Visiting Mary’s Tomb: Church of the Assumption Draws Pilgrims for Marian Solemnity

For nearly two millennia, pilgrims have venerated Mary’s Tomb.

Mary’s Tomb in Jerusalem is a popular pilgrimage site.
Mary’s Tomb in Jerusalem is a popular pilgrimage site. (photo: Robert Hoetink / Shutterstock.com)

JERUSALEM — For Christians who were born and raised in the Holy Land, every holiday and feast day is an opportunity to reconnect with their faith in the place Christianity was born. 

But some days hold a particularly special place in the hearts of Holy Land Catholics. 

The Solemnity of the Assumption, which falls on Aug. 15, is one of them. The feast celebrates Mary’s assumption — God’s delivery of her body and soul — to heaven in order to be with Jesus Christ, her Risen Son. 

“This is Our Lady. She is the Mother of God and second to Our Lord,” explained Wadi Abunassar, adviser and media spokesman of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land. “And this is our Church. We have to serve it, to keep faith and hope, despite all the challenges” facing the Holy Land’s tiny Christian community. 

Although there is no explicit description of Mary’s death and resurrection in the New Testament, for nearly two millennia pilgrims have venerated Mary’s Tomb. 

In 1950, Pope Pius XII defined the dogma of the Assumption in an apostolic constitution, the weightiest form of papal legislation. 

“… by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory,” Pope Pius wrote in Munificentissimus Deus. 

Since this declaration, millions of Christians have come to pray at Mary’s Tomb, located in what is now the eastern half of Jerusalem. A church, long destroyed, was built around the crypt in the fifth century. Today, the crypt stands within the Crusader-era Church of the Assumption.  

It is close to Gethsemane, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, the place where Jesus and his disciples prayed the night before his crucifixion. 

Although Mary’s Tomb was under the authority of the Catholic Church’s Franciscan order from 1363 to 1757, today the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Churches administer the site, but allow the Ethiopian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox and Coptic Churches some privileges. 

The Franciscans have no official authority inside the tomb, “but we have the Grotto of the Apostles,” just a few feet away from the tomb, said Franciscan Father Ramzi Sidawi, the administrator of the Custody of the Holy Land. 

Under the Status Quo agreement that mandates all Christian denominations be allowed to pray in the Church of the Assumption, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Franciscans are permitted to hold a brief liturgical service inside the tomb one day a year: Aug. 15. 

The ceremony surrounding the Solemnity of the Assumption is very moving. 

On the night of Aug. 14, Catholics assemble at the foot of the Mount of Olives, to pray and share scriptural and apocryphal references to Mary’s life. Then they participate in a candlelight procession to the Basilica of Gethsemane, where they pray, as well. 

On the morning of Aug. 15, the Catholic Church holds two Masses in Jerusalem. One is held in the Basilica of the Dormition, on Mount Zion, believed to be the place where Mary lived for a time and where she eventually fell asleep. According to Tradition, the apostles brought Mary’s body to the site today venerated as her tomb. 

The second procession departs from the Grotto of Gethsemane to the Church of the Assumption, where the Franciscans spend a few moments in prayer. 

Inside the Assumption Church, visitors must walk down about 50 stone steps to reach the tomb. The massive stone ceiling above the staircase is arched, and ornate golden light fixtures dangle from above. 

Descending about halfway down, the wall on the left gives way to a spot honoring Mary’s husband, St. Joseph. To the right, there is a nook honoring Sts. Joachim and Anne, Mary’s parents. 

The entrance to Mary’s Tomb is covered with artistic images of Mary. Inside, the illuminated space where Mary was laid is topped by the stone bench that, according to Tradition, is where her body reposed prior to the Assumption. 

Pilgrims are permitted to touch the bench. 

While crowds are expected to be smaller this year because Israel has severely limited who can enter the country due to COVID, Catholics in Jerusalem and the rest of Israel will be able to attend.

Father Sidawi believes the assumption of Mary is significant because “it goes directly to the very important dogma in our faith. The Virgin Mary was always together with her son Jesus. The assumption is the natural conclusion for the Mother of God.” 

“Bringing Mary to heaven was Jesus’ way of honoring the Fourth Commandment: to honor thy father and thy mother,” Father Sidawi said. 

“He was the first to accomplish this commandment, the first to honor his mother. Remember, the Virgin Mary carried Jesus for nine months, so how could a holy body that carried the Son of God experience what happens to all bodies when they are buried?” 

Father Sidawi said the assumption of Mary is a sign of hope for humanity. 

As it stands now, he said, when people die they are buried and their bodies are slowly absorbed by nature. While that’s a natural consequence of dying, it separates the body from the soul. 

At the end of days, during the final resurrection, “our bodies will be called back to life, and our bodies and our souls will be together. Our bodies will be glorified the way Jesus was glorified after his resurrection,” Father Sidawi said. “We know we will be called, as the Virgin Mary was called.”

Michele Chabin, the Register’s Middle East correspondent, writes from Jerusalem.

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