This summertime solemnity, celebrating Mary’s assumption into heaven, bears an age-old tradition of blessing flowers, herbs, and the August harvest. It invites us to celebrate this abundance through the lens of Mary, the fragrant Theotokos (“God-Bearer”), who bore the gift that awoke us to abundance.
The fragrant, herbal traditions of the Assumption offer us tangible & sacramental ways of grafting feast days into our lives…inviting us to experience theology with all our senses. And for me, anyway, that’s where deeply-seeded memory is formed.
HISTORY & LEGEND
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – also known as the Dormition – commemorates the end of Mary’s life and her journey into heaven. It’s been formally celebrated since the early Middle Ages, with folk stories surrounding Mary’s death being told in ancient apocryphal texts centuries before that, dating back to even the 2nd century.
“There is a quasi-precursor of this feast in the ‘Day of Mary Mother of God’ which is attested for August 15 in a mid-fifth century lectionary from Jerusalem (extant in an Armenian translation). This ancient feast was rather general in its object and it soon became a commemoration of the Natale (‘birthday’), i.e., death of Mary (Greek: koimesis; Latin: dormitio; = ‘falling asleep’). The feast in this form was extended to the entire Byzantine empire by Emperor Maurice (582-602). […] …In the seventh century this was celebrated as the ‘Feast of Mary’s Assumption.’ A feast called Natale Sanctae Mariae on August 15 is attested for the middle of the seventh century in Rome. Under Pope Sergius I (687-701), a Syrian who did much to introduce Eastern feasts of Mary to Rome, the feast in question was celebrated as a feast of her death, and included a procession from the church of St. Adrian to the church of St. Mary.”Adolf Adam, “The Liturgical Year: Its History & Its Meaning After the Reform of the Liturgy”
This relief sculpture (housed in the Met’s Cloisters), once part of an altarpiece, depicts a scene from the Golden Legend – a collection of hagiographies by Jacobus de Voragine, very popular in the late Medieval period. In this tale, the apostles gathered at Mary’s deathbed; the sculpture shows St. Peter officiating (holding the book), another apostle sprinkling holy water, and an apostle at Mary’s feet filling the air with incense. Only eleven apostles are depicted here; St. Thomas was late. He doubted her Assumption, and then her girdle fell to him from heaven.
Another story goes that when Thomas arrived and entered Mary’s tomb, he found only her burial sheet and a fragrant array of flowers and herbs.
“If you have gathered herbs in the moonlight on a still summer night you will know why I shall never forget that night of August 14. As I stopped to pick a spike of lavender, I was enfolded in an ancient spell of legend and story. From the past a voice of some old herbalist spoke out. The Mother of God was very fond of lavender flowers ‘because of their virtue in protecting clothes from dirty, filthy beasts.’ She also loved this herb ‘for the reason that it preserves chastity.’ And periwinkle or joy-of-the-ground should be blessed on Our Lady’s Day, for ‘whoever carries this herb with him on the skin – the devil has no power over him.’ Take clary, too, for these flowers are the ‘eyes of Christ.’ Kathy’s little feet were crushing the creeping thyme in the path and the pungent odor reminded us to pick a whole family of thymes. We must have mints, too, for they were strewn on the streets and Church aisles for the Virgin’s procession. The cooking herbs were not forgotten. If I am to be Christ’s cook, I must use God’s herbs ‘for the service of men.’ ‘In pottage without herbs there is neither goodness nor nourishment.’
“Soon our aprons were full of a pot-pourri of fragrant sprays, and Kathy and I joined the others. We had gathered the best of our harvest. We made a diadem of our first fruits for the coronation fo our Queen, for the day of the Assumption, the crown of all feasts in honor of Our Lady.”Florence Berger, “Cooking for Christ: Your Kitchen Prayerbook”
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Adolf Adam. The Liturgical Year: Its History & Its Meaning After the Reform of the Liturgy. Liturgical Press, 1990.
Berger, Florence with Alexandra Greeley & Sr. Esther Mary Nickel R.S.M, Ph.D., S.L.D. Cooking For Christ: Your Kitchen Prayer Book. Catholic Rural Life, 2018 (Revised Edition).
Cloisters: The Death of the Virgin (Dormition). https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/471989
Golden Legend: The Assumption. https://www.christianiconography.info/goldenLegend/assumption.htm