Mary and The Assumption

In 1950 Pope Pius XII defined the dogma of the Assumption of Mary by an “ex-cathedra” (from the chair) proclamation – “The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heaven.”  Thus, this fourth Marian dogma became a required belief of the Catholic faith. 

Why 1950?  That date leads many in the Protestant world to claim the Pope just “made up” this dogma at that time, and there is no Scriptural or historical basis for such a belief. 

The thought that Popes just dictatorially proclaim dogmas on a personal whim is not uncommon in the Protestant world.  But is it accurate?  Far from it.  The feast of the Assumption of Mary (or the Dormition of Mary) has been celebrated by the ancient churches for centuries. 

So how far back can this belief in the Assumption of Mary be traced?  That’s a good question.  It’s important to remember that the earliest evidence we have of something in written form does not mean that is the earliest it was believed.  It simply means the oldest document that survived that references the belief is from that timeframe.  For example, if we assumed the timeframe people first believed the Gospel is associated with the first manuscripts that survived, we would have to assume the Gospels were “made up” in the late second or early third centuries. 

Around the sixth century there are entire manuscripts from different areas around the world that reference a belief in the Assumption of Mary.  So somewhat more honest scholars won’t make the claim about the dogma being invented in 1950, but will often state it wasn’t believed until the sixth century.  One of the problems with that assertion however is there are multiple documents from different parts of the world during that time that reference the Assumption – not just one.  That indicates the belief pre-existed that timeframe and had then spread to multiple parts of the world.  And at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the emperor asked the patriarch of Jerusalem to bring the relics of Mary to Constantinople to be enshrined there.  The patriarch informed the emperor there were not any relics of Mary for her body had been taken to heaven at the time of her death.  Consider this – we know where all the apostles are buried.  There is a tomb in Jerusalem that is known by Christians to have been the tomb of the Virgin Mary.  But it is empty. 

History has shown us we can’t assume the oldest document we have accurately dates the belief; it simply defines the earliest surviving writing we have that references the belief.  This is true about Scripture as well.  It is also true about other documents and how our beliefs were formed in those early centuries.  So while it was long believed the earliest references we have about the Assumption of Mary date to the sixth century, recently discovered Syriac fragments have references to the third century.  We can make an honest statement that at this point in time, the earliest references in writing to the Assumption of Mary date to the third century.  Based on that however, we can never make an honest statement that the Church did not believe or teach about the Assumption of Mary until the third century, no more than it would be an honest statement to profess this belief came into existence in the sixth century, or in 1950.

What about the idea that the Pope simply makes stuff up in a vacuum?  In his book “Catholic and Christian,” Alan Schreck gives us the background as to why the Pope determined to formalize this ancient belief.  “In the hundred years before Pope Pius’s declaration, the pope had received petitions from 113 cardinals, 250 bishops, 32,000 priests and religious brothers, 50,000 religious women, and eight million lay people, all requesting that the Assumption be recognized officially as Catholic teaching.  Apparently, the pope discerned that the Holy Spirit was speaking through the people of God on this matter.”  Some things really do happen from the “ground up” and the faith of the Church.

Another common objection you can find to this dogma is that the fifth century Pope Gelaius I condemned a belief in the Assumption of Mary.  This claim is false.  There is a text called the “Decretum Gelasianum” that has been attributed to Pope Gelaius, that most scholars today believe is fake.  Even so, within that decree it declares an apocryphal writing called “The Assumption of Holy Mary” is not a valid writing.  That doesn’t mean he believed that the Assumption of Mary was false; it would simply mean that particular writing was not legitimate.  To claim that this proves that Pope Gelaius didn’t believe in the Assumption of Mary would be similiar to making a claim that the apostle Thomas didn’t exist because the apocryphal writing known as the Gospel of Thomas was declared to be fake. 

That the belief in the Assumption of Mary was held and celebrated by the early Church is without question.  And as Catholics we are not sola-Scriptura so do not limit the “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) to Scripture alone but also rely on Sacred Tradition.  But can we turn to Scripture to find evidence for this belief?  While there is not a specific “proof-text,” as with all the Marian dogmas we can certainly see this truth reflected there. 

When Scripture speaks of those in heaven they are generally referred to as souls or spirits (Revelation 6:9, Hebrews 12:23).  But in Revelation 12:1 we have an image of the body of Mary, the woman who gives birth to Christ, in heaven.  While some will object that this is a reference to Mary, Catholics understand there is no question this image of a woman who gives birth to Christ is Mary, as was discussed here.  But consider in that vision recorded by St. John, just prior to her appearance in heaven he also sees there the Ark of the Covenant, which is a “type” of Mary that was discussed here.  The references in 2 Samuel 6 that compare the Ark to Mary are detailed in that post. 

It is also recorded in 2 Samuel 6 that after King David conquered Jerusalem to make it the capitol of Israel and the dwelling place of God, the first thing he did was to call for the Ark of the Covenant to come to Jerusalem.  2 Samuel 6:12-15 records this event, that was accompanied by a great feast for the whole multitude of Israel (2 Samuel 6:19) – “So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of O′bed-e′dom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling.  And David danced before the Lord with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod.  So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the horn.”

As glorious as that day was for Israel, it pales in comparison to Hebrews 1:1-4 that describes how Christ has now ascended to his throne in heaven, the new Jerusalem (Revelation 3:12, 21:2, 9-10).  Christ sits on the throne of his father David (Luke 1:32) in the new Jerusalem that is heaven, in fulfillment of 2 Samuel 6.  And just as David sent for the Ark of the Covenant to be brought to Jerusalem with great celebration, as Catholics we understand that Christ brought Mary, the fulfillment of the Ark of the Covenant to his kingdom in heaven.  In Revelation 11:19 we read of John’s vision “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, loud noises, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.”  And what is the meaning of his vision of the temple?  Revelation 21:22 tells us – the temple is the image of the resurrected Christ.  Christ foretold this in John 2:18-21“The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign have you to show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’  The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he spoke of the temple of his body.”  The imagery in the book of Revelation shows John witnessed the temple (the resurrected Christ) in heaven.  But he also witnessed the Ark of the Covenant that we know is a “type” of Mary just as we know the temple is a “type” of Christ.  The vision of the Ark of the Covenant immediately followed by the vision of a “woman clothed with the sun” who gives birth to Christ tells us that Mary also is with Christ in heaven.  Psalm 132 as well speaks to this glorious ascent of Christ to his throne, and we’re told “Let us go to his dwelling place; let us worship at his footstool!  Arise, O Lord, and go to thy resting place, thou and the ark of thy might.”  (Psalm 132:7-8).  Scripture reveals to us that Christ, along with the ark (Mary) are physically present together in heaven.

Of importance to note here is the difference in language used for Mary being “assumed” into heaven and Christ “ascending” into heaven.  Christ, who is God, ascended by his own power into heaven.  Mary was “assumed” – not by her own power but by that of her son.  Again a clear indication that as Catholics we know while Mary was a woman given unique gifts due to her role to become the Mother of God, she is no way is considered to be God or worthy of our worship

There is often a question as to whether Mary died before she was assumed into heaven.  Many Catholics profess that Pope Pius XII left this question open by his use of language in his proclamation – simply that Mary, “having completed the course of her earthly life” was assumed into heaven.  However I would say that is not the case – if you read the actual document Munificentissimus Deus (The most bountiful God), he refers to her death multiple times, so it does not seem likely that was his intention.  Most recently Pope St. John Paul II spoke to her death:

“It is true that in Revelation death is presented as a punishment for sin.  However, the fact that the Church proclaims Mary free from original sin by a unique divine privilege does not lead to the conclusion that she also received physical immortality.  The Mother is not superior to the Son who underwent death, giving it a new meaning and changing it into a means of salvation.  Involved in Christ’s redemptive work and associated in his saving sacrifice, Mary was able to share in his suffering and death for the sake of humanity’s Redemption.  What Severus of Antioch says about Christ also applies to her: ‘Without a preliminary death, how could the Resurrection have taken place?’  (Antijulianistica, Beirut 1931, 194f.).  To share in Christ’s Resurrection, Mary had first to share in his death.” 

The idea that if Mary died would somehow disprove the Catholic belief in the Immaculate Conception is a common one.  If death is a punishment for sin, then how could Mary’s death not prove she somehow sinned?  This of course ignores the fact that Scripture speaks to two people who did not die (Enoch and Elijah), yet none profess that means they were without sin. 

It is important to remember that human death indeed entered the world by the sin of our first parents, and not only humanity but creation fell along with man.  Our physical nature is impacted not only by our personal spiritual state, it is also impacted by the world around us, regardless of what our spiritual state may be.  So yes, Adam and Eve would not have experienced illness or death prior to their sin, but not simply because of their internal state of holiness. They also would not have experienced illness or death because creation was still intact, holy, in harmony with man, and a friend to our physical bodies.  Fallen creation spews earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and germs at our physical nature.  An internal state of holiness would not make a person’s body immune to fallen creation.  Christ’s death was caused by the physical actions of fallen men; Mary’s was caused by the physical actions of fallen creation, and there is really no difference in that regard.  Her death does not give testimony that she was not created without original sin.  It simply gives testimony that even a person in a sinless state can be physically impacted by a fallen creation.

When we view the Marian dogmas holistically, we see a woman of great faith who was given unique gifts to sustain her in her unique role of giving birth to God – the Word made flesh (John 1:14).  Her response of “let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38) was not a singular event but rather a lifetime of continually yielding herself to the will of God, and continually pointing people to her son.  We see in Mary the ultimate destiny for those who follow Christ – a sharing in body and soul in the very life and glory of God.  For this reason, we often refer to her as “our hope.”  Not because we fail to recognize that Jesus is our only hope of salvation.  But because it is our hope to see within ourselves the same fulfillment of the promises of Christ that she has received. In her role as Mother of God she may be the only person to ever have Jesus physically dwell within her to share him with the world, but as believers we are all called to invite Christ to dwell within us and then share him with the world. In her role as Ever-Virgin she uniquely lived a life on earth that we will all be called to live in heaven where we will no longer be married. In her Immaculate Conception and sinless life we can all hope for the time when we too will be completely free from the bondage of sin and become what Scripture calls “just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23). And in her Assumption we too can hope for the day when our bodies will be raised and we will dwell, body and soul, in heaven with Jesus for all eternity. She leads the way for all believers who trust in Christ and hope to receive his promises.

St Francis de Sales maintained that Mary’s death was due to a transport of love.  He spoke of her dying “in love, from love and through love,” going so far as to say that the Mother of God died of love for her Son Jesus.  As I close, I’ll share with you one of my favorite images, The Dormition fresco by Columbian artist Juan de Jesus Munera Ochoa, Colombia. 

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