This Sunday, the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates one of its five cardinal or tabernacle feasts (in Armenian known as տաղաւար/daghavar), the Assumption of St. Mary, the Mother of God, known in Armenian as Վերափոխումն/Verapokhumn, also called directly after “The Mother of God” or Theotokos, Աստուատծածին/Asdvadzadzin. The Feast of the Assumption celebrates an important early tradition surrounding the death of St. Mary. According to this tradition, after St. Mary’s death, her body was taken up and received—assumed—into Heaven. Traditionally, this event, the venerable end to the life of the Mother of God, the Theotokos, took place in Jerusalem. According to some versions, including old Armenian ones, St. Bartholomew was not present at the death of St. Mary. Desiring to see her once more, after his return to Jerusalem he asked for the rock to be rolled away from the tomb of St. Mary, the traditional site of which you can still visit in Jerusalem. When the apostles removed the stone for St. Bartholomew to see her, in a moment reminiscent of Jesus’ Resurrection, her body was not there, but had been assumed into Heaven. Armenian tradition holds that St. Bartholomew was given a portrait of St. Mary, which he took with him during his evangelization of Armenia and which he brought to the region near Lake Van. Eventually this icon was placed in the Monastery of the Spirits, Hokyats Vank. The monastery remained an important pilgrimage site for many years.
Another tradition, however, places the death of St. Mary near the city of Ephesus. This tradition, which is a much more recent one, came about because we know that St. John the Evangelist spent the final years of his life near Ephesus. According to the Gospel of John, before Jesus died on the Cross, he saw St. John, “the beloved disciple” standing near His Mother, and told her, “here is your son,” then telling St. John, “Here is your mother.” The Gospel tells us that, “From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.” (John 19:26-7). Based off this passage and our knowledge that St. John spent time in Ephesus, this later tradition about St. Mary also took hold. Today, near Ephesus, where the Council of Ephesus took place at a church dedicated to St. Mary, and near the Basillica of St. John in Selçuk, both on the Aegean coast of Turkey, you can visit a church dedicated to St. Mary.
How can there be two different stories about what happened to St. Mary? How can there be two different sites associated with her death? Crucially, these different traditions developed in part because neither of these stories about the end of St. Mary’s life and her Assumption in Heaven are found in the Bible itself. While the New Testament provides the enticing detail regarding St. John the Evangelist and St. Mary, the rest of these traditions are based on inference from the known Biblical passages or from apocryphal material. Such sources, as we have mentioned before, are extra-Biblical sources the Church has deemed outside the canon of Scripture, which nonetheless can offer edifying examples and lessons and “fill in the details” of the lives of the people who populate the Bible. Perhaps more than any other topic, there is a vast apocryphal literature that relates to St. Mary and to the early years of both her life and the life of Jesus Christ. Traditions specifically relating to the Assumption of Mary took shape in apocryphal literature beginning in the fourth century. The earliest known example is the Book of Mary’s Repose, surviving only in an Ethiopic translation. Other early texts relating the tradition of the Assumption of Mary include De Obitu S. Dominae and De Transitu Virginis. Finally, there is a letter attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite that is another early text detailing the event of the Assumption of Mary—this text survives only in Armenian!
|Saints and Feasts of the Armenian Church||This little book by Patriarch Torkom Koushagian is a wonderful introduction to the most important feasts of the Armenian Apostolic Church and to many saints of the Church. It offers an overview of the Feast of the Assumption.|
|Vaspurakan-Vani vankʿerě||By Mkhitarist Father Hamazasp Oskean (Voskian), this three-volume study of the monasteries of Van (the region of Van is also called Vaspurakan) includes a discussion of the Hokyatz Vank, a major pilgrimage site that by tradition housed the image of the Mother of God brought to Armenia by St. Bartholomew. In Armenian.|
|Hnots ev norots patmutyun vasn Davti ev Movses Khorenatsvoy||A combination of a collection of works in Classical Armenian and essays about David the Invincible Philosopher and Movses Khorenatsi, this compilation of writings by Garegin Srvandztiants includes the Armenian letters of Dionysius the Areopagite. Among these letters is one that details the Assumption of Mary. In Armenian, at St. Nersess.|
In addition to traditions specifically about the Assumption of Mary, there is a vast and early apocryphal literature about other parts of St. Mary’s life. Perhaps the most important and the most well-known of these are a series of interrelated traditions about the birth and early life of St. Mary and the early life of Jesus Christ. Collectively, these are known as Infancy Gospels. Dr. Abraham Terian, Professor Emeritus at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, has translated the Armenian version of this tradition under the title of The Armenian Gospel of the Infancy. According to Dr. Terian, The Armenian Gospel of the Infancy is “a sixth-century translation from a now lost Syriac original.” This Armenian version exists in a long and short version, both of which draw upon a long tradition of Infancy Gospel narratives. These include what are known as the Protoevangelium of James or the Infancy Gospel of James, which was written in Greek in the second century and attributed to James, “the brother of the Lord.” In addition to the Infancy Gospel of James, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Pseduo-Matthew all deal with these infancy narratives.
It is from these New Testament apocryphal Infancy Gospels that we know crucial traditional details about the life of St. Mary. For instance, we know the names of the parents of St. Mary, St. Joachim and his wife Anne or Anna, from these Infancy Gospels. Sts. Joachim and Anna were childless, though they greatly desired to have children and were “holy and pure in spirit before the Lord and all people.” Eventually, after much prayer and petition, the prayers of these holy people were answered and Anna conceived and gave birth to St. Mary. The Armenian Gospel of the Infancy provides details about the childhood of St. Mary as she grew up with her parents Joachim and Anna. Despite its apocryphal nature, the two saints Joachim and Anna will be remembered in the liturgical calendar of the Armenian Church in the coming weeks, and the Eastern Diocese even has a church dedicated to Sts. Joachim and Anna in Palos Heights, Illinois!
After giving these details about St. Mary’s parents and early life, the Infancy Gospels move into a longer account of the birth and infancy of Jesus Christ. Much of it is a retelling of the Gospels. However, many more details are added. For instance, the Armenian version of the Infancy Gospels is the source of the names of the three Magi: Melon, Gaspar, and Baltasar. It is striking that the Armenians, so close to the Persianate world of the Magi, are those who found it important to include the detail of the names of the Magi. We see, in these Infancy Gospels, a further source of information about the life of St. Mary and Jesus Christ. We also see through these sources that people over the centuries have craved more information about the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ and his earthly family. St. Mary, perhaps the greatest icon of faith and source of strength in the face of the unknown, who willingly and faithfully accepted the will of God, has always inspired Christians. Armenian Christians, as the number of churches dedicate to St. Mary and the tradition of The Armenian Gospel of the Infancy attest, have found a powerful source of inspiration in St. Mary.
|The Armenian Gospel of the Infancy||Translated with an introduction by Dr. Abraham Terian, this is the Armenian source for many traditions about St. Mary, the Mother of God.|
|East of Byzantium: Syria and Armenia in the Formative Period||This collection of essays explores the deep connections between Armenian and Syriac Christianity. The Armenian Gospel of the Infancy is a translation from a lost Syriac original, and many Armenian traditions have their source in the Syrian Christian world.|
|Vagharshapat||In the Italian series Documents of Armenian Architecture, this volume details all the churches of Vagharshapat, including the Cathedral of Etchmiadzin, which is one of the many Armenian churches dedicated to St. Mary.|
Follow the Zohrab Information Center on Instagram @zohrabcenter to see pictures of the celebration of the Feast of the Assumption. Don’t forget to like us on Facebook!