by The Rev. Peter Burfeind
August 15th is an important day in the liturgical year. It is the Feast of Mary, Mother of Our Lord. The day corresponds to the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Roman Catholic tradition, and the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God in Eastern Orthodox tradition.
What is the Assumption of Mary? What is the Dormition of the Mother of God? Both basically describe the same event. Tradition has it that at the end of Mary’s life, all the apostles were transported from various places in the world to her side. Only Thomas was not present. Thomas arrived after her burial, and he asked to bid her farewell at her grave. When the apostles and Thomas arrived at the grave, Mary’s body was gone. The apostles believed that she was "assumed" bodily into heaven. Mary, it was taught, participated in the bodily resurrection ahead of schedule. The rest of us will be resurrected bodily at Jesus’ second coming, but Mary was granted this gift of early resurrection.
(Where the Eastern Orthodox believe that Mary experienced death just as Jesus did, Roman Catholics leave it an open question whether she even died. Roman Catholics are allowed to believe that Mary – partly because she was free of original sin – did not have to suffer the punishment of death, so she was assumed into heaven without having died.)
There is nothing per se that Lutherans cannot accept about this tradition of Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven after her death. However, because there is no evidence of this event prior to the fifth century A.D., most are skeptical about the tradition.
Lutherans are careful about traditions. We continue and embrace the historic traditions of the Church – such as the liturgy, the creeds, church practices, and other feast days – but we do not state anything dogmatically unless it can be supported by clear teachings of Sacred Scripture.
Therefore, we have no problem celebrating the incredible grace that was given to the Blessed Virgin. We confess that she, like the burning bush, was a receptacle of God Himself as He came into our world. What did God say to Moses from the burning bush? He said, "The place where you stand is holy ground." If we have no problem stating that dirt is hallowed because God was there, we should certainly have no problem honoring Mary as holy and blessed.
Mary is, as the feast day declares, the "Mother of our Lord." Jesus is both God and man, and Mary is the mother not just of Jesus’ humanity, but His whole Person (humanity and divinity). Therefore, she is the mother of God through the Person of Jesus Christ. That indeed makes her a unique and special individual who was graced by God unlike any other human being in history.
What does Mary mean for us? Many have observed that Mary is a type of the Church. What does this mean? It means that, even as she was at the receiving end of God’s grace given by the Holy Spirit, so is the Church at the receiving end of God’s grace given by the Holy Spirit. Her faith is therefore an example for the Church.
This may seem well and good, but many would be surprised to learn that this very point explains a huge chasm between Lutheran and Roman Catholic teaching. One of the reasons why the Roman church has lifted Mary to a role that Lutherans find unacceptable – to the point that some have called her the "co-redemptrix" with Jesus – is because they believe that Mary used her free will to accept the Holy Spirit when Jesus was conceived in her. If Mary, they say, used her free will to work with God to effect salvation for the world, is she not partly responsible for our salvation? If so, we too could use our free will to work with God’s grace, and so also be co-workers with God for our salvation !
What Mary actually said when Gabriel came to her serves as a wonderful reminder to us. It is the reason why we cherish her, and why we honor her day. She said, "Let it be according to your word." And later she sang the Magnificat (found in Luke 1), a wonderful canticle which gives all glory to the Lord. The Lord is the subject of all the verbs, and Mary is the object! As a professor at Concordia Seminary used to ask, "Who’s running the verbs?"
If Mary teaches us anything, and if there is a reason to observe the feast day on August 15, it is this: The Lord has done great things for us. He has shown great grace to us. What he began with Mary, He continues with us today. Whether Mary was assumed or not may be left to the personal pieties of any Christian, but what is most important is what has been left behind in the Gospel, that Mary serves as a wonderful example of God’s grace to all people.
The Rev. Peter Burfeind is pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Toledo, Ohio. He also is a partner with the Rev. Dan Feusse in Pax Domini Press, an independent publishing house for Lutheran catechetical materials.
Created: August 28th, 2007