The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a solemn feast day and a holy day of obligation that we celebrate each year on August 15th, is the Church’s most ancient Marian feast. Christians living in Jerusalem celebrated the “dormition of Mary” (Mary’s going to sleep) from at least the third century—gathering in Palestine to remember the Mother of God, and to honor her as queen of heaven and earth.
Ancient frescoes on the walls of the catacombs in the city of Rome indicate that the early Roman Christians believed in and were devoted to Mary’s assumption into heaven.
Today, Catholics believe definitively that the Blessed Mother, at the end of her earthly life, was taken up into heaven entirely: her body and soul being brought from this world into eternity. In 1950, Pope Pius XII declared dogmatically that “the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heaven.”
It isn’t clear what all early Christians believed about the Blessed Virgin Mary. But from the very early stages of Christianity, many Churches believed that Mary had been assumed—bodily—into heaven; the first beneficiary of the redemption of Jesus Christ. This belief was especially important, and especially popular, among the Churches of the east—the Syriac Churches, which lived in Palestine, and across the entire Middle East.
In fact, it was the early bishops and preachers of the Eastern Church who preached the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary most fervently. At the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon, in Turkey, the Patriarch of Jerusalem declared boldly that the apostles themselves first taught that Mary was taken body and soul into heaven. And no one has ever claimed to have discovered the remains of Mary in a tomb.
St. John Damascene, a Syriac deacon from Damascus and doctor of the Church who preached at the beginning of the 8th century, wrote a sermon to the Blessed Mother, saying to her: “you, O Mother, were transferred to your heavenly home, O Lady, Queen and Mother of God in truth.”
From the beginning of Christian history, the Christians of the Middle East have been loyal sons of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Today, the heirs of that great tradition, the Christians of Iraq and Syria in particular, are facing unprecedented persecution. The Chaldean Catholic Church, the Church of Iraq, has been systematically brutalized by the terrorist group Islamic State, formely ISIL, which has taken over much of northern Iraq. Christians, and other religious minorities, are singled out, tortured, beaten, forced to flee from their homes, and often executed.
In the city of Mosul, Iraq, where Christians have lived and worshipped for 1,600 years, nearly every Christian has been driven out or killed. Last year, there were 35,000 Christians living in Mosul—today, very few remain in the city. In fact, when families flee to other cities, they are pursued by ISIL gangs—captured, extorted, beaten, or killed.
Other religious groups face the same fate. Last weekend,Yezidi Iraqis demonstrated in the city of Lincoln. 200 Yezidi families live in Lincoln—the largest group in the United States. Because radical Muslim militants consider these people heretics, their friends and relatives are beaten, terrorized, and killed.
Last week, Congressman Jeff Fortenberry introduced a Congressional resolution to condemn religious persecution in Northern Iraq, and to provide resources to protect Christians and other religious minorities from persecution. We should pray for its passage.
The Christians of Iraq desperately need our prayers, and our fasting. They also need our help. For news on their plight, or to help, you can visit In Defense of Christians at www.indefenseofchristians.org or The Catholic Near East Welfare Association at www.cnewa.org.
As we celebrate the Feast of the Assumption next Friday, let us remember her loyal and ancient followers in Iraq and Syria. They are not strangers to us. They worship like us. They pray like us. They are brothers and sisters in Christ. Like us, they are loyal sons and daughters of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Queen of Heaven and earth. And they need our help.
In the fourth century, St. Ephraim the Syriac, who prayed to the Blessed Mother in Arabic, declared to her: “Thou indeed art our only hope!” Let us ask the Blessed Mother to intercede for persecuted Christians. May she be, for all of us, our life, our sweetness, and our hope.