The final Marian Dogma is that of her Assumption into Heaven. I personally find this Dogma to be rather less controversial than the two that preceded it, though perhaps a bit harder to accept that Mary, Mother of God. Hopefully, then, I'll only need one article to cover what I need to say about it. This last of the Dogmas is the logical extension of Mary's Immaculate Conception, as well as a further sign of our hope in the Final Resurrection. As in previous articles, I'll examine the common objections, and, in so doing, provide the biblical and historical basis for the Doctrine.
Pope Pius XII, in 1950, defined the Dogma of Mary's Assumption thus: "By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: 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" (Munificentissimus Deus, no 44).
That is, at the end of Mary's life, Jesus took her, body and soul, to heaven, just as He will for all of us at the Final Resurrection, and just as God did for Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament. There's an important distinction to be remembered here. Mary was assumed into heaven, unlike Jesus, who ascended to heaven. The difference is this: while Jesus rose to heaven on His own power, because He is God, Mary was brought up to heaven by God, and not by her own power.
This Dogma is a fitting conclusion to that of Mary's Immaculate Conception, for physical death was a consequence of Original Sin. Since Mary herself was free of Original Sin, it was impossible that death should hold her. Whether or not Mary did, in fact, die, is unclear from the definition. The oldest traditions, however, hold that she did. Being free of Original Sin, this death, it seems, would be unnecessary, but Mary chose to die in order to more fully imitate her Son, Jesus.
Answering Common Objections
There are two basic objections to belief in Mary's Assumption: First, it's not mentioned in the Bible, and second, the historical evidence for it comes rather late after the time of the Apostles, and therefore it probably wasn't believed by them. Apparently, some people find these objections so convincing that some Protestant authors, trying to "evangelise" Catholics, can post webpages titled, The Assumption of Mary Refuted! However, as I hope to demonstrate with this article, the given objections do not in any way "refute" the Dogma. In fact, they amount essentially to an "argument from silence", which is the weakest of all arguments.
1. The Assumption is Not in Scripture
As I've said in previous articles on the Marian Dogmas, the belief that, for something to be true or a matter of the Christian faith, it must be contained within Sacred Scripture, is at best erroneous, and at worst, absurd. After all, there are a good many things of great import to the Faith that are not mentioned in the Bible simply because they did not exist at the time of the writing of the Bible, or, if they did, they were simply assumed to be obvious. For example, the Bible has no explicit condemnation of the evil of Abortion, yet the Church has always held that this is gravely sinful. The Bible doesn't condemn outright the belief in Reincarnation, either, because it simply wasn't an issue for those to whom it was written. Thus, the fact that something is not mentioned in the Bible does not make it automatically false or irrelevant. In the case of Mary's Assumption, the simple fact is that it was very likely that the majority of the New Testament texts were already written before the end of Mary's life. St. John's Gospel and his Revelation are the two most probable exceptions, and John's Gospel ends before Jesus' Ascension into Heaven, let alone Mary's Assumption.
According to Dr. Mizzi's article, linked above, he claims that Mary is last mentioned in Acts, as being in the Upper Room at Pentecost. This, however, is not true, or, at the very least, is debatable. The fact is, Revelation 12 very clearly describes a woman in heavenly glory--a woman who gives birth to the Christ-child. Now, who gave birth to Christ? Mary! Thus, the last time Mary is mentioned is in Revelation--and when we encounter her there, she is very clearly described as being in Heaven. The one book of the Bible likely written after Mary's Assumption does very clearly seem to imply that same Assumption.
Objectors will argue that the Woman in Revelation 12 is not Mary, but rather is the Church, or possibly the Israelite people of God. To this I say three things: First, hermeneutically, every other character in the passage refers to definite individuals: the Child is Jesus, the dragon is Satan, etc. Why, then, would we make the Woman a symbol of a group or nation of people--except to avoid the obvious interpretation that the Woman is Mary? Second, how is it that we can say that the Church gave birth to Christ, when clearly it was Christ who established the Church? If the Woman represents the Church, it is only because in Mary the Church finds the full expression of its ideal. Finally, interpreting the Woman to be Israel makes more sense, but it still fails to explain away our first point. Moreover, Mary, a daughter of Israel, encapsulates in herself the faith and expectation of her people, and brings it to fruition in the Incarnation. Thus, if the Woman of Revelation is the Church or the faithful Israelites, it is only a secondary meaning to the primary and obvious interpretation that this Woman is, indeed, Mary.Add to that the fact that the author of Revelation, in his Gospel, consistently refers to Mary as "Woman", and the case is even more sure. As Cardinal Newman put is, "The holy apostle would not have spoken of the Church under this particular image unless there had existed a Blessed Virgin Mary who was exalted on high and the veneration of all the faithful" (Mystical Rose, 20).
Thus we see that Mary's presence in Heaven is related in Scripture. To reply further to the objection that the Assumption is unbiblical, I would point out that the Bible itself gives precedent for the Assumption, in the cases of Enoch (Genesis 5:24; Ecclesiasticus 44:16; Hebrews 11:5) and Elijah the prophet (2 Kings 2:11). If these two men, due to their holiness and service of God, merited a bodily assumption at the end of their lives, how much more the all-holy and fully obedient Mother of God, who gave us Jesus as our salvation?
2. The Lack of Early Christian Witness
Since the lack of biblical testimony has been shown to both be an erroneous claim as well as a meaningless objection, let's turn to the more substantial objection--that the earliest Christians, and thus the Apostles, did not believe in Mary's Assumption. Since Catholic Doctrine claims to go right back to the Apostles, this claim is a bit more serious than the last. And the fact is, the first authoritative teacher of the Early Church to testify to Mary's Assumption in a writing which we have today, is St. Gregory of Tours, who wrote in the sixth century. That's about 400 years between Mary's Assumption and the first Church Father to mention it! Why was it not mentioned sooner, if the Apostles really knew of it and believed in it? The late date, it seems, casts doubt upon the Apostolic origin of this Tradition.
The fact is, however, that there is evidence that predates St. Gregory of Tours' writing. While he is the first Church Father whose writings we have that mention it, that again is an argument from silence, for not everything the Church Fathers taught was written down, and not everything they wrote down has survived to our own times. On the other hand, there are other documents from earlier times that give witness to Mary's Assumption. The difference here is that they are not official writings of Church leaders, but apocryphal accounts. While what they contain may not be utterly true in every regard, they nevertheless show that the tradition of Mary's Assumption can be traced back to the late third or early fourth century, in writings such as Liber Requiei Mariae or "The Book of Mary's Repose", as well as the "Six Books" which contain narratives of Mary's assumption.
Another point verifying the Assumption is the utter lack of Marian relics. The early Church took burial very seriously, laboriously marking out the tombs of saints for veneration, and usually keeping pieces of cloth with the saint's blood on it, or parts of bone, or whatnot, as "sacramentals", which are items which encourage faith and often are means of God's grace for the faithful. Biblically, when a dead man was buried on top of the bones of the prophet Elisha, the man was instantly restored to life. In the New Testament, handkerchiefs blessed by St. Paul were taken to the sick, who would be healed. These things led to the early Church's veneration of relics. That such devotion existed to almost fanatical degree is illustrated in The Martyrdom of Polycarp:
But the jealous and envious Evil One...took care that not even his poor body should be taken away by us, though many desired to do this, and to claim our share in the hallowed relics. Accordingly he put it into the head of Nicetas...to make an application to the Governor not to release the body, 'in case,' he said, 'they should forsake the Crucified and take to worshiping this fellow instead'...Little do they know that it could never be possible for us to abandon the Christ who died for the salvation of every soul that is to be saved in all the world--the Sinless One dying for sinners--or to worship any other. It is to him, as the Son of God, that we give our adoration, while to the martyrs, as disciples and imitators of the Lord, we give the love they have earned by their matchless devotion to their King and Teacher....So after all, we did gather up his bones--more precious to us than jewels and finer than pure gold--and we laid them to rest in a spot suitable for the purpose. There we shall assemble, as occasion allows, with glad rejoicings, and with the Lord's permission we shall celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom (17-18).In AD 451, at the Council of Chalcedon, the Emperor Marcian asked the Patriarch of Jerusalem to bring the relics from Mary's tomb in order that the Council would be more greatly blessed. The Bishop had to reply that such relics did not exist, saying, "Mary had died in the presence of the apostles; but her tomb, when opened later...was found empty and so the apostles concluded that the body was taken up into heaven." This leads us to the final point--that Mary's tomb in Jerusalem is, in fact, empty!
So, again, why the 200 year gap, then, between the earliest witnesses and the Apostles? In AD 135, the Emperor Hadrian had destroyed Jerusalem and rebuilt it as Aelia Capitolina. From that time until the Emperor Constantine, Jerusalem was a pagan city. After Constantine's mother, St. Helena, went there to search for the True Cross, the Church returned and was able to excavate and rebuild the holy shrines on the sacred locations where the Gospels were lived. It was then that Mary's empty tomb was rediscovered, and the testimony of the Apostles regarding Mary's Assumption was remembered and revived.
Conclusion: Overcoming Prejudice and Rejecting the Traditions of Men
After the Council of Ephesus declared that Mary was truly the Mother of God, a wealth of Marian devotion sprung up, and the Feast of Her Assumption (or Dormition, in the East) became the earliest Marian feast day on the Catholic calendar. Since that time, through the writing of St. Gregory of Tours, St. John Damascene, and onward, the Assumption was accepted by the whole Church, and continued to be until the time of the Reformation, when the Protestants rejected it because it had no explicit mention in Scripture. Since, as we have seen, the "refutations" of Dr. Mizzi and other Protestants do not actually demonstrate that the Assumption did not happen, and there is no proof that Mary did, in fact, decompose in her grave, on what basis do Protestants then reject this Catholic teaching?
Moreover, there is nothing in Christian theology--even Protestant theology--that precludes or contradicts the possibility of Mary's Assumption. With no evidence against it, either in Scripture or in history, and with the unanimous historic testimony of Sacred Tradition promoting belief in the Assumption, I submit that the only grounds for rejecting Mary's Assumption are simple prejudice against it and man-made tradition. Let us then embrace the ancient faith of the Church and celebrate Jesus taking His Mother up to Heaven to be with Him, knowing that when He comes again, He will bring us also, body and soul, to the place which He has prepared for us!
(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Mary, Mother of God.)