Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
The most recent Marian dogma—the Assumption—was promulgated in 1950. But like all doctrinal developments throughout the history of the Church, it is rooted in apostolic teaching and reflected in Scripture. Pope Pius XII defined the dogma this way:
“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.”
What evidence is there for the Assumption?
To begin with, we have the witness of the New Testament, which already takes for granted the image of Mary as a Cosmic Heavenly Figure by the time of the book of Revelation (roughly 90 AD).
And 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 with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. And another portent appeared in heaven; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which to be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.
And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had borne the male child… and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus. (Revelation 12:1-6; 13, 17)
Note that: she is identified not merely as the Mother of the One who is to “rule all the nations with a rod of iron”, but of “the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus”.
This obviously Marian allusion is telling, particularly because it appears in a book which is closely associated with the one evangelist who, above all, also writes a gospel to emphasize the fact that Mary is the Mother, not only of Jesus but of all the baptized:
“When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.” ( John 19:26-27)
That said, however, we must again remember that the Tradition of the Assumption is not based on Scripture, but rather precedes the writing of the New Testament. The Church does not read a strange text in Revelation about a woman clothed with the sun and then say, “Let’s pretend this refers to Mary and invent a story about her being assumed into heaven.” Rather the Assumption occurs (most likely in the 40s or 50s AD) and the Church carries the Tradition with it into history, where it is reflected in various ways (including in Revelation 12 some forty or 50 years later).
After this, the written record is very spotty. A core tradition exists and is acknowledged everywhere in the Church, but there are also variations. For instance, Easterners tend to think that Mary died, while Westerners tend to think she didn’t. (See Sidebar.) Traditions about her final resting place diverge and place her burial in Ephesus or Jerusalem. Also, there is a curious (and telling) lack of relics for Mary.
What this reflects, ironically, is unanimity about the basic Tradition rather than doubt. The early controversies in the Church concerned the person and work of Jesus, not the Blessed Virgin. Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, assumed into heaven, turns up in tomb art as far away as Spain as early as 312 AD, indicating it was already a long settled matter by the time it crossed the Mediterranean. St. Ephraem records a tradition that the Virgin was assumed in 373 AD—and nobody rebukes this as an unheard-of novelty. Similarly, various apocryphal and spurious works such as the De Obitu S. Dominae and De Transitu Virginis, as well as various Fathers of the early Church, bear witness to the Assumption.
Let them search the scriptures. They will not find Mary's death; they will not find whether she died or did not die; they will not find whether she was buried or was not buried. More than that: John journeyed to Asia, yet nowhere do we read that he took the holy Virgin with him. Rather, Scripture is absolutely silent [on Mary's earthly end] because of the extraordinary nature of the prodigy, in order not to shock the minds of men . . . . Neither do I maintain stoutly that she died . . . .
Did she die? We do not know. At all events, if she was buried, she had no carnal intercourse . . . . Or she remained alive, since nothing is impossible with God and he can do whatever he desires. – St. Epiphanius
Much is made of the spurious works by critics, as though the Church stole the idea of the Assumption from them. But, in fact, the spurious works are simply reflecting what was already commonly believed by Christians. Indeed, in the east, the Church promulgates the Feast of the Dormition in the fourth century and there is simply no controversy. That’s the surest evidence the tradition was already ancient: when you are looking at a feast you are seeing the tip of an iceberg whose bulk is nothing other than the common belief of all normal Christians at the time.
The question is: why did the Pope define this commonly accepted point of faith as dogma in 1950? And the answer lies in the encyclical which proclaimed the dogma: Munificentissimus Deus:
Thus, while the illusory teachings of materialism and the corruption of morals that follows from these teachings threaten to extinguish the light of virtue and to ruin the lives of men by exciting discord among them, in this magnificent way all may see clearly to what a lofty goal our bodies and souls are destined. Finally it is our hope that belief in Mary's bodily Assumption into Heaven will make our belief in our own resurrection stronger and render it more effective.
As the 19th century philosophies of pride attacked the dignity of our origins in unprecedented ways, the twentieth century implemented those philosophies on a vast scale and blasphemed (as the twenty-first century continues to blaspheme) the dignity of our destiny. Again and again and again, the 20th century screamed and blared that our final destiny was the oven, the mass grave, the concentration camp, the gas chamber, the muddy trench, the frozen Siberian waste, the anonymity of the cubicle, the facelessness of the production line, the dereliction of the nursing home, the dumpster behind the abortuary. It taught us that people who can't produce should die; people with defective bodies or brains should die; people who did not look like us should die; children should die; old people should die; and that we are all means to ends and not creatures made in the image of God, for whom he was willing to die. In the midst of this insanity—directly after a war in which all these horrors had been manifest, the Holy Father was moved to ask the Church whether the Assumption should be declared a dogma of the Faith. The Church overwhelmingly assented.
Mary's destiny is the sign of our destiny. As she is the icon of the Church, so she is the Model Disciple who shows not only how to follow Christ, but the reward awaiting those who do. The Triune God wills to grant us, as he has already granted her, the ecstatic crowned glory of complete union—body, soul, and spirit—with himself in eternity. The Church, in pointing to Mary, is simply underscoring that fact. She is the great sign of Hope for all believers in Christ.