Assumption of Mary

Image of the Death of the Virgin by Duccio di Buoninsegna

Death of the Virgin by Duccio di Buoninsegna

The Assumption is the belief that Mary, at the conclusion of her earthly life, was taken body and soul to heaven. It is implied in various passages of Scripture, probably most vividly in Revelation 12, and was believed by the early Christians, as indicated by the ancient liturgies and writings. Perhaps the greatest historical proof  of the Assumption, though, is the fact that no individual or community has ever claimed to possess Mary’s body.1 One can be certain that had the body of Mary, by far the most exalted of the Saints, remained on earth, the followers of Christ would have been well aware of it.

There happen to be two different beliefs concerning the place of Mary’s passing: one pointing to Jerusalem; the other to Ephesus. Of the two, the former tradition is older and better substantiated. Interestingly enough, an empty, first-century tomb was discovered during excavations at the site of her passing in Jerusalem in 1972 (see Bellarmino Bagatti, Michael Piccirillo, and Albert Prodomo, O.F.M., New Discoveries at the Tomb of the Virgin Mary in Gethsemane, Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press, 1975). Some scholars have doubted the authenticity of this tomb since it was not referred to by the early Fathers who lived in Palestine, such as Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), Epiphanius (d. 403), and Jerome (d. 420). But, as archeologist Bellarmino Bagatti pointed out, Mary’s tomb was generally avoided by early Christians of Gentile origin because it stood on the property of Judeo-Christians, who “were considered schismatics if not heretics” (ibid., p. 15). For the same reason, other holy sites, such as the Upper Room, do not appear in early writings either (ibid.). It should be remembered as well that the forces of the Roman General Titus obliterated Jerusalem in the year 70, concealing places sacred to Judaism and Christianity beneath the rubble. In 135, the Emperor Hadrian leveled the city again with the express purpose of constructing pagan temples atop the ruins of holy sites. The spot of Mary’s passing and other sacred places remained lost until the fourth century at least when the Emperor Constantine the Great gradually began to restore Christianity’s hallowed sites, starting with the Holy Sepulchre in 336.] The Assumption provides an example of a disciple of Christ following after Him in a bodily resurrection, pointing to the reality for which all Christians hope. Ultimately, it attests not to her holiness, moreover, but to the holiness of Jesus, on whose account she received special prerogatives.

While it has always been believed by Christians, the Assumption was officially declared a dogma of the Catholic Church by Pope Pius XII in 1950. Certainly one can see God’s loving wisdom in affirming Mary’s bodily resurrection to the world at the midpoint of a century that witnessed so many grave injustices against the dignity of the human person. At the time of the dogma’s proclamation, the world was emerging from the horrors of the Nazi death camps and swiftly approaching the state-protected killing of the unborn child. The nobility of woman and her chief vocation of motherhood have especially been assaulted by modern society, which has focused inordinately upon her exterior beauty and sought ever to reduce her to an object of lust. In stark contrast to these proclamations of the culture of death, Mary’s Assumption declares the dignity of womanhood and of the human body, of the human person, in a powerful way.

Ascension of the Virgin by Albrecht Bouts

Ascension of the Virgin by Albrecht Bouts

The dogma of the Assumption rests upon the Church’s authority to feed Christ’s sheep (cf. John 21:15-17; Luke 10:16) and Our Savior’s promise that His Church shall teach the truth (cf. John 14:26; 16:13; Matt. 16:18-19; 1 Tim. 3:15). This infallible authority has always been trusted to divine the true teaching when disputes have risen among the faithful. We see this in the calling of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15); in Paul’s seeking of the Apostles’ approval of his preaching many years after his conversion (Gal. 2:1-2); and in the actions of the latter Ecumenical Councils, which proclaimed the divinity of Christ in 325, the divinity of the Holy Spirit in 381, and Mary’s divine maternity in 431.

Theologically, the Assumption is closely related to the Immaculate Conception, which states that Mary, by a special grace from God, was spared from the stain of original sin from the first moment of her existence. Her freedom from sin is implicit in God’s promise upon the Fall of Man to place enmity between the devil and the Mother of the Redeemer (Gen. 3:15). Going back to apostolic times, the Church has revered Mary as the New Eve, faithful helpmate of the New Adam. Just as the first Eve believed the lies of Satan, a fallen angel, and by rejecting God’s plan brought sin and death into the world; so the New Eve believed the truths of Gabriel, an Archangel, and by cooperating with God’s plan brought salvation and life into the world. In contemplating Mary as the New Eve, moreover, we come to realize that in orchestrating our redemption, God in a surprisingly literal way reversed the events of our fall. Originally, for example, Adam came first; and Eve was formed from his flesh. In the redemption, Mary, the New Eve, came first; and Christ, the New Adam, was formed from her flesh. Coincidentally, this is why in the New Covenant the woman and man were mother and son, not spouses as Adam and Eve had been.

That Mary possessed Eve’s innocence before the fall means she was likely exempt from its punishment: labor pains and bodily death (cf. Gen. 3:16, 19; Rom. 6:23). Even if not excused from these things entirely, however, it is appropriate at least that extraordinary graces were given her in childbirth and in death.2

Coronation of the Virgin by Gentile da Fabriano

Corontion of the Virgin by Gentile da Fabriano

Like the rising of the bodies of the saints after the Crucifixion (cf. Matt. 27:52), the Assumption is a precursor to the bodily resurrection of the faithful on Judgment Day, when they shall be “caught up … in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess. 4:17).3 The Bible does not oppose the concept of a bodily assumption into heaven. In Scripture, Enoch and Elijah are taken up bodily to heaven (cf. Gen. 5:24; 2 Kgs. 2:11; Heb. 11:5). It is true that the Bible does not explicitly state that Mary was assumed. Yet by the same token, the Bible does not deny or contradict her Assumption.4 Moreover, while a direct account of the Assumption is not found in Scripture, it may be inferred from certain passages concerning the Ark of the Covenant, a type of Mary. The Ark was made of incorruptible wood and overlaid with pure gold because of the holiness of the objects it was designed to carry likewise (cf. Ex. 25:10-11); likewise the Virgin was endowed with spiritual and physical purity and incorruptibility in preparation for bearing the Son of God. That Mary’s incorrupt body, the Ark of the New Covenant, would be taken to heaven is indicated in Psalm 132:8, which states, “Arise, O Lord, and go to thy resting place, thou and the ark of thy might.” That the Old-Covenant Ark mysteriously vanished at a certain point in history foreshadows Our Lady’s Assumption as well.5 The sacred vessel remained hidden for centuries until the Apostle John caught a glimpse of it in heaven, as he describes in Revelation: “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple … . 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” (11:19, 12:1). John’s vision of the Mother of Redeemer dwelling bodily in paradise is the closest thing we have to an eyewitness account of the Assumption. He goes on to explain that she had been taken up to heaven following the Lord’s Ascension. “Her child,” he declares, “was caught up to God and to his throne, 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” (12:5-6). Similarly he says, “The woman was given the two wings of the great eagle that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time” (12:14).6

The earliest extant writings on the Assumption are various apocryphal and pseudoepigraphical texts, which fall under the general heading of the Transitus Mariae or Passing of Mary. The oldest of these, believed to have been composed during the second century by Leucius Karinus, a disciple of John, is thought to be based upon an original document from the apostolic era, which is no longer extant.7

The early Church’s belief that the Blessed Virgin was incorrupt in body and soul implicitly supports the Assumption. The anonymous Letter to Diognetus (cf. 125), for instance, refers to her as a Virgin that cannot be deceived.8 In fact, many ancient writers, most notably Saints Justin the Martyr (d. ca. 165) and Irenaeus of Lyons (d. ca. 202), contrasted Mary in her fidelity to Eve in her sinfulness. Saint Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235), a student of Ireneaus, compared Mary’s flesh to the “incorruptible timber” of the Ark (Commentary on Psalm 22). The Sub Tuum Praesidium prayer, composed in about the mid-third century, calls Mary “alone pure and alone blessed.”

In Saint Ephraim the Syrian’s Hymns on the Nativity, from the mid-fourth century, using imagery that recalls Revelation 12:4, Mary seems to foretell the conveyance of her body to heaven, saying, “The Babe that I carry has carried me … . He bent down His pinions and took and put me between His wings and soared into the air” (17:1). In 377, Saint Epiphanius of Salamis wrote, “How will holy Mary not possess the kingdom of heaven with her flesh, since she was not unchaste, nor dissolute, nor did she ever commit adultery, and since she never did anything wrong as far as fleshly actions are concerned, but remained stainless?” (Panarion 42:12). Some have suggested he could not have believed in the Assumption since he speaks here of Mary’s bodily entrance into heaven in the future tense. Yet he remarked later in the same document, “If she was slain, … then she obtained glory together with the martyrs, and her body … dwells among those who enjoy the repose of the blessed” (ibid. 78:23; emphasis added). Speculating on her death, he went on to say that either

she died or did not die, … she was buried or was not buried. … Scripture simply is silent, because of the greatness of the prodigy, in order not to strike the mind of man with excessive wonder. …

If the holy Virgin is dead and has been buried, surely her dominion happened with great honor; her end was most pure and crowned by virginit. …

Or she continued to live. For, to God, it is not impossible to do whatever he wills; on the other hand, no one knows exactly what her end was (ibid. 78:11, 23).

That Epiphanius did not know the details of Mary’s passing is perfectly understandable–Christians still do not know the details of it and it is likely the Apostles themselves did not know either, for her body was taken from within an enclosed tomb.9 Unlike other early writers, however, Epiphanius avoided inventing the details for himself. Though he did not know exactly what had taken place, he knew, in light of Mary’s perfect sanctity, that her passing had to have been miraculous–something that would “strike the mind of man with excessive wonder”–and that she could not have remained in the grave. “In the Apocalypse of John,” he also noted, “we read that the dragon hurled himself at the woman who had given birth to a male child; but the wings of an eagle were given to the woman, and she flew into the desert, where the dragon could not reach her. This could have happened in Mary’s case (Rev. 12:13-14)” (ibid. 78:11).

At the start of the fifth century, or earlier, the feast of the Commemoration of Mary–that is, the commemoration of her passing–was introduced into the Eastern Liturgy, placing it among the oldest of the Church’s official feast days.10 Around the year 400, Chrysippus of Jerusalem commented on Psalm 132, “The truly royal Ark, the most precious Ark, was the ever-Virgin Theotokos; the Ark which received the treasure of all sanctification” (On Psalm 131(132)).

An orthodox writer from this same time period, operating under the nom de plume of Saint Melito of Sardis, a near-contemporary of Leucius, reproached him for having “corrupted the most ancient text by expounding his personal ideas which do not agree with the teaching of the Apostles” (Bagatti, et al., p. 11). This author endeavored to restore the true account of the Assumption, which he alleged Leucius had “corrupted with an evil pen” (The Passing of the Holy Virgin, Prologue).

In about 437, Saint Quodvultdeus identified the Woman in Revelation 12 as the Blessed Virgin, noting, “Let none of you ignore (the fact) that the dragon (in the Apocalypse of the apostle John) is the devil; know that the virgin signifies Mary, the chaste one, who gave birth to our chaste head” (Third Homily 3:5).

In about the middle of the fifth century, Saint Hesychius of Jerusalem wrote, “The Ark of thy sanctification, the Virgin theotokos surely. If thou art the pearl then she must be the Ark” (Homily on Holy Mary, Mother of God). Around 530, Oecumenius said of Revelation 12, “Rightly does the vision show her in heaven and not upon the earth, as pure in soul and body” (Commentary on the Apocalpyse). Writing of the Assumption near the end of the sixth century, Saint Gregory of Tours (unlike Epiphanius) did not avoid the incidental details of the Transitus story. “And behold,” wrote Gregory, “again the Lord stood by (the Apostles); the holy body (of Mary) having been received, He commanded that it be taken in a cloud into paradise” (Eight Books of Miracles 1:4).

Critics of the Church’s Marian teachings have made much of the fact that the earliest-known accounts of the Assumption are found in apocryphal writings, and that the Church Fathers did not speak of it before the late-fourth century.

It is also true, however, that the Fathers did not look to correct belief in the Assumption; they simply remained silent on the matter–an unprecedented stance if it was a heretical teaching, especially given its prevalence among the faithful. It is unlikely, indeed, that the concept of Mary’s Assumption, which upholds the sanctity of the human body, could have originated among the Gnostics, given that they denounced the body and all things physical. The Apocrypha, in fact, were often not the work of heretics, but of orthodox Christians seeking to impose details upon real events from the lives of Christ and the Saints that were otherwise shrouded in mystery. While apocryphists embellished the story of the Assumption, they did not invent it. The fact that the Transitus existed virtually everywhere in the Christian world, appearing in multiple languages, including Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopic, and Arabic, proves the story of Mary’s Assumption was spread universally in the early centuries and, therefore, of apostolic origin.

While the Church has ever been cognizant of the danger involved in relying upon works of a spurious nature, it cannot be denied that kernels of truth prevail in many such works. Recall, for example, that Saint Jude refers to the Assumption of Moses and First Enoch in his New Testament Letter (see Jude 1:9, 14 ff.). Origin wisely observed:

We are not unaware that many of these secret writings were produced by men, famous for their iniquity. … We must therefore use caution in accepting all these secret writings that circulate under the name of saints … because some of them were written to destroy the truth of our Scripture and to impose a false teaching. On the other hand, we should not totally reject writings that might be useful in shedding light on the Scripture. It is a sign of a great man to hear and carry out the advice of Scripture: “Test everything; retain what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21) (Commentaries on Matthew 28).

In 494, Pope Saint Gelasius, seeking to guard the faithful against the potentially corruptive influence of the numerous religious writings of questionable authorship that plagued the Christian world, reissued the list of canonical books drawn up by his predecessor, Pope Saint Damasus, coupled with a lengthy catalog of acceptable and unacceptable extra-biblical books.

Opponents of the Church have made an issue of the fact that an apocryphal writing on the Assumption is included among the forbidden books in Gelasius’ decre, but the Pope condemned an apocryphal account of the Assumption, of course, and not the Assumption itself.

Apocryphal accounts of other orthodox beliefs are likewise condemned in the decree–the Protoevangelium of James, for instance, deals with the Nativity; and the Acts of Peter deals with Peter’s missionary activity and martyrdom in Rome. Even more to the point, the writings of Tertullian are banned, though his writings, for instance, simply entitled Baptism and Repentance, defend the orthodox position on these subjects. Does Gelasius’ condemnation of these books amount to the rejection of Baptism and repentance, then, or does it have to do more with a question of Tertullian’s character?

Clearly, the banning of a book in the Gelasian Decree cannot be said to be a wholesale rejection of the book’s subject matter or contents. In many cases, more scholarship would be required by the Church to sift out the truly harmful elements from these books. In the meantime, placing them under the ban was prudent given the uncertainty surrounding them.11

For those seeking to find in the Gelasian Decree some compromise of Papal Infallibility, it should be explained that the banning of a book has nothing to do with the Pope’s infallibility since it is merely a disciplinary action, not connected with the defining of dogma. By nature, a disciplinary action is subject to change. It stands in place only so long as the perceived threat exists; once the threat has passed, the censure is lifted. In this particular case, as the canon of the Bible grew in acceptance the threat posed by the Apocrypha waned and the ban became obsolete.

  1. This is extraordinary proof indeed given Christianity’s penchant for preserving and venerating saintly relics–a practice which dates back to the early days of the faith as the Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp, composed in the middle of the second century, shows.
  2. While Catholics have traditionally believed Mary was exempted from labor pains, it has been supposed that she did indeed suffer death in order to perfectly conform to Her Son, who though sinless accepted death (cf. Phil. 2:5 ff.). In defining the dogma of the Assumption, Pius XII avoided saying for certain she had died, merely stating she had “completed the course of her earthly life” (Munificentissimus Deus 44).
  3. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians … . She already shares in the glory of her Son’s Resurrection, anticipating the resurrection of all members of his Body” (966, 974).
  4. There are other significant events in the life of the apostolic Church which are omitted from the New Testament as well, such as the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul, and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman legions in the year 70. According to the Muratorian Fragment, composed in Rome in the latter part of the second century, Luke only included in the Acts of the Apostles events he had witnessed with his own eyes. That Luke avoided writing of things he had not actually seen helps us to understand why the Assumption was not recorded, for it took place inside a tomb. Unlike the Lord’s ascension, a public event seen by many, the Assumption had no eyewitnesses.
  5. Second Maccabees 2:5 says that Jeremiah sealed the Ark in a cave on Mount Nebo prior to the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. (cf. 2 Kgs. 24:13, et al.).
  6. Protestantism tends to see this Woman as either a symbolic figure of Israel or the Church (cf. Gen. 37:9). Catholicism accepts these interpretations, but extends them to include in a specific way Mary, the embodiment of the people of God. Israel bore Christ figuratively; Mary bore Him literally. In commenting on this passage, Saint Quodvultdeus (d. 453), the Bishop of Carthage and a disciple of Saint Augustine, wrote that Mary “also embodied in herself a figure of the holy church: namely, how while bearing a son, she remained a virgin, so that the church throughout time bears her members, yet she does not lose her virginity” (Third Homily on the Creed 3:6; see also Clement of Alexandria, Instructor of the Children 1:6:42:1).

    The motif of God’s people escaping “on the wings of an eagle” to a place of refuge can be found throughout the Old Testament (see Ex. 19:4; Ps. 54 (55):6-7; Isa. 40:31, et al.). God’s promise of “escape into the wilderness” is profoundly fulfilled in the Assumption, Mary being the preeminent representative of His people.

    The symbolic references in Revelation 12 to a duration of time, “one thousand two hundred and sixty days” and “for a time, and times, and half a time” (6, 14), may represent the period of persecution, which the Church will endure, prior to the Second Coming of Christ.

    Verse 12:17 says the devil, infuriated by the Woman’s escape, set out “to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep God’s commandments and give witness to Jesus.” That the followers of Christ are considered “the rest of her offspring” supports the Church’s regard for Mary as the Mother of All Christians (cf. Isa. 66:8; John 19:26-27).

  7. While at one time the Transitus was thought to have originated no earlier than the fourth century, certain theological terms used in Leucius’ document confirm an origin either in the second or third century (Bagatti, et al., p. 14; Bagatti referenced his own works, S. Pietro nella “Dormitio Mariae,” pp. 42-48; Ricerche sulle tradizioni della morte della Vergine, pp. 185-214).
  8. The actual text reads: “If you bear the tree of (knowledge) and pluck its fruit, you will always be gathering in the things that are desirable in the sight of God, things that the serpent cannot touch and deceit cannot defile. Then Eve is not seduced, but a Virgin is found trustworthy” (Letter to Diognetus 12:7-9). Regarding this passage, Cyril c. Richardson comments, “It is fairly clear that the author intends to state the common Patristic contrast … between Eve, the disobedient mother of death, and Mary, the obedient mother of life, in which case the parthenos of the text will be the blessed Virgin Mary” (Early Christian Fathers, New York: Collier Books, 1970, p. 224, n. 23). Hilda Graef concurred, saying, “It almost seems as if Mary were called Eve without any further explanation” (Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion, vol. 1, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963, p. 38).
  9. In contrast to the Transitus account, which claims the Apostles witnessed Mary’s body being transported to heaven, there is a tradition that she died on January 18 (Tobi 21), but that her empty tomb was not discovered till 206 days later on August 15 (Mesore 16) (see Graef, Mary, vol. 1, p. 134, n. 1; the author referenced Dom Capelle, Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 3, 1926, p. 38; M.R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament, 1924, pp. 194-201).
  10. The feast of the Nativity (i.e., Christmas) was established in the early fourth century, during the reign of Constantine. The feast of the Ascension was established in the fifth century, having originally been included in the feast of Pentecost.
  11. In this way, the Church resembles the mother who forbids her children to watch a particular TV show until she has had the chance to watch the show and judge its contents for herself. The Church has always erred on the side of caution in discerning matters of faith and morals. Consider that, more recently, Saints Teresa of Avila (d. 1582) and John of the Cross (d. 1591), now revered as Doctors of the Church, were interrogated by the Inquisition on the suspicion of heresy. Similarly, the diary of Saint Faustina Kowalska (d. 1938), Divine Mercy in My Soul, was at one time rejected as heterodox by Church theologians, but subsequently gained official approval under Pope John Paul the Great. Faustina’s revelations found in the diary, in fact, have led to the institution of the feast of Divine Mercy, now universally celebrated in the Church.