What is the Assumption?

15 Aug

AssumptionToday the Church celebrates the great solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s such a significant feast day that the Church considers it a holy day of obligation, on which we are obliged to go to Mass and, to the extent possible, enjoy a day a rest and festivity.

So it’s fair to ask, “What does the Church teach concerning the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary?”

The teaching is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 974:

“The Most Blessed Virgin Mary, when the course of her earthly life was completed, was taken up [‘assumed’] 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.” This is a paraphrase of a dogmatic statement issued in 1950 by Pope Pius XII in a document entitled Munificentissimus Deus.

While the dogmatic definition is relatively new, the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption is firmly rooted in Sacred Scripture and Tradition. The key scriptural verse is Genesis 3:15, in which the Lord says that He will put enmity between Satan and the “woman,” who is identified as the Mother of the Redeemer. “Enmity” means “total opposition.” This verse foreshadows Mary’s participation in the complete victory of her seed (Jesus) over Satan. According to St. Paul, the consequences of Satan’s influence on the human race are twofold: sin and death (e.g., Romans 5:21; 6:16; 6:23; 8:2; Galatians 6:7-8; Hebrews 2:14-15). Therefore, Mary, who shared in her Son’s victory over Satan, would have to be saved from both sin and the corruption of death. Thus, the Assumption manifests Our Lady’s “total opposition” to the devil.

In addition to Genesis 3:15, there are several other scriptural passages that point to the Assumption of Our Lady. For example, there is Luke 1:28, since her bodily assumption is a natural consequence of her being “full of grace.” Other passages include Revelation 12:1, in which Mary’s coronation implies her bodily assumption, and 1 Corinthians 15:23 and Matthew 27:52-53, which support the possibility of a bodily assumption. And lastly there is Psalm 132:8, which provides: “Arise, O Lord, into your resting place: you and the ark which you have sanctified.” Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant, who physically bore the presence of God in her womb before bearing Christ to the world.

The Assumption is also witnessed by sacred Tradition. For example, St. Gregory of Tours (d. 593) wrote: “The Lord commanded the holy body [of Mary] to be borne on a cloud to Paradise where, reunited to its soul and exalting with the elect, it enjoys the everlasting bliss of eternity.” The doctrine was also explicitly taught by Church Fathers such as St. Germain of Constantinople, St. Andrew of Crete, and St. John Damascene.

There is a maxim that provides “Lex orandi, lex credendi” (“the law of praying is the law of believing”). This maxim summarizes the truth that the liturgical life of the People of God plays an important role in preserving and celebrating the Faith of the Church. Already in the sixth century there were liturgical feasts dedicated to Mary’s Assumption. And indeed, from the 13th century on, the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption was taught with near unanimity in both the west and east. And the Rosary, which includes the mystery of the Assumption, has been an important part of Catholic piety since the early 13th century.

In defining the Assumption as a revealed dogma, Pope Pius XII did not infallibly answer all the questions that relate to the “where, when, and how” of the Assumption. For example, we do not know how old Mary was and whom she was with at the time. Also, the Holy Father did not attempt to resolve the controversy as to whether she was in Ephesus or Jerusalem, as there was no mention of where she was at the time of her Assumption. In addition, Pope Pius XII’s definition said nothing about Mary’s mediation, her queenship, or other privileges.

And significantly, Pope Pius XII left open the question of whether Mary “died.” Note that the definition intentionally uses the ambiguous phraseology, “having completed the course of her earthly life.” Some maintain that she did not die, because her Immaculate Conception freed her from the effects of original sin, including death. The more probable opinion, endorsed by Blessed John Paul II, is that the Blessed Virgin Mary did die, so that she could be fully conformed to her crucified Son. Thus she freely accepted death in order to more fully associate herself with her Son’s redemption (cf. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, no. 58). It is important to note in this regard that if Mary did die before being assumed into heaven, it did not involve the bodily corruption that usually accompanies death as a consequence of original sin.

The foregoing, in modified form, was originally published by Catholics United for the Faith.

5 Responses to “What is the Assumption?”

  1. Christy August 15, 2013 at 12:19 am #

    The Assumption also just so happens to be my birthday! 😀

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