The Assumption of Our Lady

The following article by Fr. Paul Haffner is an excerpt from “Mariology: A Guide for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians, and Consecrated Persons.” – Asst. Ed.

In the Old Testament, there were some mysterious departures from this life. God granted a special privilege of not dying to Enoch and Elijah. The first case concerns Enoch, referred to in the book of Genesis: “Enoch walked with God, then was no more, because God took him” (Gen 5:24). The letter to the Hebrews furnishes more information: “It was because of his faith that Enoch was taken up and did not experience death: he was no more, because God took him; because before his assumption he was acknowledged to have pleased God” (Heb 11:5). Significantly, the word assumption is adopted (1). Similarly, the passing of Elijah was extraordinary, since he did not die: “Now as they (Elijah and Elisha) walked on, talking as they went, a chariot of fire appeared and horses of fire coming between the two of them; and Elijah went up to heaven in the whirlwind” (2 Kings 2:11; cf. Sir 48:9).

In the New Testament, the fate of the last generation who are present at the time of Christ’s appearing in glory is sometimes considered to involve a kind of assumption. In two passages in the Pauline letters, the apostle points out that “we are not all going to die, but we shall all be changed” (1 Cor 15:51) and he affirms that “those who have died in Christ will be the first to rise and then those of us who are still alive will be taken up in the clouds, together with them to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess 4:16-17). The opinion that the last generation upon the face of the earth will not die is supported by Greek Fathers including St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. John Chrysostom and Latin Fathers including Tertullian and St. Jerome. The Creed follows the Scriptures by indicating that those who are alive at the Second Coming will not die, for it affirms that Christ will come to judge the living and the dead. However, this assumption of a last generation of believers is to be carefully distinguished from the notion of the “Rapture,” current in some Protestant and Pentecostal thought (2).

The Close of Mary’s Earthly Life

Where Mary passed the last years of her life on earth is a matter for conjecture, although various traditions propose Ephesus or near Jerusalem as possibilities. Some apocryphal works dating from the second to the fourth centuries are all favorable to the Jerusalem tradition. The letter of Dionysius the Areopagite to the Bishop Titus (363), as well as the Joannis liber de Dormitione Mariae (third to fourth century), locate her tomb at Gethsemane. Historically these works have some value despite being apocryphal, since they echo a belief from earlier centuries. The indication of a tomb of the Virgin in the valley of Josaphat dated from about the fifth century, and this tomb became the object of pilgrimage and devotion (3). St. John Damascene bears witness to a tradition that Our Lady passed from this world from Jerusalem: “Zion is the mother of churches in the whole world, who offered a resting-place to the Mother of God after her Son’s Resurrection from the dead. In it, lastly, the Blessed Virgin was stretched on a small bed” (4). He indicated Gethsemane as the place of her Assumption: “Then they reached the most sacred Gethsemane, and once more there were embraces and prayers and panegyrics, hymns and tears, poured forth by sorrowful and loving hearts. They mingled a flood of weeping and sweating. And thus the immaculate body was laid in the tomb. Then it was assumed after three days to the heavenly mansions” (5).

Within this tradition, then, there are various opinions as to whether Mary’s tomb was in the Garden of Olives or in the Valley of Josaphat. A pointer towards placing the tomb of Mary in Gethsemane is the basilica erected above the sacred spot, about the end of the fourth or the beginning of the fifth century. The present church was built in the same place in which the old edifice had stood (6).

Another tradition posits the place of Mary’s transition as being in Ephesus. There is no mention made in the Acts of the Council of Ephesus (431) of that city being the one chosen by God for Mary’s last days. Only after that Council was there any firm indication placing her tomb in that city. Since St. John had lived in Ephesus and had been buried there (7), it has been inferred that since he took Our Lady into his care after the death of the Lord, she could have lived there after Christ’s Ascension, and then passed from this life in that town.

Benedict XIV states that Mary followed St. John to Ephesus and died there. He intended also to remove from the Breviary those lessons which mention Mary’s death in Jerusalem, but died before carrying out his intention (8). Various private revelations indicate Ephesus as the place of Mary’s passage from this life (9).

The question then arises concerning the nature of her passing, and concretely whether she died or not. This issue examines whether she experienced the separation of the soul from the body. The dogma of the Assumption of the Mother of God leaves open the question of whether or not she died. A minority of theologians hold that she did not in fact suffer death. In the late fourth century, we find the earliest known, non-apocryphal mention of the close of Mary’s life, in the writings of St. Epiphanius (315-403), bishop of Constantia, on the island of Cyprus:

Whether she died or was buried we do not know … Say she died a natural death. In that case she fell asleep in glory, and departed in purity, and received the crown of her virginity. Or say she was slain with the sword according to Simeon’s prophecy. Then her glory is with the martyrs, and she through whom the divine light shone upon the world is in the place of bliss with her sacred body. Or say she left this world without dying, for God can do what he wills. Then she was simply transferred to eternal glory (10).

St. Epiphanius genuinely may have not known, or else he was being careful not to play into the hands of certain contemporary heretics, the Antidicomarianites and the Collyridians. The former group denied the perpetual virginity of Mary; the latter, erring in the opposite direction, maintained that divine worship should be given to her. To claim that Our Lady died was to give possible fuel to the former heresy (