The Assumption of Our Lady
On Tuesday we celebrate the glorious Feast of Our Lady’s Assumption into Heaven and it is a Holyday of Obligation. As far back as the Church can remember we have celebrated the fact that Mary, at the end of her earthly life, was taken up body and soul into Heaven – not just her soul, but her body also. This dogma was solemnly defined as an article of faith in the Papal Decree “Munificentissimus Deus” (The Most Bountiful God) by Pope Pius XII in 1950. So within the lifetime of many of you reading this, a dogma which has been believed from the beginning of the Church and has been celebrated with great joy and solemnity throughout the centuries, was finally proclaimed ‘de fide’ (of the Faith), and must therefore be believed by all Catholics.
The event of Mary’s Assumption is not described in the Bible, but there are accounts of others who were taken up into Heaven; the most famous being Elijah who went up in a whirlwind, and you can read about that in the Second book of Kings (2:11). However, there is an important passage from Scripture which the Church gives us as the First Reading of the Feast: “A great sign appeared in Heaven, a woman adorned with the sun, standing on the moon, and with the twelve stars on her head for a crown. She was pregnant and in labour, crying out aloud in the pangs of childbirth…” (Apocalypse 12:1-2). Now the woman described is unquestionably Mary, because it is a beautiful woman who gives birth to a child who can be none other than JESUS, and they are both in Heaven, and it is clear from the inspired text they both have bodies.
When Pope Pius XII defined the dogma, he didn’t indicate whether Mary had died as we don’t know for certain one way or the other. What is important is the fact she was taken up to Heaven body and soul. And in fact there is some difference between the Eastern and Western Churches as to how exactly it happened. The Eastern Churches actually refer to this feast as the “Dormition of Our Lady”. Dormition is a word for ‘sleep’ and refers to her death, whereas the Western Church tends to portray her as being taken alive at once body and soul into Heaven, although there is a tradition in the West too that she first died, was carried to her tomb by the Apostles, and then three days later was taken up to Heaven. It is also significant that whereas we have the tombs and relics of every Apostle and the bones of many early saints, there is nowhere on earth that claims to have the body of Mary.
But how does this affect us and what does it mean for us? It means that what happened to Mary in a very profound and also preliminary way will also happen to us. As Mary was assumed body and soul into Heaven, so we will be in Heaven one day, both body and soul. But for now, when we die, our soul, after any necessary purification in Purgatory goes to Heaven, whereas the body remains in the tomb. But on the last day we will be raised up, and the body will join again with the soul. With God all things are possible. As Scripture says, “He will change our lowly body to be like His glorious body” (Philippians 3:21). Mary is our hope, and she will surely help us achieve this end.
Fr Paul Gillham, IC