A Reader Writes in,
"What exactly does the "falling asleep of the Blessed Virgin" mean? It is celebrated on the same day as the Assumption is. Do we celebrate Mary's Assumption in the Anglican Church? If we are not celebrating Mary's Assumption what do we celebrate. And if we do not believe in Mary's Assumption (which I think we do, but I'm not sure) then what do we believe about Mary's death?"
I think I will quote Fr. John-Julian, OJN, founder of the Order of Julian of Norwich. This article is from a soon-to-be published book Stars in a Dark World, which has excellent biographies of the saints in the Episcopal Calendar. It is much more in depth and in many ways more even-handed than Lesser Feasts and Fasts.
In the early 18th century, Pope Benedict XIV declared that the belief that the blessed Virgin Mary's body was assumed into heaven at her death was a doctrine to be honored as a "probable opinion" — that is, a technical definition which would be impious and blasphemous (although not heretical) for a Roman Catholic to disbelieve. There continued to be hesitation on the part of the hierarchy to a more formal declaration in the face of the silence of scripture and early witnesses to the Christian tradition. However, in 1950 Pope Pius XII responded to petitions including over eight million names and formally declared the doctrine of Mary's Assumption to be an actual dogma of faith which required belief by all Roman Catholics. He announced:
By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, by that of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define to be divinely revealed the dogma that the im¬maculate Mother of God, the Ever-virgin Mary, was on the completion of her earthly life assumed body and soul into the glory of Heaven.
He provided a new set of Mass propers for the feast and listed it among the Holy Days of Obligation for Roman Catholics.
Scholars generally agree that the idea of Mary's actual assumption into heaven was not a doctrine known in the earliest years of the Church. No Christian writer before the end of the 4th century had even mentioned it. In fact, the idea is first encountered in certain Gnostic apocryphal writings of the late 4th century.
In the Eastern Church, the death of the Blessed Virgin was celebrated as early as 397 in Antioch, and in Palestine during the next century, but there was disagreement on the date, some churches celebrating it on the 18th of January (as part of the Epiphany celebration) and others on the 15th of August; in the late 6th century the August date became universal by imperial decree. It also appears that early on, the Church in Gaul (which, being at the end of the Eastern trade routes contained many Christians from the East) celebrated the January 18th feast as well. In Spain, the tenth council of Toledo in 656 established the feast of the Blessed Virgin on December 18, eight days before Christmas.
However, since in the Church's early years commemorations of the saints were generally set on the days of their deaths – i.e., their "heavenly birthdays" – the same pattern was evidently followed regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Eastern Orthodox Churches have always called the feast the Koimésis or Dormition (the "falling asleep") of Mary and from very early times, those Eastern Churches believed and taught the bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin, but tended to avoid defining in precise terms as the Western Church eventually did.
In Europe, it appears that originally one general feast of Our Lady was celebrated annually on January 1. In the late 7th century, however, the Byzantine feasts of the Blessed Virgin were introduced into Roman use (including, in order of their antiquity, the feasts of the Purification, the Annunciation, the Nativity, and the Dormition). By the end of the 8th century, the feast of the Assumption was universally observed in the Western Church on August 15. In 847 Pope Leo IV added an eight-day octave to the celebration, and about twenty years later, Pope Nicholas I decreed that the feast was to be recognized as equal in stature and solemnity to Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost – thus providing a major holy day in each of the four seasons of the year.
The doctrine of Mary's Assumption is not merely some far-out invention of rambling theologians. It is simply the doctrine of the universal Resurrection of the Dead applied "early" to the Blessed Virgin – and, of course, it also assumes something like either Duns Scotus' doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in which Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin or Thomas Aquinas' teaching that her conception was normally human, but that God suppressed and ultimately extinguished original sin in her (apparently before she was born). It also presumes her lifelong sinlessness — which in the popular minds of the time tended to include the tradition of her perpetual virginity. In simple terms, the Assumption is believed to have occurred since Mary had no sin, and therefore was able to be taken to heaven bodily without having to await the General Judgment as the rest of us do.
Most of the legends about Mary's death place it in Jerusalem (where there is even a tomb that was ostensibly prepared for her), although there are other stories which place her death in Éphesus or in Antioch. Some of the legendary accounts indicate that she was assumed into heaven instead of dying, others that at the moment of death she was taken up to heaven, and still others that she was raised three days after her death. All of these are apocryphal, however, and none has any historical validity.
In the early 8th century, St. John of Damascus wrote:
In 1549, when the first Anglican Book of Common Prayer was published in England, the August 15 feast of the Blessed Virgin was omitted in the calendar of holy days as having no basis in scripture (although the feasts of the Purification and the Annunciation were retained because of their biblical base).
St. Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, at the Council of Chalcedon (451), made known to the Emperor Marcian and Pulcheria, who wished to possess the body of the Mother of God, that Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles, but that her tomb, when opened, upon the request of St. Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven. (Fount of Wisdom. I, 96)
In the early prayer books of the Episcopal Church, the August 15 feast was also omitted, but it was restored in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer as a general feast of Saint Mary. The Collect provided in the Prayer Book for that feast is modeled on that of the South African Prayer Book where the feast is called "The Falling Asleep of Mary". The Collect is phrased in such a way that it suggests the Assumption ("O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary…Grant that we may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom") and therefore is accommodating to those devout Anglicans who embrace the Assumption not as a dogma, but as a permitted "pious opinion".
Carroll, Michael P.; The Cult of the Virgin Mary: Psychological Origins; Princeton U.P.; Princeton, NJ; 1986.