The rich celebrations of the Custody of the Holy Land for the solemnity of the Assumption of Mary took place in Jerusalem at the Grotto of the Apostles and the Basilica of Gethsemane: the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, a place that has been looked after and venerated since the first centuries by Christians, stands here, at the foot of the Mount of Olives.
The story of the death of Mary and her Assumption is known thanks to apocryphal literature, with the name of the Dormition of Our Lady: it hands down the story of the last days of the Virgin Mary, whose body is said to have been laid here by the apostles in a new tomb in the Kidron Valley, which three days later they found empty.
The veneration and cult of Mary have continued here ever since, and from the eve of the feast-day, the whole of the Franciscan community gathered on this very spot, led by the Custos of the Holy Land, fr. Francesco Patton, to remember the Assumption, a dogma defined by Pope Pius XII on 1 November 1950.
The celebration of the Transit of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The solemnity opened on the evening of 14 August with the vigil of prayer in the Grotto of the Apostles, which from as early as the 4th century held the memory of the place of the betrayal of Judas and Jesus’s arrest. Various passages narrating the life of Mary were read here, allowing the many religious, faithful and pilgrims to pray in an atmosphere of reflection and silence. The Custos of the Holy Land invited those present to reflect on the words of the Transit of the Virgin Mary and on its connection with the meaning of “the pilgrimage that is our life”: “Our person will also experience the time of death,” said the Custos, “as a moment of detachment, but at the same time as a moment when Jesus lovingly entrusts our soul to his angels so that they can keep it waiting for all our person to experience resurrection, in paradise.” (the full text is here)
The moving nocturnal procession of the Dormition of the Virgin through the olive grove then led the faithful to the Basilica of the Agony. After the last prayer, the Custos scattered rose petals on the statue of Our Lady, and then blessed the assembly.
Feast of the Assumption
On 15 August, in the Basilica of the Agony, or “of the Nations”- where on 1 July the Jubilee of the Centenary of the construction of the basilica was celebrated – the solemn pontifical mass was held in the presence of a large assembly. In his homily, the Custos of the Holy Land stressed the beauty of Mary: “ Mary is beautiful, with a beauty which is given by the constant presence of the Holy Spirit in her flesh, which makes the creature transparent, capable of showing the beauty that comes from God. Mary is beautiful with a beauty which attracts without containing anything vulgarly seductive. Mary is beautiful with a beauty which is then shown in her goodness as a woman, a bride and a mother.” (the text in full of “Mary, a very beautiful woman” is here).
This year the Franciscan sisters, the Daughters of St Elizabeth, carried the statue of the Assumption in the traditional procession at the end of the celebration of the Eucharist.
The second vespers at the Grotto of Apostles
The second vespers took place in the afternoon. “Mary,” fr. Patton insisted, “by “changing the fate of Eve” as we sing in “Ave Maris Stella”, is the first, after Jesus and thanks to Jesus, to be able to eat the fruit of the tree of life, she is the first to be able to take part in the life and the immortality of God with all her person, with all her humanity, body and soul.” (the words of reflection of the Custos are here).
The procession to the Tomb of the Virgin Mary
Lastly, the traditional procession of pilgrims to the Tomb of the Virgin Mary was held, on the only day when the Franciscans are allowed to make the peregrination.
The Friars Minor, after a period of exclusive possession of the Tomb, were definitively expelled in 1757. Today the place is in the care of the Greek and Armenian Orthodox and represents, together with Bethlehem, the Holy Sepulchre and the Ascension, the fourth Holy Place regulated by the Statu Quo, according to which the Franciscans can continue to go there, in solemn procession, only on the feast-day of the Assumption.
All those present entered the edicule after the Custos, first knelt in prayer inside the tomb, to be close to and venerate the block of rock, i.e. the empty tomb of Mary.
The solemn celebrations came to an end with refreshments in the garden of the Convent.