The feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s assumption, celebrated on August 15, gives us hope in life after death. It is appropriate that Mary, who carried Jesus in her womb for over nine months, be free from original sin and bodily corruption after death. The belief of the Blessed Mother’s assumption has a link to the story of Saint Thomas. Many believe that Thomas had witnessed the assumption of Mary. In the “Hail Mary” prayer we conclude reciting, “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” May our devotion to Mary help us attain heaven with the help of her son, Jesus.
Catholic Teaching on the Assumption
Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the teaching authority of the Church (Magisterium) are the three pillars of Catholic doctrine. The sacred traditions and the magisterium of the church are the basis for faith in Mary’s assumption into heaven.
The Catholic Church believes and teaches the following dogmas on the Blessed Mother: The Immaculate Conception, Mary as “Mother of God,” Perpetual Virginity, and Mary’s assumption into Heaven. The coronation of Mary as Queen of heaven is the traditional Catholic belief echoed in the fifth of the Glorious Mysteries of the rosary.
Though the belief in Mary’s assumption was prevalent from the early centuries after her death, Pope Pius XII declared it as a dogma of the church on 1 November 1950, by an Apostolic
Constitution “Munificentissimus Deus.” The document says: “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” (n. 44).
Biblical Background for Assumption
Because of the variety of traditions in the East and West, Pope Pius XII in his dogma on the Assumption did not specify whether Mary underwent human death or any other details of her assumption. There were Biblical persons whom God took from this world without death.
Genesis 5:24 gives Jared’s son Enoch’s end of life at an age of 365 years: “In all, Enoch lived three hundred and sixty-five years. After Enoch had walked with God, he disappeared because God took him up” (Gen 5:23-24). Hebrews 11:5 clarifies: “By faith Enoch was taken up to heaven so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him. Scripture says that before Enoch was taken up to heaven, he had pleased God.”
The Bible describes Prophet Elijah’s end of life: “As they (Elijah and Elisha) were walking along talking on the way, a chariot of fire with horses of fire stood between them, and Elijah was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind” (2 Kgs 2:11). Mary, the mother of the Redeemer, was more pleasing to God than Enoch and Elijah, and so it is reasonable that God took Mary to heaven.
The Date and Place of Assumption
The exact date and place of Mary’s assumption are unknown. John the Evangelist, to whom Jesus entrusted his mother from the cross, took care of her first in Jerusalem and then in Ephesus. John centred his preaching in Ephesus. Scholars consider that Mary might have lived three to 15 years after the ascension of Jesus. Jerusalem and Ephesus have designated burial places of Mary.
Saint John of Damascus presented the tradition of the church of Jerusalem: The Roman emperor Marcian and his wife Pulcheria wished to possess the body of Mary. Saint Juvenal, the then bishop of Jerusalem informed the emperor at the Council of Chalcedon (451), that Mary died in the presence of all the apostles, except Thomas. Since he came late, the Christian community opened Mary’s tomb for him at his request. However, the tomb was empty, and the apostles concluded that God took her bodily into heaven.
The Feast of the Assumption
The origin of the feast of the Assumption and the reason for the selection of August 15th as the annual feast day are uncertain. Since the date of Mary’s assumption was unknown, the church might have selected the date of the dedication of an ancient Marian shrine. Byzantine Emperor Maurice (582 to 602), set the 15 August as the date for the feast in his empire. Some churches celebrate this feast in January. Some historians assert that the feast was widespread even before the Council of Ephesus in 431. The Eastern churches call this feast as “the dormition” and the Western church as “the Assumption.”
Dormition of Mary
“Dormition” means “sleep” in Latin. Saint Paul compares death to sleep in his first letter to Thessalonians (4:13-15). He states that those who have died in Christ will rise at his second coming. So the Christians believe their death as sleep in Christ awaiting to rise at his second coming. However, they consider Mary’s death as a prelude to her assumption into heaven. So, Eastern churches consider Mary’s death as dormition.
Unlike other humans, Mary was “Full of Grace” (Lk 1:28) and free from original sin. So, she was free from personal sin and corruption of the body that are consequences of original sin. Whether Mary died before her bodily entry into heaven or was she in a deep sleep at the end of her earthly life, is not clear in the traditions. Whether Mary’s body disappeared before the burial or after the burial is also uncertain from tradition. So, Pope Pius XII in his dogma left that question open by stating: “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.” The Pope did not specify Mary’s death or burial as an article of faith in the dogma.
The Legend on Assumption and Saint Thomas
The Bible does not document Mary’s assumption. However, there are varying accounts of the widespread belief since the early centuries, legends from the third century, and in the apocryphal books. The Catholic Church did not officially approve these.
According to the tradition of the Orthodox Church, when Mary went into dormition, the apostles buried her in Jerusalem. Thomas could not attend the funeral because he came late. When he arrived on the third day after the burial, he asked to open Mary’s grave to have a last look at her. When they opened the grave, the body was not there. Some accounts state that Mary appeared to Apostle Thomas and gave him her girdle (cincture).
According to “The Passing of Mary,” a text attributed to Joseph of Arimathea, when Mary was about to die, the angels transported all the apostles except Thomas to Jerusalem to witness her death. Since Thomas was in India, he reached there much after Mary’s burial. Thomas witnessed Mary’s assumption into heaven, and he received the girdle of Mary as proof. When Thomas narrated the story to the other apostles, they were sceptical. So, they opened the grave of Mary and found it empty.
Where is the tomb of Mary?
There are two presumed tombs of Mary where pilgrims visit and pray. The first one is in Jerusalem at the Church of the Sepulchre of Saint Mary. The Eastern Christians claim this as the burial place in the Kidron Valley at the foot of Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. According to the Eastern Christian belief, Mary had a natural death (dormition). Christ received her soul at her death.
The Christian community buried her body in Jerusalem. On the third day, God took her body and soul to heaven. So, her tomb was empty on the third day. The church of Sepulchre of Saint Mary in Jerusalem displays Mary’s empty tomb in that church.
Another site believed to be the burial place of Mary is “Mother Mary’s House” on Mount Koressos outside the ancient city of Ephesus in Western Turkey. It is a popular Catholic and Muslim shrine now. According to the local Christians, the Blessed Mother lived there because Saint John the Evangelist was taking care of her. Jesus had entrusted Mary to John before he died on the cross (Jn 19:25-27). After the ascension of Jesus, Mary went to Asia Minor with John because John’s principal centre of evangelization was in Ephesus. Since Mary’s life was also under threat, John settled her in a compact stone house outside the city of Ephesus in a mountainous forest area. Local devoted women also lived around Mary’s house and took care of her while John was active in preaching the gospel and leading the early church.
Visions of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich
The finding of a stone house based on the visions of a Catholic mystic and Augustinian nun Anne Catherine Emmerich supports Ephesus as Mary’s burial place. Sister Emmerich lived in Germany from 1774 until 1824 and bedridden for many years because of her sickness. She had many visions on the life of Jesus and Mary. A German poet Clemens von Brentano spent five years interviewing and recording Sister Emmerich’s vision. He published a book after her death based on his interview with the visionary. Emmerich had never left Germany. Based on her vision, she described the exact location of a compact stone house in an isolated hill area near Ephesus, where Mary lived and died.
In 1891, a research team followed the route Sister Emmerich described. They found the house that matched the description of her vision. Sister Emmerich also said that Mary’s burial was near the house. However, no one could find Mary’s grave there. The research team observed that the local people believed and revered that place, as the residence and place of the assumption of Mary. They have a special observance of assumption on 15 August.
Several Popes visited this shrine for prayer: Pope Leo XIII in 1896, Pope Paul VI on 26 July 1967, Pope John Paul II on 30 November 1979, and Pope Benedict XVI on 29 November 2006. Pope John Paul II beatified Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, on 3 October 2004. The Catholic Church has not officially declared the house in Ephesus as the house of Mary because of the lack of scientific evidence. However, the church is now reportedly favouring it over the church of Sepulchre of Saint Mary in Jerusalem. Pope Pius XII elevated the house of Mary in Ephesus in 1951 to the status of a Holy Place. Pope John XXIII declared it as a permanent Holy Place. Thousands of Christian and Muslim pilgrims now visit and pray there. Priests offer Holy Mass there on every Sunday and other special feasts.
Mary’s Death according to the Visions of Blessed Sister Emmerich
The following are some revelations on Mary’s life based on the visions of Blessed Emmerich. Mary died at the age of 64. After the Ascension of Jesus, Mary lived three years on Mount Zion, three years in Bethany and nine years near Ephesus. Several Christian women had settled near her house, and they were her close friends. They settled here in caves and huts to escape from severe religious persecution in Ephesus. Only Mary’s house was built with stones.
Blessed Emmerich’s vision also gives a justification for the sepulchre of Mary in Jerusalem. While Mary was living in Ephesus, she made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three years after living in Ephesus. During that trip with the Apostles Peter and John, she visited all the holy places. She went to Jerusalem again 18 months before her death. Mary became very weak during her journey through “Via Dolorosa.” She was sick for several days and often suffered from fainting attacks. Thinking her end was near, the apostles ordered a beautiful sepulchre for Mary at a cave in the Mount of Olives. However, Mary recovered from her sickness and returned to Ephesus. The church in Jerusalem kept the sepulchre inside the church in honour of Mary. Some people misunderstood it as her tomb.
Mary lived 14 years and two months after the ascension of Jesus. Jesus had promised Mary that she would have the apostles and other disciples at her deathbed. Before the death of Mary, the apostles who were preaching in various parts of the world had visions to visit Mary. They travelled quickly to meet Mary before her death, some even with miraculous interventions. Only Thomas was not at the deathbed of Mary because he came late from India.
1. The feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s assumption is the celebration of our hope of reaching heaven after our death.
2. Jesus received the body and soul of his mother, Mary, into Heaven. He is waiting for us to fulfil our mission so he and his mother can receive us in heaven. Jesus will raise us from the dead and present us to his Father in heaven at his second coming.
3. Mary fulfilled the mission that God entrusted to her by taking care of Jesus and supporting him in his mission. After the ascension of Jesus, Mary continued to serve the church, especially by supporting his disciples. Let us also realize and fulfil the mission God has entrusted to us.
4. Mary appeared a few times in various places after her assumption, reminding Christians to turn away from sin and be faithful to her son. Let us remember her message for the renewal of our spiritual life.
5. We recite the “Hail Mary” prayer several times a day in which we request Mary to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” May our devotion to the Blessed Mother help us attain heaven with the help of her son, Jesus.