Assumption of Mary

FEAST OF ASSUMPTION OF BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
August 15

INTRODUCTION

The feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrated on August 15, is a feast that gives us hope in the life after death. It is appropriate that Mary, who carried Jesus in her womb for more than nine months before his birth in the world, be free from original sin and be free from bodily corruption after death. The story of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother is also associated with the story of St. Thomas who is believed to have 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 to 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 Catholic Church (Magisterium) are three pillars of the Catholic church. The faith in the Assumption of the Mary into heaven is based mainly on the sacred traditions and the magisterium of the church.

Catholic church believes and teaches the following dogmas on the Blessed Mother: The Immaculate Conception, Mary as “Mother of God”, the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, and Coronation of Mary as Queen of heaven.

Though the belief in the Assumption of Mary was prevalent from the early centuries after her death, it was officially declared as a dogma of the church by Pope Pius XII 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 various 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 who were taken from this world without death.

The end of life of Jared’s son Enoch who lived 365 years is given in Genesis 5:24 as: “Enoch walked with God, and he was no longer here, for God took him.” (Genesis 5:23-24). Hebrews 11:5 clarifies: “By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and ‘he was found no more because God had taken him.’ Before he was taken up, he had pleased God by his faith in action.

The end of life of Prophet Elijah is given thus: “As they (Elijah and Elisha) walked on still conversing, a fiery chariot and fiery horses came between the two of them, and Elijah went 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 Mary was also taken up to heaven.

The Date and Place of Assumption  

The exact date or place of assumption of Mary is unknown. John the Evangelist, to whom Jesus entrusted the care of Mary from the cross, took care of her first in Jerusalem and then in Ephesus. John was preaching mainly in Ephesus. Scholars consider that Mary might have lived three to 15 years after the Ascension of Jesus. Jerusalem and Ephesus have holy places considered as the burial place of Mary.

St. John of Damascus presented the tradition of the church of Jerusalem as follows: The Roman emperor Marcian and 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. Since St. Thomas came late, the tomb of Mary was opened 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 or selecting August 15th for the annual feast celebration are uncertain. Since the date of death or assumption of Mary, is unknown, the date for the celebration of the feast might be based on the anniversary of the dedication of any ancient church in honor of Mary. The feast was celebrated in August in some churches and in January in other churches. It is believed that Byzantine Emperor Maurice (582 to 602), set August 15th as the date for the feast in his empire. Some historians claim that the feast was widespread even before the Council of Ephesus in 431. This feast is known in the East as “dormition” and in the west as “the Assumption.”

Dormition of Mary

The death of Mary is known also as “Dormition” which mean “sleep” in Latin. St. Paul compares death to sleep in his first letter to Thessalonians (4:13-15). He states those who have died in Christ will rise at his second coming. So, our death shall also be considered as a sleep in Christ awaiting to rise at the second coming of Christ. However, the dormition of Mary is presented differently as a prelude to her assumption into heaven.

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 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 from the tradition. Whether Mary’s body disappeared before burial or after burial is also not certain from the tradition. That is why 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.” Mary’s death or burial is not specified as an article of faith in the dogma.

The Legend on Assumption and St. Thomas

The assumption of Mary is not given in the Bible. However, it was a popular belief in the early centuries and recorded in apocryphal books and legends from the third century with variations in the accounts. They are not approved by church as official teachings.

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 burial, he asked to open the grave of Mary to have a last look at her. When they opened the grave, the body was not there. According to some accounts, Mary appeared to Apostle Thomas and give him her girdle (cincture).

According to “The Passing of Mary,” a writing attributed to Joseph of Arimathea, when Mary was about to die, all the Apostles except Thomas were miraculously transported to Jerusalem to witness her death. Thomas, who was in India, was also transported to the tomb of Mary after her burial. Thomas witnessed the assumption of Mary 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. The Eastern Christian belief is that Mary had a natural death (dormition), Christ received her soul at her death, her body was buried in Jerusalem, on the third day her body and soul were taken up to heaven. So, her tomb was found empty on the third day. Mary’s empty tomb is now displayed in the church of Sepulcher of St. Mary in Jerusalem.

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 local Christians, Blessed Mother lived there because she was under the protection of St. John the Evangelist to whom Jesus entrusted Mary when he died on the cross (John 19:25-27). After the ascension of Jesus, Mary went to Asia Minor with John because John’s main center of evangelization was in Ephesus. Since, Mary’s life was also in threat, John settled her in a small stone house outside the city of Ephesus in a mountainous forest area. Local devoted women also lived around her house and took care of Mary while John was active in preaching the gospel and leading the early church.

This local tradition is supported by the finding of a stone house based on the visions of a Catholic mystic and Augustinian nun Anne Catherine Emmerich. She 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 the vision of St. Emmerich. He published a book after her death based on his interview of the visionary. Emmerich, who never left Germany, described the exact location of a small stone house in an isolated hill area near Ephesus, where Mary lived and died according to her vison.

In 1891, a research team followed the route described by Sr. Emmerich and discovered the house that matched the description of her vision. They observed that the local people believed and revered that place, especially on August 15th, as the residence and place of assumption of Mary. Sr. Emmerich also said that Mary was buried near the house. No grave of Mary is found there.

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. Holy Mass is offered there every Sunday and on other special feasts.

Mary’s Death according to the Visions of Blessed Sr. Emmerich

The following are some of the revelations on the life of Mary 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 Sion, 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.

The vision description of Blessed Emmerich 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 her living in Ephesus. During that trip with Apostles Peter and John, she visited all the holy places. She went to Jerusalem again 18 months prior to her death. She became very weak during her journey through “Via Dolorosa.” She was seriously sick for several days and often suffered from fainting attacks. Thinking that 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 sepulcher in Jerusalem was kept in honor of Mary. Some people misunderstood it as her tomb.

Mary lived 14 (13) years and two months after the ascension of Jesus. Jesus had promised Mary that she would have the presence of the apostles and other disciples at her deathbed. Before the death of Mary, apostles who were preaching in different parts of the world had visions to visit Mary. They traveled fast to meet Mary before her death even with miraculous interventions. Only Thomas was not at deathbed of Mary because he came late from India.

 Message

1. The feast if the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the celebration of our hope of reaching heaven after death. 

2. Jesus received the body and soul of his mother Mary. He is waiting for us to fulfill our mission so that 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 her mission that God entrusted her by taking care of Jesus and supporting him in his mission. After the ascension of Jesus, Mary continued to serve the church founded by her son, especially by supporting the disciples of Jesus. Let us also realize and fulfill the mission entrusted to us by God.

4. Mary appeared several times in several 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.