The Assumption of Mary
by Father William Saunders
Addressing a jubilant crowd of more than 500,000 people packed into St. Peter's Square,
Pope Pius XII solemnly defined in Munificentissimus Deus on Nov. 1, 1950, that the
"Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-virgin Mary, having completed the course of her
earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory." Although the solemn
definition may have been at the midpoint of the 20th century, the belief in the Assumption
of our Blessed Mother exemplifies the dynamism of revelation and the Church's ongoing
understanding of it as guided by the Holy Spirit.
Granted, the word Assumption does not appear in Sacred Scripture. For this reason many
fundamentalists who literally interpret the Bible would have a difficulty with this
belief. Nevertheless, we must first pause and reflect on the role of our Blessed Mother in
the mystery of salvation, for this provides the foundation for the belief in the
We firmly believe that from the first moment of her conception Mary was free of all
sin, including Original Sin, by a special favor of almighty God. The Archangel Gabriel
recognized her as "full of grace," "blessed among women" and "one
with the Lord." Mary had been chosen to be the Mother of our savior. By the power of
the Holy Spirit, she conceived our Lord Jesus Christ, and through her, true God became
also man, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us."
During her lifetime, although the Gospel citations are limited, Mary always presented
our Lord to others: to Elizabeth and her son, John the Baptist, who leapt for joy in the
womb at the presence of the Lord still in his own mother's womb; to the simple shepherds
as well as the wise Magi; and to the people at Cana, when our Lord acquiesced to His
mother's wish and performed the first miracle.
Moreover, Mary stood at the foot of the cross with her Son, supporting Him and sharing
in His suffering through her love as only a mother could do. Finally, she was with the
Apostles at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended and the Church was born. Therefore,
each of us can step back and see Mary as the faithful servant of God who shared intimately
in the birth, life, death and resurrection of our Lord.
For these reasons we believe that the promises our Lord has given to each of us of
sharing eternal life, including a resurrection of the body, were fulfilled in Mary. Since
Mary was free of Original Sin and its effects (one of which is corruption of the body at
death), since she shared intimately in the life of the Lord and in His passion, death and
resurrection, and since she was present at Pentecost, this model disciple appropriately
shared in the bodily resurrection and glorification of the Lord at the end of her life.
(Note that the solemn definition does not specify whether Mary physically died before
being assumed or just was assumed; it simply states, "Mary, having completed the
course of her earthly life...")
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, also quoting the Byzantine Liturgy,
states, "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 (falling asleep) 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'" (No. 966).
The belief in the Assumption of our Blessed Mother has been longstanding in our Church.
We must remember that the early Church was preoccupied with resolving questions about
Christ, particularly His incarnation and the hypostatic union (His divine and human
natures). However, in addressing these questions, the Church gradually defined the titles
of Mary as Mother of God and as New Eve, and the belief of the Immaculate Conception, all
of which form the basis for the Assumption.
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
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.
In 1973, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in their letter Behold Your
Mother," stated, "Christ has risen from the dead, we need no further
assurance of our faith. Mary assumed into heaven serves rather as a gracious reminder to
the Church that our Lord wishes all whom the Father has given Him to be raised with Him.
In Mary taken to glory, to union with Christ, the Church sees herself answering the
invitation of the heavenly Bridegroom."
Fr. Saunders is pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish and president of Notre Dame
Institute, both in Alexandria.
Electronic text (c) Copyright EWTN 1996. All rights reserved.