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Theology for the common man


Friday, August 05, 2011

When in the 15th century, a Paris university professor named Jan Marcelle in his teaching about the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary stated that “we are not at all obliged under pain of mortal sin to believe that Mary was taken bodily into heaven since this is not a dogma of our faith”, the entire Theology Faculty exploded, demanding a retraction of the professor’s words which bordered on heresy because they contradicted the generally held professed beliefs. Although at this time, this dogma of faith had not yet been actually proclaimed by the Holy See, there was a general belief in the reality of the Assumption of the Mother of God. Influenced by special circumstances, the Church did not solemnly proclaim this dogma until five centuries later.

The History of the Dogma

The certainty of the Assumption of the Mother of God was accepted almost from the beginning, it was, however, only solemnly proclaimed under pressure of the uncertainty of some Christians, until a time when it was possible for everyone to better absorb this truth by reason of their greater understanding of Theology.

This occurred relatively late - in 1950 - and was influenced by another dogma, the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God, which was proclaimed a century earlier which speaks of her freedom from original sin, the certainty of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in that light suggests: “The Immaculate Mother of God, Mary always a Virgin, at the end of her earthly life, was taken body and soul into heavenly glory” (Breviarium Fidei VI, 105).

The Bible gives no facts about the death of Mary, but certainly like every mortal being she had to die at an intended time and place. There is one tradition that tells of her last days in Jerusalem, where Mary died a natural death and was buried at the foot of the Mount of Olives in the Valley of Jehoshaphat (Josaphat) only later to be taken to heaven (St Cyril of Jerusalem). The Apocryphal writings also confirm this account. In Gethsemane, in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, there stands a Church under the care of Orthodox Greeks. From the 5th century there existed a strong devotion to the Assumption of Mary so that Churches were built and eight religious orders were established in that name: 1 men’s order (Assumptionists, i.e. Augustinians of the Assumption) and 7 women’s orders. The Assumption motif also is often used in iconography. St. Stephen, King of Hungary, placed himself under the patronage of Mary Assumed into Heaven, as did Louis XIII and Louis XV, Kings of France.

Did She Die or Fall Asleep?

Under the influence of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, however, some theologians, considering the way in which Mary was taken to heaven, wondered whether she really died. They maintained that since she was born without original sin, death had no claim over her, for death is a consequence of original sin. Nor was it fitting that the body that gave birth to Jesus in His human nature should suffer decomposition. After all, Christ had the power to take her earlier and not wait for man’s final judgment day. These arguments do not deny what is stated in the dogma, since Pope Pius XII in his published document concludes that Mary was taken to heaven, but does not detail how she was taken. Still, you cannot ignore the fact that all human beings are subject to death, which is the universal order of nature resulting from original sin, one that encompasses the entire cosmos. It did not even attempt to include a reference to Jesus the Son of God, who admittedly defeated death, but being a human being was still under its influence. Jesus by His Resurrection reversed death’s final fatal sting and successfully bridged the ultimate step on the road to God. The Eastern Tradition has spoken for a long time about the falling asleep or resting of Mary, suggesting that she did not die at all, but simply fell asleep. In view of death’s universal domination that did not even spare Jesus, why not combine the two mentioned traditions and not even speak of Mary’s death as a falling asleep that brought her to the Gates of Heaven?

The Practical Significance of the Dogma

The dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary proclaims that the Lord Jesus did not leave the body of his Mother on earth, but honoring her, made her body like His own at the time of His Resurrection and took her to heaven. Thus, the dogma has practical significance: making evident to the Christian the certainty of his future existence strengthened by a transitory life spent in the grace of God. The reality of Mary’s Assumption is the apparent fruit of the truth of God’s promises resulting from the Resurrection of Christ and the collaboration of man who is sanctified by His grace. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin remains as our guarantee of God’s faithfulness and the importance of man in God’s plan. To this day, we see in Mary our own promised destiny.