On the 15th of August every year, or on the Sunday closest to this date, the Armenian Church world-wide celebrates the Feast of the Assumption of the Holy Mother of God. It is called Verapokhoum, denoting that Jesus came down to earth and ascended again to heaven with his mother, or else Nentchoum, to highlight the belief that St Mary was not dead, but only in an eternal slumber, until her assumption into heaven.
This feast is the fourth of five major ones commemorated by the Armenian Apostolic Church, and happens to be the oldest one dedicated to St Mary. It involves not only a solemn Divine Liturgy but also the populist blessing of the madagh, a mercy offering intended for the needy that is practised to this day in the Armenian patriarchates and some churches, as well as the traditional service of the blessing of the grapes or khaghogh orhnek.
Despite being the Mother of God, there is surprisingly scant information about St Mary’s life in the Bible. As a result, the double story of her death and assumption some three to fifteen years after the Resurrection has been preserved and passed on more through the Apostolic Traditions of the Church than on the basis of Holy Scripture.
St Bartholomew is one of the twelve apostles in the Synoptic Gospels of Sts Matthew, Mark and Luke, and his patronymic name in Aramaic is the Son of Tolmai (son of furrows). He is honoured as original co-founder, along with St Thaddeus, of the Church in Armenia – hence the appellation to both as the First Illuminators of the Armenian Nation. St Bartholomew was flayed for his Christian faith, and later became a martyr, as depicted in Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican showing him holding the knife of his martyrdom and with his flayed skin hanging from his arm.
St Bartholomew, however, was absent from St Mary’s last moments on earth and did not participate at her burial service. Upon his return to Jerusalem, he very much wished to see her for the last time. Heeding his request, the apostles opened the tomb, yet they did not find St Mary’s remains. According to His promise, Jesus Christ had delivered His mother to His heavenly kingdom.
The apostles gave St Bartholomew the board for consolation. According to the historiographer Moses of Khoren (Movses Khorenatsi, 5th CE), St Bartholomew brought the board to Armenia. It was kept in the province of Andzav, in a location called Darbnots. A church was built on the site, and a convent opened in St Mary’s honour.
The Armenian Church retains an abiding respect for St Mary on her being a mother, as much as on her saintly honesty, her unique spirit of humility, her virtuous behaviour and unselfish dedication. Her life should also set an example for relations between mothers and children and bear an impact on our definition of family units.
But above all, one must not forget that in bearing Jesus, in offering Him to the world, in watching Him die only to witness his empty tomb, this woman offered the world the Messiah – the new living Temple for Christians today.