The Assumption of Mary
August 15 is the day that Catholics have long celebrated what is called the Dormition (falling asleep) or Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The Feast of the Assumption celebrates both the happy departure of Mary from this life by her natural death, and her assumption bodily into heaven. Along with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8) the Assumption is a principal feast of the Blessed Virgin and a Holy Day of Obligation -- one of the most important feasts of the Church year.
The idea of the assumption of Mary into heaven after her death is first expressed in narratives of the fifth and sixth centuries. Even though these were never official, they bear witness to the very early belief in a teaching of the Catholic Church which was not formally defined as a dogma (a teaching essential to the Catholic faith) until 1950.
Though it was almost universally believed for more than a thousand years, the Bible contains no clear mention of the assumption of Mary into heaven, but there are indications of her assumption found in the Book of Apocalypse / Revelation 11:19-12:1 - “And the temple of God was opened in heaven: and the ark of his testament was seen in his temple, and there were lightnings, and voices, and an earthquake, and great hail. And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.”
On May 1, 1946, Pope Pius XII, asked all bishops in the world whether they thought this belief in the assumption of Mary into heaven should be defined as a proposition of faith, and whether they with their clergy and people desired the definition. Almost all the bishops replied in the affirmative.
On November 1, 1950, the Feast of All Saints, Pope Pius XII declared as a dogma revealed by God that "Mary, the immaculate perpetually Virgin Mother of God, after the completion of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into the glory of Heaven".
In Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII cited various Church Fathers to trace the longstanding tradition of the belief of the Assumption--St. John Damascene, St. Andrew of Crete, St. Modestus of Jerusalem and St. Gregory of Tours, to name a few. Bishop Theoteknos of Livias (c. 550- 650) delivered one of the most comprehensive early sermons concerning the Assumption: "For Christ took His immaculate flesh from the immaculate flesh of Mary, and if He had prepared a place in heaven for the Apostles, how much more for His mother; if Enoch had been translated and Elijah had gone to heaven, how much more Mary, who like the moon in the midst of the stars shines forth and excels among the prophets and Apostles? For even though her God-bearing body tasted death, it did not undergo corruption, but was preserved incorrupt and undefiled and taken up into heaven with its pure and spotless soul."
St. John Damascene (d. 749) also recorded an interesting story concerning the Assumption: "St. Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, at the Council of Chalcedon (451), made known to the Emperor Marcian and Pulcheria, who wished to possess the body of the Mother of God, that Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles, but that her tomb, when opened upon the request of St. Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven." In all, the Patristic Fathers defended the Assumption on two counts: Since Mary was sinless and a perpetual virgin, she could not suffer bodily deterioration, the result of Original Sin, after her death. Also, if Mary bore Christ and played an intimate role as His mother in the redemption of man, then she must likewise share body and soul in His resurrection and glorification.
The Byzantine Emperor Mauritius (582-602) established the celebration of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary on August 15 for the Eastern Church. (Some historians speculate that the celebration was already widespread before the Council of Ephesus in 431). By the end of the 6th century, the West likewise celebrated the Feast of the Assumption. While the Church first emphasized the death of Mary, gradual shifts in both title and content occurred so that by the end of the 8th century, the Gregorian Sacramentary had prayers for Assumption Day.
We have no real knowledge of the day, year, and manner of Our Lady's death. The dates which have been assigned to her death vary between three and fifteen years after Christ's Ascension. Both Jerusalem and Ephesus claim to be the place where she died. (By tradition, Mary lived at Ephesus after the death of Jesus.) Mary's tomb was presumably found in Jerusalem. It is believed that Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles, but that after her burial, her tomb, when opened, was found empty. Therefore, they concluded that her body had been taken up (assumed) into heaven.
Saint Gregory of Tour provided a rationale for the tradition, which is related to her having been preserved from original sin. He said that it is inconceivable to think Mary's sinless body, likened to the Ark of the Covenant which was made of incorruptible wood, should decay in the grave. The text, 'Rise thou and the ark of thy strength' (Ps 132/1:8) was understood to mean that it was God's will that, as Christ had ascended, so too Mary would be received into heaven.
There is an important difference, of course, between the ascension of Jesus into Heaven after His Resurrection, and the assumption of Mary. To ascend is to rise up under one's own power; while to be assumed means something that is done to one. Jesus, being the Second Person of the Trinity, had no need of assistance; whereas Mary did not have this power.
According to one tradition, Mary was warned of her approaching end by Saint Michael the Archangel, who conducts souls to Heaven, and was surrounded on her death-bed by the apostles, who were miraculously transported to her bedside from their various mission-fields. It was said that Jesus appeared, bore away her soul, and returned three days after her burial, when angels carried her body to Paradise where it was reunited with her soul under the Tree of Life.
The Feast of the Assumption gives each of us great hope as we contemplate this one facet of the beautiful woman of faith, our Blessed Mother. Mary moves us by example and prayer to grow in God's grace, to be receptive to His will, to convert our lives through sacrifice and penance, and seek that everlasting union in the heavenly Kingdom.
Book 12: Four Prayers
The Revelations of St. Bridget of Sweden
(...)“Be glad, my Lady, O Virgin Mary. For in that most light death of yours, your soul was embraced by the power of God; and he, as a watchful father, protected it from all adversity. Then it was that God the Father subjected to your power all things created. With honor, God the Son placed you, his most worthy Mother, beside himself on a most lofty seat. And the Holy Spirit, in bringing you to his glorious kingdom as a virgin betrothed to himself, did wonderfully exalt you.
Rejoice eternally, my Lady, O Virgin Mary. For some days after your death, your body lay entombed in its sepulchre until, with honor and through the power of God, it stood linked anew to your soul. Exult to the full, O Mother of God, O glorious Lady, O Virgin Mary. You merited to see your body revived after your death and assumed with your soul into heaven amidst honor from the angels. You acknowledged that your glorious Son was God with a human nature; and with exultant joy, you saw that he is the most just judge of all and the rewarder of good works.
Rejoice again, my Lady, O Virgin Mary. For your body's most holy flesh knows that it now exists in heaven as both virgin and mother. It sees itself in no way stained by any mortal or venial crime. No, it knows that it did all the works of virtue with such charity that God, in justice, had to revere it with highest honor. Your flesh then understood that the more ardently that anyone loves God in this world, the nearer to himself will God place that person in heaven. For it was manifestly clear to the whole court of heaven that no angel and no human loved God with such charity as you did; and therefore it was right and just that with honor God himself placed you, body and soul, on the highest seat of glory.
Blessed may you be, O my Lady, O Virgin Mary. Every faithful creature praises the Holy Trinity for you because you are the Trinity's most worthy creature. For wretched souls you obtain prompt pardon, and for all sinners you stand forth as a most faithful advocate and proxy. Praised therefore be God, the most high Emperor and Lord, who created you for such great honor that you yourself became both Empress and Lady everlastingly in the kingdom of heaven, forever to reign with him unto ages of ages. Amen.” (The Revelations of St. Bridget of Sweden)
Related article: The Bible teaches Mary's Immaculate Conception, Perpetual Virginity, Bodily Assumption and more