Toward the end of the summer season in the Northern hemisphere, when fruits are ripe in the gardens and fields, the Church celebrates the “harvest festival”. Mary, the supremely blessed one among women, and the most precious fruit which has ripened in the fields of God’s kingdom, is today taken into heaven. The Assumption is the oldest feast day of Our Lady, but we don’t know how it first came to be celebrated.
Its origin is lost in those days when Jerusalem was restored as a sacred city, at the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 285-337). By then it had been a pagan city for two centuries, ever since Emperor Hadrian (76-138) had leveled it around the year 135 and rebuilt it as Aelia Capitolina. For 200 years, every memory of Jesus was obliterated from the city, and the sites made holy by His life, death and Resurrection became pagan temples.
After the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 336, the sacred sites began to be restored and memories of the life of Jesus began to be celebrated by the people of Jerusalem. One of the memories about his mother centered around the “Tomb of Mary,” close to Mount Zion, where the early Christian community had lived. On the hill itself was the “Place of Dormition,” the spot of Mary’s “falling asleep,” where she had died. The “Tomb of Mary” was where she was buried. At this time, the “Memory of Mary” was being celebrated. Later it was to become our feast of the Assumption. For a time, the “Memory of Mary” was marked only in Palestine, but then it was extended to all the churches of the East. In the seventh century, it began to be celebrated in Rome. Soon the name was changed to the “Assumption of Mary,” since there was more to the feast than her dying. It also proclaimed that she had been taken, body and soul, to heaven.
That belief was ancient, dating back to the apostles themselves. What was clear from the beginning was that there were no relics of Mary to be venerated, and that an empty tomb stood on the edge of Jerusalem near the site of her death. That location also soon became a place of pilgrimage. (Today, the Benedictine Abbey of the Dormition of Mary stands on the spot.)
All the feast days of Mary mark the great mysteries of her life and her part in God’s work. The central mystery of her life and person is her divine motherhood, celebrated both at Christmas and on the feast of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. The feast of the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8) marks the preparation for that motherhood, so that she had the fullness of grace from the first moment of her existence. The Assumption completes God’s work in her since it was not fitting that the flesh that had given life to Jesus should ever undergo corruption. The Assumption is God’s crowning of His work as Mary ends her earthly life and enters eternity. The feast turns our eyes in that direction, where we will follow when our earthly life is over.
Blessing of Herbs on the Feast of the Assumption:
In Germany, the blessing of herbs was reserved only to the feast of the Assumption. (Herbs had not a restricted English meaning but included rather all kinds of cultivated and wild flowers, especially those which in some way had a symbolic relation to our Lady.) People brought herbs to church on her feast to make of the occasion a harvest festival of thanksgiving for God’s great bounty manifested in the abundant fruits of the earth. The herbs were placed on the altar, and even beneath the altar-cloths, so that they might be blessed on this feast.
As we use herbs in our cooking or for medicinal purposes this week or notice them growing in our gardens, let us pray:
Everlasting God, you brought into being the heavens, earth and oceans, and garnished the earth with plants and trees for the use of people and other living beings. You set each plant species to bring forth fruit in its kind, not only as food for living creatures, but also to heal the sick and lift our spirits.
We call on you to bless the various herbs we have and use, thus increasing their natural powers with the grace of your blessing. May they keep away disease and help bring life for all. Amen.