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dormizione maria

It is the heart of summer, the feast awaited with anxiety by the holiday-makers in order to spend a day on the beach or in the mountains. For those who work, it is the right opportunity to start off their holidays. It is celebrated with friends or family, binging on meat or fish washed down by an unfailing glass of wine. In Rome, at least until two centuries ago, Piazza Navona was flooded and transformed it into a kind of aquatic battlefield. Yet, Ferragosto, from Latin ‘‘feriae Augusti’’, i.e. ‘Augustus’ rest’ in memory of the emperor who instituted it, for Christians has a meaning, that is much more important and profound. It recalls, in fact, Virgin Mary’s glorious Assumption into Paradise. At the end of her earthly existence Our Lady was brought directly to Heaven.

This truth was proclaimed as a dogma by Pope Pius XII on the first of November, 1950, on the occasion of the Holy Year. It was, however, the formalization of a doctrine, that was already strongly rooted in God’s People, as demonstrate the writings of some Fathers and Doctors of the Church.  Ephrem the Syrian, for example, claimed already in the IV century that Virgin’s body had not undergone corruption after death. A source of the same period, attributed to Timothy of Jerusalem, says Mary was immortal because Jesus had transferred her to the places of his Ascension. Epiphanius of Salamis, a Saint bishop venerated among Catholic and orthodox faithful, in his turn, wrote that the earthly end of the Mother of Christ was “full of wonder” and, therefore, she was in the Kingdom of Heaven in the flesh. Best known is the “Virgin Mary’s Transit” which contains the so-called “Legend of the Palm branch”. According to this script, Our Lady had asked the son to warn her three days before she would have died. And this is how things went: two years after the Ascension, archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin and announced  her imminent death while holding a Palm branch in his arm. When time came, as the story narrates, the Messiah himself, in the company of a multitude of angels, descended surrounded by light to accept Mary’s soul. The splendour was so intense, that those who were present fell with their faces to the ground, exactly as it happened during the Jesus’ Transfiguration on Mount Tabor and so they stayed for three days. The same source explains that the devil incited the inhabitants of Jerusalem to destroy the Apostles and burn Mary’s body. But a sudden blindness made their misdeed impossible. The disciples took the dead body and laid it in a tomb near the valley of Jehoshaphat, but as soon as they arrived, a new light enveloped them and while they were falling to the ground, they saw the body being assumed into Heaven. According to Blessed Anna Katharina Emmerik, the prodigious event took place on the island of Ephesus where Mary supposedly withdrew after Jesus had died.

The most striking of the beliefs related to this feast narrates that, before leaving her earthly life, Mother of God asked Christ to allow her to take all the souls from Purgatory with her. A few moments after the event, Purgatory was emptied. Since then, Virgin Mary was granted the privilege to intercede before the Almighty with prayers in order to free or comfort the spirits that were safe, but not yet worthy of entering Paradise. Different ecclesiastical sources, including the writings of St. Bonaventure and St. Bernardine, claim that sometimes it is Mary who goes on visit to Purgatory in order to give serenity with her presence to those who are serving their transient sentence. And during the Ferragosto she is thought to be granted, in memory of the Assumption, to take souls back with her. A story connected to this festivity narrates, in fact, that some centuries ago a noblewoman, who had arrived to the church of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli at the Capitol, for the traditional deposition of candles on the eve of the Assumption, met her godmother who died a few months earlier. Stunned, the noblewoman wondered what she was doing there, since she was supposed to be deceased. She revealed that every year, on that day, the Virgin descended to Purgatory and freed a number of souls that was more or less equal to the population of the Eternal City. As an evidence of that, she prophesied that within a year the noblewoman would have passed  away as well. The following summer, on the day before Ferragosto, the noblewoman fell ill and when she died, a few hours later, she went directly to Heaven.

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven is the last dogma proclaimed by the Catholic Church. We owe its official recognition to the Apostolic Constitution Municifentissimum Deum ( “very generous God”) in 1950, by Pius XII. To proclaim this, Pope turned to papal infallibility. It is a canonical norm that was already present for centuries, but was crystallized during the Vatican Council I by Pope Pius IX, according to whom the Holy Father when as Vicar of Christ and Bishop of the Universal Church, at the moment of pronouncing a dogma, is inspired directly by the Holy Spirit and, therefore, becomes the earthly mouth of the Almighty, cannot be wrong.

In Orthodox tradition, but also in the rites of the eastern Churches in communion with Rome, on August 15, is celebrated the Dormition of the Theotokos ( “Dormition of the Mother of God” ). A different Name for the same fideistic event: the decease of Mary, before she ascended body and soul to Heaven. The only differences with Catholicism consist in a diverse interpretation of the sacred texts and doctrines. The orthodox argue that Virgin Mary died of natural death as any human being and, three days later, she ascended to heaven with all he relics. In the Roman tradition there is no certainty of death: some people agree with the eastern brothers, whereas others argue that the Assumption happened when Our Lady was still alive. The festivity is preceded by fasting and abstaining from specific kinds of food, such as red meat, poultry, and dairy product, even stricter than those observed during the Advent. On the occasion of the Dormition a particular Icon, an embroidered cloth called Epistaphios, is deposited in a coffin, to symbolize Mary’s shroud and is carried in procession. Rituals and traditions that celebrate the Mother of the Redemption. A slap in the face of those who are believers, but live the Assumption merely as a worldly recurrence. Forgetting its history and sacred vocation.

Translated by Ecaterina Severin

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