Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Fear of Death in Narratives of the Dormition of Mary

On Monday, while discussing the texts we read for class, we noted four main differences between the many accounts of the phenomenon of Mary’s assumption into heaven and the events surrounding it. These differences were: one, the location(s) of the events; two, the conversations that transpire during them; three, the details of what happens to the Jew who tries to attack the bed on which Mary’s body is being carried; and four, how Mary’s body and soul are actually assumed.

I’d like to add one more difference that I noticed in the accounts we read, one could perhaps be a bullet point underneath the second category of discrepancies listed above: Mary’s attitude toward death, and the way she expresses it. In many of the narratives of her dormition, Mary makes some expression of how she anticipates her coming death, and no story presents her emotions as exactly the same: she is variously anticipatory, fearful, melancholy, joyful.

Looking at these different tellings of how Mary approached her death, we wonder how such divergent stories found their way into ink. This, though, is a question we can bring to any of the differences in these texts, and one that, as discussed in class on Monday, can often be answered by considering the narratives as not only different accounts of the same story, but also as individual accounts belonging to local communities with their own interests, emphases, and observances. What I’d really like to know is: What is the motivation behind exposing about Mary’s attitude at all? As we noted in our first two classes, very little reflection or individual personhood is attributed to Mary in the four Gospels; in fact, with the exception of Luke, who gives Mary a few opportunities to display her critical and emotional faculties, none is attributed at all. So what did the authors of these texts about the dormition think that the accounting of Mary’s emotions regarding death would add to these narratives?

In order to consider this question, I’d like to leave behind the differences in texts; though I find them extremely interesting, I don’t think I have the tools or the space to do them justice. Instead, let’s consider the one element of Mary’s expression of her attitude toward death that is present in each of the narratives we read that attribute to her reflection on her death: her request that her Son, Jesus, protect her against the powers of the devil in the next world.

These requests vary in their magnitude, the place in the narratives in which they transpire, and the nature and intensity of the emotions by which they are accompanied. The kernel, however, is the same. Here are some examples.

Evodius: She besought him to save her from the many terrors of the next world—the accusers of Amente, the dragon of the abyss, the river of fire that proves the righteous and the wicked.

Cyril of Jerusalem: …she asked to be delivered from the terrors of the next world—the dragon and the river of fire.

Pseudo-Melito: And Mary said to him, “I ask that you would put your blessing upon me, that no power of hell may meet me in the hours in which my soul goes out of the body, and that I may not see the prince of darkness.”

Jacobus relating John the Evangelist: “And I also plead and pray that when my soul leaves this body, it may see no foul spirit, and that no power of Satan may confront me.”

Jacobus relating Saint Cosmas Vestitor: His mother had implored him, face to face, when her Son was still living on earth, not to let her see any malignant spirit.

At the core of these passages, we find similar cruxes: an anxiety about death, an acknowledgement of hell, and a trust that a plea to Jesus is not sinful or in vain. I’ve come up with a few ideas about why the authors of these texts would want to attribute these things to Mary; I’ll briefly mention them here.

Anxiety about death: Through our readings so far this quarter, we’ve learned that Mary’s humanity is absolutely crucial to the delicate infrastructure that is Christianity. Perhaps the authors thought that painting Mary as being unsure or fearful about her death would help confirm that she is fully human, without divine instinct or power regarding the afterlife.

Acknowledgement of hell: The concept of hell and the existence of Satan are sometimes pushed aside with discomfort in modern Christianity; this is pure speculation, but I wonder if these ideas presented as much of a problem to early Christians as they do to their modern counterparts. Maybe the authors of these narratives wished to attribute to Mary statements that would confirm Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels about the reality of hell. To stretch this a little more, it could be possible that these statements are also meant to leapfrog back to Old Testament mentions of fire and brimstone, reminding readers of Jesus’s fulfillment of the line of Hebrew prophets.

Trust that prayers of supplication are worthwhile: In class, we focused on how the narratives of Mary’s assumption are meant to present to Christians the Church’s teachings on life after death and the resurrection of the body at the second coming of Christ. Perhaps the authors were trying to establish acceptable attitudes and behavior toward death through Mary’s speech and actions: though a person may believe in Christ, Mary’s words suggest that it is not wrong to be frightened of death and the powers of evil, and that though a person is shaken, praying to Jesus will strengthen and calm a person encountering death and could influence God to show mercy during judgment.

If anyone else is interested in thinking about this topic, or has suggestions about or disagreements with any of the ideas put forth here, please share your insights.



  1. CCF: Wow, you anticipated exactly the question I asked in the comments for the previous post (which I just posted)! There must be something to the question. But then after giving some suggestive explanations for the differences, you “leave behind the differences in texts” (as I also would be forced to do, I think). So it must be that there is also something to both your and FL’s focus on the similarities over the discrepancies. Your three “reasons” for the common narrative elements seem perfectly reasonable to me, and convincing. Thus far, in class discussions, the “milder” doctrinal explanations for various narrative elements have been suggested. But the driving points that Professor Fulton Brown seems to want us to get have to do more with central, pivotal theology. I wonder if there are even more “pivotal” theological points of this sort in your three motifs. Nice synthesis of themes in the readings.

  2. Thank you so much for bringing this point up--yes! I think that Mary's attitude toward death is probably one of the most important elements of these stories, just as important as what they say about what happened to her soul and body after death. It goes along with what I think is happening in the stories and sermons generally about exploring what death means in the context of the resurrection: even Mary, who witnessed the death and resurrection of her Son, still confronts death with (in some stories at least) a fair degree of anxiety. As you suggest, I think also that these stories give us a fair glimpse into the anxieties that late antique Christians had about what would happen to their souls at death. Interestingly, though, Mary's fears have more to do with her passage as such than her destination. She worries about being attacked or seeing the prince of darkness, not whether she is going to heaven.