Culture of Life
The Assumption: Questions and Answers
What we must assume about 'that other empty tomb'
BY Daria Sockey
August 10-16, 2003 Issue | Posted 8/10/03 at 1:00 PM
The Assumption is a puzzle to many Catholics. It's one of the mysteries of the rosary, but scriptural rosary books struggle to find quotes to go along with it. It's a holy day of obligation (Aug. 15), but even the most devout Catholics don't seem to know a lot about it. Herewith, some questions and answers.
Why is it called “the Assumption” to start with?
The word “assume” comes from the Latin verb “to take.” Mary is “taken” into heaven. We use the word assume to mean “to take” also: to take a certain meaning, to take on a certain form, to take on a responsibility. In the Assumption, Christ assumes Mary into heaven, body and soul.
Anyway, in the Eastern Church it's not called the Assumption. It's called the Dormition or “Falling Asleep and Departure.”
Isn't it a new dogma?
It's old and new.
Old, because the feast of the Dormition of Mary was celebrated in the Byzantine Church before the year 500.-St. Gregory of-Tours wrote about the Assumption in the sixth century. The theology of the Assumption was articulated in fine theological detail by the 700s, in the three sermons St. John Damascene preached for this feast. In his second sermon, he states that belief in Mary's Assumption comes from long-standing tradition, which he-was merely handing down.
New, because the formal declaration of this dogma only occurred in 1950, the most recent use of a pope's formal, ex cathedra authority. At that time, Pope Pius XII issued a bull formally defining, as part of the deposit of faith, the fact that “the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-virgin Mary, was on the completion of her earthly life assumed body and soul into the glory of heaven” (Munificentissimus Deus, 1950.)
Is it mentioned in the Bible?
There are, in fact, clear scriptural supports for Mary's Assumption. Two Old Testament figures, Elijah and Enoch, were taken into the next life without dying (Genesis 5:24; 2 Kings 2:11).-Matthew's Gospel relates that, after Christ's death, “many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”
Jimmy Akin,-director of apologetics and evangelization-at Catholic Answers in El Cajon, Calif., notes that it would be odd to think this resurrection was only temporary — surely they were taken to heaven a short while later. So there is scriptural precedent for-some people receiving the gift of resurrection before the end of the world. That Christ would grant this privilege to his immaculate mother is quite believable.
A more-obvious support from Scripture occurs in the second reading for the feast, says Akin. “The Church traditionally has seen an allusion to Mary's Assumption in Revelation 12, where John sees the sign of the woman in heaven,” he says. “While there is an allusion here it is not an explicit statement.”
But if the Bible doesn't explicitly mention it, how can we believe it?
Most Protestants reject belief in Mary's Assumption because it seems to lack a scriptural “proof text.” This attitude points to a basic divergence between Catholics and Protestants that-is deeper than the issue of Marian devotion.
Protestants hold that the Bible alone is to determine what Christians should believe. Not so in the Catholic Church, Akin points out.
“Doctrines don't have to be found in Scripture to be true,” Akin points out. “Scripture does not teach that it is the source of all doctrine. As a result, the best sources for some teachings can be the traditions recorded in the early Church Fathers, as is the case with the Assumption. Pope Pius XII drew upon these early Christian traditions when he infallibly proclaimed this dogma. This was another case of the pope using his ability to engage the Church's infallibility to confirm particular traditions that had been passed down from the Apostles.”
What evidence do we have of the Assumption?
Well, it's hard to find evidence that someone left the earth — but one bit of evidence that Mary's body is in heaven is found in the fact that no church or city ever-laid claim to-the relics of Mary. In the early ages of Christianity, the bones of an apostle or martyr were considered prized possessions. There were often article bitter disputes over which church had the better claim to various relics, and sometimes less-than-vir-tuous actions were taken to obtain possession.
If there was ever any question as to what happened to the body of Our Lady, we can be sure that someone would have proudly claimed her mortal remains. Indeed, there are rival claims to the location of her tomb — Ephesus and Jerusalem. But both tombs are empty.
If everyone was so certain about the Assumption from early times, why did the Pope have to make a special dogmatic declaration about it? And why define the Assumption in the middle of the Space Age? Doesn't it make the Church look out of touch with the modern world?
Father Christopher Armstrong has a doctorate in sacred theology from the International Marian Research Institute in Dayton, Ohio (the U.S. branch of Rome's Marianum). He is a pastor and former chancellor of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. And he thinks the definition of the Assumption did indeed answer a need of the times.
“It was very opportune [to define the dogma], when you see where the world was in 1950,” says Father Armstrong.
“At that time most of the world's Catholics lived in Europe, which was still reeling from the carnage and human degradation of the Second World War. It was still witnessing the horrors of totalitarian ideology and atheism. Declaring the Assumption of Mary was a reaffirmation of the dignity of the human person — that there is a real value to the human body,” he said.
“And at the same time, it was a reaffirmation of the human person as body and soul. The punishment for Adam and Eve was death,” he said. “The body became corruptible. The Assumption is a reminder that we are destined to follow the pattern of the Resurrection, that body and soul are meant to be incorruptible, impassable and immortal.”
What does the Assumption teach us about ourselves?
It is a sign-of hope for our own future resurrection from the dead and assumption into heaven. “Mary is both an icon of the Church and of the individual believer,” says Akin. “As a special grace, God allowed her to share in the benefits of following Christ early. Her Immaculate Conception points to the fact that God will one day free all of the elect from every trace of sin, and her Assumption points-to the fact that one day all of the elect will be caught up body and soul to be with Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17). For us, this will happen at the end of the world but God has allowed us a glimpse of our destiny by giving this gift to Mary early.”
“You might say she was carried away by love, the love of her Son,” adds Franciscan Father Patrick Greenough, national director of the Militia Immaculata, the Marian movement founded by St. Maximilian Kolbe, and guardian of Marytown in Libertyville, Ill. “She could not remain separate from him in any way. He had dwelt, body and soul, in her womb, so she was to dwell with him in heaven, body and soul. With us, our bodies and spirits are often at war — just think how hard it is to get up for Mass on Sunday morning or to refrain from overstuffing yourself at a buffet. But Mary did not have that division within her. Her body and soul were always united. It is only fitting that they remain that way into eternity.”
Okay, so it reminds us of heaven. How should it affect our lives now?
Father Armstrong-believes that the meaning of the Assumption of Mary-is best expressed in the preface of the Mass for the feast: “Today the Virgin Mother of God was taken up into heaven to be the beginning and pattern of the Church in its perfection and a sign of hope and comfort for your people on their pilgrim way,’” he reads. Then he adds: “What happened to Mary is going-to happen to every faithful Christian.”
Daria Sockey writes from Cincinnati.
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