Assumption of Mary

views updated


"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." In these words of the apostolic constitution

munificentissimus deus (MD) Pope Pius XII, on Nov. 1, 1950, most solemnly described the crowning event of the life of the Blessed Virgin. Thus defining the dogma of Mary's Assumption, he wrote the final chapter of the centuries-long tradition of belief in this mystery.

This article considers mainly the scriptural basis, taking as its guide the apostolic constitution, the theological explanation of the Assumption, and, finally, the question of the death of Mary.

Scripture. There is no explicit reference to the Assumption in the Bible, yet the pope insists in the decree of promulgation that the Scriptures are the ultimate foundation of this truth. Our Lord Himself, the Evangelists, and the Fathers repeatedly emphasize the capital importance of the resurrection of christ as proof of His divinity, as promise of man's victory over sin, Satan, and death. "If Christ has not risen," wrote St. Paul (1 Cor 15.1422), "vain then is our preaching, vain too is your faith. For if the dead do not rise, neither has Christ risen. If with this life only in view we have had hope in Christ, we are of all men the most to be pitied. But as it is, Christ has risen from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also comes resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made to live." The new life brought by Christ is a life transforming man totally, body and soul, so that man's body too is meant to share in the victory of Christ over death, just as the whole of man, body and soul, suffers the consequences of Adam's sin. "When this mortal body puts on immortality, then 'Death is swallowed up in victory.' Now the sting of death is sin. But thanks be to God who has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 15.5357). If these texts are part of the scriptural basis for the resurrection of the Christian, there remains the need to justify the anticipated resurrection that he attributes to the Virgin Mary. Pius XII himself extends the relevance of Lk 1.28 and 42 (which Pius IX had carefully analyzed in the bull of definition of the immaculate conception, Ineffabilis Deus, in 1854) to the Assumption: "Hail, [thou who art] full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women." That fulness of grace bestowed on the Blessed Virgin was, according to Pius XII, only achieved by her Assumption (MD 27).

It is not theology, but the evidence of Scripture that shows Mary "as most intimately joined to her divine Son and as always sharing His lot" (MD 38). St. Paul assures the Romans (6.413) that through Baptism they are joined to Christ and share in His victory over sin. Mary's unique similarity to Christ began with her conception. Since it is sin and its consequent punishment in death and corruption that delay the final triumph of the ordinary Christian, it is implicit that anyone perfectly free from sin, like Christ, would be free from the deferment of the resurrection of the body, as Christ was. Mary is surely an exception to the rule (MD 5), portrayed perhaps (MD 27) in the Revelation (12.1) as the great sign in the heavens, a woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, her head crowned with 12 stars. That St. John was primarily here describing the Church in ultimate victory is generally agreed, but that he was also describing the personification of the Church in Mary, the eschatological image of the Church, a prototype already enjoying the glory that the Church will eventually share, has been seriously proposed and defended.

New Eve. However, the most pregnant idea, implied in Scripture and specific already in patristic writings, for accepting and understanding something of the mystery of the Assumption, is that of Mary as the New Eve. Three times in the bull of definition (MD 27, 30, 39) the Holy Father alludes to this telling comparison, without defending or explaining it, accepting it as an obvious deduction from Scripture and a logical development of tradition. Holy Writ says that "as from the offense of the one man the result was unto condemnation to all men, so from the justice of the one the result is unto justification of life to all men. For just as by the disobedience of the one man the many were constituted sinners, so also by the obedience of the one the many will be constituted just" (Rom 5.1819). The first Eve proved not to be the helpmate God had intended her to be for Adam, proved not to be the "mother of the living" but rather, in a sense, mother of the dead, for she led Adam into sin and thus was his accomplice in bringing all men to the punishment of death and the dominion of Satan.

In contrast, Mary, the New Eve, by her obedience to the Annunciation of the angel, brought life to men in having conceived the person of the New Adam and in having united herself to the principal acts of His redemptive mission. Just as Eve cooperated not only in the original sin but also shared with Adam his subsequent life, parenthood, and the sufferings that were sin's punishment, so Mary cooperated with Christ not only in giving Him birth, but she cooperated with Him, evidently in a secondary and unessentialbut actually necessary and importantrole, in the significant events of His life, the Presentation, one of His first miracles, the Crucifixion, the Ascension, and, later, in the beginnings of His Church (His members) at Pentecost. More truly than Eve ever would have been, Mary becameat Nazareth, at Bethlehem, at Calvaryin an ever fuller sense, the mother of all the members of the Mystical Body. Hence as things said of Adam apply also, but proportionately, to Eve, so things said of Christ apply also, but proportionately, to Mary. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (2.14) had said "that through death He [Christ] might destroy him who had the empire of death, that is, the devil." Christian intuition, guided by the Holy Spirit, gradually came to see that Mary's share in Christ's victory over sin began with her conception in a state free from all sin (the state in which Eve was created), and ended with her miraculous Assumption (an immunity from death and corruption which Eve enjoyed until the Fall).

The union of Mary with Jesus, so obvious in the scriptural record of their earthly lives, is just as true of their respective roles in the Redemption. Holy Scripture, the Fathers, the medieval theologians, and Pius XII in this most solemn pronouncement, tell of one enmity between God and the devil; one evilembodied in Adam, Eve, Satan, and his seedconfronting one power of good God, the Woman, and her Seed; an enmity that will end in a single triumphof the Woman and her Seed; and of the New Adam one with the New Eve. As Adam's love for Eve led him into sin, so Christ's love for Mary led Him to have her "share in the conflict [and] share in its conclusion" (MD 39)like Him, a complete victory in body and soul over sin and death.

Mother of God. Pius XII repeatedly refers to Mary's being the Mother of God as the theological reason (for Christ's unique love for and union with Mary and) for the Assumption (MD 6, 14, 21, 22, 25), like a superlative application of the text, "His father's honor is a man's glory; disgrace for her children, a mother's shame" (Sir 3.11). For Mary was united to all three Persons of the Blessed Trinity in a unique relationshipas privileged daughter, mother, and spouse, privileges that involved her body and soul, that implicated her in extraordinary sufferings and joys (MD 14). From earliest times the Fathers defended her perpetual virginity as a proof of the divinity of her offspring, as evidence of her exemption from painful parturition, which is the punishment for sin (cf. Gn 3.16), as the effect of a sinlessness that, negatively, preempts her from the curse of death and that, positively, merits for her the immediate contemplation (after this life), in body and soul, of God. God's justice would not inflict punishment (pain, death, corruption) on one innocent of the crime (sin) being punished: "For all lives are mine; the life of the father is like the life of the son, both are mine; only the one who sins shall die" (Ez 18.4). Brieflyand less weightily than the two previous explanationsthe propriety of the Assumption is indicated: The fact that Christ loved Mary and united her in His mysteries makes it proper that the woman He had created sinless, that the virgin whom He had chosen for His mother, be, like Him, completely triumphant over death in her Assumption as He had triumphed over sin and death in His Resurrection.

Death of the Virgin. One final question: Did the Blessed Virgin die? In the climactic paragraph of definition, the pope chose to say, "Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory" (MD 44). The crucial phrase expleto terrestris vitae cursu offers support neither to those who argue that Mary died (the "mortalists") nor to those who say that she did not die (the "immortalists"). While most of the faithful and most of the writers on the subject accept without debate the fact of the death of Mary, it is a subject of controversy among theologians.

Patristic writers cannot be called as support for either side. Before the Council of Nicaea (325) the only overt reference to the close of Mary's life is a phrase attributed to Origen: "With respect to the brethren of Jesus, there are many who ask how He had them, seeing that Mary remained a virgin until her death." But this and a phrase in a hymn of St. Ephraem are praises of the perpetual virginity of Mary; her death is taken for granted, affirmed but not explained. The only writer before the Council of Ephesus (431) to treat the problem ex professo was St. Epiphanius, and he concludes that Mary could have enjoyed immortality or could have suffered either martyrdom or natural death. The ambiguity of SS. Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome point rather to the assumption by Christians that Mary had died than that she was an exception to the law of death to which even Christ had submitted. As history, the apocryphal accounts of transitus Mariae are ambivalent, but they are respectable evidence of a conviction among Christians of the fifth century that Mary had died. And the feast of the Dormition of Mary, documented from the second half of the sixth century in the East (Syrian Jacobite Church) and from the seventh century in the West (in Rome under Pope Sergius I), was in its beginnings a tribute to the anniversary of the death of Maryonly later to become a commemoration of the Assumption as such. For patristic writers the reasons for Mary's death were: (1) she belonged to a fallen human nature (even though sinless herself) and inherited a mortal human body; and (2) she was conformable in all things to Christ, who had chosen the humiliation of death despite His divine holiness.

Scholastic theologians such as St. Bonaventure were to accept these explanations for Mary's death and add: (1) the pertinence of virginity, i.e., that Mary's body, which had maintained its integrity even in childbirth, and which was always in harmony with reason and grace, would have merited assumption after death (e.g., St. Bernardine of Siena); (2) the advantage of Mary's meriting herself, by her own death, the resurrection and glorification, as Christ had done (e.g., St. Thomas Aquinas and Dun Scotus).

Most theologians of our day are mortalists and find that the Holy Father, while not taking an ex officio position on the question of the death of Mary, repeatedly used texts from tradition that refer to or imply Mary's death; but a few writers (Balić, Carol, Coyle, Filograssi) have expressed the opinion that the Pope's not favoring either side has left the question in the same state as it was before the definition.

See Also: mary, blessed virgin i, ii; marian feasts; dormition of the virgin.

Bibliography: pius xiii, "Munificentissimus Deus" (Apostolic Constitution, Nov. 1, 1950) Acta Apostolicae Sedis (Rome 1909) 42 (1950) 753771. Catholic Mind (Eng.) 49 (Jan. 1951) 6578. Thomist 14.1 (1951); the entire issue is on the Assumption. w. burghardt, "The Testimony of the Patristic Age Concerning Mary's Death," Marian Studies 8 (1957) 5899. j. m. egan, "The Doctrine of Mary's Death During the Scholastic Period," ibid., 100124. t. w. coyle, "The Thesis of Mary's Death in the Light of Munificentissimus Deus," ibid., 143166. j. b. carol, ed, Mariology (Milwaukee 195461) 2:461492. f. m. braun, La Mère des fidèles: Essai de théologie johannique (Tournai 1953) 134176. c. x. friethoff, A Complete Mariology, tr. Religious of the Retreat of the Sacred Heart (Westminster, Md. 1958) 143164. m. jugie, "Assomption de la Sainte Vierge," Maria, ed. h. du manoir (Paris 1959) 1:621658. r. laurentin, Queen of Heaven, tr. g. smith (London 1956) 114125. s. mathews, ed., Queen of the Universe (St. Meinrad, Ind. 1957). k. rahner, "The Interpretation of the Dogma of the Assumption," Theological Investigations, tr. c. ernst (Baltimore 1961) 215227.

[j. w. langlinais]