovering the Power and Beauty of the Faith. Anyone who loves the Fathers will cherish David’s account of Catholic life. Not only does he quote the Fathers at great length; he writes the way they would write, were they with us on earth today.