The fourth Marian dogma is the Assumption of Our Lady. The dogma of Mary’s Assumption, like her Immaculate Conception, has the added certainty of an infallible papal statement. Pope Pius XII in 1950 defined the Assumption of Mary in the following ex cathedra statement: “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.” (1)
What evidence is present in the sources of divine revelation for the dogma of Mary’s glorious Assumption into heaven? Pope Pius XII, in his papal document, declares the Assumption a dogma “revealed by God” and refers to several sources.
The Magisterium of the Church
The Assumption in Scripture
An implicit reference to the dogma of Mary’s Assumption is found in Genesis 3:15. As the papal document of Pius XII explains, Genesis 3:15 foreshadows Mary as intimately sharing in the same absolute victory of her Son over Satan: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed…” (Gen 3:15).
According to St. Paul (cf. Rom 5-8; Heb 2), the consequences of Satan’s seed, evil, are twofold: sin and death (which specifically refers to bodily corruption). Therefore, the Mother of Jesus, who shared in her Son’s victory over Satan and his seed, would also have to be saved from the two consequences of sin and death (bodily corruption). She did triumph over sin in her Immaculate Conception, and triumphed over death (corruption of the body) in her glorious Assumption at the end of her earthly life.
It is worthy of note that many bishops from around the world sent to Pius XII the same scriptural support of Genesis 3:15 for Mary’s Assumption previous to the solemn definition, thus offering episcopal confirmation that Genesis 3:15 is the primary doctrinal seed in Scripture for Mary’s Assumption. (2)
The Assumption in Tradition
The dogma of Mary’s Assumption is also present in Sacred Tradition, as the early Christians gradually unraveled the implicitly revealed reference to Mary’s Assumption. One of the earlier patristic testimonies is by St. Gregory of Tours (d.593): “The Lord commanded the holy body (of Mary) to be borne on a cloud to Paradise where, reunited to its soul and exalting with the elect, it enjoys the everlasting bliss of eternity.” (3) There are yet earlier references to Our Lady’s Assumption by the early Christian community which appears to date back to the second century. (4)
The feast of the “Dormitio,” which celebrated the death, resurrection, and Assumption of Our Lady, was widely established in the East by the fourth century. (5)
From the seventh century onwards, numerous Church Fathers preached and taught the doctrine of the Assumption (St. Germain of Constantinople, d.733; St. Andrew of Crete d.740; St. John Damascene, d.749, etc.). During the sixth century, the liturgical feasts dedicated to the Assumption are established in Syria and in the Alexandrian church in Egypt. Western liturgical feasts dedicated to Mary’s Assumption take place in Gaul (modern day France) in the seventh century; and by the eighth century was celebrated in Rome. From the thirteenth century on, the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption was taught with near unanimity by Church writers and theologians in both the East and West. (6)
Relation to Other Marian Dogmas
Pius XII identifies the close connection between the Assumption and other Marian-defined dogmas, in particular, the Motherhood of God and the Immaculate Conception. In relation to the Dogma of the Motherhood of God, Pope Pius XII states that it is fitting that Jesus would honor his Mother as only a divine Son could. It is true that no one obeys the fourth commandment of honoring father and mother better than Jesus, who is Son of the Father and Son of Mary. It is thereby reasonable that Jesus would uniquely honor his Mother, first, by preserving her from the corruption of the grave, and secondly, by granting her a glorification of the body in Heaven before the general resurrection of the body for all other saints on the last day. (7)
Even more evident is the essential connection between the Assumption and Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Simply put, Mary’s Assumption is the natural effect of her Immaculate Conception. The Assumption is the logical effect of being preserved from original sin, since corruption of the body is an effect of original sin (cf. Rom 5-8; Heb 2). Had Adam and Eve not sinned, it is possible that they, too, at the end of their earthly life could have been assumed into Heaven without the corruption of their bodies. Corruption of the body is a result of original sin. Therefore, since the Mother of God was preserved from original sin in her Immaculate Conception, and since she sustained her fullness of grace given by God, Our Lady could not have experienced the fruit of original sin in the corruption of the body at the end of her earthly life.
The dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are interiorly and logically connected, as Pius XII explains in the papal document:
These two privileges (i.e., the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception) are most closely bound to one another. Indeed, Christ overcame sin and death by His own death, and the man who, through baptism, is supernaturally regenerated, has conquered sin and death through the same Christ. However, as a general rule, God does not wish to grant to the just the full effect of their victory over death until the end of time shall have come. And so it is that the bodies of even the just are corrupted after death, and that only on the last day will they be joined, each to his own glorified soul. Nevertheless, God has willed that the Blessed Virgin Mary should be exempted from this general law. By an entirely unique privilege she completely overcame sin through her Immaculate Conception, and therefore was not subject to that law of remaining in the corruption of the grave, nor did she have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of her body. (8)
The question may then be asked: Did Mary die? Human death may be defined as a separation of soul and body at the end of earthly life. The Church has never defined whether or not at the end of Mary’s earthly life she experienced some temporary separation of soul and body before her Assumption into Heaven. Such a temporary separation of soul and body, as long as it did not include any material corruption of the body (the effect of sin), could have been experienced by the Mother of Jesus in virtue of her perfect discipleship, that is, in imitation of the temporary separation of soul and body experienced by the Lord. Pius XII purposely avoided any direct statement regarding Mary’s death by using the more general expression “at the end of her earthly life.”
The majority of theologians hold that Mary did experience some type of temporary death so as to enter Heaven in the manner which most closely resembled that of her Son. What is certain is that Mary could not experience the corruption of the body, the “material death” that comes as a result of original sin. Recent papal allocutions by Pope John Paul II tend to support the position of Mary’s death, which more closely coincides with the Eastern tradition of Our Lady’s Dormition. (9)
The words of Vatican II well attest to the unique event of Mary’s glorious Assumption as a proper earthly end to the one who, in all her dogmas, reflects a person of perfect obedience to God’s will and of intimate and singular union with her Son, Our Lord:
Finally the Immaculate Virgin preserved from all stain of original sin, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, when her earthly life was over, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords (cf. Rev 19:16) and conqueror of sin and death (Lumen Gentium, No. 59).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church underscores how Our Lady’s Assumption also serves as an “eschatological sign” for the Church. (10)
Pope Benedict XVI applied the dogma of Mary’s Assumption to her role as Spiritual Mother of all humanity when he says:
The dogma of Mary’s Assumption received the unanimous consensus from the Magisterium of the Church. In 1946, Pope Pius XII petitioned the bishops of the world asking them whether the Assumption of Mary could be defined and whether they favored such a definition. Out of 1232 bishops, 1210 enthusiastically answered yes to both questions (over ninety-eight percent), which manifested an extraordinary consensus amidst the college of bishops.
Pope Pius XII, therefore, in the service of the bishops and of the common faithful, used the charism of infallibility to define solemnly and confirm this universally accepted doctrine. In fact, after the papal definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, the Vatican received millions of petitions from bishops, priests, religious, and faithful alike the world over asking for the definition of the Assumption of Mary.
Other secondary scriptural support for the Assumption of Mary include Luke 1:28, “Hail, full of grace,” since her bodily assumption is a natural effect of being “full of grace”; Revelation 12:1, where Mary’s coronation implies her preceding bodily assumption; 1 Corinthians 15:23 and Matthew 27:52-53 which support the possibility of a bodily assumption, and Psalm 132:8, which prophesies: “Arise, O Lord, into your resting place: you and the ark which you have sanctified.”
A significant scriptural support for the Assumption would be Revelation 11:19, where St. John describes a vision of the Ark of the Covenant unveiled in heaven: “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, loud noises, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.” Since the Ark of the Covenant is the premier type of Mary in the Old Testament, and since the vision immediately following it is of a “Woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Rev 12:1), there can be little question of the Marian reference present and of the underlying theme of Mary’s Assumption into heaven.
Mary was taken up body and soul into Heaven: there is even room in God for the body. Heaven is no longer a very remote sphere unknown to us. We have a mother in Heaven. And the Mother of God, the Mother of the Son of God, is our Mother. He himself has said so. He made her our Mother when he said to the disciple and to all of us: “Behold, your Mother!” We have a Mother in Heaven. Heaven is open, Heaven has a heart. (11)