The Assumption in Church History

This content originally appeared on my blog Almost Not Catholic as a part of a 3-part series on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“No woman is like you. You are more than Eve or Sarah, blessed above all nobility, wisdom, and sanctity.” (Sermon, Feast of the Visitation, 1537) -Martin Luther

“So then, the great Mother of God, so mysteriously united to Jesus Christ from all eternity by the same decree of predestination, immaculately conceived, an intact virgin throughout her divine motherhood, a noble associate of our Redeemer as he defeated sin and its consequences, received, as it were, the final crowning privilege of being preserved from the corruption of the grave and, following her Son in his victory over death, was brought, body and soul, to the highest glory of heaven, to shine as Queen at the right hand of that same Son, the immortal King of Ages.” -Venerable Pope St. Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus (The most bountiful God)

In order to understand the historical precedent for the doctrine of the Assumption, we have to look back into the early liturgical life of the Church. In the Biblical record, we certainly do not have any direct statement saying that Mary was assumed into heaven. Can the Church know something after the Biblical narrative? (Also see my follow up post The Assumption in the Bible) Is the Book of Acts open to future “acts” and are those “acts” worthy of Christian assent? Orthodox and Catholic Christians celebrate the Assumption of Mary into heaven (the Orthodox call it “Dormition”) since, well, it happened. As Taylor Marshall has pointed out in the link above, Catholics believe in the Assumption of Mary “as, say, the fact that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated or the fact that the St. Louis Cardinals won the 2006 World Series. One day Mary”s body lay in a tomb. The next day it did not.”

Of course there is the possibility that Mary”s body was taken by someone to make credible the miraculous claim. However, this claim is not historically plausible in much the same way that a similar story regarding Christ would be false. There is theory and then there is historical evidence.

The actual celebration of the Assumption dates to St. Cyril of Alexandria in the 5th century.  The earliest western account of the Assumption of Mary can be found in Gregory of Tours work Glory of the Martyrs. In Glory, it is recounted that the Blessed Virgin died, her body was taken away by the Apostles with much fare, and then 3 days later her body was assumed into heaven. It should be noted that the Church was just newly emerging from persecution and it is reasonable to assume that her liturgical calendar would evolve slowly.

Do we know the exact date of the Assumption? Historian Warren Carrol in his work The Founding of Christendom places the date of the Assumption of Mary approximately A.D. 49. Taylor Marshall suggests that A.D. 63 is the best candidate from the tradition.

The question that still must be asked is why wait so long to define the Assumption as dogma (1950)? Why have a defined dogma, wouldn”t it just work as a theologoumena? First, The Church has always only defined a dogma that she holds once it is sufficiently challenged by heresy. Second, the Church also, generally, in these acts of defining dogma upholds other doctrines insomuch that by defining a new dogma, she strengthens the others. The Assumption acts like this. 

Take into consideration the opening quote from Luther regarding the Blessed Virgin. Does this sound like the sentiment of most Protestants today? No. So, clearly there was a general degradation of the understanding of the Blessed Virgin amongst protestants from the reformation through the four centuries that would pass before the Assumption was defined as dogma. Therefore, the doctrine of the Assumption redeems Mary”s dignity that was lost over those 400 years, reaffirms the Christocentricity of Marian dogmas, and thereby fortifies, even more, the humanity of Christ and thus our salvation.

However, this was not just a Protestant problem. Pope St. Pius XII had just recently written in his encyclical Humani Generis about the prevailing tide of modernism in the culture; even calling to attention the scientism which sought to discredit all supernatural phenomena. These philosophical novelties in the culture at large were certainly in the spirit of the attitude that would discredit the historical reality of the Assumption. I do not think it was an accident that the three months later Pope St. Pius XII would solemly define Mary”s Assumption into heaven as dogma.

As Pope St. Pius XII says , “(Mary) defeated sin and its consequences, received, as it were, the final crowning privilege of being preserved from the corruption of the grave and, following her Son in his victory over death, was brought, body and soul, to the highest glory of heaven.” Keeping these facts in mind, I believe we can say the dogma of the Assumption:

(1) Affirms Mary’s conquering of sin (and thereby affirms the perpetual virginity of Mary)
(2) Connects her Assumption to the victory won by her Son
(3) Reaffirms her unique privilege in salvation history
(4) Confronts the radical modernism prevalent in culture and beginning to pervade religion
(5) And, “Looses” (Matt 16:19) what is in heaven for the sake of bringing the “kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”(Matt 6:10)

Mary, assumed into heaven, the great prefigurement of our resurrection, pray for us…that we would be made worthy of the promises of Christ. Amen.

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