Dogma of the Assumption of Mary
On November 1, 1950, Blessed Pope Pius XII defined the Dogma of the Assumption of Mary in these words:
"For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; 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." Munificentissimus Deus, #44.
Although Mary went up to Heaven at the end of her earthly life, she didn't do so by her own power but by God's. For this reason she is not said to ascend into Heaven as Christ did, but to be assumed (or lifted up) into Heaven.
Like Mary's Immaculate Conception, her death and Assumption into Heaven cannot be proved directly from Holy Scriptures. Except for some apocryphal works that mention it, there are no authentic records during the first six centuries about the Assumption of Mary. All the Church Fathers were silent about it. However, it is possible that the silence of the Fathers was due to the fact that the Assumption of Mary was never denied even by the Gnostics and the heretics, for the Fathers would usually speak against that kind of error.
An English translation of a fourth century apocryphal book on the Assumption of Mary may be found in the Newadvent.org website. The document has two parts: (1) The Account of St. John the Theologian of the Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God; and (2) The Passing of Mary. Toward the end of the first part the following paragraph is written:
And when this miracle had been done, the apostles carried the couch, and laid down her precious and holy body in Gethsemane in a new tomb. And, behold, a perfume of sweet savour came forth out of the holy sepulchre of our Lady the mother of God; and for three days the voices of invisible angels were heard glorifying Christ our God, who had been born of her. And when the third day was ended, the voices were no longer heard; and from that time forth all knew that her spotless and precious body had been transferred to paradise. (Italics added) - The Account of St. John the Theologian of the Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God, second to the last paragraph.
Assumption of the Virgin
Painting by Guido Reni (1575-1642)
Image source link: Wikiart.org
"St. John the Theologian" is just another name for St. John the Apostle or St. John the Evangelist. The account cited above was written or published in A.D. 400; therefore, it was not written by St. John himself, who died in A.D. 100. But by putting St. John's name in the title, whoever wrote this apocryphal work was tacitly claiming that the account came from St. John as its source. But there is no certainty that the account contained in the document actually came from St. John. And because this is an apocryphal work – which means that it is not guaranteed to be free of doctrinal error – there is no certainty that the events narrated in the account actually happened. Therefore, the Church does NOT base its dogma on the Assumption of Mary on this apocryphal account. As will be shown later the belief in the Assumption of Mary was based more on Mary's distinction as the Mother of God and her close association with Jesus Christ rather than on the existence of any Patristic document. The cited apocryphal account is therefore really worthless except as an archaeological evidence that the idea of Mary's Assumption was in the Church since A.D. 400 and probably since the time of St. John. It merely points to the existence of the belief, but is not the source of that belief.
The silence of the Church Fathers regarding the Assumption of Mary had been a concern for some people regarding the reality of the Assumption. However, an argument based on silence alone is known to be a weak one. If one were to examine the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, one could see that the scrolls never said a word about Christ or His ministry, but it said a lot about the world that Christ lived in. If one were to argue based only on the silence of the scrolls about Jesus, one might conclude that Christ never existed. Yet we know that Christ and the community at Qumran were contemporaries.
Although authentic statements from the Church Fathers relating to Mary's Assumption into Heaven are lacking, the surprising thing is that the entire Church – both the east and the west – celebrated the Feast of the Assumption, usually on the 15th of August, from the seventh century onward. This is truly remarkable. How could the bishops of the Church, from different parts of the world, suddenly agree on a liturgical practice celebrating Mary's bodily Assumption unless such belief was already held universally in the Tradition of the Church? Usually a doctrine, such as the Trinity or the Immaculate Conception, is preceded by debates and deliberation by the Fathers and by the Church Councils, and takes time to gain universal consensus. In the case of Mary's bodily assumption, however, no record of such discussions or debates exists, strangely betraying the absence of any disagreement on this matter by the various churches of the east and the west. Paradoxically, the absence of documentation about Mary's bodily Assumption during the first six centuries of the Christian era, far from being an argument for the non-existence of this belief, turns out to be a strong indicator of its existence.
The Death of Mary
The death (or "dormition") of Mary was not part of the Dogma defined by Pope Pius XII in Munificentissimus Deus. The text of the Apostolic Constitution purposely avoided the issue of death and simply stated that the Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into Heaven, thus leaving the question of her death open. Indeed, theologians are still divided on their opinions on whether the Virgin Mary died or not, but Mary's Assumption may no longer be doubted. It is now an article of faith.
There is no record of when Mary died, if she died, or where she was buried. Those who do not believe that Mary died base their belief on Mary's sinlessness. They say that since death was a penalty for sin, and Mary was perfectly sinless, therefore Mary did not need to die or pay the consequences of sin.
Those who believe that Mary died a natural death say that her death was not a penalty for original sin or any actual sin, but was due merely to the inherent weakness of the human body which, without the preternatural gift of immortality – a gift granted to Adam and Eve, – would naturally die. Man was not made immortal from the beginning otherwise than by a special privilege. Christ took human nature without this special privilege so that He could accomplish the work of our Redemption. Likewise, Mary was born without the gift of immortality so that she could participate in the sorrows of her Son. Unlike Christ who actually died on the Cross, Mary did not die a bloody death, but suffered a "spiritual martyrdom" in seeing her Son brutally tortured on the Cross. This is why she is also honored as the "Queen of Martyrs," although she died a natural death.
Although theologians are divided on the question of Mary's death, the majority seem to favor the view that Mary died. But those who believe this also believe that our Lady died a peaceful death, that she died because of an intense love for her Son, and that, although she died, her body never saw corruption or decay, in accordance with the words of the Psalmist: "... nor wilt thou give thy holy one to see corruption" (Ps 15:10). Preserved from corruption, Mary's body was believed to rise after three days, and was assumed body and soul into Heaven.
Among those who believed in Mary's death was St. John Damascene (A.D. 676-750) who left us three homilies on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.
Justification of the Dogma of the Assumption
The dogma of the Assumption of Mary cannot be proved directly, but it could be justified. Unlike a proof which consists of direct quotations from Holy Scripture explicitly referencing the dogma, a justification of the tradition merely shows why the dogma is credible or worthy of belief.
The reasons that justify belief in the Assumption of Mary are the following:
First, there were precedents to Mary's Assumption; for example,
Henoch (or Enoch), who was reputed to "walk with God," and who lived before the Great Flood, was translated (or transferred) to heaven, according to Gen 5:24. St. Paul explained that God took him from earth to prevent his death, per Heb 11:5. However, Henoch could not have entered the proper heaven of the saints because he did not die yet, whereas "it is appointed unto men once to die" (Heb 9:27). So, which "heaven" was he taken up to? In the opinion of St. Thomas Aquinas the "heaven" that Henoch entered was not the empyrean heaven of the saints (where Christ and Mary also exist with their human bodies), but an extra-terrestrial paradise similar to the Garden of Eden (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Part III, Q. 49, Art. 5, Reply to Obj. 2). There he will stay until the end times when he will return to earth as one of the "two witnesses" mentioned in the Apoc 11:3 who will help in the battle against the Antichrist.
The prophet Elias (or Elijah) also did not die because he was taken up to heaven by a fiery chariot amid a whirlwind, per 4 Kgs 2:1-12. Like Henoch, Elias was not taken to heaven properly so-called, but only to the extra-terrestrial paradise where Henoch was also waiting. Elias could not enter the heaven of the saints because he also did not die yet. They are still both living, probably sustained by the tree of life in their paradise, and will return to earth at the end times as the two witnesses mentioned in the Apocalypse. During the reign of the Antichrist Elias will evangelize the Jews "to reconcile the heart of the father to the son, and to restore the tribes of Jacob" (Ecclus 48:10), while Henoch will work with the Gentiles "that he may give repentance to the nations" (Ecclus 44:16). They will both be slain in the war with the Antichrist (Apoc 11:7), but will rise from the dead (Apoc 11:11) at the Second Coming of Christ to join the saints in God's Heavenly Kingdom. (Note: In Matt 17:10-13 Christ said that Elias already came, but he was referring to St. John the Baptist, not to Elias who will still come in the end times.)
Elias Taken Up in a Fiery Chariot as Eliseus (Elisha) Looks On
Oil Painting by Giuseppe Angeli (? –1798)
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
The point now is this: if God gave Henoch and Elias the favor of transferring their bodies to an extra-terrestrial paradise to prevent their bodies from rotting on earth, would He not grant the same favor to Mary, who was Christ's mother and close associate on earth? Mary was conceived without sin; strictly, she did not have to die. But even if she died, there was no reason why God could not resurrect her soon after death and take her to His Kingdom rather than wait for the end of the world for her to be reunited with her Son.
Second, there are some Biblical references that allude to Mary's bodily Assumption; for example,
"And the temple of God was opened in heaven: and the ark of his testament was seen in his temple, and there were lightnings, and voices, and an earthquake, and great hail" (Apoc 11:19-12:1). This text suggests that when Christ ascended into Heaven He also brought the ark, just as King David brought the ark of the covenant with him when he took up residence in Jerusalem. Now, the ark of the covenant is a figure of Mary, as St. Gregory Thaumaturgus says in his First Homily on the Annunciation, second paragraph. Therefore, the text from the Apocalypse supports the view that Mary was transported to Heaven.
"We will go into his tabernacle: We will adore in the place where his feet stood. Arise, O Lord, into thy resting place: thou and the ark, which thou hast sanctified" (Ps 131:7-8). Again the ark refers to Mary.
Third, although there were some who claimed to be in possession of Mary's tomb – one in Jerusalem, and another in Ephesus, – no one ever claimed to possess any relics or parts of Mary's body, for none have been found. This does not prove, but adds to the credibility that Mary was indeed lifted up to Heaven.
The foregoing reasons show why belief in the Assumption of Mary was justified. It is justified because it is just that Mary, who was the new Eve, who was perfectly sinless, who was the Ark in which the Word was kept until His birth, who was Christ's mother, associate and companion in His passion, should enjoy the victory and company of her Son in Heaven.
However, the bodily Assumption of Mary into Heaven could not be defined as a dogma unless there was evidence that the belief was Divinely revealed, and that it was handed down by the Apostles and conserved in the Church's Sacred Tradition. One acceptable and indubitable evidence would be whether the belief reflected the universal and constant teaching of the Church since the time of the Apostles. Prior to making his definition, Blessed Pope Pius XII received many petitions from bishops, including 200 bishops of Vatican Council I, to dogmatize the doctrine of Mary's Assumption. So, he diligently reviewed the opinion of various theologians and doctors of the church, and examined the status of this belief in various churches through the course of centuries. In addition he sent a letter to the bishops of the world, asking for their opinion on the question of Mary's Assumption (Deiparae Virginis Mariae, 1946). As in earlier centuries the opinion was unanimous. The bodily Assumption of Mary was the faith of the Catholic Church, and has, in fact, been celebrated in her liturgies since ancient times. Therefore, Blessed Pope Pius XII acknowledged that the doctrine of Mary's bodily Assumption was the constant teaching of the Church's ordinary magisterium; hence, infallible and revealed by God (Munificentissimus Deus, #12). Blessed Pope Pius XII thereby defined it as a dogma to be firmly believed by all.