15 August 2022, The Tablet

The oldest of all Marian feasts – the bodily assumption of Our Lady into heaven


The oldest of all Marian feasts – the bodily assumption of Our Lady into heaven

Painting of the Coronation of Mother Mary by the Holy Trinity at the Sanctuary of Fatima in Portugal.
Joris Van Ostaeyen / Alamy

Though defined as a dogma only as recently as 1950, the bodily assumption of Our Lady into heaven at the end of her life on earth is the oldest of all Marian feasts.

Christians have been convinced of Mary’s unique holiness from earliest times and it was that conviction that gave rise to the belief that, as her life in this world was uniquely holy, so both her coming into the world and her going from it, were also uniquely blessed.

Her life is framed, as it were, by her Immaculate Conception and her Assumption. Both the antiquity and ubiquity of this belief (known in the East as the Dormition) are well-attested. When at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the Emperor Marcian (396-457) asked the Bishop of Jerusalem about Mary’s tomb, he told him that when it had been opened, it was found to be empty. It’s also significant that, though there were many bones of saints in circulation as relics in the Middle Ages, no one has ever claimed to have any part of Mary’s body: her veil, perhaps, but never her bones.

We also now know that the earliest extant sermons about Mary, dating from the 6th century, take her Assumption for granted. Interestingly, these sermons have only relatively recently come to light: they were unknown at the time of the definition.

At the definition in 1950, Pope Pius XII infallibly proclaimed in the apostolic constitution, Munificentissimus Deus, that the long-held belief in the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was a dogma of the Catholic faith. By the authority of Our Lord Jesus Christ, of the blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul, and by our own, we proclaim and define it to be a dogma revealed by God, that the immaculate Mother of God, Mary ever Virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven.

In other words, at the end of her life on earth, Mary entered immediately, body and soul, into that perfected relationship with God we call ‘heaven’. Why? The decree says: It seems impossible that she who conceived Christ, bore him, fed him with her milk, held him in her arms and pressed him to her bosom, should after this earthly life be separated from him in either body or soul. The heart of the dogma of the Assumption, then, is the affirmation that Mary shared – and shares – immediately in the fullness of the resurrection which God has promised to us all. The glory she enjoys is the glory which, through the resurrection of her Son, is our destiny too.

Mary, in other words, is both what we are, and what, by God’s grace, we will become. In her entire being, she enjoys complete communion and oneness with God, in and through Christ, her Son.

She followed the Spirit’s prompting, even though it was far from clear, to her at least, where she was being led. She bore in her womb the Word made flesh, made flesh from her own flesh. And her journey, now completed, is our journey too. The last stage of our journey will be accomplished, of course, at our death, the moment when we must accept who we are and what, through our free choices, we have become: a moment of powerlessness, to be sure, but the moment when, in a final, fulfilling act of faith, we place ourselves entirely into God’s hands.

Mary’s Assumption reassures us that, far from being an end, death is a completion, leading to faith’s fulfilment in God’s presence. Mary died as she lived, in complete and trusting faith; and we are called to do the same.

The historical context of the proclamation of the Assumption is also significant. It came shortly after the depredations of the Second World War and coincided with the coming down of the ‘Iron Curtain’ and the Communist hegemony of Eastern Europe. The Pope refers in the decree to the destruction of life, the desecration of the human body and the threat posed to our God-given identity made, as we are, in his own image and likeness.

In solemnly recognising Mary’s unique destiny, the Church was reaffirming the inviolable dignity of every human being – the poor, the hungry, the unborn, the old, the sick, the migrant, the asylum seeker, the oppressed and the persecuted. The decree says explicitly that Mary’s bodily assumption emphasises “the exalted destiny of both our body and our soul”.

The doctrine of Mary’s assumption is thus an implicit criticism of the denigration of the body, through an overly spiritualistic understanding of the human person, the denigration of the human spirit, through hedonism and materialism, and the denigration of life’s sacredness, through violence of any kind.

Everything we believe about Our Lady arises from her unique relationship with her Son and every doctrine concerning her directs our attention to him. How significant it therefore is that she herself deflects attention away from herself when, in her last recorded utterance in the gospels, at the marriage feast of Cana, she tells the servants: “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2 5 ) Her words are addressed also to us.

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