August 15 is the Feast of the Assumption
Catholics throughout the world celebrate August 15 as one of six Holy Days of Obligation. They are required to attend Mass under penalty of mortal sin as they celebrate when Mary, the mother of Jesus, was assumed bodily into heaven.
It is not clear if Mary died first or was assumed into heaven while still alive. In either case, the point of the miracle is that her body was not corrupted, which gives many Christians hope that their bodies will be uncorrupted in heaven.
It is interesting that the Catholic Church chose August 15 as the date to celebrate because it probably coincides with an important pagan holiday that may have taken place at about the same time.
There are two dates on the ancient calendar that were easily and significantly marked: the winter and summer solstice—that date when the days grew longer and that date when the days grew shorter. Midway between these two points are the spring and fall equinox—the days when we mark the beginning of those seasons. Those are the four principal points of the solar calendar, but midway between those points were important dates celebrated by our ancient mothers and fathers thousands of years ago.
The point midway between the fall equinox and the winter solstice is still celebrated in most European and American cultures as Halloween. The Celtic tribes believed it was the time when the jaws of hell opened and spirits roamed the world. Today it seems harmless enough as small children run around in the night in strange costumes and threaten us with tricks if we don’t give them treats.
The point midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox is around February 2, Groundhog’s Day, when a groundhog comes out of his hole and if he sees his shadow there will be six more weeks of winter. This probably corresponds to the feast day our ancestors observed when they celebrated the return of Persephone from the underworld.
The ancients believed Demeter was the mother of agriculture. It was through her blessing that crops grew, and she taught humans how to cultivate grains. She had a daughter, Persephone, whom she loved. One day Hades, the god of death and the underworld, saw Persephone and he fell in love with her. He captured her and brought her down with him to rule as queen of his underworld kingdom. This caused Demeter great sadness, and she would not assist in the growing of food, and famine ruled the earth. According to Greek mythology, the gods were very unhappy with this because humans were no longer sacrificing to honor them.
They complained to Zeus, and Zeus asked Demeter to revive agriculture. Demeter refused unless Zeus forced Hades to give back her daughter. Zeus then asked Hades to return Persephone to her mother. Hades said Persephone stayed with him by her own free will. He would return her on the condition that if she ate one morsel of food on her way out of the underworld it would mean that she wanted to stay with him. Persephone must have understood the wager. She passed a corridor of eternity with endless temptations of magnificent food. She ate nothing, but at the end of the corridor she turned back and tasted one pomegranate seed.
Both sides claimed victory. Hades insisted she had broken her fast, and Demeter insisted she had not eaten. Zeus finally settled the controversy by decreeing that Persephone should stay with Hades for six months and with her mother for the other six months. This is probably how our ancient mothers and fathers taught their children about the seasons, about life and death, and how nothing really disappears but everything just changes into something else. With the ancients, when a person died, they were buried and their body became the soil that nourished plants and became food for the living, so even in death they were part of the cycle of life.
The point midway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice was May Day. This ancient holiday still retains today some of its ancient meaning and joyous celebration. Dancing around a maypole and tying it with ribbons seems a harmless and fun way to affirm the vitality of procreation. This happy pre-Christian holiday was seen as a threat to the solemnity of the Catholic Church, so they decreed the entire month of May to be devoted to Mary, and the first of May children would decorate statues of Mary with flowers. So, a holiday, which originally celebrated the reawakening of sexuality, was turned into a glorification of blessed virginity.
Which leads us quite naturally back to the feast of the Assumption. The August 15 date misses the exact point midway between the summer solstice and the fall equinox, but it is close enough. True to the Catholic insistence on inverting the original meanings of ancient rituals, the date in early August probably meant to our forebearers the time when Persephone went back to her lover and returned to the underworld. The crops had all been planted. It was not yet time for harvest. It was that happy time of summer when most of the work was done and there was time for pleasure. Just as Persephone came out of the earth six months before to begin the cycle of life, now she returned to the earth and her eternal lover. She ruled the underworld then in much the same way Christians believed Mary ruled heaven. Persephone found her way to triumphal eternal life through surrendering to sensuality and enjoying sexual pleasure. Mary found her way to the throne of heaven by cherishing her virginity. Catholics condemned the carnal excesses of pagans, and pagans felt that unnatural enforced celibacy was a waste of the gifts of nature. For the last two thousand years of Western Civilization, Catholics and Christians have ruled politically and militarily. But lately the appeal of the Madonna seems to have lost its luster, and even some Roman Catholic women seem to be questioning the authority of the Pope over their bodies and their sexuality.