Since we are celebrating the Feast of the Assumption of Mary tomorrow (though it is not a Holy day of Obligation this year), it is good to understand why the Catholic Church honors the Mother of God on this day. Perhaps you are unaware of the meaning behind this unfamiliar Feast in the Church. On November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary to be a dogma of faith.
“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 to heavenly glory.”
The pope proclaimed this dogma only after a broad consultation of bishops, theologians, and laity. There were few dissenting voices. What the Pope solemnly declared was already a common belief in the Catholic Church. We find homilies on the Assumption going back to the sixth century. In following centuries, the Eastern Churches held steadily to the doctrine, but some authors in the West were hesitant. However, by the 13th century, there was universal agreement. The feast was celebrated under various names (Commemoration, Dormition, Passing, Assumption) from at least the 5th or 6th century.
Mary’s Assumption into heaven has been formally celebrated in all Christian countries from the beginning of the Middle Ages and is consistent with the faith of the Church from the beginning. In one of his sermons, St. John Damascene (who died in 749) expressed the general belief of all Christianity. He said: “Her sacred and happy soul, as nature would have it, was separated in death from her most blessed and immaculate body; and although the body was duly interred, it did not remain in the state of death, neither was it dissolved by decay. Her most pure and sinless body was not left on earth, but she were transferred to her heavenly throne.” The belief had become interwoven with legend, the most famous of which came from an interpolated passage in the sermons of St. John Damascene. It told of a request to the Bishop of Jerusalem at the Council of Chalcedon (451) by the East Roman Emperor Marcian, to have the relics of Mary brought to Constantinople. The Bishop was said to have answered, “Mary died in the presence of the apostles, but her tomb, when opened later on the request of St. Thomas, was found empty, and thus, the apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven.”
Since the Church understands death to be a consequence of the first sin and believes that Mary was conceived without original sin, some theologians have wondered if Mary died or simply was assumed into heaven without dying. The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not answer the question, but states: “The Most Blessed Virgin Mary, when the course of her earthly life was completed, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven.”
There is no story in the Bible about Mary’s Assumption into heaven. But it is the logical conclusion to her life. The Assumption of Mary is an excellent doctrine of our faith. From the moment Mary spoke, “Let it be” she revealed herself to be the one chosen by God. She was the vessel of our salvation, the model of discipleship, and the first to enjoy the fruits of redemption through her Assumption into heaven. There is an image in the book of Revelation that is often applied to Mary. It depicts a woman clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, and wearing a crown of 12 stars.
This dynamic image of a woman reigning over the universe has become an icon of Mary as queen of heaven and earth (and can be found in one of the stained glass windows in the sanctuary of St Anthony’s).
Artistic representations of Mary often depict her dressed as the woman in Revelation. They signify the belief that the scriptures symbolically verify Mary’s place in heaven. This week’s celebration is meant to give all Christians hope. Throughout our lives we strive to keep Mary as our model, ever ready to accept whatever may happen as long as it is God’s will. If we pattern our life on hers, her new life will become the pattern for ours.
This is why I have such a strong devotion to her. I believe she watches over me (all of us), as a Mother, since she was given to us by her Son, as He hung upon the cross.