Friday, August 22, 2008

The Assumption vs. Assumptions

Among some Orthodox, especially among new members of the Orthodox Church, there seems to be an impression that "the Fathers" never deviated from one another in any detail. Thus, by reading one father or one group of fathers, one may comprehend all of Orthodoxy. This is an oversimplification and runs the risk of denying the Fathers' humanity. Yes, they were great lights, and all are worthy of study, but they must often be read in view of one another.

The Feast of the Dormition/Assumption, whose octave falls today, is one case in point. Like many other feasts, the practice moved from the East to the West, and some Western fathers had questions about it. Two in particular were St. Adamnan of Iona (d. 704) and the Venerable Bede (d. 735). The former wrote in De Locis Sanctis, "on the right side of it [the lower church] is the empty stone sepulchre of St. Mary, in which for a time she rested after her burial. But how or when or by whom her sacred body was raised from that sepulchre, or where it awaits the Resurrection, it is said that no one knows certainly." The Venerable Bede echoed his questions.

Yet this Feast is celebrated by East and West, attested to by many Fathers. I don't say this to diminish either saint, especially the Venerable Bede. But there are some who will find a doctrine eluded to by one writer and run with it as far as they can, or who read a certain Byzantine term was used one time in a missal in a far-flung corner of the continent, and thus this is transformed into "our ancient Western heritage." But scattered individual uses, liturgical or doctrinal, are by definition idiosyncratic and, at times, simply wrong. This should serve as an antidote to our relying too heavily upon any one saint or geographic congolomeration of saints, in whom there may be error, and encourage us to rather lean upon the whole testimony of the fathers and the mind of the Church.

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