The feast is known under many names. In the Byzantine rite, it is called the Dormition, the ‘sleeping’ or “falling asleep.” Of the Great Theotokos – “Mother of God.” In the Roman rite, the feast is known under the name of the Assumption. Other names were once current, such as: “Transitus – the Passing,” “Deposition – the Placing in the Grave,” “Pausatio – resting,” “Nativity (in heaven), and several others. Under whatever title it may have been known, the Assumption is the most ancient and most solemn feast of Mary. It actually commemorates two events: 1) the happy death of the Mother of God and 2) the assumption of her body into heaven. This double aspect is evident in the liturgy, which commemorates both “the glorious falling asleep of the Mother of Life” and “her noble assumption.” One of the troparions of vespers states: “O marvelous wonder! The font of life has been laid in the grave, and the tomb has become a ladder to heaven.” Another hymn declares: “How strange are your mysteries, O undefiled Virgin, for you did appear as a throne for the highest and today are translated from earth to heaven.”
The entire liturgy in poetic form describes this double aspect, but the assumption theme itself strikes the stronger note: “Today heaven opens its bosom to receive her who gave birth to Him Whom the universe cannot contain” (stichera for litia). The first kathisma of matins asks: “Tell forth, O David, what is this present feast? He said: Verily, she whom I praised in the Psalms as daughter, Mother of God and Virgin has been taken by Christ… to the distant mansions.” St. John Damascene writes his canon:”… Christ has taken her to the most worthy and divine abode…”
The Assumption is often compared to the Nativity, since Mary through her death was born in heaven. “As for your birth-giving, it was by a seedless conception; and as for your falling-asleep, it was death without corruption” (third katisma of matins). Cosmos the Anchorite in the ninth ode to of matins repeats the same idea: “In you, O spotless Virgin, the laws of nature were suspended: for your virginity was preserved in your child-bearing, and life is joined with your death. You O mother of God remains a Virgin after childbirth and after death are still alive.” Similarly in the antiphons of the Divine Liturgy this mystic birth of Mary is mentioned.
The Assumption in all probability is the earliest of Marian feasts. It probably originated in the pilgrimages to the place honored as her tomb. The Monks of Palestine are considered the first to celebrate this feast. In Ephesus, it had been kept as early as the first century. Pope Gelpasius I (496 A.D.) mentioned it as being “very old” in one his letters. The feast is also mentioned in the sermons of St. Andrew of Crete, St. John Damascene, St. Modestus of Jerusalem, and others, It can be safely said that in the sixth century the feast had spread to the entire church.
Both in Palestine and at Rome, August 15 was kept as the day of Mary’s death. In Egypt and Arabia, however, it was celebrated in January. In the Greek Church, some kept this feast in January in agreement with the monks of Egypt; others kept it in August after the custom of Palestine. In the sixth century, the Emperor Maurice established the date throughout the Byzantine Empire on August 15.
Sacred Scripture gives no account of the death of the Mother of God. As to the day, the year, and the manner of her death, nothing certain is known. Only centuries later do we find statements placing its date anywhere between three and fifteen years after Christ’s ascension. As for the place, two cities claim the site: Jerusalem and Ephesus. Common consent has always favored Jerusalem, as it does now. The Ephesus tradition is based on a sermon of St. Cyril of Alexendria, who, at the time of the Council of Ephesus, (431 A.D.) spoke in the local church which was dedicated to the mother of God. Since the churches of antiquity were almost invariably erected over the tomb of some saint or martyr, it can be argued that many believed that Mary had been buried in that place.
The Jerusalem tradition, on the other hand, is founded largely on the apocryphal writings. St. John Damascene, sometimes known as the Doctor of the Assumption, relates although with hesitation and reserve, and interesting narrative told by an otherwise unknown Euthymius. According to this informant, Pulcheria, wife of Emperor Marcian (450-457 A.D.), had erected a church in honor on the Mother of God in the suburb of Constantinople called Blachernae to which she wished to transfer Mary’s earthly remains. With this in view, she turned to Bishop Juvenal of Jerusalem, but he informed her that the body of the Mother of God was not to be found in Jerusalem. She had been buried in the garden of Gethsemane in the presence of all the apostles, except Thomas, who was late for the burial. In order that he too might venerate the body of the Mother of God, the tomb was opened; but nothing was found except the linen winding clothes which gave forth a fragrant perfume. Whereupon the apostles concluded that our Lord had taken up into heaven the body which had borne him.
The Assumption of Mary into heaven was defined as a dogma of faith by Pope Pius XII on November 1, 1950.
The feast of the Assumption has a pre-festive period of one day, and a post-festive period of eight days. The Church prepares herself with a two-week period of fasting for the worthy observance of the feast. This fast was already mentioned in the ninth century by Pope Nicholas in a letter to the Bulgarians.
In the Byzantine rite, there is an ancient custom of bringing herbs and flowers to be blessed. This blessing with appropriate prayers, takes place at the close of the Divine Liturgy. The custom of bringing flowers probably arose from the tradition that flowers were found in the tomb of the Mother of God after her Assumption into heaven.
At this point, it might be interesting to note that in the fifth century the coffin of the Mother of God and some portions of her clothing were taken to Constantinople and placed in the Blachernae church, erected especially for that purpose. The commemoration of the placing of her mantel there is celebrated July 2 and that of her cinture, on August 31.