National Catholic Register

Travel

Ephesus, City of the Assumption

BY John Baker Jr.

August 15-21, 1999 Issue | Posted 8/15/99 at 2:00 PM

 

On Mount Koressos, overlooking the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, stands the house of the Virgin Mary. Now part of Turkey, this is the place where it is believed our Lady spent her last days on earth.

The location was determined in 1891 through research done by Lazarian priests. They used descriptions from The Life of the Virgin Mary, a work linked to a German nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774 – 1824). A paralytic who had never visited the area, the nun recounted visions of the mountainous region that led the priests to Mary's house.

As Scripture records, Christ committed the care of his Mother to the apostle John. “And from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (John 19:27). John's work as an apostle took him to Ephesus from Jerusalem. One tradition follows the natural conclusion that Mary accompanied John to Ephesus where she lived until the end of her earthly life.

Both Pope Paul VI (1967) and Pope John Paul II (1979) visited the house of the Virgin Mary at Ephesus. When Pope John Paul visited, he declared the site a place of pilgrimage.

Pilgrims and tourists come both to see the house of Mary on the mountain and the ruins of Ephesus below. At the base of the mountain stand the impressive remains of many ancient structures. These include the Grand Theater, the largest amphitheater of its time, where St. Paul preached. The Church of St. John is built over the apostle's tomb. Also, the Church of the Virgin Mary is the first church named in honor of our Lady.

The Church of the Virgin Mary is linked to two Church councils held in Ephesus in 431 and 439. The first of these two councils of Ephesus, which was the third ecumenical council, taught that there is only one person in Christ, a divine person. This teaching countered the Nestorian heresy, which claimed that there were two persons in Christ. The 431 council also declared Mary to be the Mother of God because she is the Mother of the divine person Christ.

The Marian significance of Ephesus centers on the feast of the Assumption. That our Lady spent her last earthly days on the mountain outside Ephesus means that her Assumption occurred thereabouts. Appropriately, the Assumption is the most significant day at this Marian shrine.

On Aug. 15, 2000, as at other Christian holy places during the millennial year, the celebration of the feast is planned to be quite special and is expected to draw even larger crowds of pilgrims than usual.

Among the Ephesians

When St. Paul preached at Ephesus during the first century, it seemed to the merchants of the city that his message was “bad for business.” The local silversmiths of the day specialized in sales of miniature silver shrines of Artemis, one of the most widely worshipped female deities of the time. Her temple at Ephesus was considered by ancient writers to be one of “the Seven Wonders of the World.” Paul's preaching of the one true God, if it were successful, would have ended the demand for statues of Artemis.

To protect the source of their income, Demetrius, the leader of the silversmiths, rallied others to riot against Paul's preaching. As related in Acts, he argued: “Men, you well know that our prosperity derives from this work.

As you can now see and hear, not only in Ephesus but throughout most of the province of Asia this Paul has persuaded and misled a great number of people by saying that gods made by hands are not gods at all.

The danger grows, not only that our business will be discredited, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be of no account, and that she whom the whole province of Asia and all the world worship will be stripped of her magnificence” (Acts 19:26 – 27).

Those predictions proved to be quite correct. Moreover, not only Artemis, but Ephesus itself lost its ancient magnificence. With a population of 250,000, Ephesus was then the capital of the Roman province in Asia Minor. Its strategic position as a seaport at the western beginning of the great trade route to the East made the city the commercial, cultural and pagan religious center of Asia Minor.

The city has long since been reduced to ruins, however. In 262 A.D. the Goths burned and destroyed Ephesus and the temple of Artemis. The port eventually filled in and eliminated the city's commercial base. The temple was rebuilt but later cannibalized for materials used in other buildings.

By the Middle Ages, the once powerful city had withered to a village. The place once held here by the mythical goddess Artemis has now been overtaken by the actual Mother of God.

The shrine of Mary's House is a far cry from the temple of the goddess. In approaching the chapel, one is struck by its peace and, entering it, its humility. With sparse furnishings, the house is a place of quiet meditation, with Mass said daily in its largest room.

It is located outside Ephesus'neighboring Selcuk, and is surrounded by trees. The present structure there was built in 1954 to incorporate ruins of a chapel that date from the seventh century. Abronze statue of Mary is in a niche above the altar. Healing powers have been attributed to nearby springs.

John S. Baker Jr. is a law profesor at Louisiana State University.