Keeping straight all the major liturgical events the Roman Catholic Church observes can be confusing, especially to a convert. However, one of those most important to a Catholic is the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
What It Commemorates
On one level, this celebration is noteworthy because it’s a holy day of obligation. This means that American Catholics are required to go to church either on the holy day itself or the preceding evening if their respective parishes offer a mass that night.
The remembrance of the Assumption of Mary occurs on August 15 each year. However, whenever this date falls on a Monday, as it does in 2011, there is no obligation to go to church on the 15th since churches celebrate the Assumption at Sunday masses.
According to Catholic writer Scott Reichert, the event known as the Assumption is actually a defined dogma of the Catholic Church, meaning it is an established belief that Catholics are required to accept as true as members of the faith. It became dogma on November 1, 1950, when Pope Pius XII declared that at the end of her life, Mary’s body and soul were assumed into Heaven.
There is a significant amount of confusion among even cradle Catholics between the Assumption and Ascension, which falls on June 2 and is also a holy day. While the Assumption commemorates Mary’s passage into Heaven, the Ascension marks Christ’s bodily ascension into Heaven, as his apostles watched, 40 days after his resurrection.
History of the Feast
Though the Assumption became dogma within the last century, the commemoration of the end of Mary’s life and her transfer to Heaven before her body had a chance to decay is a feast dating to the sixth century, when it was celebrated throughout the Church.
The event was commemorated as the Feast of the Dormition, which referred to “falling asleep.” Some Catholics refer to the concept as “falling asleep in the Lord.”
The first actual reference to the Assumption in religious documents originated in the fourth century. It is a record of the observations of the Apostle John, to whom Christ entrusted Mary at the crucifixion, and includes comments on her death, placement of her body in a tomb and her Assumption.
While Scripture is silent as to the remainder of Mary’s life, tradition suggests that she died either in Jerusalem or at Ephesus, where John lived. Various sources place the date of Mary’s death at between three and 15 years after Christ’s Ascension.
Members of the Eastern Orthodox faith object to the inclusion of the Assumption as dogma. Since the tradition of the Dormition dates to the time of the Apostles, they see the papal declaration as a bit redundant. However, to a Roman Catholic, the Assumption is a very important date on the Church calendar.