Since Yesterday Was the Assumption

…I thought it would be good to post the chapter on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary from my book MARY, MOTHER OF THE SON (which you can conveniently get on Kindle from the link I just helpfully provided) over the next few days.


The Assumption of Mary

Ideas have consequences. – Richard Weaver

The last (and only slightly less controversial) Marian dogma the Church has defined is the Assumption. This is the teaching that

The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.[1]

As we saw in Chapter 4, the figure of Mary as a cosmically important heavenly person is already reflected in the biblical tradition, particularly in Luke, John, and Revelation 12. While it is true there is no biblical passage explicitly stating that “Mary was assumed into heaven,” neither is there a biblical passage saying “Ecclesiastes is inspired,” “Here is how a valid marriage is made,” “Jesus is consubstantial with the Father,” “The Spirit is the Third Person of the Trinity,” or “Monogamy is the only way to conceive of Christian marriage.” Yet Christians received these truths of revelation preserved in the Tradition of the Church, so why not the Tradition of the Assumption, too? Some will reply that the “lateness” of its appearance in the historical record (apart from the reflection in Revelation 12) means it has no roots in apostolic testimony.

Fuzzy Details, Solid Core

But Revelation 12 is apostolic testimony. And the subsequent weak documentation of the tradition concerning the Assumption in the first three centuries can well be attributed not to lack of an apostolic basis, but to reasons that fit rather well with the early history of the Church. Jerusalem, it will be recalled, was sacked in a.d. 70 and then, in a.d. 135, it was annihilated. a.d. 70 saw the destruction of the temple and the gruesome deaths of a million Jews who holed up in the city to resist the Roman attacker. In a.d. 135, another rebellion took place, this time under the leadership of a man named Bar-Kochba. The revolt collapsed when a rabbi declared Bar-Kochba to be the Messiah, thus prompting all the Jewish Christians to withdraw their support. This resulted in Jerusalem being smashed flat by the Romans and every Jew being banished from the city in perpetuity. Jewish Christians were hated by their fellow Jews as traitors to their people and hated by the Romans as Jews. For the next two hundred years, Jerusalem was known as Aelia Capitolina and all her familiar holy sites were turned into pagan temples. The celebration and preservation of Christianity, like Temple Judaism, was most definitely not favored by Rome. And so, the transmission of historical memories started to fade and lose coherence. This resulted in the first of many debates about the Assumption, and it also demonstrates the curious way in which liturgy, as much as documents, helped to preserve essential doctrine while being fuzzy on details.

To get the hang of what I mean, imagine that the Creed, but not the New Testament, had survived early persecutions. Having recited the Creed for two millennia in the liturgy, we would know basic facts about Jesus, but many details would be blurry and seem “unsupported” by fact. We would know that Jesus was crucified by Pilate, but not where or when precisely. We would know that “on the third day he rose again,” but we could well have divergent traditions about whether he appeared in Galilee or Jerusalem. One fragment of memory might preserve a tradition of his appearance to Mary Magdalene, another his appearance to James, and another his appearance to Paul. But all would agree on the core tradition that he rose again.

Something like this appears to be the case with the Assumption. With respect to details, there are divergent fragments of memory floating around the Church. Perhaps the earliest explicit testimony we have is the sepulcher of the eighteen martyrs of Zaragoza, Spain, which dates back to a.d. 312, and contains a relief sculpture of the Assumption of Our Lady.[2] Spain is at the opposite end of the Mediterranean from the events of the Assumption, suggesting that this article of faith was already ancient by the time it was incorporated into the art of Spanish Christianity.

After Constantine legalized Christianity in the early fourth century, local traditions in the area of Jerusalem bore witness to a “Tomb of Mary” and a hill known as the “Place of Dormition” (Mary’s “falling asleep” and entry into heaven). But Ephesus also preserved a tradition that associated Mary with the apostle John (since she was given into his care at the Crucifixion) and contended that she was assumed into heaven in that city. Similarly, there were disagreements about whether Mary died before her Assumption,[3] and differing traditions about the length of time between her death and the discovery of her empty tomb. But there are no traditions that Mary died, was buried, and remained buried. In the core tradition, all the witnesses who speak to the matter agree: Mary was assumed into heaven.

Of which more tomorrow.

[1] Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, 44. Link available as of August 5, 2015.

[2] Mauricio Gordillo, “La Asunción de Nuestra Señora en los monumentos anteriores al Concilio de Éfeso,” Razon y Fe, Vol. 54 (1919) 452–460; Vol. 55 (1919) 70–82, 174–182.

[3] These disagreements remain to this day, which explains why Munificentissimus Deus is very carefully silent on the question of whether Mary died and attends (as the Tradition does) solely to the question of her Assumption. A Catholic can believe she died or not. There are reasonable theological arguments for both positions. For instance, those who believe she did not die cite the scriptural teaching that death is the penalty for sin (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 5:12). Since Mary never sinned, they argue, she did not die. Those who believe she did die point out that Mary could have endured death not as a penalty for sin, but in perfect union with and conformity to the suffering and death of her son, in much the same way that Paul completed “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of her body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24). Either opinion is compatible with Catholic teaching.


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