All About the Assumption of Mary
Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Definition and Summary
The Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known as the Feast of the Dormition (falling asleep) of Mary in Eastern Churches, commemorates Mary's assumption into heaven at the end of her life.
Prayers: Assumption Prayers
Liturgical Color(s): White
Type of Holiday: Solemnity, Holy Day of Obligation (West); Feast (East)
Time of Year: August 15
Duration: One day
Celebrates/Symbolizes: The Blessed Virgin Mary's assumption into heaven
Alternate Names: "Dormition" or "Falling Asleep" of the Theotokos, Koimesis (sleep), Analepsis (translation), Marymass, Saint Mary's Day
Scriptural References: 1 Chronicles 15:3-4, 15-16, 16:1-2; Revelation 12:1-17
"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." With these words, from his apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus in 1950, Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption of Mary to be Catholic dogma. In this pronouncement, which was infallible, he was officially stating what the Church, East and West, had believed for hundreds of years. The Catechism of the Catholic Church further explains:
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son's Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians (966).
The Catechism then quotes from the Troparion of the Feast of the Dormition from the Byzantine Liturgy:
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. (966)
This means that the Assumption of Mary is not only a participation in the resurrection of Jesus, but a preview of our future resurrections through the same Son. As such, the dogma of Mary's Assumption is firmly rooted in the actions and person of Christ, and in the virtue of Christian hope.
There is very little evidence related to the assumption of Mary in the earliest Gospels and traditions. The earliest known references to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary appear in the fourth (or possibly late third) century in Liber Requiei Mariae (The Book of Mary's Repose), and in the writings of a Bishop Meliton. Some of the Church Fathers believed that the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) was assumed while still alive, but majority view was that she was assumed after she had died. Both views are permitted under the infallible definition of Pius XII, which is ambiguous.
Saint John of Damascus (d. AD 755) relates a tradition where, during the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), the emperor Marcian and his wife wished to find the body of Mary. He tells how all the apostles had seen her death, but her tomb was empty upon inspection.
Festivals commemorating the death of Mary were common from the fifth century onwards, although the exact dates were never universally fixed. In AD 556 the patriarch of Alexandria, Theodosius, attests to two popular Marian feasts in Egypt: Mary's death (January 16) and Assumption (August 9). Theodosius understood Mary to have died before being assumed, and according to the feast dates in Egypt at the time, she was assumed 206 days after her death. In AD 600, the emperor Mauricius decreed that the Assumption was to be celebrated on August 15. Soon, the Church in Ireland adopted this date, and it was later introduced in Rome.
As devotion of Mary grew in the West, there was more pressure for the Catholic Church to define the exact nature of the Assumption. Pope Pius did this in 1950, in terms that are still rather general, and can be accepted by Western Catholics, Eastern Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox.
The Orthodox Church teaches that the Virgin Mary died a fully human death before being assumed, and celebrates the feast accordingly. Most Church Fathers and Christians throughout history have held this view. According to various traditions known in the East, Saint Thomas was not around when Mary passed away, just as he was absent when Jesus was raised from the dead. Because he was three days late to Mary's funeral, he requested to see Mary's body. However, when her tomb was opened, her body was not there.
This is not viewed as a resurrection like her Son's, but as the first fruits of our own bodily resurrection. In one of the most complicated of Christian Hymns (utilizing all eight tones) the Orthodox are shown the story of her journeying to heaven as her funeral procession. The apostles act as her pall-bearers. As she arrives in heaven, she is the first given the task of all the glorified saints, that of praying for us to her Son and our Lord. As a part of the interior mysteries of the Orthodox Church, the Assumption is not a point of dogma or debate, yet it is a commonly accepted belief among Orthodox Christians. Even as the faithful bury the Theotokos and see her translated to a life of intercession, we are reminded that it is through her that the Word was made flesh (many thanks to Steven Clark for this information).
Protestants have overwhelmingly rejected the Assumption of Mary theologically and devotionally, probably because it is not explicitly spelled out in the bible. Many Reformation denominations (like Anglicanism and Lutheranism) have set aside August 15 as a day to commemorate the Blessed Virgin Mary, although without the explicit context of the Assumption. However, the Assumption of Mary is an ancient belief certainly fitting the honor of the one chosen to bear the Son of God. This dogma is solidly within the biblical tradition of holy and unique individuals being taken bodily to heaven (like Elijah and Enoch). She who is "Mother of the Lord," "full of grace," and whom "all generations shall call blessed" is certainly worthy of this honor. Church Father John of Damascus describes the importance of celebrating the Assumption quite well:
Let us then also keep the solemn [Assumption] feast today to honour the joyful departure of God's Mother...Thus, recognizing God's Mother in this Virgin, we celebrate her falling asleep, not proclaiming her as God - far be from us these heathen fables - since we are announcing her death, but recognizing her as the Mother of the Incarnate God...Let us honour her in nocturnal vigil; let us delight in her purity of soul and body, for she next to God surpasses all in purity...Let us show our love for her by compassion and kindness towards the poor...Let our souls rejoice in the Ark of God...With Gabriel, the great archangel, let us exclaim, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Hail, inexhaustible ocean of grace. Hail, sole refuge in grief. Hail, cure of hearts. Hail, through whom death is expelled and life is installed" (Sermon II: On the Assumption).
Traditions, Symbols, and Typology
Traditions: Dedicating the "new" bread to the BVM at Harvest Festivals, Blessing of medicinal plants to be used during the year (source)
Symbols: Mary borne by angels and/or being crowned, empty tomb, clouds, lily, crown
Old Testament Typology Foreshadowing the Assumption of Mary: The Assumption of Elijah (2 Kings 2:1-11), the Assumption of Enoch (Genesis 5:24, Hebrews 11:5), the Ark of the Covenant (the Fathers called Mary the "new ark")
Frequently Asked Questions
1. How can the Assumption of Mary be true if it was not made dogma until 1950? First, it is important to note that neither the Catholic Church nor the Orthodox Churches believe in the concept of sola scriptura, the 16th century Protestant concept that doctrines must be proven from Scripture alone. So, just because the Assumption of Mary is not explicitly found in Scripture does not mean it is problematic. Second, just because a belief was officially made dogma in 1950 doesn't mean that the belief was not true beforehand, nor that it was "invented" in 1950. Widespread belief in the Assumption of Mary goes back at least to the fourth century, and the titles and honors given to Mary that led to the dogma unfolding (e.g., "New Eve," "Full of Grace," and "New Ark of the Covenant") go back to the time of the Apostles and early Church Fathers.
Truth unfolds, or rather, the implications and hows and whys of certain truths unfold. It took a hundred years after Jesus' birth for a Gospel clearly outlining Jesus' divinity to appear, even though the earliest Gospels hint at Jesus having the authority and attributes of God. It was over 300 years after Jesus' birth when the Trinity was clearly defined, even though Christians had been baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit since apostolic times. This delay in dogmatizing the Trinity does not mean that God was not a Trinity until AD 325, or that the early Christians did not believe in some type of Divine Triad. Rather, over time, with reflection and with the aid of the Holy Spirit, the Church comes to deeper understandings of certain truths. Thus, later enunciations of certain truths will be more complex than earlier explanations. Vatican II explains the development like this:
The tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts, through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For, as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her" (Dei Verbum 8).
So, just because the Assumption was not made dogma until 1950 does not lessen the importance of the feast, or render the dogma unbelievable. The reason Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption to be dogma was because so many people believed in it and cherished it, not becasue he wished to invent something new.
This page written by David Bennett and Jonathan Bennett.