Mary’s Apocalypse – A Cautionary Tale

“The Assumption of Mary” Sano di Pietro (c. 1448-1452)

Holy is God Who has compassion on account of the Theotokos.  We give Thee thanks, O Son of God, that from eternity we did not see the light, and today through the Theotokos we have seen the light: and again they shouted with one voice, saying:  Hail, Theotokos, full-of-grace!  Hail, lamp of the inaccessible light!

Apocalypsis Mariae Virginae 23:1

The story of how Mary died, just like the story of how she was born, is not in the Bible. Christians generally rely on apocryphal legends for details about these things. The feast of Mary’s Dormition or “falling asleep” is a latecomer to Church history and Christians apparently did not really celebrate it until the 5th or 6th century. Like much of its dabbling in the apocrypha, the Church does not really admit which of many apocryphal sources ultimately influenced its liturgical commemorations, but we know that many of the traditions surrounding Mary’s death come from Jerusalem, although there are different local traditions. We also know that the Orthodox Church long credited Dionysius the Areopagite and Ignatius of Antioch with transmitting the tradition. 

Stephen Shoemaker, a professor from the University of Oregon who specializes in the study of early Christianity and particularly the role of Mary, once made available a number of these traditions in translation on his website which was linked through Wikipedia. However, he has updated since those translations have become a book, so I spent a lot of time yesterday, fruitlessly searching the internet for them. I may one day buy the expensive book, but in the mean time, while searching some classic (and free) sources, I found something even more interesting and surely unknown to many. Looking through volume 9 of the famed Ante Nicene Fathers collection I happened upon the “Apocalypse of the Virgin” translated by Andrew Rutherford from the text of M. R. James in Texts and Studies, ii., 3, (1893) from a manuscript in the Bodleian Library.

During these days of the Dormition Fast (Aug 1-14), it is customary to pray in alteration two supplicatory canons, or intercessory hymns to the Virgin Mary. These hymns are called the great and small Παρακλητικος κανων. Paraklētikos is an adjective coming from the word Παρακλητος or Paraklēte (“counselor” or “advocate”) which is usually an appellation of the Holy Spirit but is also applied to Christ (cf 1 Jn 2:1). These hymns of paraklēsis or fervent supplication are addressed to the Virgin Mary. Although I do not think she is usually called a Paraklēte, the Coptic Church does call Mary the Προστατης prostátēs which means “one who stands before.” (In case you are wondering: yes, that is where the English word “prostate” comes from). In Ezekiel 22:30 where Israel is likened to a furnace, God says “So I sought for a man among them who would make a wall, and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found no one.” Orthodox Christians who call the Mother of God “faithful advocate of the human race” believe that she is one of the pre-eminent ones who “stands in the gap” for us, as the Apocalypse of Mary will show. Continue reading Mary’s Apocalypse – A Cautionary Tale