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Feast of the Assumption of the Holy Mother of God
by dr harry hagopian ecumenical, legal & political consultant, Armenian Apostolic Church - London

19 August   |   2006   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Earlier this week, Christians across the world celebrated the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Yet, although this feast is considered to be one of the most marking days in the calendar of both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, it did not resonate much outside those church walls housing their prayerful congregations.

In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated an early morning mass in the small parish church of St Thomas at Castel Gandolfo, and also recited the Angelus at noon with visitors to the papal summer residence. The pope prayed for Mary's intercession for peace in the world, reminding believers that the feast of Mary's assumption into heaven is a reminder that love and peace will eventually conquer hatred and violence . The pope joined the prayers of the Lebanese Christians celebrating the feast at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa, in the heart of Kesrwan in northern Beirut, as well as the prayers of the Catholics of Israel and Palestine celebrating at the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

In my lay estimation, St Mary remains a figure of some mystification: she is either venerated beyond all imagination or else is totally eclipsed by other religious and not-so-religious feasts. I remember only too vividly the theological debates that took place just over a decade ago about the role that Mary fulfils as co-mediatrix with Jesus. Many Orders - primarily Catholic ones - place her on an extremely high pedestal and attribute to her powers that she herself did not take on. Others - including many Protestant churches - focus on the Risen Son without much deference to the Mother.

In the Bible too, there is scant information concerning the details of Mary's life. The double story of her death and assumption some three to fifteen years after the Resurrection has been preserved and passed on more through the Apostolic Traditions of the Church than on the basis of Scripture. In the calendar of the Armenian Church, with its centuries-old traditions, this feast falls on the Sunday closest to the 15 th of August. It is called Verapokhoum , denoting that Jesus came down to earth and ascended again to heaven with his mother, or else Nentchoum , to highlight the belief that Mary was not dead, but only in an eternal slumber, until her assumption into heaven. This feast, the fourth of five major ones within the Armenian tradition and calendar, is also the oldest one dedicated to Mary by the Church.

But let us reel back the centuries for a few minutes. Following the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Mary remained in Jerusalem and lived under the care of St John the Evangelist. For nearly twelve years, she lived by praying, fasting, and often visiting the empty tomb of her Son. During one such visit to the tomb, the Archangel Gabriel appeared and gave her the news of her imminent assumption to heaven. Mary relayed the news to her relatives and all Christians, asking them to inter her body in the valley of Kidron / Gethsemane. She also asked the Apostle John to celebrate Divine Liturgy, so she may receive Holy Communion one final time. After receiving the holy sacrament, Mary returned to her room. As the Apostles prepared to mourn her death, St John asked the Mother of God to leave an image of her face on a board of wood. Mary took the board, crossed herself and brought it close to her face. Moistening the board with her tears, she asked God that people would be cured from disease. As the Apostles surrounded Mary, an inexpressible light appeared and the Son of God along with the angels of heaven appeared in the room. Seeing Christ, Mary died.

St Bartholomew, one of the twelve apostles known also as the Son of Talmai who later became martyr, was absent and did not participate in Mary's burial service. Upon his return to Jerusalem, he wished to see her for one last time. So following his request, the apostles opened the tomb, yet they did not find Mary's remains. According to His promise, Jesus Christ had delivered His mother to His heavenly kingdom.

The apostles gave the board to St Bartholomew for consolation. According to the historiographer Moses of Khoren (Movses Khorenatsi, 5 th century), St Bartholomew brought the board to Armenia. It was kept in the Province of Andzav, in a location called Darbnots. A church was built on the site, and a convent opened there later, in Mary's honour.

The Armenian Church retains a deep and abiding respect for Mary. Indeed, special emphasis is placed on her being a mother, as much as on her saintly honesty, her unique spirit of humility, her virtuous behaviour and unselfish dedication. Mary's assumption should therefore also resonate in the hearts of all sons and daughters who value the immeasurable affection their mothers hold for them, or the tireless way in which their mothers preserve the love and sacredness of the family unit. But above all else, let us not forget that in bearing Jesus, in offering Him to the world, in watching Him die only to be resurrected, this woman offered the world the messiah - the new living temple for all Christians today.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2006   |   19 August


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