The Case for the Assumption of Mary

By Dr. Robert Stackpole

On Aug. 15 each year, Catholics celebrate a feast day in honor of one of the greatest mysteries of the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary: her bodily Assumption into Heaven. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it:

The Most Blessed Virgin Mary, when the course of her earthly life was completed, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven, where she already shares in the glory of her Son's Resurrection, anticipating the resurrection of all members of His Body (974).

One of our readers named Bernard recently wrote to me and asked if there really was any evidence that Mary was taken to heaven in body and soul upon her death, since the Bible seems to be silent about it, and even the early fathers of the Church say nothing about it. He had just read a book by a Protestant author who called Catholic belief in the Assumption the product of popular "sentiment and myth." So, is it a doctrine we just have to accept with blind faith, because the Church says so, trusting that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit?

Well, yes, Bernard, in discerning such things and defining doctrine the Church is indeed guided by the Holy Spirit, which is why St. Paul calls the Church in 1 Tim 3: 15, "the pillar and bulwark of the truth." You can trust a "pillar and a bulwark"!

Still, it is perfectly legitimate to ask what the signs were that the Church considered when she sought to discern the truth about this matter, and explore how they added up to the final definition of the doctrine by Pope Pius XII in 1950. Besides, it is good to explore the reasons behind the doctrine in case you are ever asked by one of your non-Catholic friends or acquaintances why the Church believes such a thing, remembering the exhortation of St. Peter to "always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet 3: 15).

First of all, while it is true that the early Christian writers do not explicitly mention the Assumption of Mary, there is an ancient and curious silence about her bodily remains that cries out for an explanation. Sometimes, as we say, "silence" can be "deafening." Karl Keating of Catholic Answers writes:

We know that after the crucifixion Mary was cared for by the apostle John (Jn 19:26-27). Early Christian writings say John went to live at Ephesus and that Mary accompanied him. There is some dispute about where she ended her life, perhaps there, perhaps back at Jerusalem. Neither of these cities nor any other claimed her remains, although there are claims about possessing her (temporary) tomb. Why did no city claim the bones of Mary? Apparently because there were no bones to claim, and people knew it.

Remember, in the early Christian centuries, relics of saints were jealously guarded and highly prized. The bones of those martyred in the Colosseum, for instance, were quickly gathered up and preserved; there are many accounts of this in the biographies of those who gave up their lives for the Faith [for example, the bones of St. Peter and St. Paul were widely known to be preserved in Rome, and the sepulcher of David and the tomb of St. John the Baptist are both mentioned in Scripture]. Yet here was Mary, certainly the most privileged of all the saints ... but we have no record of her bodily remains being venerated anywhere.

Explicit mention of the Assumption of Mary begins to appear in highly embellished legendary accounts in the 4th century. We have a slightly more sober account of the event given by St. John Damascene in a copy of a letter he preserved from a 5th century Patriarch of Jerusalem named Juvenalius to the Byzantine Empress Pulcheria. The Empress had apparently asked for relics of the most Holy Virgin Mary. Patriarch Juvenalius replied that, in accordance with ancient tradition, the body of the Mother of God had been taken to heaven upon her death, and he expressed surprise that the Empress was unaware of this fact (implying that it must have been more or less common knowledge in the Church at the time).

Juvenalius joined to this letter an account of how the apostles had been assembled in miraculous fashion for the burial of the Mother of God, and how after the arrival of the apostle St. Thomas, her tomb had been opened, and her body was not there, and how it had been revealed to the apostles that she had been taken to heaven, body and soul. Later, in the 6th century, belief in the Assumption was defended by St. Gregory of Tours, and no saint or father of the Church thereafter disputed the doctrine.

Obviously, these bits of evidence all by themselves (the early and deafening silence about the bones of Mary, and widespread belief in the Assumption manifest among the early Christians of the 4th and 5th centuries, without any dispute of the doctrine among the saints and the fathers) does not prove that the doctrine is true. But the Church believes that because of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the people of God as a whole possess what St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas called an affectio or inclinatio fidei. In other words, an affective inclination that draws them to the truths of the faith. Given that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth, a consensus of the faithful on a matter of divine truth, and especially of the saints (who are full to overflowing with the Holy Spirit), is certainly not to be taken lightly.

Secondly, it is claimed that there is no mention of the Assumption of Mary in Scripture. But I would argue (following the Catholic Biblical scholar and apologist Scott Hahn) that there is, indeed, an allusion to the mystery of the Assumption right in the very place we would most expect to find it if the doctrine were true: namely, in the writings of the Apostle St. John, the one into whose care our Lord placed His Mother at the hour of His death on the Cross , and especially in what may be the last of the New Testament books to be written, a book almost certainly written after Mary's earthly life was over, the Book of Revelation.

In his recent book Hail Holy Queen, Prof. Hahn shows conclusively that the story of the visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth in St. Luke's gospel, chapter one, bears numerous and remarkable similarities to the account in the Old Testament of King David bringing the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6. The similarities are too many to be accidental: St. Luke means to tell us, in his own characteristic way, that Mary herself is the new Ark of the Covenant. Just as the Ark in ancient Israel contained the tables of the Law, and some of the manna-bread from heaven - signs of the Old Covenant - so Mary's womb contained the sign of the promise of the New Covenant and the true Bread of Life: Jesus our Savior Himself. Thus, it was already believed by the apostolic Church that Mary was the new Ark of the Covenant.

Now the old Ark of the Covenant had been lost for many centuries, and none of the Jews knew where it could be found (indeed, it remains missing to this very day). With that in mind, look what we find at the end of chapter 11 of the Book of Revelation:

Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of His covenant was seen within His temple, and there were flashes of lightening, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake and heavy hail.

Wow, what an audio-visual spectacular! The Ark had been found! But look what the Revelation tells us next (and remember: the chapter and verse divisions of the Bible are not part of the original texts: they were inserted centuries later by monks to help us locate Scripture verses more easily, so the following sentence from the start of chapter 12 came directly after the one at the end of chapter 11 in the original manuscripts):

And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child. ... [S]he brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.

Clearly, what St. John was shown in his vision, recorded here in the Book of Revelation, is that the Ark of the Covenant is now in heaven as a "woman clothed with the sun" whose child is the Messiah (who will rule with a "rod of iron," cf. Ps 2:9). Indeed, several of the Church fathers saw this passage as a reference to Mary, the Mother of our Savior, including St. Ephrem the Syrian, St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine. At the same time, many of the Fathers saw the "woman" as a symbol of Israel, and the Church, the New Israel. There are certainly indications that this is also what the woman symbolizes here (e.g., she has a crown of 12 stars on her head, symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel, and the 12 apostles). So which interpretation is correct? Both are correct! (And the ancient Fathers saw no contradiction between them.) It was not uncommon in ancient Jewish literature to use a double-symbol: an historical individual used to symbolize a whole group of people. For example, it is quite likely that the famous passage in Isaiah 53 about the sufferings of the Messiah ("He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief," etc.) are also meant to symbolize the vocation of suffering of the whole people of Israel.

In a similar way, Mary, the Mother of the Church, is used in the book of Revelation to symbolize the fulfillment of the vocation of Israel in the new people of God, who are to bear Christ into the world. It is no wonder that when the Church began to put together liturgical texts for the Feast of the Assumption, she made a connection (first made by several of the ancient Fathers), between Psalm 131:8 and the mystery of the heavenly woman-ark: "Arise, O Lord, and go to Thy resting place, Thou and the ark of Thy might." After the Lord "arose' from the dead, He took with Him into heavenly glory the true "ark" of the New Covenant, the body of His mother Mary. For just as the ancient Israelites believed that the original ark was made from incorruptible wood, so this passage foreshadows the bodily incorruption given to Mary by Her Risen Son.

And if we want further corroboration that the "woman, clothed with the sun" of Revelation 12 was meant to be a symbol of Mary, her body and soul in heavenly glory, have a look sometime at the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, given miraculously by Our Lady to St. Juan Diego in the 16th century, and compare it with the description in the book of Revelation. In a future column we will discuss the evidence for that miracle, and its profound meaning. Suffice it to say here that Catholics can be confident that the Our Lady of Guadalupe and the "woman" of Revelation 12 are one and the same.

However, even all this might not have been enough to lead the Church to define the Assumption of Mary as a truth revealed by God. Something more was needed: what theologians call the analogy of faith. That means that every authentic doctrine revealed by God must be seen to "fit" with every other revealed doctrine. In other words, there must be a harmony among the truths of the faith - and certainly no contradictions between them.

Does the doctrine of Mary's Assumption fit with the Catholic faith as a whole?

Of course, it does.

First of all, it is a natural fit with the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception: that she was preserved from the inheritance of original sin by the merits of her Son's Passion. (By the way, God can do that kind of thing, simply because He has all of time present to Him at once. For example, He took the merits of His Son's Passion and applied them to the patriarchs and prophets of Israel, granting them many graces on that basis. And in the same way, He took the merits of His Son's Passion, and on that basis gave to Mary an outpouring of grace into her soul from the first moment of her existence, to help prepare her for her special future role as Mother of the Savior).

Now, we know from the book of Genesis that one of the results of the Fall of Adam and Eve was that all their descendents became subject to suffering and death. "The wages of sin is death." But Mary did not share in this fallen condition. Rather, her soul was enriched from the moment of her conception with the grace of the life-giving Holy Spirit. As the Ven. John Henry Newman wrote: "Why should she share the curse of Adam, who had no share in his fall?" Thus, our belief in the graced origin of Mary naturally leads us to accept the truth that she was preserved from the curse and indignity of the bodily corruption involved in human death. And, by the way, that is why it was not until the 20th century that the Church became so sure of this doctrine that she proclaimed is a revealed truth from God: because it was not until the 19th century that she became convinced, beyond any reasonable doubt, of the truth of the Immaculate Conception. The one doctrine cleared the way for the other!

Most importantly, the Assumption of Mary is a loud and triumphant proclamation of the full truth of Easter. We sometimes say that the Easter faith, in a nutshell, is that "Christ is Risen." In a certain sense, that is true enough. But the good news that the Apostles proclaimed to the world was not only that Christ is Risen, but that, precisely because He is Risen, He is bringing His whole mystical Body on earth to join Him one day in heavenly glory. That is why St. Peter joyfully proclaims in I Peter 1:3-4:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By His great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you ...

Most of the peoples of the ancient world, if they believed in life after death at all, believed merely in the immortality of the human soul: as if the ultimate human destiny was for us all merely to end up like Casper the friendly Ghost! Not much "good news" in that! But the Gospel message is not only that Jesus Himself rose again in a glorified body and soul, but that also, if our hearts live in union with His, we, too, shall rise to a glorified life, body and soul, just like His own. This is precisely what the Assumption of Mary proclaims: "Christ is Risen - and is now bringing all faithful hearts with Him to glory!" For the sign of this hope to all the Church is that the heart that was closest to His own loving Heart, has already been raised to glory before us. Assumpta est Maria in coeli, gaudete angeli!

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. 



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