The Assumption of Mary:
Definition of Terms:
The Assumption of Mary, a fundamental belief in many branches of Christianity, asserts that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was taken body and soul into heaven at the end of her earthly life. The Assumption, held mainly by Catholics and some Orthodox Christians, asserts that the Virgin Mary was taken up, body and soul, into heaven, but is ambiguous as to whether or not Mary experienced physical death. The Dormition, held primarily by Orthodox Christians, teaches that the Virgin Mary fell asleep in death (dormition) and was then assumed into heaven. While neither the Assumption nor the Dormition are explicitly mentioned in the Bible, both have profound biblical, historical, and theological foundations dating back to the earliest centuries of the Church.
Scripture gives support to the possibility of a bodily assumption. Enoch “walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him away” (Gen. 5:24). Sirach 44:16 and 49:14 make it clear that he was taken up from the earth, and Hebrews 11:5 adds “so that he should not see death.” Elijah “went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2:11), indicating that he did not experience physical death before entering Heaven. First Maccabees 2:58 adds “it was because of great zeal for the Law that he was taken up into heaven. ” Paul also admits the possibility of bodily assumption: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know–God knows. And I know that this man–whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows–was caught up to Paradise” (2 Cor. 12:2-4).
The doctrine of the Assumption relies almost exclusively on Sacred Tradition. However, while the Bible does not explicitly narrate the Assumption of Mary, there are several biblical themes that provide a strong foundation for this doctrine. As shown above, the concept of bodily assumption into heaven can be demonstrated to be a biblical concept. Therefore, the argument for Mary’s assumption is not whether or not it is possible, but whether or not it is fitting.
The Assumption of Mary reaffirms the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body, foreshadowing the ultimate resurrection at the end of time. Just as Enoch and Elijah were taken up into heaven, Mary’s Assumption serves as a model for the Church. Her Assumption is seen as a natural consequence flowing from her unique relationship with Jesus and her exceptional purity. This makes her a fitting candidate for being taken up into heaven, body and soul, in order to give the Church hope while it waits in anticipation.
Mary’s Assumption also reflects God’s divine favor. God’s decision to preserve her from the decay of death highlights her unique sanctity and her special role in salvation history. Mary’s Assumption is closely tied to her role as the Theotokos, or “Mother of God.” Mary’s unique status as the Mother of Jesus, who is both fully divine and fully human, underscores her close connection to the divine. Throughout the Gospels, there are numerous instances of Jesus’ love and respect for His mother (ex. the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus performs His first public miracle at her request). It is fitting that the one chosen to bear the Son of God should also be granted a special place in heaven.
It is also theologically fitting for Mary to be preserved from death due to her sinlessness. The idea of Mary’s sinlessness is partly derived from Luke 1:28, where the angel Gabriel greets Mary with the words, “Hail, full of grace.” The Greek word used, “kecharitomene,” implies a state of being graced to the fullest extent, suggesting Mary’s freedom from sin from the moment of her conception. In addition, Mary is seen in typological roles, being viewed as the New Eve and the New Ark of the Covenant, both of which emphasize her purity.
In the creation account in Genesis, Eve, the first woman, was created without original sin. However, through her disobedience in eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, she introduced sin and death into the world (Genesis 3:1-7). Mary’s obedience, often referred to as her “fiat” (Luke 1:38), is associated with the beginning of a new order of grace and redemption. Because the typological fulfillment is always greater than the type that prefigured it, it is fitting then that the New Eve, Mary, would also be created without sin. Because Mary was preserved from original sin it follows that she’d be preserved from the effects of original sin, including physical death.
In the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant was constructed with the utmost care and with the purest materials. This is detailed in Exodus 25:10-11, where the emphasis on using pure gold to overlay the Ark symbolizes the sanctity and holiness of the vessel that would carry the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, manna, and Aaron’s staff. Mary, in the typological role as the New Ark of the Covenant, is seen as a vessel sanctified for an even greater purpose – to bear the Son of God. Just as the Ark was constructed with the purest materials, Mary is understood to be “pure” and “full of grace” to carry the Incarnate Word of God within her.
The purity and sanctity of the Ark of the Covenant, constructed with pure materials, mirror Mary’s sinlessness and holiness as the New Ark. In Revelation 11:19-12:1, John sees a vision of the heavenly temple, and “God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple.” This association of the Ark with the heavenly temple hints at Mary’s Assumption into heaven.
The Early Church:
Archaeology has revealed two tombs of Mary, one in Jerusalem and one in Ephesus. The fact that Mary lived in both places explains the two tombs. But what is inexplicable apart from the Assumption is the fact that there is no body in either tomb. And there are no relics. The early Church prized the relics of early Saints, as can be seen by reading The Martyrdom of Polycarp. However, there is no historical reference to the relics of Mary.
In addition, several Church Fathers made statements or wrote about Mary’s Assumption or Dormition. John Damascene (c. 676-749 CE) wrote in his “Homily on the Dormition” that “the Mother of God was transferred to her heavenly dwelling in body as well as in soul.” Gregory of Tours (c. 538-594 CE) mentioned Mary’s assumption in his “Libri Miraculorum” (Book of Miracles). Germanus of Constantinople (c. 634-733 CE) emphasized the bodily Assumption of Mary in his sermons. Andrew of Crete (c. 650-740 CE) “Homily on the Dormition” reflects the belief that Mary’s body was taken to heaven after her death.
The Transitus Mariae (Passage of Mary) literature, have texts in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic (Egyptian), and Arabic, suggesting that it must have originated at a much earlier date. Many scholars place the Syriac fragments of the Transitus stories as far back as the third century. Michael O’Carroll states;
“The whole story will eventually be placed earlier, probably in the second century–possibly, if research can be linked with archaeological findings on Mary’s tomb in Gethsemani, in the first [century].”(Michael O’Carrol C.S.Sp., Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Wilmington: Glazier, 1982) s.v. “Assumption Apocrypha,” 59.)
2 Corinthians 12:2-4 (NRSVCE):
“I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.”
2 Kings 2:11 (NRSVCE):
“As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.”
Hebrews 11:5 (NRSVCE):
“By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and ‘he was not found, because God had taken him.’ For it was attested before he was taken away that ‘he had pleased God.'”
Matthew 27:52-53 (NRSVCE):
“The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.”
Genesis 3:15 (NRSVCE):
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”
Revelation 12:1-5 (NRSVCE):
“A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne.”
Church Father Quotes:
Ryland’s Papyrus 470
“Under cover of your motherly heart we flee for refuge, Mother of God [Theotokos]; do not brush aside our entreaties in our distress, but rescue us from danger, you, peerlessly holy and blessed.”-Sub Tuum Prayer, written in 250 A.D.
Epiphanius of Salamis
”Like the bodies of the saints, however, she has been held in honor for her character and understanding. And if I should say anything more in her praise, she is like Elijah, who was virgin from his mother’s womb, always remained so, and was taken up, but has not seen death” –Panarion 79, written 350 A.D.
“Then the Savior spake, saying: Arise, Peter, and take the body of Mary and bear it unto the right-hand side of the city [Jerusalem] toward the East, and thou wilt find there a new sepulchre wherein ye shall place it, and wait till I come unto you….[T]he apostles carrying Mary came into the place of the valley of Jehosha-phat which the Lord had showed them and laid her in a new tomb and shut the sepulchre.”-the Assumption
Theoteknos of Livias
“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.” –the Assumption of Mary
John of Damascus
“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.”
Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575) Swiss Protestant Reformer, co-authored the Helvetic Confessions.
“For this reason we believe that the Virgin Mary, Begetter of God, the most pure bed and temple of the Holy Spirit, that is, her most holy body, was carried to heaven by angels.” –1539 polemical treatise against idolatry (The Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary (1996), George H. Tavard, p. 109
Martin Luther, Father of the Protestant Reformation
“There can he no doubt that the Virgin Mary is in heaven. How it happened we do not know. And since the Holy Spirit has told us nothing about it, we can make of it no article of faith… It is enough to know that she lives in Christ.” –Sermon on the Feast of the Assumption, August 15, 1522
“The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart.” –Sermon, September 1, 1522