My weekend began with much activity in the kitchen. It’s the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven on 15 August, although I usually begin my celebrations a couple of days before.
It has been my custom for several years now to bake bread for the feast also known as Marymas, and the recipe I usually use is a wonderful beer and honey bread. I found it in a cookbook that belongs to my best friend in all the world, although, to my shame, I didn’t write down which book it was (if memory serves, it was one of the You magazine’s recipe collections).
I also cooked up a big pot of a dhal and vegetable stew called sambar so Mom and I would have something interesting to eat on Saturday, and I tried making a lemon and garlic tahini spread, but didn’t get the quantities quite right, so it came out very garlicky and not very lemony at all. In fact, it was so garlicky, the first swallow did take no small amount of courage.
Thankfully, the bread was fantastic, even if coastal humidity made short work of its wonderfully crusty crust.
A Great Sign in the Sky
“Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” – Revelation 11:19 – 12:1
While the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven was formally proclaimed as a dogma as recently as 1950, the tradition that the mother of Christ, at the end of her earthly life, was taken up, body and soul, into heaven, is much older.
In his monumental work, the Liturgical Year, Dom Prosper Gueranger showed how the feast was observed on different dates by various Western and Eastern rite churches. The abbot suggested that it arose spontaneously within those faith communities “owing to some fact attracting attention to the mystery or throwing some light upon it”.
Gueranger went on to say that he reckoned the account “spread abroad about the year 451, in which Juvenal of Jerusalem related to the empress St. Pulcheria and her husband Marcian the history of the tomb which was empty of its precious deposit, and which the apostles had prepared for our Lady at the foot of Mount Olivet”.
Rome’s Assumption Procession
Commenting on the celebration of the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Rome, Gueranger said it appeared to have been celebrated for some length of time there by the seventh century, and that celebration appears to always have been on 15 August.
According to Gueranger, the most memorable part of the celebrations between the seventh and sixteenth centuries was a procession on the eve of the feast, which recalled the “august visit our Lady received from her Son at the solemn moment of her departure from this world”.
The procession began at the Lateran basilica, and ended at the basilica of St Mary on the Esquiline Hill (St Mary Major), which lays claim to a holy painting of the Virgin Mother, allegedly the work of St Luke. A holy picture of Christ, painted on cedar wood, allegedly not by human hands, was uncovered at the Lateran in the morning.
That evening, the Pope, his retinue, and throngs of people with lighted torches accompany the picture of Christ through the city streets, past various landmarks and churches, until it reaches the basilica of St Mary Major.
There, all people great and small, “forgetting the fatigue of a whole night spent without sleep, cease not till morning to visit and venerate our Lord and Mary. In this glorious basilica, adorned as a bride, the glorious Office of Lauds celebrates the meeting of the Son and the Mother and their union for all eternity.”
Assumption Mysteries Expressed in Liturgy
The remembrance of the Assumption of Mary is more than an extra-biblical tradition that gives Mary’s story a nice ending. Rather, when the Virgin Mother is understood as a symbol and type of the church, the community of believers and mystical Body of Christ, the feast becomes a mystery experienced by devotees here and now.
The old Mass for the Assumption, prior to the 1950 proclamation of the dogma, showed this in the most interesting way.
Rather than portraying some event in the life of the Virgin Mary or references made to her by others during the public ministry of Christ, the gospel reading (Luke 10:38-42) places us in the company of none other than Jesus, Martha of Bethany (feast day on 29 July), and her sister Mary, who, for a time, was identified with Mary Magdalene (feast day on 22 July).
Gueranger uses the words of St Bruno of Asti to comment on the triform figure of the Magdalene, Martha, and the glorified Virgin Mother presented to us in that liturgy:
“These two women… are the leaders of the army of the Church, and, all the faithful follow them. Some walk in Martha’s footsteps, others in Mary’s; but no one can reach our heavenly fatherland unless he follows one or the other. Rightly, then, have our fathers ordained that this Gospel should be read on the principal feast of our Lady, for she is signified by these two sisters.
“For no other creature combined the privileges of both lives, active and contemplative, as did the Blessed Virgin. Like Martha she received Christ-yea, she did more than Martha, for she received Him not only into her house, but into her womb. She conceived Him, gave Him birth, carried Him in her arms, and ministered to Him more frequently than did Martha.
“On the other hand, she listened, like Mary, to His words, and kept them for our sake, pondering them in her heart. She contemplated His humanity, and penetrated more deeply than all others into His Divinity. She chose the better part, which shall not be taken away from her.” – St Bruno of Asti, quoted in Gueranger’s Liturgical Year
“I pray that the God of our lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you… God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…” – Ephesians 1:17-18b; 2:4-6
“It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord. For today the Virgin Mother of God was assumed into heaven as the beginning and image of your Church’s coming to perfection and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people; rightly you would not all her to see the corruption of the tomb since from her own body she marvellously brought forth your incarnate Son, the Author of all life…” – Preface of the Assumption, Daily Missal
Diana’s Feast of Torches
I have a feeling Rome’s great procession on the eve of the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven was inspired by a similar procession that took place on 13 August, when the Old Gods still held sway in the eternal city.
That old procession took place on Diana’s festival known as the Feast of Torches, or the Nemoralia. The focal point of the festival was her temple at Lake Nemi, known as Diana’s Mirror.
“In the Arrician valley, there is a lake surrounded by shady forests, Held sacred by religion from the olden times… On a long fence hand many pieces of woven thread, and many tablets are placed there as grateful gifts to the Goddess. Often does a woman whose prayers Diana answered, With a wreath of flowers crowning her head, Walk from Rome carrying a burning torch… There a stream flows down gurgling from its rocky bed…” – Fasti, Ovid
According to Wikipedia (and, given that there’s no reference, it may be unreliable information), the festival also saw offerings of garlic made to Hekate, a Greek goddess whom the Romans identified with their Trivia, the goddess of the three ways, and hunting was forbidden for the duration of the Nemoralia.
The Wiki article on Diana Nemorensis (Diana of Nemi/the Sacred Grove) sheds a bit more light on this. It describes Andreas Alfoldi’s work on the triform cult image of the goddess, which he interpreted as the “Latin Diana ‘conceived as a threefold unity of the divine huntress, the Moon goddess, and the goddess of the netherworld, Hekate,’ noting that Diana montium custos nemoremque virgo (‘keeper of the mountains and virgin of Nemi’) is addressed by Horace as diva triformis. Diana is commonly addressed as Trivia by Virgil and Catullus.”
Theoi places Hekate as goddess of “magic, witchcraft, the night, moon, ghosts, and necromancy. It was from her parents, the Titanes Perses and Asteria, that the goddess “received her power over heaven, earth, and sea”.
The introduction makes Hekate sound like a classic fairy tale witch, but art, history, and Her myths also show Her as bright and beautiful, and in a light that’s not entirely out of keeping with themes in the Assumption of Mary.
The excellent site about Greek myth and religion also states that Hekate, with Her flaming torches, guided the agricultural mother goddess Demeter through the night as they searched for Demeter’s daughter Persephone, who had been abducted by Hades, god of the dead and the underworld.
Once Demeter and Persephone were reunited, Hekate became the minister and companion of Persephone in the underworld.
According to Theoi, the daughter of Perses was usually shown in paintings on Greek vases as a “woman holding twin torches. Sometimes she was dressed in a knee-length maiden’s skirt and hunting boots, much like Artemis. In statuary Hekate was often depicted in triple form as a goddess of crossroads”.
“Hekate Einodia, Trioditis [Trivia], lovely dame, of earthly, watery, and celestial frame, sepulchral, in a saffron veil arrayed, pleased with dark ghosts that wander through the shade; Perseis, solitary goddess, hail! The world’s key-bearer, never doomed to fail; in stags rejoicing, huntress, nightly seen, and drawn by bulls, unconquerable queen; Leader, Nymphe, nurse, on mountains wandering, hear the suppliants who with holy rites thy power revere, and to the herdsman with a favouring mind draw near.” – Orphic Hymn 1 to Hecate (trans. Taylor) (Greek hymns C3rd B.C. to 2nd A.D.), quoted on Theoi
In the poetry of the Roman era, a triad was formed by Hekate, Artemis, and the moon goddess Selene. One example of this is found in Seneca:
“[Phaedra prays to Artemis-Hekate-Selene :] ‘O [Diana-Artemis] queen of the groves (regina nemorum), thou who in solitude lovest thy mountain-haunts, and who upon the solitary mountains art alone held holy, change for the better these dark, ill-omened threats. O great goddess of the woods and groves, bright orb of heaven, glory of the night, by whose changing beams the universe shines clear, O three-formed Hecate, lo, thou art at hand, favouring our undertaking.
“Conquer the unbending soul of stern Hippolytus; may he, compliant, give ear unto our prayer. Soften his fierce heart; may he learn to love, may he feel answering flames. Ensnare his mind; grim, hostile, fierce, may he turn him back unto the fealty of love.
“To this end direct thy powers; so mayst thou wear a shining face [Luna-Selene the moon] and, the clouds all scattered, fare on with undimmed horns; so, when thou drivest thy car through the nightly skies, may no witcheries of Thessaly prevail to drag thee down and may no shepherd [i.e. Endymion] make boast o’er thee. Be near, goddess, in answer to our call; hear now our prayers.’” – Phaedra, Seneca, quoted on Theoi
Assumption as Harvest Festival
The season in which the feast of the Assumption of Mary falls was known in England as Lammastide, and it was the season of first fruits.
In her book, Folklore and Customs of Rural England, Margaret Baker said the word Lammas “derived from the old English hlafmaesse, loaf-mass, for a ritual loaf was made from the first new wheat”. The church takes up the themes of harvest and death in the second reading in the current Assumption Mass:
“Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep… For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 15:20, 22-23
The harvest theme makes another appearance in the priestly handbook known as the Roman Ritual, which contains various blessings, prayers, and rites. It assigns a 10th century German blessing of herbs and fruits to the feast of the Assumption.
Part of that blessing, given in full on EWTN’s website, reads:
“God, who through Moses, your servant, directed the children of Israel to carry their sheaves of new grain to the priests for a blessing, to pluck the finest fruits of the orchard, and to make merry before you, the Lord their God; hear our supplications, and shower blessings + in abundance upon us and upon these bundles of new grain, new herbs, and this assortment of produce which we gratefully present to you on this festival, blessing + them in your name.
“Grant that men, cattle, flocks, and beasts of burden find in them a remedy against sickness, pestilence, sores, injuries, spells, against the fangs of serpents or poisonous creatures. May these blessed objects be a protection against diabolical mockery, cunning, and deception wherever they are kept, carried, or otherwise used.
“Lastly, through the merits of the blessed Virgin Mary, whose Assumption we are celebrating, may we all, laden with the sheaves of good works, deserve to be taken up to heaven; through Christ our Lord.” – Assumption Blessing of Herbs and Fruits, Roman Ritual
Crying the Neck
As sheaves are lifted up in thanksgiving and for blessing in churches on the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, her final, glorious harvest that sees her lifted up to heaven, so sheaves are lifted up in the fields of England in the Crying of the Neck.
Writing about the custom that takes place at the end of the harvest, Margaret Baker states that farm labourers “worked in a steadily decreasing circle until only the final ears, in which the prepotent corn-spirit was hiding, remained uncut. There was a superstitious reluctance to sever them; sometimes the reapers threw sickles from a safe distance, then none was branded the spirit’s captor. The moment, full of ritual meaning, was called ‘crying the neck’, ‘knack’ or ‘mare’.
“The last stalks were worked into the mysterious figure of the corn- or kern-dolly, baby, maiden, or ivy-girl… and kept at the farm, emblematic of the continuity of seasons.” – Folklore and Customs of Rural England, Margaret Baker
In the Mead of Poetry, published in the Heritage anthology, Shani Oates offers a delightful paraphrasing of W. Hone’s 1836 account of a Crying of the Neck rite:
“An old man, goes round to the shocks and sheaves picking out a little bundle of all the best ears he can find and tying them up into a very neat bundle. This is called “the neck” of wheat, or wheaten ears. After the field is cut out, the reapers and binders, stand round in a circle. The person with “the neck” stands in the centre grasping it with both hands. After some swaying and chanting the ‘neck’ is thrown up by the maker in the centre of the circle of reapers, who all clamour for the neck, whilst turning their own from it, lest they be seen catching it.
“After having thus repeated “the neck” three times, and “wee yen” or “way yen” likewise, they break into laughter, great mirth and raucous capering’s, flinging their hats into the air. The one who gets the “neck” must run hard and fast up to the farm-house where the dairy-maid stands prepared with a pail of water in one hand and a jug of cider in the other. The winner of ‘the neck’ must gain entry to the house, by any means, but must be unseen; if he achieves this, he is kissed by the maid and is lauded with cider. If not he is drenched with water and scooted out of the house.” – The Mead of Poetry, Shani Oates
Oates’ interpretation of the rite places it within the context of the northern god Odhin’s quest for, and winning of, the mead of poetry. One of the god’s adventures vital to his quest saw him throw a whetstone into the air, causing the farm workers to jostle for it, and cut each other’s throats in the process.
In the English ritual, cider replaces mead, and is “offered in thanks for a good harvest understood as partaking of ‘The essence of experience, or juice of judgement, likened to a fermentation from that fruit which grew upon the tree of knowledge; this is what we really harvest from our human lives on earth…’”
Rather than limit the bundle of wheat known as the Neck to being a reminder of the continuity of seasons, Oates wrote that the “spirit of the corn” is:
“The “virtue of life held by the one who wields the whetstone’s authority. Thus, having the power of life over death, knowledge over ignorance and poetry over prose, truly we perceive the virtue of the gods as eternal for man alone lives and dies.
“And so, derived from the Old Norse phrase for a ‘sheaf of corn’ the ‘neck’ clearly becomes the vehicle for that virtue in seed and as a medium of fermentation; euphemisms in fact, for blood and bone.” – The Mead of Poetry, Shani Oates
EDIT: I must emphasise that Crying the Neck is not an Assumption custom, although I think it fits into the spirit of the feast. Being an end-of-harvest custom, I suspect its timing would probably see it happen closer to the feast of the, ahem, Decollation of St John the Baptist (29 August – and, yes, there will be a post for that, and it’ll probably be a boozy one, to boot). Expect to re-visit Crying the Neck in that post, as well as other stuff to thrill you, chill you, and fulfill you.
Cakes of Bread for Heaven’s Queen
Following different threads and exploring various mysteries contained within the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary revealed to me a Woman Clothed with the Sun.
She is the spirit of Wisdom in contemplation and in activity and involvement, who, as the inspiration and the prize of a life well-lived, is the Hodegetria, She Who Shows the Way, and the Psychopomp, the guide of souls in and through death, that last and great harvest.
To repeat words from the Blessing of Herbs and Fruits, “through the merits of the blessed Virgin Mary, whose Assumption we are celebrating, may we all, laden with the sheaves of good works, deserve to be taken up to heaven; through Christ our Lord.”
I’ve known about the Assumption’s harvest connections for many years, but this year’s preparation for the feast has given me new perspective and a deeper appreciation of it. I’ll finish what’s left of my loaf of honey beer bread with gratitude, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll bake another loaf before the feast of St Michael comes around.
Recipe for Honey Beer Bread
“The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven… ‘We will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her, just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials, used to do…’” – Jeremiah 7:18; 44:17
I’m sorry I never wrote down where I found the Honey Beer Bread recipe. I do promise, though, that if I do find its source, I’ll update this blog and make a bit of a song and dance about it, too.
The original recipe suggested dividing the dough into four (or was it six?) clean cans (such as baked bean cans), so guests can have oddly-shaped individual loaves. I never wrote down the number of cans, because I could never imagine trying to be that fancy. It’s a nice idea, so I’ll experiment sometime, or, you, dear reader, can experiment and let me know how it works out for you.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup bread flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons honey
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
Preheat the oven to 180˚C.
Grease a loaf tin and set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, sugar, baking powder, and salt.
Add the beer and the honey, and stir with a rubber spatula until combined.
Spread the mixture evenly in the loaf tin, and drizzle the cooled, melted butter over the dough.
Bake until golden brown, and a knife inserted into the centre comes out clean; about 50 – 60 minutes.
Note on Biblical Texts
All scriptural quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition with Anglicized Text; Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 2005.