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The Assumption of Mary into Heaven
The miraculous assumption
of Mary into heaven is, for many people, one of the more difficult Catholic
doctrines to accept, in part because it does not seem to appear explicitly
in Scripture, and also because the dogmatic definition of the doctrine
did not happen until quite recently (1950, in fact, although the belief
itself is ancient). This article is intended to provide an outline
of the reasons why Catholics believe in this wonderful event. The
article is based upon some notes I put together for a presentation on the
Assumption, hence its question-and-answer format in parts.
The Assumption: Definition
"Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved
free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life
was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted
by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully
conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death.
[LG 59; cf. Pius XII, Munificentissimus
Deus (1950): DS 3903; cf. Rev 19:16.]
"The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is
a singular participation in her Son's Resurrection and an anticipation
of the resurrection of other Christians:
"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." [Byzantine Liturgy, Troparion,
Feast of the Dormition, August 15th.]"
- (Catechism of the Catholic Church,
Did Mary Die?
It's an open question in Catholic theology
(note how carefully the definition is phrased); but most theologians think
she did, hence the ancient title of the feast of the Assumption, the "Feast
of the Dormition", i.e., Mary's "falling asleep" in death).
Is the Assumption in
Ludwig Ott, author of the excellent book
of Catholic Dogma candidly says, "Direct and express scriptural proofs
are not to be had." But there is plenty of indirect evidence, which
What about John 3:13,
"No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the
Son of man"?
The name "Assumption" is important, and
one should be careful not to mix expressions here; in Catholic terminology,
the "Assumption" is something that God did to Mary in bringing her into
heaven, over which she had no control, while "Ascension" is what Jesus,
being divine, did under his own power.
When is the last time
Mary is directly mentioned in Scripture?
See Acts 1:14, and Gal 4:4.
Why is she not mentioned
It's not that surprising, because Mary was
alive when most of the New Testament was being written, and her humble
nature may well have led her to shun the limelight. Her role was
to bring the Messiah into the world and nurture and teach him, and the
focus of much of the New Testament is primarily the life of Jesus and the
apostolic ministry which followed his resurrection.
What happened to her
Mary the mother of Jesus was given into
John's care (John 19:26-27), and John was a "pillar" of the Church in Jerusalem
for some time (Gal 2:9), before living in Ephesus until his exile to Patmos.
Who has been assumed into heaven?
There is good Biblical precedent for someone
who is close to God being assumed bodily into heaven.
Elijah is a good example - he was assumed
bodily into heaven by a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11).
Similarly, as Gen 5:24 says, Enoch "walked
with God; and he was not, for God took him". He "was taken up so
that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had taken
him" (Heb 11:5; see also Sirach 44:16).
Jude gives us a hint about what may have
happened to Moses after his death, and refers to the Assumption of Moses
(a non-canonical book, but one which obviously contained information important
to Jude), in Jude 9 ("the archangel Michael, contending with the devil,
disputed about the body of Moses"). It seems fair to speculate that
Moses was taken up to heaven bodily, given that at the Transfiguration
(Matt 17:1-8), Moses appeared with Elijah, who we are told explicitly was
assumed into heaven.
Some Other Old Testament Saints?
Matthew 27:52-53: "the tombs also were opened,
and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming
out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and
appeared to many". There is no record of these Old Testament saints
dying and having to be buried again.
Who will be assumed
At the Second Coming we know that "the dead
in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be
caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air"
(1 Thes 4:16-17). The Assumption can be thought of as an example
of what will happen at "The Rapture".
There are also the two witnesses of Revelation
11. John prophesies that they will be assumed into heaven three and
a half days after they are killed: "And in the sight of their foes they
went up to heaven in a cloud" (Rev 11:12).
Mary and the Ark of
the Covenant in the Book of Revelation
Read Rev 11:19 - 12:5 (and maybe a bit before,
to get context).
In Revelation 11:19 the Ark of the Covenant
is seen in heaven. If you are familiar with Biblical typology, you
may know that many scholars see the Ark of the Covenant as a "type" of
The Contents of the Ark
We know the contents of the ark from Heb
9:4 (and various passages in the Pentateuch). The ark held:
the tablets with the Decalogue, the ten Words
of God, which were a "type" of Jesus, the incarnate Word of God (John 1:1);
it held the manna, the bread from heaven, another
"type" of Jesus, the true bread from heaven (John 6:32);
and it held Aaron's high priestly rod, the token
of Aaron's Levitical high priesthood, another "type" of Jesus, our Great
High Priest (Heb 4:14).
Mary held Jesus in her womb, so she is the
ark's "antitype", or fulfilment, the New Testament Ark of the Covenant.
There are also some interesting parallels between 2 Samuel 6 (which talks
about David's attempt to bring the ark to Jerusalem) and Luke 1 (which
talks about Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth). The ark was in
Judah, and Mary went to Judah; David asked "How can the ark of the Lord
come to me?" and Elizabeth asked "Who am I that the mother of my Lord should
come to me?"; the ark stayed in the house of Obed-edom for three months,
and Mary stayed in the house of Zachariah for three months; David leaped
and danced before the ark, and the baby John the Baptist leaped in Elizabeth's
womb when she heard Mary's greeting.
In John's revelation the ark is replaced
by a woman who gives birth to the male child, who apparently is Jesus (based,
among other things, on Rev 12:5, "one who is to rule all the nations
with a rod of iron", which corresponds closely with the messianic implications
of Psalm 2:7-9). This means the woman is Mary (it is important to
note though that this is a "polyvalent" passage, with the woman being symbolic
of not only Mary, but also of the Church, and of Israel). Since the
ark is seen in God's temple in heaven, and since Mary's physical body
is the New Testament ark, Mary is physically in heaven (not just her spirit,
cf Heb 12:23).
In the early Church the relics of saints
and martyrs were zealously sought after and prized, but no one ever claimed
to have the bones of Mary. In fact, St John Damascene tells us:
"St. Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, at the
Council of Chalcedon [AD 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" (St John of Damascus, in Migne's
Graeca Cursus Completus 96:1).
Many Christian apologists have pointed out
that the First Century Jewish or Roman authorities could have quickly squashed
the early Christian faith in Christ's resurrection by simply producing
the body of Jesus; similar reasoning can be applied with respect to Mary's
Assumption. The fact that there is no hint in history of a claim
to the possession of her relics is a good point in favour of the doctrine.
Why is the Assumption
not much mentioned, compared with other doctrines?
The very early Church was preoccupied with
resolving Christological questions, particularly about Christ's incarnation
and his divine and human natures and wills. Once these more important
doctrines were hammered out, the Church gradually was able to turn its
attention to Mary and explore what it meant for a woman to be chosen as
Theotokos, and in what ways it would have been fitting for God to honour
Mary is in many ways the "prototype" of
the Church; what happened to her prefigures what will happen to Christians
when we die and go to heaven, or at the Second Coming. For example,
she was preserved by God from sin, and in heaven we will not sin; her glorified
body was caught up to heaven, and on the Last Day the glorified bodies
of all the saints will be taken into heaven.
The doctrine of the Assumption is also based
largely on the "fittingness" of the privilege given to her by God.
Grounds for this include the fact that she was chosen to be the Mother
of God the Son, and her perfect acquiescence to God's will. Since
Jesus, who fulfilled the commandments perfectly, would have honoured his
mother perfectly, it is not unreasonable to posit the Assumption as one
of the ways in which she was honoured by her son. It is "fitting"
then that she should be given the full effects of the Redemption, which
is the glorification of the soul and body. The doctrine of the Assumption
points us toward the glorious promise that awaits us co-heirs of God's
kingdom, and it illustrates and reinforces the dignity we have as sons
and daughters of God.
If you have
questions or comments about material on this site, or if you come across
any broken links, feel free to email me. My address is:
"mischedj - at - paradise - dot - net - dot - nz".
(I've written it like that to avoid spam robots)
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