MOSCOW, August 27. /TASS/. On Tuesday, August 28, the Russian Orthodox Church and other Eastern Christian Churches abiding by the old style Julian calendar celebrate the feast of Assumption of the Virgin Mary, one of the twelve main feasts linked dogmatically to the earthly life of Jesus Christ and the Virgin.
The feast, which is also known across Christianity as the Dormition, is devoted to Mary’s heavenly passing from earthly life. In the Eastern Orthodox Christian liturgical practice, its full title is the Assumption [Dormition] of the Most-Holy Lady Theotokos and the Ever-Virgin, the word ‘Theotokos’ meaning Mother of God in Greek.
It is a fixed-date festival, which means it always falls on August 28, regardless of a the cycle of liturgical events connected with the floating Paschal [Easter] feasts and dates.
In terms of the Eastern Orthodox liturgical year, which ends on September 13, this is the last of the twelve great feasts. It crowns the fourteen day-long Assumption fast that compares to the Great Lent, the strict dietary regulations for which are almost the same as those of the Great Lent.
Veneration of the Virgin Mary, including the feasts devoted to her holy life, took shape late enough in the history of the Christian Faith. It is tracked to the times after the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431.
Historians of the Church believe the feast of Assumption emerged as late as in the 6th century, during the rule of Byzantine Emperor Maurice [on the throne from 582 through 602]. Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopulus, the author of the eighteen-book ‘Historia Ecclesiastica’, says Maurice issued an edict that set the nationwide celebration of the Assumption/Dormition feast for August 15.
Before the edict, the Byzantines marked it as a local feast in Constantinople.
In the Western Christian Church, the holiday of Dormitio Beatae Virginis, or the Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God, was established by Pope Sergius I [in office from 687 through 701]
There is no strictly verified recorded account of the last years of the Virgin Mary’s earthly life and all the evidence on it comes from the apocrypha and the Holy Tradition. The latter is one of the sources of the dogmatic teaching along with the Holy Scriptures. Neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament features the provisions and postulations found in the Tradition.
After Jesus’s death on the Cross and resurrection, the Virgin Mary settled near the Mount of Olives in the house of John, one of the twelve Apostles who would write the fourth Gospel later on. Three days prior to her death, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to her to tell her that she was about to pass on to the better life.
The news leaked the community of Christ’s disciples and followers somehow and they began to move to Jerusalem from different places. The Apostles, too, returned to the city in a miraculous way from various distant parts of the world.
Jesus himself descended to accept His Mother’s soul, according to the tradition. His descent would later be reflected in Russian and, to some degree, Western iconography. Icon painters have depicted him standing by the Virgin Mary’s deathbed with an infant in His arms, which emblematizes a soul reborn for a new heavenly life.
After the Virgin’s death, the disciples of Christ put her body into a coffin and placed it in a cave, blocking up the entrance to it with a stone. The Apostle Thomas, who was not present at the entombment, asked for permission to enter the cave and bid final farewell to the Virgin three days later. When they got inside, however, they found an empty coffin and an epitaphion, or a shroud there.
Tradition stipulates that the Virgin appeared to Jesus’s followers on the same day. She was in heavenly glow and surrounded by angels and she addressed them by saying, "Rejoice, for I am with you through all the days."
The Virgin Mary’s tomb is located in the garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives, in the Kedron Valley in East Jerusalem. The cave church of Dormition has been built over it.
According to the calendar of the Russian Orthodox Church, preceding Assumption is a day of forefeast and it is followed by nine days of afterfeast. The last festive prayers associated with Assumption will be chanted on September 5, the day of the so-called leave-taking.
The parishes of many metropolitan cathedrals and big churches hold a special rite on the second or third day of the feast - the Entombment of the Mother of God. The service usually begins with a vespers that continues well into the early morning, after which the clergy and parishioners hold a Cross-bearing procession around the cathedral or the church, carrying a shroud with the image of the Virgin depicted on it.
The hymns sung over the improvised tomb of the Virgin resemble the ones the believers sing over Jesus’s tomb on the Saturday of the Holy Week. This tradition has produced a figurative description of the Assumption as a Second Easter.
Veneration of the Virgin Mary has deep-going roots in the Orthodox Christian tradition. The Russians view the Mother of God as a consoler, protector, curer, and defender of their homeland.
"Russian religiosity is very much feminine in character," the religious philosopher Nikolai Berdiayev wrote at the beginning of the 20th century. "This is not so much a religion of Christ than a religion of the Mother of God, a religion of Mother-Soil. For the Russians, Mother-Soil is synonymous with Russia, and Russia transforms into the Mother of God."
The churches and monasteries dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary are really innumerable in Russia and the most famous of them is the Assumption Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin, the coronation place of all the Grand Dukes of the Duchy of Muscovy and later on of all the Russian Czars.
The Assumption Fast begins on August 14, day on which the Church celebrates the Procession of the Venerable Wood of the Life-Creating Cross of the Lord, known colloquially as the Savior of the Honey Day. Believers bring jars of newly-harvested honey to churches on the occasion and the priests bless it in a special procedure. People then eat small spoonful portions of it on special occasions throughout the year, especially if they feel they are about to fall ill.
The major feast of Transfiguration - the Savior of the Apples Day - falls on August 19. The churches fill will the scent of fresh apples, pears and grapes on it, as the believers bring them for consecration as a sign of "abundance of fruits of the soil".
And on August 29, immediately after the Assumption, the Church marks the transition to Constantinople of the towel, with which the Savior wiped his face and thus left an imprint on the tissue. The latter feast is known as the Savior Not Made by Hands. The folk tradition associates it with the ripening of walnuts, the harvesting of usually begins in Russia at the end of August. Hence the colloquial description of the feast as the Savior of Walnuts Day.