Mary’s Tomb, Jerusalem
Where in scripture or elsewhere do you find the story of the Assumption of Mary?
There’s no account of Mary’s death in scripture. The first accounts are found in the apocryphal body of literature called the Transitus Mariae, popular in the Christian churches of the east from the 5th century, which describe the return of the apostles to Jerusalem for Mary’s burial and their discovery that her body was taken up to heaven. The writings witness to a early interest in the death of Mary in some parts of the early church.
The first liturgical celebrations of Mary’s death and assumption to heaven took place in Jerusalem at her tomb (above) on the Mount of Olives about the 5th century.
The Roman Catholic church. believing that Mary is “wholly united with her son in the work of salvation” looks to scriptural sources like Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians–the second reading at Mass for August 15th–to understand Mary’s Assumption.
In this letter Paul writes to Christians in Corinth about the year 56 AD who have questions about the resurrection of Jesus. Their precise difficulty seems to be that they saw only the soul surviving death and not the body, a common conception of the Greek mind-set of the day. With that belief came a low appreciation of the resurrection of the body and the place of creation itself in the mystery of redemption. The created world wasn’t worth much and was passing away. Let it go.
Paul counters that opinion with the belief he has received, a belief preached from the beginning: “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 bodily assumption is a consequence of the mystery of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. She’s among the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep”, because of her unique role in the drama of redemption. Her assumption affirms that we follow in the steps of Jesus who rose body and soul. Her assumption, body and soul into heaven, is a resurrection story.
In her prayer, the Magnificat– the gospel read on the Feast of the Assumption – Mary accepts her mission from God to live in this world, the world of time, of human limitations, sharing in the mission of her Son, the Word made flesh, who came to redeem the world.
The church understood the mystery of Mary’s Assumption gradually over time. Some factors, like the rise of Gnosticism in the 3rd and 4th centuries, certainly promoted Christian appreciation of this mystery. As a world view, Gnosticism promised an escape from the limits of this bodily life through a higher knowledge. Human life and creation itself didn’t matter. Mary’s Assumption claims they do.
Though the Roman Catholic church formally defined the dogma of the Assumption November 1, 1959, on the Feast of All Saints, the mystery was a firmly held belief for centuries before:
“…the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death.” The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians: ‘In giving birth you kept your virginity; in your Dormition you did not leave the world, O Mother of God, but were joined to the source of Life. You conceived the living God and, by your prayers, will deliver our souls from death'” Catechism of the Catholic Faith 966
The dogma of Mary’s Assumption into heaven was defined during a century when human life and the planet itself were in danger. World War I ended in 1918 after four years of bloody conflict when millions perished. World War II ended in 1945. Conventual war and later nuclear weapons brought the real threat of mass destruction to the human race. Millions of lives were taken in the Holocaust.
Threats to human life and creation itself continue. Besides threats of war and terrorism, our planet faces new dangers from climate change and widespread poverty.
Far from a pious legend the Assumption of Mary is a sign that God holds human life and creation itself sacred. We believe in the resurrection of the body. God’s command is to honor and preserve the human body and all creation for its final destiny, a share in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our bodily life and creation itself are important.
The Feast of Mary’s Assumption is the oldest and most important feast of Mary in our church calendar.