Get Ready to Celebrate the Dormition and Assumption of Mary

"The Assumption of the Virgin" by Guido Reni

“The Assumption of the Virgin” by Guido Reni

On August 15th of each Liturgical Year, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This year, that date falls on next Friday.

Mary’s earthly death has been nearly unanimously held by the Church’s theologians through the centuries. The Church’s liturgies affirm this. Indeed, the Solemnity of the Assumption was first known and celebrated as the Feast of the Dormition (the falling asleep or death) of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Testimony from sources, such as the Patriarch of Jerusalem in 451 A.D., reveal the accepted belief that no relics of Mary existed because she had been assumed, body and soul, into heaven; and that this belief came from apostolic times. By the 8th Century, the name of the feast was changed from Dormition to Assumption. Although we do not know much of its early history, it is the oldest Marian feast day on the liturgical calendar.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC ¶ 966) provides early testimony from the Byzantine Liturgy:

In giving birth you kept your virginity; in your Dormition you did not leave the world, O Mother of God, but were joined to the source of Life. You conceived the living God and, by your prayers, will deliver our souls from death. (Byzantine Liturgy; Troparion, Feast of the Dormition; August 15th)

The Dogma Defined and Declared

In 1950, Pope Pius XII proclaimed that the bodily Assumption of Mary was a dogma of the Church – it belonged to the deposit of faith.

(44) 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 [Most Bountiful God]; Apostolic Constitution of Pope Pius XII; 1 November 1950)

Assumption Is Not the Same as Ascension

This teaching does not mean that Mary, of her own power, ascended into Heaven.  Only Jesus ascended into Heaven of His own power and authority.  Rather, Mary, was taken up (assumed) body and soul into heaven by God.  This was an honor and grace given to her.  Therefore, we speak of Mary’s Assumption and not her Ascension.

Sometimes, non-Catholics hear us speak of Mary’s Assumption and conclude that we believe that Mary ascended to Heaven in the same manner as Jesus, under her own power.  In fact, the dogma simply states that Jesus took Mary, body and soul, into Heaven out of great love for her… just as each of us who will be saved will be taken into Heaven body and soul after the general resurrection.  This teaching does not equate Mary with God, but rather first among the saved and assumed.

The Dogma is Christ-centered

This dogma both looks back to an historical event, with implications for our future, and to a spiritual event involving Mary.

The teaching is from Christ: “…singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians…” and it is to Christ: “…that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son…” (CCC ¶ 966)

Like Mary, we too can look with hope to the future when, at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, we will be taken into heaven, body and soul, by Jesus, also more fully conformed to her son.

The full text of CCC ¶ 966, from which references are cited above, reads:

“Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death.” [LG 59; cf. Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus (1950):DS 3903; cf. Rev 19:16.]  The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians:

In giving birth you kept your virginity; in your Dormition you did not leave the world, O Mother of God, but were joined to the source of Life. You conceived the living God and, by your prayers, will deliver our souls from death. (Byzantine Liturgy; Troparion, Feast of the Dormition; August 15th)

Testimony from the Early Church

One example from the 6th Century provides us a glimpse of what Christians believed in the ancient Church concerning Mary’s death and assumption.

“The course of this life having been completed by Blessed Mary, when now she would be called from the world, all the Apostles came together from their various regions to her house.  And when they had heard that she was about to be taken from the world, they kept watch together with her.  And behold, the Lord Jesus came with His angels, and taking her soul, He gave it over to the angel Michael and withdrew.  At daybreak, however, the Apostles took up her body on a bier and placed it in a tomb; and they guarded it, expecting the Lord to come.  And behold, again the Lord stood by them; and the holy body having been received, He commanded that it be taken in a cloud into paradise: where now, rejoined to the soul, [Mary] rejoices with the Lord’s chosen ones, and is in the enjoyment of the good of an eternity that will never end.” (Saint Gregory of Tours, Bishop; A. D. 538 – A. D. 594); Eight Books of Miracles; A. D. 575-593; Jurgens III, § 2288a]

Relics from early Christians were collected for veneration, but no one, anywhere, ever claimed to possess a relic of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is certain that if any relic had existed, there would be historical or pious evidence of its existence. Instead, the only testimony that can be found supports the dogma. True, this is only evidence from the “absence” of something that should be present if the Assumption was not true – e.g., Sherlock Holmes and the dog that didn’t bark. And it is also true that there exists no explicit testimony from Scripture, but that does not mean that there exists no scriptural basis for the belief.

We read in the Book of Revelation a vision of the Temple of God. The temple of God is opened and the Ark of the Covenant is revealed. Jews would recognize the significance immediately — the Ark had been long lost.

“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, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. And 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; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. And another portent appeared in heaven; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which to be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days” (Revelation 11:19 – 12:1-6).

In this passage can be seen the connection between the historical Ark of the Covenant which bore the Presence of God on earth during the Old Covenant and Mary, who bore the Presence of God (Jesus) on earth during the ushering in of the New Covenant. As God honored and sanctified the old Ark of the Covenant and commanded His people to treat it as holy, so too would God treat the new Ark of the Covenant. As Mary is seen by the Early Church Fathers as the New Eve, she is also shown in heaven to be the new Ark of the Covenant. Just as the Woman clothed with the sun is now in heaven, body and soul, one day the Woman clothed with the sun (the Church) will one day be found to be in heaven, body and soul (the members of the Church).

Have Other Saints Been Assumed Into Heaven?

This is a very interesting question on which we can only speculate. The Church has not taught one way or the other on this question.  Some have suggested that Enoch, Elijah and Moses (all three from the Old Testament period) were assumed.

Enoch:

Some have understood that Genesis 5:24 indicates the assumption, body and soul, of Enoch.

“When Enoch had lived sixty-five years, he became the father of Methuselah. Enoch walked with God after the birth of Methuselah three hundred years, and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.” (Genesis 5:21-24)

This seems to be supported by Jewish tradition and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

“By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was attested as having pleased God.” (Hebrews 11:5)

However, we are not certain exactly what these verses convey beyond what the Jerome Biblical Commentary describes as a mysterious metahistorical event.  If we take the Hebrews passage literally, we can only say that Enoch did not die – we cannot say that he was taken directly to Heaven.

Elijah:

We are told the story of Elijah being taken up to Heaven in 2 Kings. Jewish tradition held that, like Enoch, Elijah did not die. But again, the Church has not taught directly on the death or assumption of Elijah.

“Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal… And as they still went on and talked, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” (2 Kings 2:1,11)

The purpose of the preceding passage may be simply a testimony to the strength and authority of Elijah’s prophetic office as it is passed down to his spiritual son, Elisha, writing more from theology than from history.

Moses:

There has also been speculation regarding Moses following his death. We detect an uncertainty about his burial plot in the account of his death found in Deuteronomy.

“So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD, and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no man knows the place of his burial to this day.” (Deuteronomy 34:5-6)

And the Epistle of Jude contains a verse that references a mysterious event involving the body of Moses. But while the passage includes a reference to a Jewish tradition about God taking up Moses’ body, the focus of the passage concerns the fact that judgment of others’ souls is reserved to God, not men or angels.

“But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, disputed about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a reviling judgment upon him, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you.'” (Jude 1:9)

Transfiguration:

There is the well-known Transfiguration of Jesus, recorded in the Gospels. At this event on the mountain top, Jesus is joined by Elijah and Moses. Peter, James and John are witnesses to this. (cf Matthew 17:1-3)

Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote concerning the Transfiguration that Moses was brought up from the netherworld and was not reunited with his body and that Elias (Elijah) was brought down in his body from some high place, but not from Heaven. (cf Summa Theologica III.45.3) Thus, Saint Thomas appears to be among the theologians that believe that Elijah escaped death while Moses did not. Like the Angels who are spirit but at times appear in bodily form, so did Moses. He teaches that neither attained Heaven prior to the Redemption.

Indeed that would seem to be the strongest argument against the assumption of anyone (body OR soul) in Old Testament times; redemption had not yet opened heaven to us.

After the Resurrection:

But there is indication, though not conclusive, that people other than Mary have been assumed after the Redemption, body and soul, into heaven.

“And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.” (Matthew 27:51-53)

They “appeared” to many. They are in bodily form and many theologians wrote that these formerly sinful human beings were raised to new life after Christ’s resurrection and were led to heaven by Christ.

Conformed to Her Son

Whatever the case with these others, it makes sense from the whole of Divine Revelation that Mary would be so treated and honored by Christ. She who bore Him, led Him and followed Him in all ways was perfected in Him. And so too may we hope with confidence to be perfected in Christ by His grace in this life or the life to come and to join Him, body and soul on the last day.

Into the deep…


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About the Author

Deacon Michael Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life™. A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization.

He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplain of the St. Peter Chanel Faith at Work Business Association and co-founder and Chaplain of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.

He and his wife have two adult children, one daughter-in-law and three grandchildren.

NB: The views I express on this site are my own. I am not an official spokesman for either my parish or diocese.

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