The Assumption

 

The close of Mary's life is clouded in mystery. Some of the earliest  references  we have that relate to her death are from St. Epiphanius (d. 402), the bishop of Salamis, which is the metropolitan see of Cyprus. In his three-volume work, the Panarion (Medicine chest against heresies), written between 374 and 376, he describes eighty sects or false beliefs that existed from the beginning of the world. In detailing the errors of the Antidikomarianitai, the "opponents of Mary" who denied the perpetual virginity, he witnesses to the lack of certainty that existed about Mary's last days as well as hinting about his own thoughts:

But if some think us mistaken, let them search the Scriptures.  They will not find whether she died or did not die; they will not find whether she was buried or was not buried.  More than that:  John journeyed to Asia, yet nowhere do we read that he took the Holy Virgin with him. Rather, Scripture is absolutely silent, because of the extraordinary nature of the prodigy, in order not to shock the minds of men.  For my part, I do not dare to speak, but I keep my own thoughts and I practice silence.  For it may be that somewhere we have found hints that it is impossible to discover the death of the holy, blessed one.  On the one hand, you see, Simeon says of her, "And your own soul a sword shall pierce, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed" (Luke 2:35).  On the other hand, when the Apocalypse of John says, 'And the dragon hastened against the woman who had brought forth the male child, and there were given to her an eagle's wings, and she was carried off into the wilderness, that the dragon might not seize her' (Acts 12:13-14), it may be that this is fulfilled in her. However, I do not assert this absolutely, and I do not say that she remained immortal;  but neither do I maintain stoutly that she died.  The fact is, scripture had outstripped the human mind and left (this matter) uncertain, for the sake of that valued vessel without compare, to prevent anyone from harboring carnal thoughts in her regard.  Did she die?  We do not know.  At all events, if she was buried, she had had no carnal intercourse.1

 

In instructing us about another sect called the Collyridians, Epiphanius attests that Mary played a part and even possibly the major part in their worship:  "What happens is that certain women decorate a chair or a square stool, spread out upon it a cloth, and on a certain day of the year put out bread and offer it in Mary's name.  All the women partake of the bread....  Whether these idle women offer the small loaf to Mary herself in worship of her, or whether they make this worthless offering on her behalf, the whole thing is ridiculous."2   While commenting on the beliefs of the Collyridians, Epiphanius again conjectures on Mary's end:  "Either the holy Virgin died and was buried, then her falling asleep was with honor, her death chaste, her crown that of virginity. Or she was killed, as it is written: 'and your own soul a sword shall pierce,' then her glory is among the martyrs and her holy body amid blessings, she through whom light rose over the world. Or she remained alive, since nothing is impossible with God and He can do whatever He desires, for her end no one knows."3

Augustine (d. 430) assumes that Mary died. He writes in De catechiwndis rudibus: "For being born of a mother who, although she conceived without being touched by man and always remained thus untouched, in virginity conceiving, in virginity bringing forth, in virginity dying ...."4  In his Expositions on the Book of Psalms, he states: "For to speak more briefly, Mary who was of Adam died for sin, Adam died for sin, and the Flesh of the Lord which was of Mary died to put away sin."5  In his Tractates on the Gospel According to St. John, Augustine tells us: "He commends His mother to the care of the disciple; commends His mother, as about to die before her, and to rise again before her death."6

By the end of the sixth century, apocryphal narratives were circulating which detailed Mary's end. The earliest forms of these legends cannot be easily dated, although the Syriac fragments preserved in the British Library are considered the oldest extant and are thought to have been composed in the second half of the fifth century. A passage from this work tells us: "And the Lord said to Michael: 'Let them bring the body of Mary into the clouds.' And when the body of Mary had been brought into the clouds, Our Lord said to the Apostles that they should draw near to the clouds. And when they drew near to the clouds they were singing with the voices of angels. And Our Lord told the clouds to go to the gate of paradise. And when they had entered paradise, the body of Mary went to the tree of life; and they brought her soul and made it enter her body."7

These apocryphal narratives, which recount legends and miracles related to Mary's end, spread widely in the sixth century. There are twenty existing versions of these stories in Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Arabic and Latin. Brian Daley, S. J. provides us with a summary of the Greek accounts:

The earliest Greek accounts - and the earliest known full narrative of Mary's death - are the well-known Transitus Mariae attributed to John the Evangelist.... Both these versions of the story, usually dated to the late fifth or early sixth century, provide a greatly expanded version of the Syriac narrative ... Here Mary, living in or near Jerusalem, is informed by an angel that her death is near. She is then joined by the twelve Apostles, who are miraculously gathered from the ends of the earth. After a number of speeches by herself and her companions, she commits her soul into the hands of Jesus and dies. As the Apostles set about burying her body in a new tomb near Gethsemane, a Jew named Jephoniah tries to hinder the procession, and is temporarily deprived of the use of his hands. The apostles keep watch at her tomb for three days, and then realize that her body, as well as her soul, has been conveyed by angels to Paradise.  In the text published by Wenger, Jesus actually joins the apostles at her tomb, and he and they accompany the angelic escort carrying her body to Paradise where it is reunited with her soul.8

The accounts of Jesus' welcome of Mary are very tender: "And stretching out his unstained hands, the Lord received her holy and spotless soul. And at the departure of her spotless soul the place was filled with a sweet odor and inexpressible light. And behold, a voice from heaven was heard, saying: 'Blessed are you among women.' And Peter ran, and I, John, and Paul and Thomas,  embraced her precious feet to receive sanctification; and the twelve Apostles laid her honorable and holy body upon a bed and bore it forth."9

There may be a distinction between paradise and heaven, for this earliest Greek form of the account indicates that Mary's body is taken to a different place than her soul in some accounts: "(Christ says) From this time forth your revered body will be transposed to paradise, but your holy soul will be in the heavens, in the treasuries of my father, in surpassing brightness ...."10

These apocryphal accounts are frequently referred to as Transitus Mariae literature. The Latin account was included among those apocryphal writings of heretical origin which were rejected as uncanonical by the Decretum Gelasianum, which was an official list put together by a cleric of either southern Gaul or northern Italy sometime during or shortly after the pontificate of Pope Gelasius I (492-496). A popular martyrology, that was used from the ninth century to the reform of the Roman Martyrology by Baronius in 1548, was composed by Usuard, a monk of St. Germain des Pres in Paris. It stated its opinion quite bluntly in its announcement of the feast:  "The Falling Asleep of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. Though her most sacred body is not to be found on earth, still Holy Mother Church celebrates her venerable memory with no doubt that she had left this life. But as to where the venerable temple of the Holy Ghost has been hidden by divine Providence, the sobriety of the Church prefers pious ignorance to any frivolous or apocryphal doctrine."11 When Pius XII defined the Assumption of the blessed Virgin, he made no reference to these accounts.

Walter Burghardt comments on the value of these documents:

As history, the Transitus accounts are ambivalent. From one standpoint they are valueless: they provide no credible evidence which the historian, exercising his proper craft, may employ to determine whether our Lady died. And yet, these legends may not be discarded. They witness to an historical fact that gives rise to two problems of authentic interest to the theologian. The historical fact is a conviction among Christians that the Mother of God died. This conviction is widespread in East and West; it covers several centuries; it influenced homiletic literature, early art, and the liturgy; there is no contradictory tradition to offset it.12

 

Jacques Hervieux identifies this literature as similar to the Jewish literary form of haggadah midrash, which were collections of legends which commented on the information in the Scriptures. Hervieux also notes the differences between the Transitus Mariae stories and the Gospels:

This kind of writing is the same as the Protevangelium of James and pseudo-Matthew on the life of Mary; it is an haggadah midrash. But the haggadah has here taken many more liberties with history since the Gospels gave it no facts at all. Many details included in it are quite gratuitous ... The book of the Passing of Mary is an edifying narrative which has its origins in a scriptural model: it is a midrash. To pass a valid judgment on the merits and demerits of a work of this kind, we have to consider the literary character of the work. On the purely historical level its authenticity must be considered very doubtful. When the Gospel spoke of the Pasch of Jesus, that is, His 'passage' from this world to His Father, it offered serious guarantees and at the same time respected it as a 'mystery.' The evangelists refused to describe miraculous events which were altogether beyond their conception. They offered certain details as proof: the linen cloths and the veil found at the empty tomb (John 20:6), and the various appearances of the risen Christ (Matt 28: 16-20). The apocryphal writer has no hesitation in describing, as far as he can, the 'Passing of Mary' even to the most unlikely details. Consider, for instance, the scene where Christ having descended from heaven, in the presence of the apostles, performs the reuniting of Mary's dead body with her living soul. Such scenes belong rather to the world of the imagination than to reality. But a narrative is not entirely condemned by its historical inaccuracy: otherwise all narratives of an edifying kind would be valueless. Since the 'Passing of Mary' is a description of her last end on the model of the Gospel's description of the passing of Jesus from earth to heaven, we must look beneath the imagery for the idea governing this pious fraud. And the idea is this: Mary at her death was associated with the glory of her Son. Like Him, she finds herself in heaven, body as well as soul. The narrative has quite definite reasons for this corporeal glorification of Mary. Mary resembles Jesus perfectly, and through her virginity, preserved intact until death, she was sinless like Him. How could her end, then, be different from His? As conqueror of death, her Son had ascended into heaven with the glorified body of His resurrection. Could Mary who shared with Him the privilege of being sinless, experience the corruption of her spotless flesh in the tomb? Logic demanded that she, like Christ, should escape the terrors of death, the consequence of our sinful state. This is why the author of the "Passing of Mary," as an echo of the belief of his age, has, under this legendary form, put forward sound doctrine. While for obvious reasons it cannot be counted as a 'page of the Gospel,' in the line of thought his narrative is nonetheless irreproachable and conforms exactly to Catholic teaching on Mary's Assumption.13

 

One of the earliest homiletic references is in the homily of Theodosius, Jacobite  Patriarch of Alexandria (d. 567 or 568):

O my beautiful mother, when Adam transgressed my commandment, I passed upon him a sentence, saying: 'Adam, you are earth, and you shall return unto the earth again. For I too, the Life of all men, tasted death in the flesh which I took from you, in the flesh of Adam, your forefather. But because my Godhead was united to me, for that reason I raised it from the dead. I would prefer not to have you taste death, but to translate you up to the heavens like Enoch and Elias. But these also, even they must at last taste death. But if this happened to you, wicked men would think concerning you that you are a power which came down from heaven, and that this dispensation took place in appearance alone.14 


An early Western reference, which shows the influence of an apocryphal account, may be found in St. Gregory of Tours, (d. 594):

After this, the Apostles scattered through different countries to preach the word of God. Subsequently, blessed Mary finished the course of this life and was summoned from the world; and all the Apostles were gathered together, each from his own area, at her home. On hearing that she was to be taken up from the world, they kept watch with her. All at once her Lord came with angels, took her soul, delivered it to Michael the Archangel, and disappeared. At daybreak, however, the Apostles lifted up the body together with the funeral-bed, placed it in a tomb, and kept watch over it, in readiness for the Lord's coming. And again, all at once the Lord stood by them and ordered the holy body taken up and carried on a cloud to paradise. There, reunited with the soul, it rejoices with his elect and enjoys eternity's blessings which will never end.15

The feast of the Dormition began in the East in the sixth century. The oldest extant homily seems to be that of John of Thessalonica (d. 630) at the time when he was introducing the feast to his diocese. Interestingly, John gives testimony to the widespread belief in the Assumption, as well as his belief in the authenticity of what may be the Transitus Mariae stories, but also the fact that these accounts were disputed:

Some people committed to writing the wonderful things that happened in her regard at that time. Practically every place under heaven celebrates every year the memory of her going to her rest, with the exception of only a few, including the region around this divinely protected city of Thessalonica. Why is this? Shall we condemn the carelessness or laziness of those who have gone before us? Surely we must not say or even think anything of the sort, since they and no one else left this excellent principle as a kind of law for their homeland: that we should celebrate in the Spirit the memory not only of our local saints, but of practically all who struggled for Christ, anywhere in the world, so that in these intercessory gatherings we might grow closer to God. Our forebears, then, were neither heedless nor lazy; yet although those who were present then [at Mary's death] described her end truthfully, we are told, mischievous heretics later corrupted their accounts by adding words of their own, and for this reason our ancestors distanced themselves from these accounts as not in accord with the Catholic Church. For this reason, the feast (of her Domition) passed, among them, into oblivion....We have ourselves spent no small effort preparing to set before your devout ears--to awaken and to build up your souls--not everything we have found written, in different ways, in different books, about that event, but only what truly happened, what is remembered as having taken place, and what is witnessed until today by the existence of actual sites. We have gathered these testimonies together in love of truth and in fear of God, taking no account of fabricated stories, since they have been interpolated into the traditions by the malice of those who fabricated them.16

 

In 1955, a badly damaged manuscript of a homily by Theoteknos, bishop of Livias in Palestine, was discovered at St. Catherine's monastery on Mount Sinai. This homily from the first half of the seventh century testifies to the understanding of the Palestinian Church on Mary's end: "The assumption of the body of the holy one, and her ascension to heaven, took place on the fifteenth day of August, which is the sixth day of the month of Mesore. And there was joy in heaven and on earth, as the angels struck up the hymn, while human beings glorified the mother of the King of Heaven, who had herself glorified the human race: the Mother of God ...."17

Theoteknos asserts: "This is the fruit our earth has yielded--the ever-virgin Mother of God. While she lived on earth, she watched over us all, and was a kind of universal providence for her subjects. Now that she has been taken up into heaven, she is an unassailable fortification for the human race, and intercedes for us with God the Son."18

In the homilies of the Eastern Fathers, we can see a theological appreciation of the mystery. Thus St. Germanus, the Patriarch of Constantinople (d. ca. 733) ties Mary's being taken to heaven with the Incarnation:

You had a body just like one of us, and therefore you could not escape the event of death that is the common destiny of all human beings. In the same way, your Son, even though He is the God of all things, Himself tasted death (Hebrews 2:9).  Surely He has performed miracles both in His own life-giving tomb and in the life-giving sepulcher where you were laid to rest: both tombs really received bodies, yet neither of them was a workshop of decay. For it was impossible that you, the vessel which bore God, should be dissolved and decomposed into the dust of death. Since He who emptied Himself into you was God from the beginning, and life eternal, the Mother of Life had to become a companion of life, had to experience death simply as a falling-asleep; you had to undergo your passage from this world as an awakening to your own reality  author of Life. For as a child seeks and yearns for its own mother, and as mother loves to live with her child, it as fitting that you, in your motherly tenderness for your Son and God, should go to Him; and it was certainly right that God, holding on to His filial love for you. His mother, should confirm His intimacy with you by making you a sharer in His life.... Because you, then, are His eternal place of rest. He has taken you to Himself in his incorruption, wanting, one might say, to have you near to His words and near to His heart.19

Andrew, the archbishop of Crete, (d. 740), sees Mary as a model of our renewal:

Nature itself has been called forth from the condemnation of corruption, has taken on a new state, rooted in incorruption. What a transformation! What newness! What divine exchange! Nature brought forth a will that produced thorns (Is 5:1-7); but she, in contrast has brought forth one who fulfilled His Father's will. Nature gave painful birth to the death we freely chose in our disobedience; but she, instead, has brought forth the one who destroyed death by His obedience. She, she alone, has been chosen for the renewal of our nature, beyond nature's powers; she alone subjected herself fully to the one who formed all natures from nothing.20

 

 John of Damascus (d. ca. 750) relates Mary's Assumption to her role in the Incarnation:

Today the living city of God is transported from the earthly Jerusalem to 'the Jerusalem which is on high' (Hebrews 12:22); she who was brought forth, as her own first-born, the 'first-born of all creation' (Colossians 1:15), the only-begotten of the Father (cf. John 1:14), now dwells in the 'assembly of the first-born' (Hebrews 12:23). The living, spiritual ark of the Lord has 'gone up to the resting place' of her Son (Psalms 131:8 (LXX). The gates of Paradise are opened and welcome the field that bore God, where the tree of eternal life has grown, to put an end to the disobedience of Eve and the death imposed on Adam. This Christ, the cause of life for all people, welcomes the cave that has not been hollowed out. The bridal chamber of the Word's holy Incarnation has come to rest in her glorious tomb, as in her mansion; when she ascended to the shrine of her heavenly nuptials, to reign in public splendor with her Son and her God, she left the tomb as a bridal chamber for those who live on earth.21

 

There were different opinions as to whether Mary died; a minority believed she  did not. There was no mention of a burial place until the fifth century after the Council of Ephesus. Emperor Maurice, around 600, restored the church built one hundred years before on the Virgin's tomb at Gethsemane. Burghardt argues against Ephesus as the site of Mary's burial: "The evidence for Ephesus is meager, vague, equivocal. It does not justify a confident affirmation, though it may permit a temporary conjecture, that before 432, a tradition existed which localized the grave of our Lady in Ephesus." 22

The belief in Mary's Dormition/Assumption can be seen in the spread of the feast. Only after 200, were the martyrs honored on the dies natalis. In the fifth century the feast of the memory of Saint Mary was celebrated but not in the Gallican church, which, however, began to celebrate the Assumption in the first half of the sixth century.

The feast of the Dormition began in the East in the sixth century. It began in the second half of that century in the Syrian Jacobite Church. The Coptic Monophysite Patriarch, Theodosius, changed the feast of the commemoration of Mary into a feast of her death (January 16) and of her bodily resurrection and assumption (August 9).  Around 600, the Emperor Maurice set August 15 for the celebration of the Dormition of Mary.

In the West, the feast was introduced to Rome by Pope Theodore (642-649). This became the principal Marian feast because it commemorated the day of her death, similar to the feasts of the martyrs and saints. Initially the feast was called the dormitio but eventually the title assumptio became the accepted name. Sergius I (687-701) prescribed the stational procession for the feast of the Dormition.

A prayer which begins with the word Veneranda appears to have been inserted in the liturgy at this time:

Venerable in our eyes, O Lord, is this feast day, on which the holy Mother of God submitted to temporal death, yet could not be weighed down by death's fetters - she who gave birth of her own self to your Son, our Lord in flesh. Let come to the aid of your people, O Lord, the prayer of God's Mother; though we know that she has departed this life conformably to the condition of flesh, may we experience her intercession for us in the glory of heaven.23

 

This prayer, the Veneranda and another, the Subveniat prayers for Assumption Day were in the Roman or Gregorian Sacramentary, which Adrian I quoted in a letter to Charlemagne in 785-786. The Veneranda prayer was retained in the Dominican rite.

 In the Preface of a seventh century Gothic (Gallican) Mass, we can see testimony to the faith in the Assumption:

It is meet and just. Almighty God, that we give great thanks at this day and time, honorable above others, when faithful Israel went out from Egypt and the Virgin Mother of God passed from earth to Christ. She inherited no touch of corruption, and felt not its effect in her grave. She was free from all stain, glorious in her Conception, made secure in her Assumption, and crowned in her reward in paradise. She had suffered no virgin's loss in marriage, yet had her desire in the fruit of her womb. She endured no pains in her travail, nor fatigue in her transit to heaven. In life she was unstained through acts of her own, and in death undissolved by the forces of nature.24

 

Pope St. Leo IV (d. 855) gave a vigil and octave feast for the feast under the title of the Assumption. Pope St. Nicholas I (d. 867) refers to the vigil fast as one of the principal fasts "which the Holy Roman Church has observed for a long time, and still observes."25

While the feast was accepted in the East, there was some resistance in the West. St. Adamnan of lona (d. 704) and St. Bede (d. 735) expressed their doubts. Pashasius Radbert (d. ca. 865) composed a work, Cogitis me, which was supposed to have been written by Jerome in response to the question of his friends, Paula and Eustochium on the question of the Assumption. Thus this is known as Pseudo-Jerome. The work admits an empty tomb but answers that no one really knows Mary's end. This work, because it appeared to be by Jerome, created a hesitancy on celebrating the feast or  developing the understanding of the doctrine. Because of the beauty of the writing, some passages were used as lessons in the breviary in reference to Mary.

An early twelfth-century work, possibly by a disciple of St. Anselm, gave credence to the doctrine, especially because it was attributed to St. Augustine. The unknown author of this work, the Liber de Assumptione, is referred to as Pseudo-Augustine. He affirms Mary's physical death: "Mindful of the fact that Mary was human, we are not afraid to say that she underwent temporal death, which death also her Son, who is both God and man, sustained because of the law imposed on the human race: and this because as man He was conceived in and brought forth from her womb."26 

Pseudo-Augustine argues both on the grounds of Mary's virginity and her motherhood as to the reasonableness of the Assumption:

Would it therefore, be wrong (that is, does it not agree with the analogy of our faith?) if because of such difference (as Mary so greatly surpasses all other  human beings in that she is Virgin and mother, in that she brought forth without the pains of childbirth, and in that she remained inviolate in her virginity) we say that she, through whom God wished to be born and to share in the substance of the flesh, indeed underwent the death of the human race but was not restrained by the bonds of death?27

The influence of Pseudo-Augustine can be seen in the Summa Theologiae,  where St. Thomas uses the Assumption to illustrate that not all doctrines can be found  in Scripture: "But as Augustine, in his tractate on the Assumption of the Virgin, argues with reason, since her body was assumed into heaven, and yet Scripture does not relate this ...."

 

THEOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENT


The doctrine of the Assumption raises the question of theological development. On what basis does the Church ask us to believe in this doctrine? Luigi Gambero observes that this belief is based on what we believe about Jesus: "This testifies on  behalf of something that Christian tradition has always emphasized: the intimate connection between the mystery of Christ and the mystery of his Mother. Mary's bodily glorification in the eternal life expresses the Church's faith in the final glorification of man, saved by Jesus Christ in the totality of his person. In the flesh of Christ and in the flesh of Mary, both of whom were taken up into the glory of heaven, the eschatological humanity of the redeemed is already present."29

The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, proclaimed at  the Second Vatican Council states:

Sacred Tradition and sacred scripture, then, are bound closely together, and  communicate one with the other. For both of them flowing out of the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move together towards the same goal....Thus it comes about that the Church does not draw her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Hence, both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal  feelings of devotion and reverence. Sacred Tradition and sacred scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church.30

 

Tradition may be recognized as the universal agreement that a truth has been revealed through the bishops of the world, Church Fathers, the constant teaching of  theologians, liturgy, as well as the belief and devotion of the faithful. Some doctrines are implicitly revealed in other doctrines, as for instance Mary's Assumption reflects upon Jesus' Resurrection and the truth of the Resurrection of the body.

At the Vatican Council there was an appreciation that not all doctrines are central: "When comparing doctrines, they should remember that in Catholic teaching, there exists an order or 'hierarchy of truths' since they vary in their relationship to the foundation of the Christian faith."31 There was also an understanding that the Church comes to a growing appreciation of truth by refection in the life of the Church: "There is growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers .... For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her."32

St. Vincent of Lerins (d. before 450) has written on the development of doctrine in the Church:

Is there to be no development of religion in the Church of Christ? Certainly, there is to be development and on the largest scale.... But it must truly be development of the faith, not alteration of the faith. Development means that each thing expands to be itself, while alteration means that a thing is changed from one thing into another. The understanding, knowledge and wisdom of one and all, of individuals as well as of the whole Church, ought then to make great and vigorous progress with the passing of the ages and the centuries, but only along its own line of development, that is, with the same doctrine, the same meaning and the same import. The religion of the soul should follow the law of development of bodies. Though bodies develop and unfold their component parts with the passing of the years, they always remain what they were. There is a great difference between the flower of childhood and the maturity of age, but those who become old are the very same people who were once young. Though the condition and appearance of the one and the same individual may change, it is one and the same nature, one and the same person.33

 

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, describes the Church's ability to speak the truth of doctrine with assurance:

The whole body of the faithful who have an anointing that comes from the holy one (cf. 1 John. 2:20 and 27) cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of the faith (sensus fidei) of the whole people, when 'from the bishops to the last of the faithful' they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals. By this appreciation of the faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (magisterium) and obeying it, receive not the mere word of men, but truly the word of God, the faith once for all delivered to the saints. The people unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life.34

 

Yves Congar, O.P, comments: "What the body of the Church together with its pastors, agreed in holding as of faith is part of revelation, since the Church is filled and assisted by the Holy Spirit, cannot be wrong on a matter of faith. This has always been the conviction of the Catholic Church both eastern and western."35

Bernard Lonergan, S.J., writing in 1948, comments: "Such a practically  universal agreement and consent both down the centuries and throughout the church provides the theologian with sufficient ground for affirming that the assumption can be defined. Were the assumption not truth but error, then one would have to admit what no Catholic can admit, namely, that God has not promised preservation from error to the church."36

Lonergan also observes:

The assumption of our Lady to heaven could be defined as a dogma of divine and catholic faith. Though not explicitly revealed in holy scripture nor, as far as we know with certitude, in any explicit, oral, apostolic tradition, still it is revealed implicitly. That implication is grasped as human understanding, illumined by faith and aided by grace, penetrates the economy of man's fall and redemption and settles our Lady's place in it. That implication is certain because of the long-standing and widespread agreement existing in the church.37

 

Before Pius XII defined the dogma of the Assumption, he sought to know if this teaching was the universally held belief of the Church. On May 1, 1946, Pius XII sent a letter to all the bishops as to whether they judged that the Assumption could be proposed and defined as a dogma, and whether their clergy and people wanted it. By August, 1950, 1169 of 1181 residential bishops responded affirmative, six were not sure of the revealed nature of the Assumption, the others questioned whether it was opportune.

In defining the Assumption, Pius XII does not ask where the doctrine is found in the Scriptures or tradition but looks to the magisterium and the belief of the members  of the Church: "The Holy Ghost was not promised to the successors of Peter in such a way that, by His Revelation, they might manifest new doctrine, but so that, by His assistance, they might guard as sacred and might faithfully propose the revelation delivered through the apostles, or the deposit of faith."38

He appeals to the ordinary teaching to the Church: "From the universal
agreement of the Church's ordinary teaching authority we have a certain and firm proof demonstrating that the Blessed Virgin Mary's bodily Assumption into heaven... is a truth that has been revealed by God and consequently something that must be firmly and faithfully believed by all children of the Church."39

The Pope also appeals to the presence of the feast in the liturgy: "The sacred liturgy because it is the profession, subject to the supreme teaching authority within the Church, of heavenly truths, can supply proofs and testimonies of no small value for deciding any individual point of Christian doctrine."40

The title of the document, Munificentissimus Deus, refers to "The Most Bountiful God"; in other words it begins with God's goodness in providence. The Pope stresses that the dogma is not found in human reason but by revelation:

Thus, from the universal agreement of the Church's ordinary teaching authority we have a certain and firm proof  demonstrating that the Blessed Virgin Mary's bodily Assumption into heaven - which surely no faculty of the human mind could know by its own natural powers, as far as the heavenly glorification of the virginal body of the revered Mother of God is concerned--is a truth that has been revealed by God and consequently something that must be firmly and faithfully believed by all the children of the Church.

Since the universal Church, within which dwells the Spirit of Truth who infallibly directs it towards an ever more perfect knowledge of the revealed truths, has expressed its own belief many times over the course of time  and since the Bishops of the entire world have almost unanimously petitioned that the truth of the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven should be defined as a dogma of divine and Catholic faith - this truth which is based on the Sacred Writings, which is thoroughly rooted in the minds of the faithful, which has been approved in ecclesiastical worship from the most remote times, which is completely in harmony with the other revealed truths, and which has been expounded and explained magnificently in the work, the science, and the wisdom of the theologians--We believe that the moment appointed in the plan of divine providence for the solemn proclamation of this outstanding privilege of the Virgin Mary has already arrived.41

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.42

 

The dogma does not state that Mary died, was buried and rose but rather: "having completed the course of her earthly life (Mary) was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory."43 It should be noted that Christ ascended by his own power, Mary was assumed.

 The Pope relates her Assumption to the Immaculate Conception: "She by an entirely unique privilege completely overcame sin by her Immaculate Conception, and as a result, she was not subject to the law of remaining in the corruption of the grave, and she did not have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of her body."44 However, the Pope did not define the meaning of "incorruption."

The Pope relates the dogma to our own resurrection:

And so we may hope that those who meditate upon the glorious example Mary offers us may be more and more convinced of the value of a human life entirely devoted to carrying out the heavenly Father's will and to bringing good to others. Thus, while the illusory teachings of materialism and the corruption of morals that follows from these teachings threaten to extinguish the light of virtue and to ruin the lives of men by exciting discord among them, in this magnificent way all may see clearly to what a lofty goal our bodies and souls are destined. Finally it is our hope that belief in Mary's bodily Assumption into heaven will make our belief in our own resurrection stronger and render it more effective.45

Rahner comments:

We can now resume our consideration of the phrase, 'born of the Virgin Mary,' As we said, this proposition of faith concerning Mary has in view not only the fact that she is the Mother of the Lord, in so far as she has bestowed upon the Son of God his earthly existence from her flesh; but also above all the fact that she becomes Mother, i.e. that in her and through her, in her flesh and through her faith, the eschatological Event of salvation takes place, drawing after it everything else as its inner consequence, so that Mary appears as herself the perfectly Redeemed and the representation of perfect redemption.... It has already been shown that to that End of the whole history of salvation which has already become Event and Presence in Christ's Resurrection includes not only His Resurrection but that of the saints as well, however little it may be in our power to say in general who precisely these first fruits of complete redemption may be. But it follows from this that the total redemption in body and soul 'already' achieved is not something which has been arbitrarily invented or merely postulated a priori as characteristic of a perfect redemption. And what this means is that if Mary is the ideal representation of exhaustive redemption because of her unique place in salvation history, then she must 'even now' have achieved that perfect communion with God in the glorified totality of her real being ('body and soul') which certainly exists even now.46

 

One person who startled everyone by his reaction to the proclamation of the dogma was Carl Jung:

The promulgation of the new dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary could, in itself, have been sufficient reason for examining the psychological background. It is interesting to note that, among the many articles published in the Catholic and Protestant press on the declaration of the dogma, there was not one, so far as I could see, which laid anything like proper emphasis on what was undoubtedly the most powerful motive: namely the popular movement and  the psychological need behind it. Essentially, the writers of the articles were satisfied with learned considerations, dogmatic and historical, which have no bearing on the living religious process. But anyone who has followed with attention the visions of Mary which have been increasing in number over the last few decades, and has taken their psychological significance into account, might have known what was brewing. The fact, especially, that it was largely children who had the visions might have given pause for thought, for in such cases, the collective unconscious is always at work ...One could have known for a long time that there was a deep longing in the masses for an intercessor and mediatrix who would at last take her place alongside the Holy Trinity and be received as the 'Queen of heaven and Bride at the heavenly court.' For more than a thousand years it has been taken for granted that the Mother of God dwelt there.47

I consider it to be the most important religious event since the Reformation. It is a petra scandali for the unpsycholgical mind: how can such an unfounded assertion as the bodily reception of the Virgin into heaven be put forward as worthy of belief? But the method which the Pope uses in order to demonstrate the truth of the dogma makes sense to the psychological mind, because it bases itself firstly on the necessary prefigurations, and secondly on a tradition of religious assertions reaching back for more than a thousand years. What outrages the Protestant standpoint in particular is the boundless approximation of the Deipara to the Godhead and, in consequence, the endangered supremacy of Christ, from which Protestantism will not budge. In sticking to this point it has obviously failed to consider that its hymnology is full of references to the 'heavenly bridegroom,' who is now suddenly supposed not to have a bride with equal rights. Or has, perchance, the 'bridegroom,' in true psychologistic manner, been understood as a mere metaphor?48

The dogmatizing of the Assumption does not, however, according to the dogmatic view, mean that Mary has attained the status of goddess, although, as mistress of heaven and mediatrix, she is functionally on a par with Christ, the king and mediator. At any rate her position satisfies a renewed hope for the fulfillment of that yearning for peace which stirs deep down in the soul, and for a resolution of the threatening tension between opposites. Everyone shares this tension and everyone experiences it in his individual form of unrest, the more so the less he sees any possibility of getting rid of it by rational means. It is no wonder, therefore, that the hope, indeed the expectation of divine intervention arises in the collective unconscious and at the same time in the masses. The papal declaration has given comforting expression to that yearning. How could Protestantism so completely miss the point?49

Edward Shillebeeckx offers some theological reflections on the Assumption:

"Mary is the prototype of the Church in pilgrimage on earth. She is also, as the Assumpta, the prototype of the permanent Church, established in heaven."50

"Mary's death--her dormitio, or 'falling asleep in love'--can thus be seen as the supreme example of every Christian death, and contained the promise of immediate resurrection. This took place at once in Mary's case. Her assumption, on death, became an immediate reality."51

"The essential moment of Christ's act of redemption is not restricted to his sacrificial death. The divine acceptance of the sacrifice is complementary and co-essential to that sacrifice. This acceptance by God is in fact Jesus' resurrection. The absolute sacrifice of atonement, through which the human race was reunited to God in love, is to be found in Christ's passion - his transition from death to life. Both Christ's death and his resurrection therefore constitute two mysteries of the Redemption, and these form a single, indivisible whole. The Resurrection is Christ's sacrifice accepted by God, and it was only at the Resurrection that the sacrifice became fully effective. At that moment, 'objective redemption' became a perfect reality. Going a stage further, we can, by analogy with Christ's resurrection, conclude from the fact of Mary's resurrection that her life-sacrifice was also fully accepted by God. Her assumption into heaven was not merely a privilege bestowed on her without relation to the rest of her life. It formed the summit of her sublime redemption. Salvation, after all, embraces the whole human being, not only his soul but also his body. The permanent spiritual and physical togetherness of the human being with Christ glorified and, in Christ with the Trinity, forms the final and unceasing phase of the redemptive process. With this phase, redemption is completed. Dogma informs us that Mary was not obliged to wait, as we are,  until the end of time for physical redemption. This is a clear indication of the unique quality of her sublime state of redemption."53

"Since redemption always imparts reception and co-operation on the part of man, and in view of the fact that Mary co-operated in the most profound way in the work of her own redemption, she is therefore, in this respect, the prototype of all those who receive redemption, thus of all who are redeemed. In this way she possesses a universal significance for all of us within the plan of salvation. She is the prototype of the redeemed life. Mary the Assumpta stands before us as the first fruit of the Redemption, and incorporates the perfect features of everything that has to be realized in us and in the whole Church."54

"The recently defined dogma of the Assumption, on the other hand, has never been the object of noteworthy controversy. Some voices were raised against it in the early Middle Ages, it is true, but they scarcely attained the level of scientific theology."55

"The objective gift of her immaculate conception and the subjective holiness corresponding to her immaculate conception--her virgin state of openness--were both divine gifts, and prepared the way for the central, sublime event of the Annunciation within the plan of the gradual unfolding, in history of the mystery of the Redemption. This event was in history, the real gift of the Redeemer and Mary's free acceptance of this Redeemer and thus of the Redemption, since salvation, or redemption, is the very person of the incarnate God."56 

"That Mary should have died as a punishment is, of course, out of the question. But this does not mean that she did not have to die. The divine plan of subjective redemption, involving man's free consent to Christ's redemption through his death on the Cross, would appear to include Mary as well, and the implication here is that she too, as one who was redeemed (by exemption) by Christ's death, had a share in the specifically Christian death."57

"Mary, as the maternal partner in Christ's redemptive activity, shared in his power as Lord by virtue of her assumption into heaven. Her resurrection is the 'constitution in power' of her motherhood with regard to all men.  Her intercession on our behalf cannot be conceived as a pale reflection of her share in the Redemption here on earth."58 

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
July 19, 2002

 


 

1     Epiphanius, Panarion, haer. 78, 23, in The Testimony of the Patristic Age Concerning Mary's Death, Walter Burghardt, S.J., (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1957), 5-6.

2     Epiphanius, Panarion, 79.1., 79.9.3, in The Panarion of St. Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis: Selected Passages, trans. Philip R. Amidon, S.J., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 353, 354.

3     Epiphanius, Panarion, haer. 78, 23 , quoted by Walter Burghardt, S. J., In The Testimony of the Patristic Age Concerning Mary's Death (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1957), 6.

4    Augustine, "On the Catechising of tlie Uninstructed," 22. 40, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Father,  III, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Puhl. Co, 1980), 307; PL 40, 339.

5    Augustine, Expositions on the Book of Psalms, XXXV, 14, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, VIII, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: Win. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co, 1983), 83; "Etenim ut celerius dicani, Maria ex Adam mortua propter peccatum, Adam motuus propter peccatum et caro Domini ex Maria mortua est propter delenda peccata" PL 36, 335.

6    Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel According to St. John, VIII, 9, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, VII, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Puhl. Co. 1983), 61; "Commendat matrem discipulo; commendat matrem prior matre moriturus, et ante matris mortem resurrecturus..." (PL 35, 1456).

7      The Obsequies of the  Holy Virgin, in Walter Burghardt, S. J., The Testimony of the Patristic Age Concerning Mary's Death (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1957), 15.

8    Brian Daley, S. J., On the Dormition of Mary: Early Patristic Homilies (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1998), 7-8.

9     Greek apocryphon of Pseudo-John tlie Evangelist, On the Dormition of the Holy Mother of God, Liber de dormitione sanctae deiparae 39, quoted by Walter Burgliardt, S. J., in The Testimony of the Patristic Age Concerning Mary's Death (Westminster. MD: Newman Press, 1957), 14.

10     Greek apocryphon of Pseudo-John tlie Evangelist. On the Dormition of the Holy Mother of God, Liber de dormitione sanctae deiparae, 39, quoted by Walter Burgliardt, S. J., in The Testimony of the Patristic Age Concerning Mary's Death (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1957), 14.

11     The Roman Martyrology, quoted by Paul E. Duggan, The Assumption Dogma: Some Reactions and Ecumenical Implications in the Thought of English-Speaking Theologians (Cleveland:  Merson Press, 1989), 18.

12     Walter Burgliardt, S. J., In The Testimony of the Patristic Age Concerning Mary's Death (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1957), 7.

13      Jacques Hervieux. The New Testament Apocrypha, trans. Dom Wulstan Hibberd (New York, NY: Hawthorne Books, 1960) 90-92.

14    Theodosius. De dorrmitione Mariae 5. On the Falling Asleep of Mary, quoted by Walter Burgliardt, S. J., in The Testimony of the Patristic Age Concerning Mary's Death (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1957), 15.

15     Gregory of Tours, Lib. 1 miraculorum: In gloria artyrum 4, quoted by Walter Burgliardt, S. J., In The Testimony of the Patristic Age Concerning Mary's Death (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1957), 31-32; PL 71, 708.

16     John of Thessalonica, "Tlie Dormition of Our Lady, the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary," in Brian Daley, S. J., On tlie Dormition of Mary: Early Patristic Homilies (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1998), 47-49.

17     Theoteknos, "On the Dormition," in Brian Daley, S. J., On the Dormition of Mary: Early Patristic Homilies (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1998), 74.

18     Theoteknos, 80.

19     Germanus of Constantinople, "On the Most Venerable Dormition of the Holy Mother of God," Homily 1, in Brian Daley, S. J., On the Dormition of Mary: Early Patristic Homilies (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1998), 158-159.

20     Andrew of Crete, "On the Dormition of our Most Holy Lady, the Mother of God" Homily III, in Brian Daley, S. J., On the Dormition of Mary: Early Patristic Homilies (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1998), 140.

21     John of Damascus: On the Dormition of Our Lady, Homily III, see Brian Daley, S. J., On the Dormition of Mary: Early Patristic Homilies (Crestwood. NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1998), 232-233.

22     Walter Burgliardt, S. J., In The Testimony of the Patristic Age Concerning Mary's Death (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1957), 39.

23     Walter Burgliardt, 21.

24     Preface of a Gothic Mass, quoted by Paul E. Duggan, The Assumption Dogma: Some Reactions and Ecumenical Implications in the Thought of English-Speaking Theologians (Cleveland: Emerson Press, 1989). 24.

25    St. Nicliolas I, quoted by Paul E. Duggan, The Assumption Dogma: Some Reactions and Ecumenical Implications in the Thought of English-Speaking Theologians (Cleveland: Emerson press, 1989), 23.

26     Pseudo-Augustine, Liber de Assumptione, quoted by A. Janssens, in The Assumption of Our Lady (Fresno, California: Academy Library Guild, 1954), 6; PL XL, 1143.

27     Pseudo-Augustine, 7; PL XL 1145.

28     Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, 27, 1.

29     Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers, of the Church, trans. Thomas Buffer (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1999), 354.

 30     Vatican Council II. Dei Verbum, 9, 10, in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Concilar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery, O.P. (Northport, NY: Costello, 1975), 755.

31     Vatican Council II, Decree on Ecumenism. 11, in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Concilar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery, O.P. (Northport, NY: Costello, 1975), 462.

32      Vatican Council II, Dei Verbum, 8, in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Concilar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery, O.P. (Northport, NY: Costello, 1975), 754.

33     St. Vincent of Lerins, "The First Instruction," quoted in the Liturgy of The Hours (New York: Catholic Book Publishing, 1975), 363-364; PL 50, 667-668.

34     Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, 12, in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Concilar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery, O.P. (Northport, NY: Costello, 1975), 363.

35     Yves Cougar, O.P., Tradition and Traditions (1966), 203.

36     Bernard Lonergan, S. J., "The Assumption and Theology," Collection: Papers by Bernard Lonergan, S.J., ed. F. E. Crowe, S.J., (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967), 69.

37     Bernard Lonergan, 82-83.

38     Vatican Council I, Pastor Aeternus, c.4, quoted by Pius XII, Munificentissimus Dens, in A. Janssens, in The Assumption of Our Lady (Fresno, California: Academy Library Guild, 1954), 174.

39     Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, in A. Janssens, in The Assumption of Our Lady (Fresno,  California: Academy Library Guild, 1954), 174.

40     Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, 176.

41     Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, 185.

42    Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, 186-187.

43     Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, 187.

44     Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, 172.

45     Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, 186.

46     Karl Rahner, S. J., Theological Investigations, 1, trans. Cornelius Ernst, O.P. (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1961)224-225.

47     Carl G. Jung, "Answer to Job" in Psychology and Religion: West and East, trans. by R.F.C. Hull (New York: Pantheon Books, 1958), 461-462.

48     Carl G. Jung, "Answer to Job" in Psychology and Religion: West and East, trans. by R.F.C. Hull (New York: Pantheon Books, 1958), 464.

49     Carl G. Jung, "Answer to Job" 461-462.

50     Edward Schilleheeckx, O.P., Mary, Mother of the Redemption (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1964, 22.

51     Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., 72.

52     Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., 74.

53     Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., 76.

54     Edward Scliillebeeckx, O.P., 77.

55     Edward 0'Connor, C.S.C., The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception: History and Significance (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1958), v.

56     Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., 71.

57     Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., 74.               

58     Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., 90.