There’s no account of Mary’s Assumption in scripture. An account of her burial and assumption into heaven appears in an apocryphal body of literature called the Transitus Mariae, from Christian churches of the east around the 5th century. This account may contain material from earlier sources and witnesses to the belief in Mary’s bodily assumption in some significant parts of the early church.
The Roman Catholic church bases its belief in Mary’s Assumption on scriptural sources like I Corinthians–the second reading for our feast on August 15th.
In his First Letter to the Corinthians, ( c 56) St. Paul writes to Christians who are wavering in their faith in the resurrection of Jesus. Their precise difficulty seems to be that they see only the soul surviving death and not the body, a common conception fostered by the Greek mind-set of his day. With that belief came a low appreciation of creation. The created world wasn’t worth much and was passing away. Let it go.
Paul counters this incomplete belief with the faith he has received. Interestingly, it’s a faith that preached, not written down; the gospels and other New Testament writings were not in written form yet:
“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” ( 1 Corinthians 15, 3-6)
Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, Paul affirms, and we will rise bodily too. Jesus is “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
Mary’s Assumption follows the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Because of her unique role in the drama of redemption, Mary is among the“first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” She follows Jesus who rose body and soul. Her Assumption, body and soul into heaven, is a resurrection story.
Bodily life is important, the bodily resurrection of Jesus says. The created world is important, the bodily resurrection of Jesus says, and so we must care for it according to God’s plan. We live in the body from birth to death; like the seed planted in the earth our bodily life will develop into a risen life we cannot imagine. ( John 12,21-26)
In her prayer, the Magnificat– the gospel for her feast– Mary accepts her mission from God to live in the created world of her day, accepting its limitations, its misunderstandings, its sufferings. She accepts fully the mission of her Son, the Word made flesh.
The realization of the mystery of the Assumption grew gradually in the church. Christians of the 3rd and 4th centuries confronted Gnosticism, which tempted them to depreciate creation and human existence itself. Promising a better life beyond the limitations of this life, the gnostics counseled escape from life as it is. Human life and creation itself didn’t matter.
The Roman Catholic church defined the dogma of the Assumption November 1, 1959, on the Feast of All Saints. Humanity and the planet itself seemed endangered in the 20th century. World War I ended in 1918 after four years of bloody conflict when millions perished. World War II ended in 1945 in which 35 million people were killed in Europe alone. Millions of lives perished in the Holocaust. Conventual war and nuclear weapons brought the real threat of mass destruction to the human race and the planet itself.
The 21st century offers new threats from climate change, widespread poverty, wars and terrorism.
The Assumption of Mary is a sign from God. Far from a pious legend, it tells us to look upon human life and creation itself as sacred. We believe in the resurrection of the body according to our ancient creed. Mary was the first of our humanity to share in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.