Glory to Jesus Christ!
A very early Christian writer named Tertullian, sometime around the year 200 AD, wrote:
"Mortuus est Dei filius; credible est quia ineptum est: et sepultus resurrexit; certum est quia impossibile est" Translation: “The Son of God died; this is believable because it is foolish; and that He rose from the grave is certain, because it is impossible." (Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ.)
Being a Christian is all about having faith and believing in what the whole rest of the world thinks is absurd. A spinoff from Tertullian's quote is the popular Latin phrase “Credo quiam absurdum,” “I believe because it is absurd.”
We know that the Dormition is the oldest Christian feast honouring the Virgin Mary, but we don't know exactly how and when it first came to be celebrated.
Jerusalem had been an officially pagan city for more than 200 years.
The Emperor Hadrian (76-138), (the same guy, who out of fear of the Scots, built a famous wall between England and Scotland to keep them out,) had leveled the city of Jerusalem in around the year 135. He rebuilt it and renamed it “Aelia Capitolina” The “Aelia” part referred to a family name in Hadrian's line, the “Capitolina” part was in honor of the god Jupiter, whose great temple stood on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. When Hadrian rebuilt the Holy City, no Jews were allowed there. It became a Roman, and decidedly pagan, Colonia. The Temple Mount became Jupiter's home, and other sacred sites became temples dedicated to other pagan gods.
It was not until the time of the first Christian Roman Emperor, St. Constantine the Great (c. 285-337), and especially through the efforts of his saintly mother, Queen Helen, that the Holy Places began to be uncovered, and Christian shrines and churches began to be built on these sites. Christians and Jews were free, once again, to live in the Holy City.
The Church of the Resurrection was constructed in 336, and other sacred sites began to be restored and memories of the life of Our Lord began to be celebrated by the people of Jerusalem. One of the memories retained in the mind of the Christians was about his Most Holy Mother, and centered around the "Tomb of Mary," close to Mount Zion, where the early Christian community had lived prior to its expulsion.
On the hill itself was the "Place of the Dormition," the spot of Mary's "falling asleep," where she had died. Nearby was the "Tomb of Mary" the place where she was buried.
At this time, for sure, the feast of the "Remembrance of the Falling Asleep of Mary" was being celebrated. Later it would become known as our feast of the Dormition (from the Latin “dormitio” or “falling-asleep”) of the Theotokos.
In the beginning, the "Remembrance of the Falling Asleep of Mary" was marked only in Palestine, but then it was extended by the emperor to all the churches of the Empire.
In the West, and even in some Orthodox churches, we see the feast being given another name, the "Assumption of Mary." This is due to the Church's memory regarding the body of the Panagia, the Virgin Mary, being taken-up, “assumed,” into heaven after being raised from the dead.
This is a very ancient belief, dating back to the time of the apostles themselves. This is part of that notion of “believing in the unbelievable” that is so much a part of our Christian experience and faith. I always find it odd that some devout people will question the church's memory about the assumption of Mary, but won't hesitate to confess the bodily resurrection of Christ, which is based on that same memory and faith of the church. What was clear from the beginning was that there were no relics of Mary to be venerated, and that her empty tomb stood on the edge of Jerusalem not far from the site of her death. That location also soon became a place of pilgrimage. (Today, the Church of the Dormition of Mary stands on the spot.)
At the Fourth Ecumenical Council, held in a suburb of Constantinople called Chalcedon in 451, bishops from throughout the known world gathered together. The Emperor Marcian asked the Patriarch of Jerusalem to bring the relics of the Virgin to Constantinople to be enshrined in the capitol. The patriarch explained to the emperor that there were no relics of Mary in Jerusalem, that "Mary had died in the presence of the apostles; but her tomb is empty....the apostles declaring that her body had been taken up into heaven."
In the eighth century, St. John of Damascus was famous for giving sermons at the holy places in Jerusalem. At the Tomb of Mary, he expressed in a hymn the belief of the Church on the meaning of the feast: "Although thy body was duly buried, it did not remain in the state of death, neither was it dissolved by decay. . . . Thou art translated to thy heavenly home, O our Lady, Queen and true Theotokos.”
All the feast days of the Virgin commemorate the great mysteries of her life and her part in the work of the salvation and regeneration of the world. Her whole being was radiant with divine life from the very beginning, preparing her for the exalted role of mother of the Saviour, the God-Man, Jesus Christ.
The death and assumption of the Mother of God declares and confirms God's choice of her as the one who was “highly favoured” and “full of grace” in that it was not fitting that the flesh that had given life to God himself should ever undergo corruption. The Dormition, Resurrection, and Assumption into Heaven of Mary is the fulfillment of God's promises to her, as she ends her earthly life and begins her heavenly life as the protector and intercessor for the whole world. The present feast turns our eyes in that heavenly direction, where we hope to follow when our earthly life is over. As I've said many times before, the feast days of the Church are not just the commemoration of historical events; they do not simply look at the past. They look at the present and they look to the future and give us an opportunity to pause and reflect on our own relationship with God.
The 13th Kontakion from the Akathist for the Dormition reads: "O All-hymned Mother of the immortal King of Heaven and Earth, Christ our God, living even after death, accept from us this our present offering for thine all-honoured Dormition; and in this life and in our mortal repose, deliver us from every evil assault, danger and torment, and vouchsafe us to be worthy of the Heavenly Kingdom, O Queen, who cry unto thee, Alleluia!"