What is the Assumption of Mary and where did this belief come from?
On August 15 we celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of Blessed Virgin Mary. Many ask what are the biblical and historic (traditional) foundations for this Dogma of this Catholic Church?
The Dogma of The Assumption was declared by Pope Pius XII on November 1, 1950, after requesting detailed study of Marian doctrine in the 1940’s. He infallibly defined the teaching in a bull named Munificentissimus Deus (Latin, “Most Bountiful God”). Which stated:
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 [Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus 44].
Pius XII explained, this is “a divinely revealed dogma” (ibid.) This means that it is a dogma in the proper sense, and thus a matter of faith that has been divinely revealed by God and infallibly proposed by the Magisterium of the Church.
Mary’s Assumption and Human Dignity
The declaration came at a pivotal time in history with the world still reeling from the effects of World War II and the evil propagated by the Nazi regime. Pope Pius XII could see the declination of humanity regarding man’s understanding of the dignity of the human person and wished to raise the eyes of human beings once again to their supernatural end.
Pope Pius knew that the inseparable nature of body and soul is no better comprehended than by the dormition and assumption of Mary, who was a perfect model of a holy Christian death. The artwork and icons of the church speak to the tradition (historical knowledge) of what is most commonly described through Eastern tradition as her dormition, or “falling asleep”, and the connection of the human body and soul.
Biblical and Traditional References for the Assumption
Although the belief is not directly referenced in the Bible, there is both historical/traditional and biblical foundation for this teaching.
The first trace of belief in the Immaculada Concepcion can be found in the apocryphal accounts entitled Transitus Mariae [Latin, “The Crossing Over of Mary”], whose origin dates to the second and third centuries. These are popular and sometimes romanticized depictions that, nonetheless, show an insight into the faith commonly shared at that point in history.
In the east, there was a long period of growing reflection on Mary’s destiny in the next world. This gradually led the faithful to believe in the glorious raising of the Mother of Jesus, in body and soul, and to the institution in the East of the liturgical feasts of the Dormition [“falling asleep”—i.e., death] and Assumption of Mary.
Pius XII called for the broad study and consultation within the Encyclical Deiparae Virginis Mariae(1946), inquiring among the Bishops of the world and, through them, among the clergy and the People of God as to the possibility and suitability of defining the bodily assumption of Mary as a dogma of faith.
There was a strong confirmation of the revelatory nature of the assumption: only six answers out of 1,181 showed any reservations about the truth of it.
St. John Paul II notes just how strongly the bible emphasized Mary's perfect union with Jesus’ purpose. Completely united with Christ in His life, suffering, saving work, and death; Mary shares His heavenly destiny both in body and soul. "Arise, O Lord, into your resting place: you and the ark, which you have sanctified" (Ps. 131:8);
Jason Evert (2001) points out that Enoch and Elijah were assumed into heaven (Heb. 11:5, 2 Kgs. 2:11), and in Matthew 27:52-53 he speaks of saints whose bodies left the grave after the Resurrection of Christ. The early resurrection of these saints foreshadows the rising of the faithful who will die in Christ, all of who will be assumed one day to receive their glorified bodies. Belief in the assumption of Mary is simply a belief that God granted her this gift early.
The Scriptures promise that those who suffer from Christ will be glorified with him (Rom. 8:17), so who more than Mary, whose heart was pierced by the suffering of her Son, should receive this unique glorification. (Evert, 2001)
The Fathers of the Church speak of the nature of the doctrine as it has come down to us, just as to Christians in the East, both Catholic and Orthodox, who refer to it as the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, or "the falling asleep of the Mother of God." The earliest printed reference to the belief that Mary's body was assumed into Heaven dates from the fourth century, in a document called "The Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God." The document is written in the voice of the St. John the Apostle, to whom Jesus entrusted the care of His mother, and it recounts the death, entombment, and assumption of the Blessed Virgin. Tradition variously places Mary's death at Jerusalem or at Ephesus, where John was living.
One of the most extensive works on the dormition and assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, ( by Stephen Shoemaker (2006), Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, University of Oregon) surveys the literary, archaeological, and liturgical sources for early traditions of the Dormition, and is a worthwhile read for any Catholic or non-Catholic wishing to understand the Dogma of the Assumption.
No matter where you are in approaching the Dogma of the Assumption, it should point you first and foremost to the Divinity of Jesus Christ and His salvific power. Mary’s Assumption, as all teaching of the Catholic Church leads us back to Him. Always and everywhere the Church joins with Mary in her instruction to, “Do whatever He tells you”.
Article written by Latrell Castanon for Christian Catholic Media
Latrell Castanon is a freelance writer who studied Catholic Theology at St. Joseph's College of Maine.
Pius XII (1946); Encyclical: Deiparae Virginis Mariae. http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_01051946_deiparae-virginis-mariae.html
Pius XII (1950); APOSTOLIC CONSTITUTION: MUNIFICENTISSIMUS DEUS: DEFINING THE DOGMA OF THE ASSUMPTION. http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_p-xii_apc_19501101_munificentissimus-deus.html
Evert, Jason (2001); Article: How to Argue for Mary’s Assumption. https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/how-to-argue-for-marys-assumption
Shoemaker, Stephen (2006); Book: The Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary's Dormition and Assumption (Oxford Early Christian Studies). https://amzn.to/2ykxzEr