“And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars: And being with child, she cried travailing in birth, and was in pain to be delivered . . . And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with an iron rod: and her son was taken up to God, and to his throne.” Apocalypse 12:1-2, 5
Today is the Feast of Our Lady of the Assumption. The day on which we celebrate the translation of the body of the Blessed Virgin Mary into its full glory in heaven. Coincidentally, the Mysteries of the Rosary on Wednesday also include Our Lady’s Assumption. What a beautiful dogma. It is a perfect conclusion to the salvific work the Lord began in Mary at the Annunciation (St. Luke, Chapter I). Although Our Lady’s Assumption was not proclaimed dogma until 1950, the essence of this beautiful mystery has been taught and believed by the Church since the very beginning. St. John of Damascus wrote three sermons on the Assumption in the seventh century, and St. Gregory of Tours recounts the actual historical details of the last days of Mary’s life as early as the sixth century.
Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum.
For those who don’t know, the Assumption of Mary is the teaching that Mary, “after the completion of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into the glory of heaven” (Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus). Notice she did not ascend, but was assumed, meaning it was not of her own power. Jesus, who was God, ascended to heaven. He did that of his own power. Mary was assumed, or brought up into heaven by the power of God. At first this might seem like just a pious fabrication (forgive the pun), but consider how St. Gregory of Tours, writing in the Book of Miracles, addresses the subject.
“The Apostles took up [Mary’s] body on a bier and placed it in a tomb; and they guarded it, expecting the Lord to come. And behold, again the Lord stood by them; and the holy body having been received, He commanded that it be taken in a cloud into paradise: where no, rejoined to the soul, she rejoices with the Lord’s chosen ones.”
Book of Miracles 1:4
St. Gregory recounts it very much as an actual historical event. Notice that the Apostles were present, placing the date of Our Lady’s Assumption some times in the A.D. 50s. The belief in her Assumption certainly has its roots in the early Church. Imagine, the Apostles witnessed her being taken into heaven. Then they told their disciples and those disciples told their disciples, so on and so forth through history down to this very day. That’s Apostolic Tradition, that’s how “the faith once delivered to the saints” (St. Jude 1:3) came to be, is formulated, and develops.
Benedicta tu in mulieribus
At the crucifixion, Jesus entrusted his Blessed Mother to St. John. “Behold thy mother,” Our Lord told him. The Evangelist tells us, “And from that hour, the disciple took her to his own” (St. John 19:27). It is presumed they lived in Ephesus from then on, and some even conjecture that the mysterious “Lady Elect” of St. John’s second epistle could be the Blessed Mother. I wonder what life would have been like for Our Lady then, having seen the mystery of the Nativity, the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Ascension. She was there for all of it. She was even present at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles. She must have had a peaceful experience at Ephesus, doing chores in quiet contemplation while her guardian was out changing the world. What went through her mind every Sunday when she consumed the body and blood of the man she gave form to, the man whom she nursed and raised, with whom she most likely lived her entire life? What a surreal experience, to eat flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone.
et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus
Perhaps Mary Magdalene visited occasionally, or St. Peter or St. James. Was she a famous and respected woman in the community? Or was she a half-remembered shadow in the back of peoples’ minds. Perhaps she was like that celebrity who, whenever mention of her name presents itself, people always glance about beffudledly saying, “I thought she was dead.” Perhaps the newly Chrismated (or, as we say today, Confirmed) children would sit on her floor and listen to the strange tales of her younger days, of her time in Egypt, of her life with Jesus. Imagine, the Theokotos an elderly grandmother figure. It doesn’t cross our mind very often. We are far more inclined to picture Our Lady as a moving holy card with rosy cheeks and radiant white skin. But her immaculacy was internal and subtle. She most likely transmitted her infinite grace to others through small words of wisdom or well-baked pastries rather than with rousing sermons and harsh rebukes. I like to think Our Lady followed the Little Way of St. Thérèse, or rather St. Thérèse followed the little way of Our Lady.
Sancta Maria, mater Dei
Eventually, her purpose on this earth was fulfilled, and Our Lord called her home to her heavenly throne “clothed with the sun” as St. John records in the Apocalypse. Some ambiguity exists concerning whether or not Mary actually experienced death and resurrection before her Assumption. Again, let us turn to the Apostolic Tradition of the Church. Though we don’t hear this much in the West, and although it is not formally defined dogma, Eastern Christians (both Catholic and Orthodox) believe in something called the “Dormition” or the “falling asleep” of Mary. This is the belief that Our Lady did experience a separation of body and soul, and that her earthly body did cease functioning. However, since she was so full of grace, her body did not experience any corruption, and soon God took her body up to heaven as well. This poses a problem though for those, especially the Orthodox, who see death as a consequence of Original Sin. How then, can a woman who was Immaculately Conceived, and knew no stain of sin, experience death? Father Robert Barron, as always, sheds some light on the subject.
“Death can be taken in a purely biological or physiological sense to mean the cessation or bodily activity: heartbeat, breathing, brain waves, and so on. Or it can be construed in a wider psychological and spiritual sense to mean the full range of feelings, reactions, and fears that accompany this biological dissolution. At the prospect of death most of us recoil in terror, either at the mystery of it or because of the judgment that awaits us.”
Catholicism pg. 107
Mary, who never experienced the stain of sin, would not have experienced complete death, even though her body stopped working. It would have been a peaceful falling asleep. Like going to bed and waking up in a different room.
Ora pro nobis peccatoribus nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae.
Really, the Assumption of Mary should not be a stumbling block for any of us, for it will one day happen to all of us. On Judgment Day, the bodies of every human every to have lived will be resurrected and will go to join its soul either in heaven or in hell (I Corinthians Chapter 15). The body of Our Lady, however, because of her supreme beatitude and her privilege of being chosen as the mother of God, was allowed to rejoin its soul in the Beatific Vision. This was not given to her because of her own doing, but because of the workings of God through her. Through her, salvation entered the world. She is the only boast of our humanity. The only pure, perfect thing humanity has ever produced. And even that not of its own volition, but by the will and working of the Holy Spirit. Thus the prophesy to the serpent was fulfilled: “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush they head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.” Our Lady, by bringing into the world the God-man Agnus Dei, she has truly crushed the serpents head. Praise be to God forever.