The Assumption Presumption and the Dormition Tradition
In the West, it’s called the “Assumption.” In the East, it’s called the “Dormition.” Under any name, Christians have been celebrating the great event for more than 1,900 years.
On Aug. 15, Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Most years in most dioceses, the date is a holy day of obligation. The Church in her wisdom wants us to understand how important Mary is in our devotional life — and practicing Catholics are required to attend Mass.
But depending on your faith background, you may think of this feast in one of two ways.
As a Western Catholic, you celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The longstanding belief of the Church that that Mary was taken up into heaven was declared infallibly by Pope Pius XII on Nov. 1, 1950. In his Apostolic constitution “Munificentissimus Deus” declaring the Assumption to be true, he said,
“We pronounce, declare and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma that the immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul to heavenly glory.”
So medieval paintings of Mary’s Assumption into heaven often resemble paintings of Jesus’ own Ascension — although the two are not the same. In the case of the Assumption, we believe that God transported Mary’s body to heaven; while in the case of the Ascension, Jesus traveled heavenward while the crowd watched, and of His own volition. Here is the Assumption as interpreted by Bartholomäus Strobel, the Baroque painter from Silesia:
But if you worship in an Eastern Church, you celebrate the Dormition of Mary, or the “Sleep” of Mary. Christians in those traditions believe that Mary actually died. Only after her death and burial, they would say, was she taken up from the tomb and drawn, body and soul, into heaven where she sits beside her Divine Son. The story is usually that all of the Apostles were gathered around her body. One variant is that she had been buried and the Apostle Thomas — yes, that doubting one, again — was not present for her death. The tomb was opened for him to view the body, but she was gone!
So in Eastern art, you often see representations of that event like this polyptych from the Masters of Grudzi:
So who’s right?
Did Mary contract pneumonia, cough incessantly, lose consciousness and die? Or did she age gracefully and finally, smiling sweetly, allow God to carry her sinless body to be with Him in heaven for all eternity?.
Actually, we don’t know.
The dogma of the “Assumption” does not explain just how it happened. In fact, the event of the Assumption is not mentioned at all in the Scriptures. But we believe that from the first moment of her conception, Mary was preserved from sin. That is, God preserved Mary from not just actual sin — the small and large sins which you and I commit — but also original sin, that taint of a sinful nature which we inherit from our parents Adam and Eve. This was in order that she could be the “Ark of the Covenant,” the spotless vessel suitable to bear the Christ Child.
The belief in Mary’s bodily assumption appears in the writings of the early Church Fathers:
- Bishop St. Melito of Sardis (who died around A.D. 200) wrote in an apocryphal story called the Transitus Mariae (The Passage of Mary) that Mary died in the presence of the apostles in Jerusalem and then, her body just disappeared — or was buried, and then disappeared.
- St. John Damascene (who died in A.D. 749) recorded a story about the Assumption: “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.”
- Byzantine Rite Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Dormition on Aug. 15. The feast was established by the Byzantine Emperor Mauritius (582-602) to celebrate our Lady’s death and assumption. Some historians believe that the feast was already celebrated before that, even before the Council of Ephesus in 431.
There is a certain logic to believing that Mary was assumed into heaven without ever undergoing the pain of death. She was sinless, and physical death is one of the punishments imposed by God as a consequence of sin.
But on the other hand, I know she wasn’t preserved from sorrow (just think of her grief at the death of her beloved Son!), and she probably got her fair share of mosquito bites and sunburn and tired feet; so why not also bodily deterioration?.
The Logic of the Assumption, in Light of Microchimerism
One very good case for Mary’s assumption into heaven has been provided by science in the past few years, as scientists have become aware of (and have published academic papers about) fetomaternal microchimerism. Researchers have learned that there is an exchange of cells between the developing fetus and the pregnant woman, so that each contains some part of the other’s DNA. Even years after the child has been born and has grown to adulthood, a mother retains some of her child’s cells in her heart, in her brain, in her blood. In 2012, a study conducted in Seattle detected cells with the Y chromosome in multiple areas of the brains of dead women. So can a mother forget her child?
Already we know that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity did not undergo decay — that Jesus returned to the Father. And we understand that he wanted to honor his mother, and that the sinless one was preserved from sin, and also from decay. Microchimerism gives us yet another way to understand Mary’s Assumption: As Jesus ascended into heaven, it seems fitting that his unique DNA should not remain on the earth to undergo decay.
Does it matter whether Mary died before her body was taken into heaven, or whether she simply rose from the kitchen table in response to God’s call?
What matters is that she is our mother. She loves us with a mother’s love; and we saw, at the wedding feast of Cana, how she has the ear of her Divine Son. She is able to intercede for us before the Throne of God.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners
Now and at the hour of our death.