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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.

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Contact with Early Islam

In mid-July, Kevin at Biblicalia posted two items on St. John of Damascus and Islam (here and here). At Kevin’s place and at this blog, visitors asked about other Christian sources on early Islam. Kevin, erudite as ever, suggested a handful; but folks were still looking for more.

Well, over the weekend, I ran across this article — “Disputing with Islam in Syriac: The Case of the Monk of Bêt Hãlê and a Muslim Emir,” by Sidney Griffith of the Catholic University of America. It appeared in the January 2000 issue of Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, which generously posts all its content free online.

It’s rich content — the article mentioned above is just a small sample — and much of it is related to recent posts here and elsewhere in the patristiblogosphere. Hugoye has fascinating studies of St. Ephrem’s resonances in (for example) John Milton, the Wesley Brothers, the Oxford Movement, and the environmental movement. Those of you who were utterly captivated by my post on the feast of Saints Addai and Mari will be positively enthralled by “Possible Historical Traces in the Doctrina Addai,” by Ilaria Ramelli of the Catholic University of Milan.

Spend some time with Hugoye today.

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Interreligious Pediatric Archeology

I somehow missed this story when it appeared on Catholic News Service last month, before the bombs went off. Bravo, kids.

Israeli students discover Byzantine-era mosaic

By Judith Sudilovsky, Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM (CNS) — Just as they were preparing for the end of the school year, students from the Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam Jewish-Arab school taking part in a yearlong archaeological educational enrichment project uncovered a Byzantine-era mosaic covered with crosses.

The mosaic was apparently part of the floor of the central room of a Byzantine church or convent and includes a medallion with a radius of about three feet decorated with a large black and red cross. Smaller crosses encircled by geometric shapes surround the central cross.

Another mosaic uncovered in a smaller room to the east of the central room also includes small crosses inside geometric designs.

The students also found stucco remains most likely used to decorate the inside walls of the structure, according to an Israel Antiquities Authority press release. Large pottery shards were also discovered, and archaeologists believe they were part of clay jars and jugs used in bath houses.

The archaeological site is on top of a hill overlooking the Ayalon Valley on the main road to Jerusalem, close to the modern-day Trappist monastery at Latrun, and is believed to be the site where Jesus first revealed himself to his apostles following his crucifixion.

“It is not every day that children ages 9 to 12 years old, Jewish and Arabs, uncover Christian archaeological remains which are an integral part of the cultural heritage of this land,” said Hagit Noigbern, director of the Jerusalem Archaeological Center of the Israel Antiquities Authority, which organized the enrichment program.

The IAA and the educational Karev Fund conducted the archaeological enrichment program for the children over the past year.

Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam is a cooperative village of Jews and Palestinian Arabs of Israeli citizenship. The village includes a regular school, a peace school and hotel. It is the fruition of the dream of Dominican Father Bruno Hussar, who in the 1960s envisioned a village of coexistence. In 1970 he was able to begin the village on land leased from the nearby Latrun monastery.

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The Odd Couple

Though this year it’s trumped by a Sunday, today’s memorial is certainly one of the strangest items on the Church’s calendar. It is the feast of a martyr pope and a martyr antipope — a third-century hero of unity and his schismatic counterpart — Pontian and Hippolytus. Now, sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, based in part on the discussions in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, supplemented a bit by the works of Gregory Dix and Burton Scott Easton.

Hippolytus was a priest of the Church of Rome at the beginning of the third century. According to a late but plausible account, he was a student of St. Irenaeus. Quite early, he became a teacher himself. It is likely that Origen heard him when the famous Alexandrian made his pilgrimage to Rome around 212-215. Hippolytus came into conflict with Pope Zephyrinus (reigned 198-217) — and with the majority of the Church of Rome — during the doctrinal controversies of his age. There was, at the time, a variety of aberrant notions circulating about the Trinity. Most of them emphasized the unity of God too one-sidedly and held that the “Father” and “Son” were merely different manifestations (or modes) of the one Divine Nature. Thus, these heresies are often lumped together under the category “modalism.”

Against these men, Hippolytus stood uncompromisingly for a real difference between the Son and the Father. But in his language he tended to overcorrect his opponents’ errors, and so his own doctrine seemed to represent the Son as a Divine Person almost completely separate from God (the error of ditheism) and also utterly subordinate to the Father (subordinationism). What really got Hippolytus in trouble, however, was his impatience. Pope Zephyrinus declined to render a swift decision on the trinitarian controversies, and this infuriated Hippolytus, who gravely censured the pontiff and called him incompetent — unworthy to rule the Church of Rome. He went on to say that Zephyrinus was really nothing but a tool in the hands of the ambitious and intriguing deacon Callistus.

Well, guess who was elected pope upon the death of Zephyrinus? That’s right: Callistus. (He’s SAINT Callistus to you and me — though not, just then, to Hippolytus.)

Hippolytus immediately left the communion of the Roman Church and had himself elected antipope by his small band of followers. These he called “the Catholic Church” and himself successor to the Apostles, terming the great majority of Roman Christians the “School of Callistus.” By more than a millennium and a half, he anticipated the British comedians who recounted the Anglican schism as the time when “the Pope and all his minions seceded from the Church of England.”

Hippolytus railed against Callistus and the two subsequent popes, Urban and Pontian, accusing them all of laxity in the discipline of sinners and heretics. Meanwhile, he tended his defiant little “true church” — and wrote great works of biblical commentary, liturgical scholarship, and theology. His Apostolic Tradition was enormously influential in the Catholic liturgical movement of the 20th century; it is the source of the second Eucharistic Prayer, promulgated after the Second Vatican Council.

As such a brilliant and imposing public figure, Hippolytus must have been an easy target during the persecutions that brought down one legitimate pope after another. It says something about the legitimacy of all those men that they were martyred while their contender was not.

At length, though, Hippolytus was indeed arrested, tried, and banished to the unhealthful island of Sardinia. Providentially, he was sent away at the same time and to the same place as Pope Pontian. Shortly before this, or soon afterward, the wayward would-be pope became reconciled with the legitimate bishop and Church of Rome.

After both exiles had died on the island of Sardinia, their mortal remains were brought back to Rome on the same day, August 13, probably in the year 236. And they were laid to rest, aptly enough, in the Catacomb of St. Callistus!

Hippolytus is fascinating because of his eccentricity. But we mustn’t neglect his erstwhile opponent, with whom he shares a grave and a feast day. Pontian was made pope July 21, 230, and reigned until 235. He played an important role in the early controversies surrounding Origen of Alexandria. Pontian upheld the decisions of the Egyptian bishops against Origen. In 235, the emperor Maximinus the Thracian began one of Rome’s periodic persecutions directed chiefly against the heads of the Church. One of its first victims was Pontian. In 1909 the original epitaph was found in the crypt of St. Cecilia, near the papal crypt. The epitaph, agreeing with the other known epitaphs of the papal crypt, reads: PONTIANOS, EPISK. MARTUR (Pontianus, Bishop, Martyr).

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A Weathervane Pillar

Adrian Murdoch at Bread and Circuses has posted a photo of a column inscribed in honor of the Emperor Julian the Apostate — but later edited for re-dedication to Theodosius the Christian. (And they say the gods are fickle.)

The photo is from a most remarkable website, Aphrodisias in Late Antiquity. If you’ve ever wondered how archeologists make sense of the rubble of successive eras — pagan Greek, Byzantine, Islamic — visit this site and see it in action. You’ll find very technical (but quite interesting) discussions of the city’s Christian remains here, here, and here. Good photos abound.

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Here’s a nice follow-up to yesterday’s grilling …

Alexander, known as “the charcoal burner,” was bishop of Comana, in Pontus, and he may have been the first to hold the office in that place.

Alexander wasn’t always a charcoal burner. In fact, he was at first a philosopher. At some point, though, out of humility, he decided he was the one to do society’s dirty work. He gained renown as an exceedingly filthy guy in exceptionally ragged clothes. But inwardly he was washed clean in the blood of the Lamb, preferring heavenly to earthly things.

At some point, the people of Comana called upon St. Gregory the Wonderworker (the famous disciple of Origen) to help them choose a bishop. Gregory was unimpressed with all their candidates. In exasperation, someone jokingly suggested that Alexander the Charcoal Burner might be available. And Gregory took it as a prompting of the Spirit. He called upon Alexander and questioned him — and named him to the See of Comana! Alexander guided the Church with wisdom until he received a still higher vocation: to martyrdom. Around 275, during the persecution of Decius, he was burned alive.

Our earliest knowledge about him comes from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s life of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus. His feast day is today, August 11, which is also the memorial of Saints Tiburtius and Susanna, Roman martyrs from a little later in the third century.

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Underground Basque Weaving

A couple of months ago, I blogged effusively on the recent excavation of third-century inscriptions in the Basque Country of Spain (e.g., here, here, and here). Among the finds was the world’s oldest depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ — and the most ancient examples of Basque language ever found. European archeologists said it was the most important excavation since Pompeii. Independent labs in Germany and France confirmed the Spaniards’ estimated dates. The Vatican sent a representative, who was duly impressed.

And the mainstream media … wondered why they weren’t getting any follow-up stories on the Gospel of Judas or on Mary Magdalene’s genotype. Alas.

One of the Spanish papers recently ran a feature that filled in some of the blanks on the digs. For example, why was everything so well preserved, just as it had been in the third century? The initial reports were vague. Now we find out that the area had been sealed off suddenly by massive landslides. So there had been no time to pack a bag or grab a spare tunic. Everything was left in place for us to find and ponder. And ponder our Spaniard author does, as he tries to imagine what life was like in the bustling provincial city in those days before disaster struck.

There’s no English translation yet. But journalese is journalese. With my dim recollection of high-school Spanish and a little help from Babelfish, I could limp through it. Maybe you can, too.

Let me know if you hear anything more on these very important digs.

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First Catholic Gridiron Star

No, he didn’t go to Notre Dame.

St. Lawrence was one of the most beloved saints of the early Church. A deacon in Rome, he died on August 10 in the year 258, in the persecution of the Emperor Valerian.

As we mentioned earlier this week, on the feast of another of Valerian’s victims, this particular purge was an attempt at decapitating the Church. Valerian’s edict — which is cited by St. Cyprian, among others — commanded that all bishops, priests, and deacons should immediately be put to death. The pagan Romans were a lot like the sheriff in “Night of the Living Dead,” whose mantra was “Kill the head, and you kill the ghoul.” The pagans’ ghoul was the Catholic Church. They were wrong, though, about the strategy for elimination. Every time they mowed down clergymen, more Christians rushed in to take their place.

Lawrence, it seems, had varied duties in the Roman Church. He ministered among the poor and guarded the treasury, which included sacred relics as well as liturgical vessels. When wealthy patrons gave him their gold, he was famous for selling it to feed and clothe the city’s poor. According to a local tradition, it was Lawrence who guarded the Holy Grail, the cup of the Last Supper, and it was he who arranged its passage out of Rome during the persecution. (Grail enthusiasts who favor the Valencia cup trace it back to Lawrence.)

When the authorities finally seized Lawrence, they interrogated him about the location of the Church’s hidden treasure. St. Ambrose picks up the story here: “When the treasures of the Church were demanded from him, he promised that he would show them. On the following day he brought the poor together. When asked where the treasures were which he had promised, he pointed to the poor, saying: ‘These are the treasures of the Church.’ And truly they were treasures, in whom Christ lives, in whom there is faith in Him.”

When Valerian’s persecution hit, Pope Sixtus II was among the first to go, along with several of his clergy. Four days later, the beloved Lawrence went cheerfully to the place of his execution. He had always been known for his sense of humor. (I’ll bet that line about the Church’s “treasure” cracked up his captors.) And the one-liners were with him to the end. According to tradition, he was burned on a red-hot gridiron. After some minutes on the grill, Lawrence called out to his executioners to turn him over, since he was quite cooked on his underside.

The ancient basilica where he is buried still stands, though it has been extended often through the centuries. Already in Christian antiquity, Lawrence was the subject of tributes by Pope St. Damasus, St. Ambrose, and Prudentius.

May St. Lawrence intercede for us today, that we, too, may keep our sense of humor amid all life’s trials. To those around us, our sense of humor can be an actual grace.

UPDATE: Fr. Z gives the full text of Ambrose’s account of the final conversation between Lawrence and Pope Sixtus. Beautiful.

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Calling All Anglicans

Phillip at Hyperekperisou has taken his patristiblogging from Hollywood to Canterbury. Last time we checked in, he was looking at modern pop culture through Tertullian-shaded lenses. This time he’s asking the Fathers what he should make of recent Anglican difficulties. He’s testing his theses, and he welcomes criticism. I know the Anglican landscape not at all. If your eyes are better trained for this, drop in and visit Phillip. And let him know what you think.

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Grail Sightings

There has been a torrent of activity at, the blog of my colleague and co-author Chris Bailey. Chris has posted fascinating material on the madness of Merlin and the ghost of Emperor Constantine in the Arthurian legends. Don’t miss it.

If you haven’t yet ordered our book, The Grail Code: Quest for the Real Presence, please do. We promise you great entertainment and a good deal of painless education in history and literature (beginning with the Church Fathers). The quest for the Grail is a beautiful story, and its narrative thread begins with the Fathers and continues through your life and mine.

But don’t take my word for it. Check out the reviews upon reviews

If you’d rather read it in Canadian French, go right ahead and order Graal Code: Enquête sur le mystère du Graal. It’ll soon be out in German and Portuguese as well.