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 (for it was to suggest that the body of Mary was subject to the corruption of the tomb, and thus minimize her prerogatives); to assert that she did not die was to encourage the latter (11). Around the same time, Timothy of Jerusalem affirmed that Mary did not die: “Wherefore the Virgin is immortal up to now, because he who dwelt in her, assumed her to the heavenly regions” (12).
St. Isidore of Seville (+636) appears to be the first to cast some doubt upon the fact of Mary’s death: “Nowhere does one read of her death. Although, as some say, her sepulcher may be found in the valley of Josaphat” (13). Tusaredo, a bishop in the Asturias province of Spain in the eighth century, wrote: “Of the glorious Mary, no history teaches that she suffered martyrdom or any other kind of death” (14). In the early ninth century, Theodore Abou-Kurra likened the death of Mary to the sleep of Adam in the Garden, when God formed Eve from one of his ribs (15). This, obviously, was not a true death.
Most of the Fathers, however, reflecting on Mary’s destiny and on her relationship with her divine Son, proposed that since Christ died, it would be difficult to maintain the contrary for his Mother. St. Augustine (354-430), who was not clear concerning the absence of original sin in Our Lady, stated baldly: “Mary, as a daughter of Adam died as a consequence of sin; Adam died because of sin, and the flesh of the Lord, born of Mary, died to destroy sin” (16). The Syriac Father, St. Jacob of Sarug (+521), wrote that when the time came for Mary “to walk the way of all generations,” that is the way of death, “the group of the twelve apostles” gathered to bury “the virginal body of the blessed one” (17). St. Modestus of Jerusalem (+634), after a lengthy discussion of “the most blessed dormition of the most glorious Mother of God,” ends his eulogy by exalting the miraculous intervention of Christ who “raised her from the tomb,” to take her up with him in glory (18). St John Damascene (+749) asks the basic question: “For how could she, who brought life to all, be under the dominion of death? But she obeys the law of her own Son, and inherits this chastisement as a daughter of the first Adam, since her Son, who is the life, did not refuse it. As the Mother of the living God, she goes through death to him” (19). St. Andrew of Crete (+740) also followed the line of those who affirmed, with very little argumentation, that Mary died because her Son died (20).
Many Fathers attest to the pious tradition that at least some of the apostles were present at Our Lady’s passing from this world. In the East, St. John Damascene wrote:
When the Ark of God (Mary), departing from Mount Zion for the heavenly country, was borne on the shoulders of the apostles, it was placed on the way in the tomb. First it was taken through the city, as a bride dazzling with spiritual radiance, and then carried to the sacred place of Gethsemane, angels overshadowing it with their wings, going before, accompanying, and following it, together with the whole assembly of the Church (21).
In the West, St. Gregory of Tours (+593) wrote:
When finally the Blessed Virgin had fulfilled the course of this life, and was now to be called out of this world, all the apostles were gathered together from each region to her house … and behold the Lord Jesus came with his angels and, receiving her soul, entrusted it to the Archangel Michael and departed. At the break of day the apostles lifted the body with the couch and laid it in the sepulcher, and they guarded it awaiting the coming of the Lord. And behold the Lord again stood by them, and commanded that the holy body be taken up and borne on a cloud into paradise, where now, reunited with (her) soul and rejoicing with the elect, it enjoys the good things of eternity which shall never come to an end (22).
Many of the great scholastics taught that Mary died, because they were unable to see how she remained free from original sin. St. Thomas, since he could not see how Our Lady was conceived without original sin, maintained the she suffered the consequences, and in particular, death (23). St. Bonaventure wrote:
If the Blessed Virgin was free from original sin, she was also exempt from the necessity of dying; therefore, either her death was an injustice or she died for the salvation of the human race. But the former supposition is blasphemous, implying that God is not just; and the latter, too, is a blasphemy against Christ for it implies that his redemption is insufficient. Both are therefore erroneous and impossible. Therefore Our Blessed Lady was subject to original sin (24).
Most interestingly, this passage also connects the question of Mary’s death with the role which she played in the redemption. Even those authors who accepted the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception did not always deduce that Mary would have remained without death. Even Bl. John Duns Scotus, who was clear on the Immaculate Conception, did not hold that Mary would have been exempted from death. For Scotus, the sentence of death is so general, that neither Christ nor Mary is an exception. The resurrection of the body is, for him, a victory over death, like that of Christ and his Mother (25).
St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) held a nuanced position on Mary’s death, pointing out that in one sense she should not have died, but in fact did die in order to be like her Son:
Death being the punishment of sin, it would seem that the divine Mother all-holy, and exempt as she was from its slightest stain should also have been exempt from death, and from encountering the misfortunes to which the children of Adam, infected by the poison of sin, are subject. But God was pleased that Mary should in all things resemble Jesus; and as the Son died, it was becoming that the Mother should also die; because, moreover, he wished to give the just an example of the precious death prepared for them, he willed that even the most Blessed Virgin should die, but by a sweet and happy death (26).
In the seventeenth century, there was renewed interest in the question of Mary’s death. An Italian theologian, Beverini, proposed that Mary did not die (27). After 1854, once Pope Bl. Pius IX had defined the Immaculate Conception, the question of whether Our Blessed Lady died gradually became a subject of wide theological discussion. The impetus for further research, out of which arose the present state of dispute, was given by the writings of Dominic Arnaldi (+1895) of Genoa, who proposed that Our Blessed Lady’s complete freedom from sin demanded her immunity from the penalty of death (28). Later in the twentieth century, the clearest proponents of the thesis that Mary did not die were Roschini and Gallus (29). Others like Bonnefoy were clear proponents of Mary’s death: “the death of the Most Holy Virgin may be considered as historically proved and explicitly revealed: as such (explicitly revealed) it may be the subject of a dogmatic definition: there is no reason why it should not be” (30). John Henry Newman also held that Our Lady died, but it was a special kind of death:
She, the Lily of Eden, who had always dwelt out of the sight of man, fittingly did she die in the garden’s shade, and amid the sweet flowers in which she had lived. Her departure made no noise in the world … Pilgrims went to and fro; they sought for her relics, but they found them not; did she die at Ephesus? or did she die at Jerusalem? reports varied; but her tomb could not be pointed out, or if it was found, it was open; and instead of her pure and fragrant body, there was a growth of lilies from the earth which she had touched (31).
Pope John Paul II has come closest to addressing the issue, and he inclined in favor of Mary’s participation in death: “The fact that the Church proclaims Mary free from original sin by a unique divine privilege does not lead to the conclusion that she also received physical immortality. The Mother is not superior to the Son who underwent death, giving it a new meaning and changing it into a means of salvation” (32). The Pope went on to ask: “Could Mary of Nazareth have experienced the drama of death in her own flesh?” His response is that reflecting on Mary’s destiny and her relationship with her divine Son, “it seems legitimate to answer in the affirmative: since Christ died, it would be difficult to maintain the contrary for his Mother. … Involved in Christ’s redemptive work and associated in his saving sacrifice, Mary was able to share in his suffering and death for the sake of humanity’s redemption” (33). Clearly the Pope did not wish to close the question, but indicated the theological weight in favor of the position that Mary participated somehow in death’s mystery.
There are two basic reasons in favor of the position that our Blessed Mother actually died. First, that of conformity to Christ. The condition of the Mother should not be better than that of her divine Son. As the Mother of the passible and mortal Redeemer from whom he took his mortal flesh, Mary, too, had to be passible and mortal. This argument seems post factum, proposing to explain the fact of Mary’s death once that death had been taken for granted. The Second Council of Orange is quite explicit in its teaching that those who hold that the penalty of death is transmitted to the body without the transmission of sin, or the death of the soul, to all the children of Adam, do an injustice to God (34). Hence, where there is no sin there can be no mandatory death of the body in a child of Adam. A second reason favoring Mary’s death would involve voluntary acceptance on her part. Some theologians locate this within the framework of Mary’s role of Co-redemptrix of the human race. They would maintain that Mary died, though she had a right to immortality. She, like her Son, freely accepted death in order that she might coredeem the human race together with him. Yet, the objection can then be put that Mary should then have died on Calvary with Christ.
Contrary to the proposition that Mary died, one could say that it seems strange that she should have enjoyed any lesser privilege than Elijah or Enoch from the Old Testament, who seemingly did not die. Moreover, it could be argued that she enjoyed the first fruits of Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, in such a way that she did not die. Furthermore, one may apply to her the words of Jesus to his disciples: “For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything he himself does, and he will show him even greater things than these, works that will astonish you. Thus, as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so the Son gives life to anyone he chooses” (Jn 5:20-21).
Since all theologians are agreed, at least after the definition of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, that Mary cannot have died as a penalty for sin, the issue remains as to what was the cause of death. It is clear that she cannot have simply died of illness, a consequence of old age. Neither would she have died of old age, as this is also connected with original sin. Also, a minority thesis that she suffered martyrdom, based on a misinterpretation of the prophecy of Simeon (Lk 2:35), has long since been rejected, among others by St. Ambrose: “Neither the letter (of Scripture) nor history, teach us that Mary departed this life after having been assassinated; whereby not the soul but the body was pierced by a material sword” (35). That leaves various other opinions. One is that she voluntarily gave up her privilege of immortality, in order to be more like her Son. Another position is that she died of sorrow in the aftermath of having seen her Son crucified (36).
Perhaps the soundest approach would be to say, along with St. Francis de Sales, that Mary’s death was due to a transport of love (37). He pointed out that as Christ’s Mother lived her Son’s life, she also died her Son’s death:
The Virgin-Mother, having collected in her spirit all the most beloved mysteries of the life and death of her Son by a most lively and continual memory of them, and withal, ever receiving directly the most ardent inspirations which her Child, the sun of justice, has cast upon human beings in the highest noon of his charity; and besides, making on her part also, a perpetual movement of contemplation, at length the sacred fire of this divine love consumed her entirely as a holocaust of sweetness, so that she died thereof, the soul being wholly ravished and transported into the arms of the dilection of her Son (38).
The saint also explained that this death was not violent, but rather her “death was more sweet than could be imagined, her Son sweetly drawing her after the odor of his perfumes, and she most lovingly flowing out after their sacred sweetness even into the bosom of her Son’s goodness” (39).
Finally, it should be remarked that however one conceives of the end of Mary’s life, namely whether Mary died or not, she was not subject to the law of death, which is the corruption of the body in the grave. If she died, then she was assumed into heaven before her sacred body saw corruption. For, so long as the bodies of the just remain in the dust of the earth, they are under the dominion of death, and they sigh for the ultimate redemption of their bodies.
The Assumption: Development Towards the Dogma
Pope Pius XII, in his Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus that dogmatically defined the Assumption, refers to the Protoevangelium, Genesis 3:15, as a prophecy of Mary’s victory over sin and death. The New Vulgate (1979) offers this translation: “I shall put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; it will bruise your head and you will strike its heel” (Gen 3:15). This rendering, based on the Vulgate, appears to differ in two respects from the original Hebrew text. First, the Hebrew text employs the same verb for the two renderings, “it will bruise or crush” and “you will strike,” while the Greek Septuagint renders the verb both times by the expression “to strike.” Some translators, like St. Jerome, interpret the Hebrew verb by expressions which mean to crush or to bruise, rather than to strike or to lie in wait (40). Nevertheless, in his Latin Vulgate translation, he employed the verb “to crush” (conterere) in the first place, and “to lie in wait” (insidiari) in the second. Hence the punishment inflicted on the serpent and the serpent’s retaliation are expressed by the same Hebrew verb: but in the Vulgate the wound of the serpent is mortal, since it affects his head, while the wound inflicted by the serpent is not mortal, being inflicted on the heel.
The second point of difference between the Hebrew text and the Greek and Latin versions concerns the agent who is to inflict the mortal wound on the serpent. The Hebrew text reads hu’ (autos, ipse) which refers to the seed of the woman. “It” refers to the offspring, which is masculine in Hebrew, and Christian tradition has referred this to Christ (41). The human race is thus opposed to the Devil and his “seed,” and a hint is given of humanity’s ultimate victory, in a first glimpse of salvation; hence the passage is referred to as the Protoevangelium. The Greek version has a masculine pronoun, which ascribes the victory to one of the woman’s descendants in particular, rather than just the offspring in general. This allusion to Christ is consonant with the Messianic interpretation of many Fathers of the Church. The Vulgate reads “she” (ipsa), which refers to a woman. Thus, according to the Vulgate reading, the woman herself will win the victory; according to the Hebrew text, she will be victorious through her offspring, rendered by “it.” In the author’s opinion, the reading “she” (ipsa) is neither an intentional corruption of the original text, nor is it an accidental error; it is rather an explanatory version expressing explicitly the fact of Our Lady’s part in the victory over the serpent, which is contained implicitly in the Hebrew original (42).
As is quite commonly admitted, the divine judgment is directed not only against the serpent as the originator of sin, but also against the seed of the serpent, denoting its followers, the “brood of vipers,” the “generation of vipers,” those whose father is the Devil, the children of evil (43). One may understand the offspring or seed of the woman in a similar collective sense, as embracing all who are born of God. However, seed often denotes a particular person in biblical theology, if the context allows it. St. Paul gives this explanation of the word offspring or “progeny” as it occurs in the patriarchal promises: “Now the promises were addressed to Abraham and to his progeny. The words were not ‘and to his progenies’ in the plural, but in the singular, ‘and to your progeny,’ which means Christ” (Gal 3:16). Finally the expression “the woman” in the clause “I will put enmity between you and the woman” is a literal version of the Hebrew text. Peculiar to the Hebrew language is the use of the article in a sentence to indicate a person or thing which is not yet known, but may possibly be described more clearly later, either as present or as to be taken into account within the context (44). Since our indefinite article serves this purpose, we may translate: “I will put enmity between you and a woman.” Hence the prophecy promises a woman, Our Blessed Lady, who will be the enemy of the serpent to a marked degree; besides, the same woman will be victorious over the Devil, at least through her offspring. The completeness of the victory is emphasized by the contextual phrase “on dust you will feed as long as you live” (Gen 3:14), which is a common old Near-Eastern expression denoting the deepest humiliation (45).
That nothing is found explicitly in the New Testament about Our Lady’s Assumption is not surprising, since it is possible that much of it may have been composed before the event. This is clearly a matter of conjecture, especially if many of the apostles were present at her Dormition, as several Fathers propose. No isolated text of the New Testament explicitly affirms the doctrine of the Assumption. However, the Church does not read the Word of God as segmented texts of Scripture alone, but in its fullness in relation to the whole deposit of Revelation as it is also expressed in Tradition (46). The Church’s Tradition shows that Mary’s Assumption was at least implicitly revealed. It is false to maintain, along with the rationalists, that the later tradition of the Church expressing belief in the Assumption is an outgrowth of the apocrypha (47). A concrete indication of belief in the Assumption of Mary is found in the fact that the Church has never looked for the bodily relics of the Blessed Virgin, nor proposed them for veneration (48). It is probable that the revelation made to the apostles, or to one of them, was even explicit, since otherwise it is difficult to explain the universal tradition of Mary’s Assumption in the East and the West from the seventh century at the latest, which is also expressed in the liturgical celebration of the Feast (49). Nevertheless, “the liturgy of the Church does not engender the Catholic faith, but rather springs from it, in such a way that the practices of the sacred worship proceed from the faith as the fruit comes from the tree” (50).
The feast of the Assumption began its life in the East, as did many of the older Marian feasts. At first, Mary was implicitly honored in her Assumption by a celebration known as The Memory of Mary, the celebration of which began in the East around the fourth century. Honor was given to Mary’s Assumption here because the Church intended to celebrate the “birthday” of Mary, or her entrance into heaven. Later, The Memory of Mary liturgy was changed and became the feast of the Dormitio, or the “Falling to Sleep” of the Blessed Mother. The feast of the Dormitio, or Koimesis, celebrated as its object the death, resurrection, and Assumption of the Blessed Mother, and was widely established in the East by the end of the fourth century.
The fact that the feast was even kept by the churches separated from the Catholic Church is an indication of how early the tradition flourished. The Nestorian Churches separated very early from the Catholic Church (after the Council of Ephesus, in 439) and introduced the feast later, under the title of the death or transitusof Mary. As regards the transitus, normally it was held that Mary remained incorrupt after her death, and that her body awaited the resurrection. The Monophysite Churches marked the 15th of August with a special celebration dating from the patristic period. These churches rejected the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and include the Coptic Church in Egypt today, with a related church in Ethiopia, and the so-called Jacobite Church of Syria, with most of its adherents in South India. However, their theology is far from uniform. While some taught the death and resurrection of Mary, others held that her body remained incorrupt somewhere, awaiting her resurrection from the dead. The Coptic Church normally followed the doctrine of Theodosius, the Monophysite patriarch of Alexandria (+567), and celebrated a double feast, the death of Mary on January 16th, and her glorious resurrection on the 9th of August, 216 days later.
Now, since the monks of Gaul adopted many customs from the Egyptian monks this feast is found celebrated in January in sixth-century Gaul. The Gallican Liturgy has it on the 18th of January, under the title: Depositio, Assumptio, or Festivitas S. Mariae (51). This custom was kept up in the Gallican Church to the time of the introduction of the Roman rite.
In the Greek Church, it seems, some kept this feast in January, with the monks of Egypt; others in August, with those of Palestine. Uniformity was brought about by the Emperor Maurice (582-602), who ordered that the feast be set for the whole Byzantine Empire on August 15 (52). It is important to note that the emperor did not establish the feast but merely fixed the date of an already well-established event. The earliest witness to the existence of the feast in the West seems to be the Gospel Lectionary of Wurzburg (c. 650) in which the feast for August 15 is found to be Natale Sanctae Mariae (53). Then Pope Sergius I (687-701) decreed that on the feast of the Dormition (as well as on the Annunciation and the Nativity of our Blessed Mother) there should be a procession from the church of St. Adrian to the church of St. Mary Major. Most likely it was this same pope who introduced the feast of the Dormition into the Roman calendar. Pope Sergius was a Syrian by birth, and so was well acquainted with the feast from his homeland. After Pope Sergius introduced the feast into Rome, thereafter it spread rapidly throughout Western Europe. The name of the feast was changed from the Dormition to the Assumption of St. Mary in the eighth century, probably at the behest of Pope Hadrian I.
There are early glimpses within patristic tradition that Mary’s body is incorruptible. St. Hippolytus (172-235) associated the Ark of the Covenant of the book of Revelation (Rev 11:19) with Mary’s incorruptible flesh from which Christ’s flesh was taken: “Now the Lord was without sin, being in his human nature from incorruptible wood, that is, from the Virgin, and being sheathed inwardly as it were with the pure gold of the Word and by the Spirit outwardly” (54). The earliest clear mention of the doctrine of the Assumption dates from the second half of the sixth century, in a homily preached by Bishop Theoteknos of Livias, in Palestine (55). Theoteknos spoke as though the doctrine were commonplace, and he affirmed several times that Mary’s body was raised to the heavens with her soul (56). The homily describes how Christ, having ascended into heaven, gathered all the saints round the immaculate and pure Virgin. Mary, because of her exalted position, was to receive more than all the other saints: “She found what Eve lost. She found what Adam had forfeited through his disobedience” (57). Theoteknos recalled the special privileges traditionally accorded to Enoch and Elijah of escaping the normal deathly end of human life, and declared that Mary’s end must be more privileged than theirs: “How much more then, will he glorify in body and soul the one who has been his Mother according to the flesh! In truth he has glorified her, and he will glorify her still” (58). Theoteknos propounded the sound principle that the Son cannot forsake his Mother, and the Mother in her mystery cannot be separated from her Son. Significantly, Theoteknos makes much of the link between Mary’s being Theotókos (God-bearer) and her bodily Assumption:
For it was fitting that the holy one who begot him should see her Son upon a high throne, raised above all, and should see every knee bend before him of those above the earth and of those upon the earth, and every tongue confess him that will judge the living and the dead. … It was fitting … that her all-holy body, her God-bearing body, godlike, undefiled, shining with the divine light and full of glory, should be carried by the apostles in company of the angels, and, after being placed for a short while in the earth, should be raised up to heaven in glory with her soul so loved by God (59).
Another very rich theological argument was the Trinitarian perspective furnished by Theoteknos: “For, she, the holy one, pleased God the Father. She, the Virgin, pleased the subsistent Word born of the Father from all eternity. She, the Virgin, pleased the life-giving Spirit, the enlightener of all, who fashions all the citizens of heaven” (60).
The chief patristic witnesses to the doctrine of the Assumption are to be found in the seventh and eight centuries, when theological reflection on this theme became ripe. However, it is clear that before then there was much written by figures like Gregory of Tours, whom we have cited above. The aspect of the incorruptibility of Mary’s body was stressed by St. Modestus of Jerusalem (+634): “As the most glorious Mother of Christ, our Savior and our God and the giver of life and immortality, has been endowed with life by him, she has received an eternal incorruptibility of the body together with him who has raised her up from the tomb and has taken her up to himself in a way known only to him” (61).
St. Germanus of Constantinople (+733) argued, from the great dignity of the divine maternity and the holiness of her virginal body, to the fact of the Assumption of Mary: “You are she who, as it is written, appears in beauty, and your virginal body is all-holy, all-chaste, entirely the dwelling place of God, so that it is henceforth completely exempt from all dissolution into dust. Though still human, it is changed into the heavenly life of incorruptibility, truly living and glorious, undamaged and sharing in perfect life” (62). St. Andrew of Crete (+740) dedicated three beautiful homilies to the Dormition of Our Lady, which are rich in doctrine and devotion.
For him the Dormition is a consequence of the redemptive Incarnation, in which the physical nature of the mystery is highlighted:
For look, all of you who hear my words, look at what is now before our eyes: the Queen of the nations—I mean the Church of the faithful—today leads the solemn procession for the Queen of our race, who today is received royally into the Kingdom of Heaven by God, the King who rules over all. The Church brings in tribute today her most beautiful and festive possessions. She who turned dust into heaven today strips the dust away, lays aside the veil of this world of change and gives back to the earth what belongs to it (63).
St. John Damascene linked and compared the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin with her other prerogatives and privileges:
It was fitting that she, who had kept her virginity intact in childbirth, should keep her own body free from all corruption even after death. It was fitting that she, who had carried the Creator as a child at her breast, should dwell in the divine tabernacles. It was fitting that the spouse, whom the Father had taken to himself, should live in the divine mansions. It was fitting that she, who had seen her Son upon the Cross and who had thereby received into her heart the sword of sorrow which she had escaped in the act of giving birth to him, should look upon him as he sits with the Father. It was fitting that God’s Mother should possess what belongs to her Son, and that she should be honored by every creature as the Mother and the Handmaid of God (64).
During the Middle Ages, many saints and doctors further developed the doctrine concerning Mary’s glorious assumption. St. Anthony of Padua reflected, like early writers, on the Ark of the Covenant as the prefiguration of the mystery of Mary, mentioned in Psalm 132: “Go up, Lord, to the place of your rest, you and the ark of your strength.” He illustrated that just as Jesus Christ has risen from the death over which he triumphed, and has ascended to the right hand of the Father, so likewise the ark of his sanctification “has risen up, since on this day the Virgin Mother has been taken up to her heavenly dwelling” (65). St. Albert the Great confirmed a long-standing tradition of belief in the mystery of Mary’s Assumption: “From these proofs and authorities and from many others, it is manifest that the most Blessed Mother of God has been assumed above the choirs of angels. And this we believe in every way to be true” (66). St. Thomas Aquinas never developed the theology of the Assumption in detail, but always held that Mary’s body had been assumed into heaven along with her soul (67). St. Bonaventure is part of the same chorus of belief. He considered it as entirely certain that, as God had preserved the most holy Virgin Mary from the violation of her virginal purity and integrity in conceiving and in childbirth, he would never have permitted her body to have dissolved into dust and ashes (68). Further he argued, in a modern key, that Mary’s blessedness would not have been complete unless she had been assumed as a person:
“The soul is not a person, but the soul, joined to the body, is a person. It is manifest that she is there in soul and in body. Otherwise she would not possess her complete beatitude” (69).
By the end of the Middle Ages, belief in Mary’s Assumption into heaven was well-established theologically, and expressed in the devotional life and culture of Christendom. Even among figures of the Reformation, the Assumption remained in some cases an object of devotion. 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: “There can be no doubt that the Virgin Mary is in heaven. How it happened we do not know. And since the Holy Spirit has told us nothing about it, we can make of it no article of faith. … It is enough to know that she lives in Christ” (70). For the Protestant reformer, M. 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” (71). H. Bullinger (1590), also a Protestant reformer, sought a theological foundation for the Assumption in Scripture. He showed that the Old Testament tells of Elijah, 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 stated, “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” (72).
Later, in the Catholic Reformation period, St. Robert Bellarmine once again adopted the Ark imagery and stated: “Who, I ask, could believe that the ark of holiness, the dwelling place of the Word of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit, could be reduced to ruin? My soul is filled with horror at the thought that this virginal flesh which had begotten God, had brought him into the world, had nourished and carried him, could have been turned into ashes or given over to be food for worms” (73). Some later authors proposed an argument from appropriateness for the Assumption. Since a basic commandment of both Old and New Testaments is for children to honor their parents, Jesus Christ must himself have observed this, in the most perfect way possible. St. Francis of Sales therefore asks: “What son would not bring his mother back to life and would not bring her into paradise after her death if he could?” (74) St. Alphonsus Liguori set the same idea in a more Christological light by affirming that Jesus did not wish to have the body of Mary corrupted after death, since it would have redounded to his own dishonor to have her virginal flesh, from which he himself had assumed flesh, reduced to dust (75).
The development of the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary involved various elements, which can be summarized in this way. A common patristic theme is that the doctrine of the Second Eve implies assumption as the final and complete victory of the woman. Next, Mary in her predestination is always associated with her Son. Further, Mary’s Immaculate Conception and sinlessness imply exemption from corruption in the grave, and so lead to her immediate resurrection and glory. Another theme is that the perpetual virginity of Our Lady, as fleshly incorruption, involved exemption from physical corruption after death. A further argument is that the filial piety of the divine Son implied that he would grant her the favor of the Assumption, if it were otherwise possible and fitting. Mary at her death was more exalted in dignity than other creatures will ever be. If, then, other Christians are destined to be bodily with Christ in heaven, this must have applied to Mary straightway after her death. Finally, the woman of the Apocalypse is already seen in her glory, after being taken by eagle’s wings (76).
One of the aspects of Divine Revelation which impressed itself on Newman’s mind was its consistency, the fact that all of its truths hang together. By means of the principle of the analogy of faith, what is taught now fits into what has already been received, a principle which, he affirms, is exemplified in many different ways in the structure and the history of doctrine. This principle he applies particularly to Marian doctrines, especially to the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven (77). This doctrine is in harmony with the substance of the doctrine of the Incarnation, and without it, Newman points out, Catholic doctrine would be incomplete. It is a truth which he says is received on the belief of ages, but even from a rational point of view the very fittingness of it recommends it strongly. Mary’s Assumption into heaven is, for Newman, in perfect harmony with the other truths of Revelation. His starting point is the doctrine of the divine maternity:
As soon as we apprehend by faith the great fundamental truth that Mary is the Mother of God, other wonderful truths follow in its train; and one of these is that she was exempt from the ordinary lot of mortals, which is not only to die, but to become earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Die she must, and die she did, as her divine Son died, for he was man; but various reasons have approved themselves to holy writers, why, although her body was for a while separated from her soul, and consigned to the tomb, yet it did not remain there, but was speedily united to her soul again, and raised by our Lord to a new and eternal life of heavenly glory. … And the most obvious reason for so concluding is this—that other servants of God have been raised from the grave by the power of God, and it is not to be supposed that our Lord would have granted any such privilege to anyone else without also granting it to his own Mother. … Therefore we confidently say that our Lord, having preserved her from sin and the consequences of sin by his Passion, lost no time in pouring out the full merits of that Passion upon her body as well as her soul (78).
The definition of the dogma of the Assumption was prepared for and preceded by a period of discussion which included a consideration of how the dogma was founded in the Scriptures and in Tradition. In May 1946, with the Encyclical Deiparae Virginis Mariae, Pius XII called for a broad consultation, inquiring among the bishops and, through them, among the clergy and the People of God, as to the possibility and opportuneness of defining the bodily Assumption of Mary as a dogma of faith. The result was extremely positive: only six answers out of 1,181 showed any reservations about the revealed character of this truth. The Church propounded that this truth was based in Scripture, and was visibly expressed in Tradition (79). After many requests, Pope Pius XII solemnly defined the dogma in 1950:
After we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, 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 (80).