the Church is not an apparatus, nor a social institution, nor one social institution among many others. It is a person. It is a woman. It is a Mother. It is alive. A Marian understanding of the Church is totally opposed to the concept of the Church as a bureaucracy or a simple organization. We cannot make the Church, we must be the Church. We are the Church, the Church is in us only to the extent that our faith more than action forges our being. Only by being Marian, can we become the Church. At its very beginning the Church was not made, but given birth. She existed in the soul of Mary from the moment she uttered her Fiat. This is the most profound will of the Council: the Church should be awakened in our souls. Mary shows us the way . (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger)
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Today, August 15, is the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven. On this day, the universal Church celebrates what took place at the end of our Blessed Mother’s earthly life. “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.” This dogma is the great antidote to materialism and the moral corruption that follows despair, because in Mary’s Assumption into heaven we see our own glorious destiny as fellow creatures like her, united to her Son. In her Assumption we see the eschatological finale awaiting the Church, of which she is the icon.
The Assumption Fra Angelico (c. 1430)
This doctrine was not formally defined as a dogma until 1950, when Pope Pius XII did so in an Apostolic Constitution titled Munificentissimus Deus. Although the Orthodox have not formally defined the doctrine as a dogma, this doctrine is not a point of dispute between Catholics and Orthodox, because the Feast of the Assumption has been celebrated in the universal Church (both East and West) on this same date (August 15) since the sixth and seventh centuries. However, this doctrine is not accepted by most Protestants, and is therefore an occasion of difficulty with respect to the reconciliation of Protestants and the Catholic Church.
Recently Peter Leithart responded to Christian Smith’s claim that sola Scriptura is the belief that Christians have “the Bible alone and no other human tradition as authority.” Leithart protested against this definition, claiming that the Reformed do acknowledge the authority of tradition, but hold Scripture to have final authority. My response to Leithart can be found here, where I argue (briefly) that to subject tradition to the test of one’s own interpretation of Scripture is to deny the authority of tradition, and thus to vindicate Smith’s claim. The problems with biblicism, which Keith Mathison refers to as “solo scriptura,” are well-addressed both by Mathison (see “Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura and the Question of Interpretive Authority“) and Smith in The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.
How does that relate to the doctrine of the Assumption? The two most common Protestant objections to the doctrine of the Assumption are (1) that it is not in Scripture, and (2) that because it is not in Scripture, the Church has no right to declare it a dogma. Both objections presuppose that Scripture is not only the final authority, but is the only authority, such that if a doctrine cannot be found explicitly in Scripture then either it was not taught by the Apostles, or we have no way of knowing whether it was taught by the Apostles. However, if the doctrine of the Assumption comes to us through the Tradition, and if Tradition is authoritative, then both objections fall flat.
The primary Protestant objection is that the doctrine of the Assumption is not part of Tradition, but is an accretion, or, even if true, is uncertain. And the basis for this claim is that the doctrine is not apparent in the first three centuries of the Church, given the manuscripts we have containing writings from that time. St. Epiphanius hints at it in the fourth century, and we have evidence that there was an empty tomb of Mary in Jerusalem in the fourth century. But there is no solid historical evidence prior to this that Mary was known to have been assumed into heaven. There are two different paradigms at work here. From the Protestant point of view, whatever is not in Scripture is suspect, and that is even more so when we have no independent evidence that the doctrine in question was known by the Church in her first three centuries. So from the Protestant point of view, the spread of the celebration of the Feast of the Assumption in the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries is presumably the spread of a novelty, myth or legend. From the Catholic point of view, by contrast, the universal acceptance of the Feast by the sixth and seventh centuries, indicates that this doctrine was present all along, at least in seed form, otherwise it would not have been accepted by the whole Church.
So underlying these two paradigms is the question of ecclesial deism, whether or not the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church into all truth. For the Protestant who does not believe that the Spirit is guiding the Church into all truth, the universal acceptance of the doctrine of the Assumption is no more evidence of its truth or Apostolicity than not. If one does not believe that the Church is being guided by the Spirit, then there is nothing more imaginable than that the whole Church be drawn away into gross error.
And this is especially so insofar as Protestantism’s justification for its existence depends on it being true that the whole Church fell into hundreds of years of heresy. For the Catholic, however, it is inconceievable that the whole Church would be drawn away into doctrinal error. The Church is the pillar and ground of truth (1 Tim. 3:15), and so if the whole Church embraces a doctrine, we can know that this doctrine is both true and apostolic.1
And that is how Catholics understand the development of the doctrine of the Assumption. This doctrine of the Assumption comes to us through Tradition, and this Tradition can be found in the early Patristic homilies, especially those given on this feast. But as Pope Pius XII pointed out when defining this dogma, the feast was not the source of the faith in this doctrine; rather the faith in this doctrine was the source of the feast. He writes:
However, since the liturgy of the Church does not engender the Catholic faith, but rather springs from it, in such a way that the practices of the sacred worship proceed from the faith as the fruit comes from the tree, it follows that the holy Fathers and the great Doctors, in the homilies and sermons they gave the people on this feast day, did not draw their teaching from the feast itself as from a primary source, but rather they spoke of this doctrine as something already known and accepted by Christ’s faithful. They presented it more clearly. They offered more profound explanations of its meaning and nature, bringing out into sharper light the fact that this feast shows, not only that the dead body of the Blessed Virgin Mary remained incorrupt, but that she gained a triumph out of death, her heavenly glorification after the example of her only begotten Son, Jesus Christ-truths that the liturgical books had frequently touched upon concisely and briefly. (Munificentissimus Deus, 20)
To read the early homilies given on this feast, see On the Dormition of Mary: Early Patristic Homilies, edited by Brian J. Daley, and The Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption (Oxford University Press), written by Stephen J. Shoemaker. Shoemaker has some of these homilies available on a webpage titled “Early Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition.” And Luigi Gambero’s Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought is also a helpful resource. The Dormition of the Theotokos2 The Apostles knew of Mary’s dormition, since Christ had entrusted her to St. John’s care, and Mary was obviously a central figure in the community of the early Church. So how she completed her days was part of the Apostolic Tradition. But that Mary had been assumed body and soul into heaven was not universally known in the first few centuries of the Church. It is not that the Fathers of that time denied it; they simply didn’t talk about it, or talk about any first-class relics of Mary. The doctrine of the Assumption gradually came to be universally known within the Church, from the latter part of the fifth century, and by the sixth and seventh centuries, it was a universal feast. The Church Fathers viewed Mary not only as the New Eve, but also as the Ark of the New Covenant. (See here and here.) Hence they came to understand Psalm 132:8 (“Arise, O LORD, and go to your resting place, you and the ark of your might.”) as referring to Mary’s Assumption. The more clearly they understand that Mary had been preserved immaculate, the more clearly they understood that she too had been preserved from corruption. Similarly, the more clearly they grasped her dignity as the Mother of God (Theotokos), the more they recognized the fittingness of her Son keeping her body from corruption. Likewise, the more clearly they understood Mary’s role as the New Eve, and thus as Christ’s associate in the work of the redemption, the more clearly they understand that she too, in her own flesh, must have participated in His victory over death.
Here are a few selections.
Theodosius, Jacobite Patriarch of Alexandria (d. 567 or 568) O my beautiful mother, when Adam transgressed my commandment, I passed upon him a sentence, saying: ‘Adam, you are earth, and you shall return unto the earth again. For I too, the Life of all men, tasted death in the flesh which I took from you, in the flesh of Adam, your forefather. But because my Godhead was united to me, for that reason I raised it from the dead. I would prefer not to have you taste death, but to translate you up to the heavens like Enoch and Elias. But these also, even they must at last taste death. But if this happened to you, wicked men would think concerning you that you are a power which came down from heaven, and that this dispensation took place in appearance alone. ( On the Falling Asleep of Mary) St. Gregory of Tours (d. 594) Finally, when blessed Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was about to be called from this world, all the apostles, coming from their different regions, gathered together in her house. When they heard that she was about to be taken up out of the world, they kept watch together with her. And behold, the Lord Jesus came with his angels and, taking her soul, handed it over to the archangel Michael and withdrew. At dawn, the apostles lifted up her body on a pallet, laid it in a tomb, and kept watch over it, awaiting the coming of the Lord. and behold, again the Lord presented himself to them and ordered that her holy body be taken and carried up to heaven. There she is now, joined once more to her soul; she exults with the elect, rejoicing in the eternal blessings that will have no end. (Libri Miraculorum 1, De gloria beatorum maryrum 4)
St. Modestus of Jerusalem (c. AD 630) The bright spiritual dawn of the Sun of Justice, [our Lady Mary], has gone to dwell and shine in His brilliance; she is called there by the one who rose from her, and who gives light to all things. Through her, that overwhelming radiance pours the rays of His sunshine upon us, in mercy and compassion, rekindling the souls of the faithful to imitate, as far as they can, His divine kindness and goodness. For Christ our God, who put on living and intelligent flesh, which He took from the ever-Virgin and the Holy Spirit, has called her to Himself and invested her with an incorruptibility touching all her corporeal frame; He has glorified her beyond all measure of glory, so that she, His holy Mother, might share His inheritance. (Encomium on the Dormition)
John of Thessalonica John of Thessalonica was Metropolitan of that city between 610 and 649. In his homily on the Dormition of Mary, he indicates that the Church at Thessalonica was one of the few Eastern Churches where the Feast of the Assumption had not become part of the liturgical year. In his homily, he explains that the reason for this delay by his episcopal predecessors in the Church at Thessalonica was not due to impiety or laziness, but to make sure that the Dormition narrative was an authentic part of the Apostolic Tradition. And he writes his homily after having investigated to determine that the Assumption is an authentic part of the Apostolic Tradition.
Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople (d. 733) [Her body], being human, was adapted and conformed to the supreme life of immortality; however, it remained whole and glorious, gifted with perfect vitality and not subject to the sleep [of death], precisely because it was not possible that the vessel that had contained God, the living Temple of the most holy Divinity of the Only-begotten, should be held by a tomb made for the dead. … You are, as it is written, “all-beautiful” (Song of Songs 2:13), and your virginal body is all-holy, all-chaste, all the dwelling place of God, so that dissolving into dust is foreign to it. (Homily 1 on the Dormition) Your departure did not lack witnesses, nor was your Dormition false. Heaven tells the glory of those who ran to meet you then; earth presents the truth about it; the clouds cry out the honor they paid you, and the angels tell of the offering of gifts that was made to you then, when the apostles were at your side [as you passed away] above Jerusalem. (Homily 2 on the Dormition) And when we, the disciples of the Lord, gathered with the throng in your presence, O Gethsemane, for the funeral of the Ever-Virgin Mary, we all saw that she was laid in the tomb and then transferred elsewhere. She passed beyond our sight, beyond any dispute, before the tomb was sealed with the stone. . . While she was being praised with hymns, and was about to be lowered into the tomb, she left the tomb empty. (Homily 3 on the Dormition) St. John Damascene (d. 750) Even though your most holy and blessed soul was separated from your most happy and immaculate body, according to the usual course of nature, and even though it was carried to a proper burial place, nevertheless it did not remain under the dominion of death, nor was it destroyed by corruption. Indeed, just as her virginity remained intact when she gave birth, so her body, even after death, was preserved from decay and transferred to a better and more divine dwelling place. There it is no longer subject to death but abides for all ages. … Your holy and all-virginal body was consigned to a holy tomb, while the angels went before it, accompanied it, and followed it; for what would they not do to serve the Mother of their Lord? Meanwhile, the apostles and the whole assembly of the Church sang divine hymns and struck the lyre of the Spirit: “We shall be filled with the blessing of your house; your temple is holy; wondrous in justice” (Ps. 65:4). And again: “The Most High has sanctified his dwelling” (Ps. 46:5); “God’s mountain, rich mountain, the mountain in which God has been pleased to dwell” (Ps. 68:16-17). The assembly of apostles carried you, the Lord God’s true Ark, as once the priests carried the symbolic ark, on their shoulders. They laid you in the tomb, through which, as if through the Jordan, they will conduct you to the promised land, that is to say, the Jerusalem above, mother of all the faithful, whose architect and builder is God. Your soul did not descend to Hades, neither did your flesh see corruption. Your virginal and uncontaminated body was not abandoned in the earth, but you are transferred into the royal dwelling of heaven, you, the Queen, the sovereign, the Lady, God’s Mother, the true God-bearer. … A precious ointment, when it is poured out upon the garments or in any place and then taken away, leaves traces of its fragrance even after evaporating. In the same way your body, holy and perfect, impregnated with divine perfume and abundant spring of grace, this body which had been laid in the tomb, when it was taken out and transferred to a better and more elevated place, did not leave the tomb bereft of honor but left behind a divine fragrance and grace, making it a wellspring of healing and a source of every blessing for those who approach it with faith. (Homily 1 on the Dormition, 10, 12-13)
It was necessary that the body of the one who preserved her virginity intact in giving birth should also be kept incorrupt after death. It was necessary that she, who carried the creator in her womb when he was a baby, should dwell among the tabernacles of heaven. (Homily 2 on the Dormition) Dr. Feingold lecture on the Assumption In November of last year, Dr. Lawrence Feingold of Ave Maria University, gave a lecture on the subject of the Dogma of the Assumption, to the Association of Hebrew Catholics. The audio both for the lecture and the following Q&A are available below. I have included summary headings for the different parts of the lecture, according to the minute they occur in the lecture. The mp3s for both the lecture and the Q&A can be downloaded here. Lecture: The Dormition of the Virgin (ca. 950-1000) (1′) Introduction. The Assumption as the final mystery of the life of Mary. Scripture doesn’t narrate it, so how do we know it? (4′) What is the significance of Mary’s Assumption? (5′) What is the relation between the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, and the dogma of the Assumption? (10′) Mary as New Eve. She shares in all the mysteries with Christ, and hence also shares with His victory over death. (16′)
The teaching of St. Francis de Sales and St. Alphonsus Ligouri on the Assumption. This mystery is a mystery of our participation with God. It is a mystery of theosis. Mary is the icon of the Church, and so her assumption reveals to us something about the Church. Her participation in Christ’s victory over death prefigures our future participation in this victory. (21′) Enoch and Elijah as types (23′) The woman in Revelation 12. (26′) The Song of Songs — reading in the liturgy (27′) Ps. 132:8 – Mary as ark (29′) History of the development of the Feast of the Assumption, celebrated in the seventh century in the universal Church (both East and West). (35′) How Pope Pius XII went about defining this dogma. (38′) How is this dogma opportune for our times? How does it address materialism, atheism, naturalism, and the loss of Christian hope? (41′) The definition of the dogma, in MD. (43′) Did Mary die, or not? (46′) Mary’s Dormition (48′) Church Fathers on the Assumption (57′) What do we celebrate in this Feast? Question and Answer 1. How is it that feasts are celebrated before they are defined by the Church? (1′) 2. Can Lazarus be used as a type of Mary’s Assumption? (2′) 3. Didn’t Jesus say under questioning from the Apostles that Elijah had returned to earth already, and was treated poorly by the Jews? (4′) 4. Explain again why Mary is a type of the Church. (6′) 5. How do we know that Mary had no pain in childbirth? (9′) 6. What about Revelation 12 which speaks of the woman giving birth with the pains of childbirth? (11′) 7. It seems that it would be still more fitting if Mary, like Christ, had some mission during her Dormition. Tradition tells us that Christ’s soul harrowed hell was His body was in the tomb. Does it tell us anything of Mary’s soul while her body slept?
Video of the declaration of the dogma(13′)