On the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
From a Sermon by St. John Damascene
Editor’s Note: Although the Dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother was promulgated less than 75 years ago (1950), and is relatively new to those teachings which we, as Catholics, owe the assent of faith to, this excerpt from one of Saint John Damascene’s homilies on the Assumption (from around the early 8th century) proves that belief in the Assumption of Our Lady has long been part of the Tradition of the Church.
“Thy blessed soul is naturally parted from thy blissful and undefiled body, and the body is delivered to the grave, yet it does not endure in death, nor is it the prey of corruption. The body of her, whose virginity remained unspotted in childbirth, was preserved in its incorruption and was taken to a better, diviner place, where death is not, but eternal life. …Therefore I will not call thy sacred transformation death, but rest or going home, and it is more truly a going home … thou dwellest in a happier state.
“Angels with archangels bear thee up. Impure spirits trembled at thy departure. The air raises a hymn of praise at thy passage, and the atmosphere is purified. Heaven rejoices thy soul with joy. The heavenly powers greet thee with sacred canticles and with joyous praise saying:
‘Who is this most pure creature ascending, shining as the dawn, beautiful as the moon, conspicuous as the sun? [cf Revelation 12, Song of Songs 6:10] How sweet and beautiful thou art, the lily of the field, the rose among thorns [cf Song of Songs 1:16, 2:1,2]; therefore the young maidens loved thee [cf Song of Songs 1:3]. We are drawn after the odor of thy ointments [cf Song of Songs 1:3-4]. The King introduced thee into His chamber [cf Song of Songs 2:4]. There Powers protect thee, Principalities praise thee, Thrones proclaim thee, Cherubim are hushed in joy, and Seraphim magnify the true Mother by nature and by grace of their very Lord. Thou wert not taken into heaven as Elias [Elijah] was, nor didst thou penetrate to the third heaven with Paul, but thou didst reach the royal throne itself of thy Son, seeing it with thine own eyes, standing by it in joy and unspeakable familiarity. O gladness of angels and of all heavenly powers, sweetness of patriarchs and of the just, perpetual exultation of prophets, rejoicing the world…refreshment of the weary, comfort of the sorrowful…health of the sick, harbour of the storm-tossed, lasting strength of mourners, and perpetual succour of all who invoke thee…’
“We, too, approach thee today, O Queen; and again, I say, O Queen, O Virgin Mother of God, staying our souls with our trust in thee, as with a strong anchor. Lifting up mind, soul, and body, and all ourselves to thee, rejoicing in psalms and hymns and spiritual canticles, we reach through thee One who is beyond our reach on account of His Majesty. If, as the divine Word made flesh taught us, honor shown to servants is honor shown to our…Lord, how can honor shown to thee, His Mother, be slighted? How is it not most desirable?…those who think of Thee should recall the memory of Thy most precious gift as the cause of our lasting joy. How it fills us with gladness! How the mind that dwells on this holy treasury of Thy grace enriches itself.
“Watch over us, O Queen, the dwelling-place of our Lord. Lead and govern all our ways as thou wilt…Lead us into the calm harbor of the divine will. Make us worthy of future happiness through the sweet and face-to-face vision of the Word made flesh through thee. With Him, glory, praise, power, and majesty be to the Father and to the holy and life-giving Spirit, now and forever. Amen.”
St. John Damascene (also known as St. John of Damascus) was born around 675 AD. He was born into a rich family and spent the early years of his life serving as the Christian representative to the Muslim Caliph. According to his biographer, in the political climate of his time, his hand was severed as a punishment for a false charge against him but was miraculously restored through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Later, he joined St. Sabbas’ monastery (Mar Saba) near Jerusalem and was eventually ordained to the priesthood. St. John Damascene is was one of the last of the early Church Fathers, the last of the Greek Fathers. He has been called the prince of the Greek hymnodists for the music he wrote. A great defender of icons in worship, as against the iconoclasts, he wrote “On the Orthodox Faith”. This book is a synthesis of the theology of the Greek Fathers of the Church. It explicates key doctrines, particularly the Incarnation, the Creation and the Holy Trinity. He wrote extensively on the Sacraments, with special emphasis on the real bodily presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. He was devoted to the Blessed Mother and wrote especially about her, her perpetual virginity and sinlessness and, as we’ve had the pleasure of reading today, her bodily Assumption into heaven. He’s sometimes even referred to as the Doctor of the Assumption! By his acumen and his corpus of work, he had a significant impact on the thought of those who came after him, including St. Thomas Aquinas. He died sometime between 754 and 787 AD and was made a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII in 1890. His original feast day was March 27th when it was inserted into the Roman calendar in 1890. In 1969, it was moved to December 4th, the day of his death, as an optional memorial, the same day it is celebrated on the Byzantine calendar. He is the patron of pharmacists, icon painters and theology students.
Art for this post on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary: The Assumption of the Virgin, Juan Martín Cabezalero, 1660, PD-US published before January 1, 1923; Icona di San Giovanni Damasceno (Icon of Saint John Damascene), artist unknown, undated, PD-US author’s life plus 70 years or less; both Wikimedia Commons.