"Blessed be her glorious Assumption"
1. A theological climate which is reluctant to admit the physicality of the Resurrection of Christ Our Lord is hardly likely to be much interested in, still less concerned with, the Bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven. The Solemnity of the Assumption celebrates Mary’s being taken (assumed) in her Body-Person into the glory of heaven. There, along with her Son in His glorified humanity, Mary now enjoys that fulfilment which we, all of us, in our degree, so we hope and pray, will one day attain to. “Heaven,” then, is the place, rather than merely a state, where Mary and her Son are. Nor is there any absolute reason to exclude all others from such a place; indeed, the text of Matt. 27:52 would seem to indicate that, in the case of certain others also, the Final Resurrection of the dead had also been anticipated.
2. The term used to describe this last great grace and privilege of Mary is Assumptio(n); the connotations of this word are passive: Mary is taken up, whereas in the case of Christ we speak of His Ascensio(n), a word which has active connotations: Christ ascended into heaven by His own power, just as He - the God-Man - rose by His own power (cf. St. Thomas, S.Th., III, 53, 4). The choice of word is significant and has its history (cf. J. Duhr, The Glorious Assumption, 1951, p. 54 ff.).
3. This distinction - between Ascension and Assumption - should obviate any suggestion that Catholic piety, in proclaiming the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, is in some way putting her on a level with Christ her Son. Here, as ever, Mary is the humble recipient and subject of God’s grace; whereas Christ is Himself the source and origin of grace.
4. It is especially argued by some that there is nothing in Sacred Scripture, in the New Testament, which describes or refers to the Assumption of Mary. This is true in itself so far as explicit testimony is concerned, but then there are other doctrines and dogmas of faith for which there is little direct evidence, such at least as might strike the casual reader, in Sacred Scripture. It is relevant to recall here what Newman wrote long ago in his Apologia: “[It is] a proposition self-evident as soon as stated, that the sacred scripture was never intended to teach doctrine, we must have recourse to the formularies of the Church, for instance to the Catechism, and to the Creeds. ... after learning from them the doctrines of Christianity, the inquiry must verify them by Scripture” (Fontana Books ed., 1959, p. 102). The Church, especially in her liturgy, over the centuries has read the doctrine of the Assumption in several texts, especially the Book of Revelation, (11:19, 12:1 ff).
5. Like the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, this of the Assumption developed only slowly, in this case largely because of the authority accorded some supposed patristic writings (particularly a sermon attributed to St. Jerome) which opposed the belief (cf. L. Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 1960, p. 210). Subsequent historical studies have shown these writings not to be the work of the authors to whom they were attributed.
Though he does not directly treat of the Assumption in the Summa, St. Thomas touches on this doctrine, incidentally as it were and in passing, as illustration of some other point of doctrine (cf. III, 27, 1; 83, 5 ad 8). in his Exposition of the Hail Mary, however, he declares himself clearly in its favour.
6. Some of today’s Catholics may have the impression that the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a relatively new doctrine. It is relatively new as defined dogma (Pius XII, 1950), but the doctrine itself has been Catholic belief from the early ages of Christianity and has grown steadily in its acceptance throughout the centuries: in the early Scholastic period it was “piously believed;” by the end of the 15th Century its denial or rejection was considered to be “temerarious;” Suarez (17th C) says “No pious Catholic can put it in doubt or deny without rashness;” and St. Alphonsus Liguori argues from the Assumption to the Immaculate Conception as from the more evident to the less (cf. Duhr, ibid., pp. 66-70).
7. The object of the dogma and of the liturgical Solemnity is Mary’s having been taken up into heaven (what in theological terms is called in facto esse); it is not a celebration of an historical event as it happened (which would be termed in fieri). The Liturgy does not celebrate what is called the Transitus (the Passing from Life) of Mary. This latter idea, which is much embellished in legend and in art, presents the Assumption so to speak in concrete terms; how Mary dies, how the Apostles assemble for her entombment, how the tomb is opened a little later for the sake of St. Thomas who had arrived late, and how the Apostles had sight of Mary being taken to heaven while, at the same time, she drops a cincture as relic and proof of her transitus, her crossing into heaven. None of this is repugnant to faith but it is not the subject of the dogma; the Solemnity commemorates what I have called the Assumption in facto esse - that Mary now in her Body/Person is with Christ her Son in His own glorified humanity in heaven.
8. Theological reflection offers strong a priori argumentation to support the dogma, the chief of which is that Our Lady’s Assumption is the corollary of her Immaculate Conception and of her Perpetual Virginity:
a) Since Mary was conceived without Original Sin she does not suffer its consequences, one of which is the corruption of the body in the grave;
b) since Mary conceived Christ virginally, gave birth to Him miraculously, and remained ever a Virgin, it is not fitting that a body so sanctified should see corruption.
Pope Alexander III (1169) wrote “Mary conceived without shame, gave birth without pain, and has departed from earth without undergoing the corruption of the tomb, thus proving - according to the word of the angel - that she was full of grace and nothing less.” (Duhr, ibid., p. 59; cf. Denzinger-Schoenmetzer, 1963, no. 748).
This type of a priori argumentation is persuasive and convincing to those who accept the premises; but, again, in an era when even Catholic theologians flirt with the idea that neither the Perpetual Virginity of Mary nor even her Virginal Conception of Christ are “central doctrines” of revelation and Catholic faith, these arguments will hardly move many.
9. Finally, however, the dogma of the Bodily Assumption of Mary might be considered to be more than ever relevant today when the human body is so often and so grossly degraded: not only by its abuse through the drug culture and by the exploitation and degradation of its sexual attractions, but by the whole hedonistic, materialistic culture in which we live, in which the body dominates the soul. Our mortal bodies, like Mary’s, are destined for their share in eternal glory.
10. To conclude, I know of no better presentation for a popular audience of this sublime dogma than is to be found in the pages of the Venerable John Henry Newman where he touches on it (see box).
nd therefore she died in private. It became Him who died for the world, to die in the world's sight; it became the Great Sacrifice to be lifted up on high, as a light that could not be hid. But she, the lily of Eden, who had always dwelt out of the sight of man, fittingly did she die in the garden's shade, and amid the sweet flowers in which she had lived. Her departure made no noise in the world. The Church went about her common duties, preaching, converting, suffering; there were persecutions, there was fleeing from place to place, there were martyrs, there were triumphs: at length the rumour spread abroad that the Mother of God was no longer upon earth. Pilgrims went to and fro; they sought for her relics, but they found them not; did she die at Ephesus? or did she die at Jerusalem? reports varied; but her tomb could not be pointed out, or if it was found, it was open; and instead of her pure and fragrant body, there was a growth of lilies from the earth which she had touched. So, inquirers went home marvelling, and waiting for further light. And then it was said how that when her dissolution was at hand, and her soul was to pass in triumph before the judgment seat of her Son, the Apostles were suddenly gathered together in one place, even in the Holy City, to bear part in the joyful ceremonial; how that they buried her with fitting rites; how that the third day, when they came to the tomb, they found it empty, and angelic choirs with their glad voices were heard singing day and night the glories of their risen Queen. But, however we feel towards the details of this history (nor is there anything in it which will be unwelcome or difficult to piety), so much cannot be doubted, from the consent of the whole Catholic world and the revelations made to holy souls, that as is befitting, she is, soul and body, with her Son and God in heaven, and that we are enabled to celebrate not only her death, but her Assumption."
(John Henry Cardinal Newman, Discourses to Mixed Congregations, pp. 375-8; cited in J. Regina, ed., The Mystical Rose, St. Pauls Editions, 1960, pp. 91-94.)
Brother Christian Moe, FSC is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.
This article posted November 1997. It was published in Universitas, Vol 1 (1997), No. 2.
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