Historical Background: Belief in Mary's Assumption

Introduction

Belief that Mary has been taken up and is now in heaven with both her body and her soul has been part of the teaching of the Catholic Church since the earliest centuries of Christianity.  The strongest evidence for the belief of the early Christians is found in ancient liturgies and in homilies in honor of Mary's passing.  A second source, widely spread in the Middle Ages is known as the Transitus writings.  Today, the renewed discussion about the location of the tomb of Mary indicates interest about Mary's Assumption into heaven.

By the end of the Middle Ages, belief in Mary's Assumption into heaven was well established theologically and part of the devotional expressions of the people.  The word Assumption comes from the Latin verb assumere, meaning "to take to oneself."  Our Lord, Jesus Christ took Mary home to himself where he is.

For Martin Luther, Mary's Assumption was an understood fact, as his homily of 1522 indicates, in spite of the fact that Mary's Assumption is not expressly reported in Sacred Scripture.  For Protestant reformer, Martin Butzer (1545), there was no reason to doubt about the Assumption of the Virgin into heavenly glory.  "Indeed, no Christian doubts that the most worthy Mother of the Lord lives with her beloved Son in heavenly joy." (Marienlexikon, vol 3, 200)


Assumption of Mary in York Minster


H. Bullinger (1590), also a Protestant reformer, sought for a theological foundation for the Assumption in Scripture.  He showed that the Old Testament tells of Elias, taken to heaven bodily to teach us about our immortality, and – because of our immortal soul – to respectfully honor the bodies of the saints.  Against this backdrop he states, "Because of this, we believe that the pure immaculate chamber of the God-bearer, the Virgin Mary, is a temple of the Holy Spirit, that is her holy body, borne by angels into heaven." (Marienlexikon, vol 3, 200)

In the light of a long history of Christian belief since patristic times, in 1950, Pope Pius XII defined Mary's Assumption into Heaven as a dogma of Roman Catholicism:

"the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heaven."

The proclamation of this dogma is found in the encyclical: Munificentissimus Deus. [See sources below.]

Mary's story does not stop with her Assumption.  After entering heaven, Mary has remained active in the service of her Son for the life of the Church.  Many Christians believe that she has manifested her concern in visible appearances and miraculous cures.  Some of these events are commemorated in the liturgical calendar (e.g. Our Lady of Lourdes on February 11 (Roman), Protection of Mary on October 1 (Byzantine)


Coronation of Mary
Cologne, ca. 1220-30, height: 88 cm


The Origins of the Belief

The close association between Jesus Christ and his mother is foundational to belief in the Assumption  It is essential and significant to note the distinction between the resurrection and ascension of Christ, who rose up, in contrast to Mary who is assumed or taken into heaven.  The early poetry on the Assumption of Mary, which originated and circulated widely in the Eastern Church, expresses this difference and parallelism.  The death that Christ conquered in the resurrection and ascension, is also overcome for Mary.

The early poetry tells of Mary's passing from this life to the next.  Much of this poetry remains untranslated for the West.  Nevertheless, a small important script, based on early oral versions of the Assumption and written at the beginning of the fifth century, came into the West.


Coronation of the Virgin
Polychrome Ivory
Paris, third quarter of the thirteenth century


This text, more commonly known as Transitus (passing on, crossing over) Mariae, and attributed to Melito of Sardes tells of Mary's homegoing in detail:

In the presence of the apostles gathered around her bed, also in the presence of her divine Son and many angels, Mary died and her soul, rose to heaven, accompanied by Christ and the angels. Her body was buried by the disciples.  Difficulties developed among certain of the Jews who wished to dispose of her body.  Various types of miracles occurred to convince them to honor Mary's body.  On the third day, Christ returned.  At the request of the apostles the soul of Mary is reunited with her body.  Accompanied by singing angels, Christ brought Mary to paradise.

In addition to teaching about Mary's perpetual virginity, the Transitus refers to Mary's body as a glorious tabernacle, a living vessel, and a heavenly temple.

Opening Prayer for the Liturgy of the Assumption
August 15, Holy Day

All-powerful and ever-living God, you raised the sinless Virgin Mary, mother of your Son, body and soul to the glory of heaven.  May we see heaven as our final goal and come to share her glory.

We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen


The Assumption
Work completed in 1518 Titian (1477?-1576)
Located in the Church of the Glorious St. Mary of Friars, Venezia


In the early sixth century, a papal decree, Decretum Gelasianum, classified the Transitus Mariae writings as apocryphal, but this did not hinder the wide distribution of well over thirteen-hundred manuscripts throughout the West.  In England, it was known well before the thirteenth century and is one of the first poetic texts written in early English.  There are many versions among the hand copied manuscripts.  The Transitus Mariae was incorporated into the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine.  It is also incorporated into a text known as Vita BVM et salvatoris rhythmica (The rhythmic life of the BVM and redeemer), written in the mid-thirteenth century.  These later texts add many embellishments to describe Mary's entry into heaven.  All the saints and angels come to greet her and do her homage as her Son crowns her queen.  These texts are gathered uncritically from various sources, but they nevertheless express faith-filled devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Greater detail on the Assumption Apocrypha is found in Theotokos, Michael O'Carroll, C.S.Sp., p. 59f.

The Proclamation of the Dogma of the Assumption in 1950

Moving forward to the present, and to the proclamation of the dogma by Pope Pius XII on November 1, 1950, we find that the Transitus stories are not referred to in the proclamation.

Rev. Michael O'Carroll, C.S.Sp. in Theotokos states:

"True, in a passage in Pseudo-Melito, XVI, 2-XVII, the Lord is depicted asking the apostles what he should do with Mary who had died.  Peter significantly replied with and for all: 'If therefore it might come to pass before the power of thy grace, it hath appeared right to us thy servants that, as thou, having overcome death dost reign in glory, so thou shouldst raise up the body of thy mother and take her with thee rejoicing into heaven.  Then said the Saviour: Be it done according to your will.' Here it is not so much apostolic origin but apostolic authority that is invoked for the truth, a fact of importance in the development of the doctrine." (p. 60)

The proclamation of the dogma was part of a plan of Pope Pius XII to honor Mary.  He appealed to the faith of the Church as partial basis for the definition.  As O'Carroll writes:

"The faith of the Church had been manifest in different ways.  Between 1849 and 1950, numerous petitions for the dogma arrived in Rome.  They came from One hundred and thirteen Cardinals, eighteen Patriarchs, twenty-five-hundred-five archbishops and bishops, thirty-two-thousand priests and men religious, fifty-thousand religious women, eight million lay people.  On May 1, 1946 the Pope had sent to the bishops of the world the Encyclical Deiparae Virginis, putting this question to them: 'More especially we wish to know if you, Venerable Brethren, with your learning and prudence consider that the bodily Assumption of the Immaculate Blessed Virgin can be proposed and defined as a dogma of faith and whether in addition to your own wishes this is desired by your clergy and people.'  When the replies were collated, it was found that twenty-two residential bishops out of 1181 dissented, but only six doubted that the Assumption was revealed truth--the others questioned the opportuneness." (p. 56)

Pius XII considered this response as a "certain and firm proof" that the Assumption is a truth revealed by God.  The core of the dogma's proclamation states:

"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 to heavenly glory."

The proclamation calls upon the ancient liturgical celebrations and the constant belief of the faithful as major reasons for the dogmatic definition.

Vatican II, in Lumen Gentium, chapter 8, repeats the dogmatic formulation and links the teaching to the Mary-Church parallel. Lumen Gentium states:

"In the most holy Virgin the Church has already reached that perfection whereby she exists without spot or wrinkle." LG 65

"In the bodily and spiritual glory which she possesses in heaven, the Mother of Jesus continues in this present world as the image and first flowering of the Church as it is to be perfected in the world to come.  Likewise Mary shines forth until the day the Lord shall come [2 Peter 3:10] as a sign of sure hope and comfort for the pilgrim People of God." LG 68


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