The feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s assumption, celebrated on August 15, gives us hope in the 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 St. 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 the Catholic church. The sacred traditions and the magisterium of the church are the basis for faith in Mary’s assumption into heaven.
Catholic church believes and teaches the following dogmas on the Blessed Mother: The Immaculate Conception, Mary as “Mother of God,” Mary’s assumption into Heaven, and Coronation of Mary as Queen of heaven.
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 November 1, 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 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.” (Genesis 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 Kings 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 is unknown. John the Evangelist, to whom Jesus entrusted Mary’s care from the cross, took care of her first in Jerusalem and then in Ephesus. John centered 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.
St. 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. St. 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 body to heaven.
The Feast of the Assumption
The origin of the feast of 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 an ancient church’s dedication built in honor of Mary. Byzantine Emperor Maurice (582 to 602), set August 15th as the date for the feast in his empire. There are churches that 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. St. Paul compares death to a 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,” (Luke 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 assumption to heaven, or was she sleeping at the end of her earthly life, is not clear in the traditions. Whether Mary’s body disappeared before burial or after burial is also uncertain from the tradition. So, Pope Pius XII in his dogma made that 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 St. Thomas
The Bible does not document Mary’s assumption. However, there are varying accounts of it in the widespread belief since the early centuries, legends from the third century, and in the apocryphal books. The Catholic church did not officially approve of 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 writing 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 after Mary’s burial. Thomas witnessed Mary’s assumption into heaven, and he received the girdle of Mary as a proof. When Thomas narrated the story to the other apostles, they were skeptical. So, they opened the grave of Mary and found it empty.
Where is the tomb of Mary?
There are two well-known burial places for Mary where pilgrims visit and pray. The first one is in Jerusalem at the Church of the Sepulcher 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 Sepulcher of St. 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 the Western Turkey. It is a popular Catholic and Muslim shrine now. According to the local Christians, Blessed Mother lived there because St. John the Evangelist was taking care of her. Jesus had entrusted Mary to John before he died on the cross (John 19:25-27). After the ascension of Jesus, Mary went to Asia Minor with John because John’s principal center of evangelization was in Ephesus. Since Mary’s life was also in 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 Sr. 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. Sr. 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 Sr. 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 Sr. Emmerich described. They found the house that matched the description of her vision. Sr. 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 August 15th.
Several popes visited this shrine for prayer: Pope Leo XIII in 1896, Pope Paul VI on July 26, 1967, Pope John Paul II on November 30, 1979, and Pope Benedict XVI on November 29, 2006. Pope John Paul II beatified Sr. Anne Catherine Emmerich on October 3, 2004. 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 favoring it than the church of Sepulcher of St. 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 every on Sunday and other special feasts.
Mary’s Death according to the Visions of Blessed Sr. Emmerich
The following are some revelations on Mary’s life based on the visions of Blessed Emmerich. Mary died at 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 sepulcher 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 prior to 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 sepulcher 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 sepulcher inside the church in honor 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 traveled fast to meet Mary before her death, even with the miraculous interventions. Only Thomas was not at deathbed of Mary because he came late from India.