On 1 November 1950, Pope Pius XII issued the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, in which he proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption: “Mary, the immaculate perpetually Virgin Mother of God, after the completion of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into the glory of heaven.”
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
14 August 2011
Some say the Catholic Church “invented” the dogma of the Assumption; however, the Church does not invent dogma, rather she defines and proclaims God’s revelation as it is contained in the depositum fidei, the original deposit of faith which is guarded and cherished in the living community of the Church, and which is comprised of both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. Simply, the belief in the Assumption is not new but old. In fact, we find evidence for it in the writings of the Church Fathers who helped to hand on the apostolic tradition.
For instance, St. Gregory of Tours wrote of the Assumption in about 590 A.D.: “The course of this life having been completed by the Blessed Mary, . . . [The Lord] commanded that [her holy body] be taken in a cloud into paradise.”
St. John Damascene wrote in the eighth century: The Word of God “was pleased even after [Mary’s] departure from life to honor her immaculate and undefiled body with incorruption and with translation [Assumption] prior to the common and universal resurrection.”
Scripture does not prohibit Mary’s Assumption. Although St. Paul teaches that the bodies of the just will be glorified at the general resurrection, Matthew 27:52-53 allows for an exception for the raising of the dead prior to the general resurrection: After Jesus gave up his spirit on the cross, the “tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many.” Further, the Church has never based her beliefs on Scripture alone (sola scriptura is a doctrine born from the Protestant revolutionaries of the 16th century and, as such, has never been part of the practice of the Church) since both Tradition and Scripture are two modes of God’s singular divine revelation. It is untenable to suggest that Scripture alone contains God’s revelation in its entirety. God revealed himself to his people through deeds and words in history from our first parents forward to the fullness of divine revelation found in Jesus Christ. Divine revelation is handed on both orally (Tradition) and in written form (Scripture).
But why is it important for Christians to understand and believe in the Assumption? First of all, since Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven is dogma it is therefore a matter of Christian faith. Also, contemporary Christians ought to find great joy in embracing that same faith which their brethren held in the patristic era, that faith which is today transmitted in its entirety by the holy Catholic Church.
Second, the “Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians” (CCC 966). “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” (Byzantine Liturgy, Feast of the Dormition).
The logical question is, if Christians of today fail to accept that our Lord Jesus assumed his most precious and holy Mother into heaven, the sweet and sinless Virgin who gave birth to God in the flesh and raised him to manhood, do they truly believe that they themselves will one day be resurrected?
In then Cardinal Ratzinger’s book, God Is Near Us, he points out that, according to statistics, many Christians and churchgoers have given up on the belief in eternal life. There is, too, a difficulty in imagining that God is himself an active agent in history. Consequently, there is often a tendency to dismiss God’s ability to intervene in biological and physical processes (130 ff.).
How much more we find a great sea of doubt concerning the general resurrection. Is part of this problem due to the carelessness which is often shown toward Theotokos, the God-bearer, who brought salvation into the world by giving birth to her Son, and who gave her entire being over to the Father in cooperation with the Holy Spirit?
The general resurrection is certainly a gift of God’s grace. Mary is our mother in the order of grace since she cooperated in a wholly singular way with the Savior’s redemptive work through her unwavering obedience, faith, hope and burning charity (see CCC 968 ff.; Lumen Gentium 61). Mary walks the path of grace and life before us, and thus proceeds the journey of the Church toward eternal beatitude.
This motherhood of Mary in the order of grace continues uninterruptedly from the consent which she loyally gave at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. . . . Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix. (CCC 969)
As we reflect on the Assumption of Mary, we are led into the deeply beautiful truths of God’s love for humankind. In the Virgin Mary, we have the exemplar of our purpose and destiny. Mary, the Mother of God and the Mother of the Church, leads us by her supreme example toward a life of true Christian discipleship. She has forged ahead the path of final beatitude; she beckons us; prays for us; and, as our sweet Virgin Mother, unceasingly guides us with delicate and beautiful hands toward that place where she herself resides: eternal, unending joy in the face-to-face vision of God.
What God has promised on the last day for those he loves, he has already accomplished in the Virgin Mary. Let us turn to Mary and love her as our spiritual Mother in the order of grace; let us open our hearts to her Immaculate Heart, that she may illuminate her Son all the more in our lives, guiding us toward orthodoxy and unity, and instilling through her intercession a lively and burning faith within our hearts.
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Photo Credit: Charles Le Brun [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
This post was updated on 8-15-2018 to include information on Tradition and sola scriptura.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.