The Assumption of Mary
MARIE T. FARRELL RSM
UNTIL QUITE recently the Catholic dogma of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven has been a sign of contradiction among various post-Reformation Christian denominations. However, the final statement from the Anglican-Roman Catholic (ARCIC II) committee has helped remove common misunderstandings of the meaning of this dogma.1 Of course, belief in the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption per se has never been problematic for Orthodox Christians; rather Catholic teaching concerning papal primacy and infallibility is where problems arose for Orthodox theology when the doctrine of the Assumption was raised to the status of dogma in 1950. Before attempting to address a request to discuss the theological underpinnings of the Assumption, it is necessary to signal a number of ‘contextual’ factors.
Popular Piety before Theology
As happened with regard to the declaration of the Immaculate Conception as a Catholic dogma (P. Pius IX, 1854) so too with the Assumption of Mary (P. Pius XII, 1950), popular piety and devotion to Mary ran well ahead of theological interpretation. Confronted with numerous heresies, theologians of the early centuries of the Church’s history were concerned with developing theologies of Jesus as the Christ (Christology) and with the meaning of the Holy Trinity. The first formal marian dogma extolling Mary as the Theotókos (literally the God-Bearer or Mother of God) testified explicitly to the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word-made-flesh. The ‘mind’ of the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) was to proclaim de fide the hypostatic union of the human and the divine in Christ, and not to focus on Mary-in-herself. However, long before 431A.D. marian veneration was securely rooted in the ‘mind’ of the Faithful as Christian culture evolved. From the time of the Apostolic Tradition itself, veneration of Mary sprang from the sensus fidelium about the person of Jesus as the Christ.2 This pattern of devotion before theological interpretation continued with regard to the two ‘recent’ marian dogmas.
Mary’s Assumption: History or Mystery?
The development of critical methods in scriptural scholarship during the twentieth century has severely challenged pious belief in the precise historical nature of the Assumption. As this doctrine takes us into the realm of religious symbol and mystery, any naive literalism as to its meaning prevents proper interpretation of how the ultimate destiny of Mary may be understood only within the mysteries of Christ and the Church.
For a sound theological appreciation, the mystery of the Assumption must be coupled with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Moreover, this coupling must be recognized as involving the development of doctrine from faith in Mary’s divine motherhood. Together the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption form an inclusion that inserts both the beginning and the end (and, naturally, with everything in between) of the life of Mary into the total mysterious action of God in Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Both mysteries allow for our real and symbolic participation in the mystery of the Incarnation.
The Assumption: from Pious Legend to Liturgical Celebration
Belief in the doctrine of the Assumption and expressed in imaginative, mythopoetic ways had developed from as early as the second century. After the restoration of Jerusalem by the Emperor Constantine in the late third century, and after the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the fourth century, the supposed tomb of Mary near the garden of Gethsemane became a pilgrim site for remembering the ‘Falling Asleep’ (Dormition) of Mary. As no relics of Mary were ever discovered, apocryphal legends (derived from Greek, Coptic, Ethiopian, Arabic, Armenian and Latin sources) began to circulate about how she died in the presence of the apostles, except for Thomas, and how at his arrival in Jerusalem, the tomb was found to be empty and filled with beautiful flowers.3 Such legends have provided an abundant source of inspiration for the many iconographic depictions of Mary’s assumption.
Liturgical celebration spread from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean world quite quickly. In the eighth century St. John Damascene preached his three famous sermons in Jerusalem for the Vigil and Feast of the Assumption (c. 727A.D.). Sermon 1 expresses the belief of the Church that after Mary’s death and burial:
Thy soul did not descend into Limbo, neither did thy flesh see corruption. Thy pure and spotless body was not left in the earth, but the abode of the Queen, of God’s true mother, was fixed in the heavenly kingdom alone.4
Visitors to Jerusalem today continue to celebrate Mary’s being taken into heaven at an Orthodox as well as at a Catholic pilgrim site.
Development of Contemporary Theology of the Assumption
Before taking up the idea of the symbolic function of Mary’s Assumption, it is useful to sketch briefly how interpretation of this doctrine took on a fresh impetus after the definition of the Immaculate Conception.
Phase 1 (1854-1950): The Assumption was interpreted as representing a final privilege because of the sinlessness of the Mother of God. A privilege centered theology vested Mary with a certain extrinsic and a-historical quality of such uniqueness that, in practice, she was virtually put into a theological ‘exile’ with respect to the rest of the Faithful! Despite the apocryphal traditions, this was the time when there was debate about whether Mary actually experienced physical death or not.5 It was only in 1950 that the debate came to rest in favour of the ‘mortalist’ theologians. Even so, the formal decree, Munificentissimus Deus, of P. Pius XI left the matter of Mary’s mortality as an open question:
We pronounce, declare and define it to be a dogma divinely revealed that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, when the course of her earthly life was run, was assumed in body and soul to heavenly glory.6
Phase 2 (1950-1964) saw a departure from concentration on the ‘singularity’ of Mary in favour of a theology that interpreted her life in relationship with humanity as a whole and on how, as human beings, we are able to experience the fruits of Christ’s saving work. The mystery of Mary’s life and vocation was acknowledged as ‘a free destiny open to the sometimes unexpected orientations of the Spirit’.7 Eminent Catholic theologians8 taught that the complete experience of salvation appropriated to Mary in the doctrine of the Assumption was normative for the whole Church, rather than its being a private exaltation of Mary alone. This was the time when theology of human destiny in Christ (eschatology) was gathering strength; Mary was acknowledged as typifing the bodily redemption of the whole Church.9
Vatican Council II (1962-65) adopted the theology of ‘universalising’ the Assumption. The titles of the sub-sections of Lumen Gentium, chapter 8, illustrate this very well: ‘Mary as Sign of Sure Hope and of Solace for God’s People in Pilgrimage’, ‘The Role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Economy of Salvation’ and ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary and the Church’.
Phase 3 (1964-mid 1970s) continued to follow Vatican II’s method of situating Mary’s Assumption within the entire economy of salvation. Marian theologians10 continued the trajectory of interpreting the final destiny of the Theotókos in an ecclesially communal manner. Appreciation of Mary’s place in the communion of saints led to heightened theological interest in the transforming nature of human death, in the nature of Christian hope and in Heaven as a symbol of fullness of life, vision and love surpassing the wildest human imaginings . It led also to how an enhanced recognition of the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church must be included in marian theology generally. Such ‘fresh’ insertion of the role of the Spirit into Assumption theology served to underscore the fact that the full meaning of sanctification and transformation to ‘glory’ in Mary’s case, followed upon a life of grace entirely open to the Holy Spirit.
Since the 70’s, and in keeping with the mind of Lumen Gentium: 8 (n. 54) that marian dogmatic statements are open to development in interpretation, Catholic theologians have contributed much to a contemporary theology of the Assumption. In particular I would draw readers’ attention to Elizabeth Johnson’s work, Truly Our Sister: a Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (2003) and to Tony Kelly’s discussion of the Assumption within theological reflection about heaven in Touching on the Infinite (1991).
Christian Discipleship—a Key to the Symbolic Nature of the Assumption
Since the mid-70s a theology of ‘symbol’ has emerged as a fruitful ‘tool’ for allowing one to become, as it were, an ‘insider’ to mysteries of faith—to participate in the reality of what is being symbolized. The primordial Christian symbol is Christ, the Word-made-flesh in the Incarnation, who is now Risen Lord in glory. As symbol, the Church herself originates in the Christ-event of history. Because of her intimate role in the Christ-event through the Spirit, Mary can be considered as a symbol of the Church, of the community of all who have been baptized into Christ. In a work earlier than the one mentioned above, Johnson has argued that theological statements about Mary also have symbolic value for, she says:
Marian statements originate in the imaginative faculty of the community brought into being by the Christ-event and are uttered as expressions of its search for self-understanding in faithful and creative response (one of its members assumes corporate personality in reflecting back to the community its own gift and task).11
Because the dogma of the Assumption lacks both historical and explicitly scriptural foundations, contemporary marian theology has pursued study of how the scriptural theme of ‘discipleship’ can, symbolically and through Mary’s place in the Church, involve our own destiny for ‘glory’.
We learn the qualities of Christian discipleship from the Gospels. His disciples follow Christ in faith, have a communion of friendship with him and allow themselves to be compelled to live according to his vision – a vision completed for Christ in the mystery of his Ascension to ‘glory’ at the ‘right hand of the Father’ from whence the Spirit of Pentecost is released upon the world in a new way. Gospel discipleship calls us to hear the Word and to live the Word; it challenges us to be servants of the Word and to work towards furthering the Reign of God in the world.
Among the synoptic evangelists, it is Luke who best presents Mary as the true disciple. She is the one who hears the Word, who struggles to discern the Word, is freely and generously open to receive the Word, who ponders the demands of the Word and is faithful in responding to its challenges (Lk 1:26-38; 8:19-21). Because of the sophisticated Christology already developed by the mid-80s of the first century and is represented clearly in the Gospel of Luke, the figure of Mary is deftly portrayed as a symbol of the Church. She is set amongst the anawim, the ‘little poor ones of Yahweh’, whose hopes rest firmly in God alone because their dearth of worldy prosperity leaves them free and unencumbered to know the blessings of God. Mary’s fiat to the angel Gabriel encompasses the spirit of the anawim who are so accurately described by the prophet Zephaniah (c 640-630 B.C.):
On that day you shall not be put to shame because of all the deeds by which you have rebelled against me; for then I shall remove from your midst your proudly exalted ones, and you shall no longer be haughty on my holy mountain. For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord… (Zeph 3:11-12)
Struggling with experiences of an apparently absent God, much like the experience of the Church in today’s context, Zephaniah kept hope alive in the promise that the anawim would be heard by God, and that they would surely know the presence of God in their midst. His ‘Song of Joy’ (Zeph 3:14-20) directed at the Daughter of Zion, stirs memories that were given voice in Mary’s Magnificat so carefully woven into the narrative of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth (Lk 1:39-56). This great ‘cry of the poor’ received by the Church as a Mary-prayer in the first instance, is obviously Luke’s way of preparing his own troubled community to live out the quality of discipleship represented by Mary. As a disciple-prayer, the Magnificat also stirs up memories of Hannah, the mother of Samuel: My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God…I delight in your salvation (1 Sam 2:1-2). The recognition of Mary’s ‘humble state’ (Lk 1:38) echoes the same sentiment found in Hannah’s reverent awe in the presence of a God who is holy and merciful (1 Sam 1:11). While there are many other anawim memories from the Old Testament to be gathered as indicative of Mary’s discipleship, a challenge here might be to plumb the depths of the final versicles of the Magnificat with their striking emphases on the reversal of worldly values in order to enjoy the promise made to Abraham and Sarah, our ancestors in the faith.
Further insight into the meaning of the discipleship of the mother of Jesus is presented in the Gospel according to John. Here we meet the Woman whose influence inaugurated the Hour of Jesus at Cana of Galilee (Jn 2:1-11); here too, we meet the Woman and the Beloved Disciple standing beneath the Cross of Jesus on Calvary when the Hour of Jesus is accomplished and where the Church is ‘gathered’ symbolically to receive an outpouring of the Spirit in the final breath of Jesus (Jn 19:25-30).12
When the Assumption of Mary is approached within the richness of discipleship-theology, the person of Mary is appreciated as being in solidarity with all who are journeying in faith towards their destiny in Christ for:
[W]e know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom God foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Rom 8:28-30)
The ‘Mind’ of P. Pius XII
Following the declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, petitions for the dogmatic status of the Assumption began to flow into Rome—over nine million of them in total. These petitions are well documented.13 Pius XII’s devotion to Mary and his desire for definitive acknowledgement of the Assumption were well known. In the aftermath of the horrific slaughter of World War II that culminated with Hiroshima, the Pope wished to offer new hope to a world so lately involved in genocide. In declaring that the Assumption was to be ‘of faith’ to Catholics, the Pope wished to emphasise that human life was never to be reckoned as ‘cheap’, that the whole of humanity is, in faith, destined for ‘glory’. Because in the act of extending Tradition, the Pope needed to be certain of the consensus among Catholics that this marian doctrine was faithful to the ‘deposit of faith’, he issued an encyclical (Deiparae Virginis, May 1, 1946) asking the Bishops of the world two questions (i) if it would be proper to define this pious befief as an act of faith and (ii) whether this definition were indeed desired by the universal Church. In fact there were six dissenters who could not accept that the Assumption of Mary was ‘revealed truth’. Sixteen other respondents thought that the definition would be ill-timed. The Pope concluded that the results of the survey constituted universal agreement and indicated a genuine sensus fidelium. On October 30, 1950, Pius XII held a semi-public consistory attended by the College of Cardinals and hundreds of Bishops from the entire world.14 At this meeting he indicated the extent of consultation, study and discernment that had gone into a final decision for solemn definition. The pastoral intention behind this ‘people’s doctrine’ was stated in part of the prayer closing the Pope’s allocution:
May she[Mary] obtain from her divine son that peace which is based, as on a most solid foundation, on the tranquility of right order, on the just treatment of citizens and peoples, on the liberty and dignity due to all, may finally return to shine among nations and peoples at present divided to the common detriment. (Nostis profecto, n 5.)
The Definition, Munificentissimus Deus (The Most Bountiful God…)
The day chosen for the solemn definition was the Feast of All Saints! How wonderfully appropriate to celebrate the cosmic dimension of the mystery! The official records describe the event: ‘In a memorably brilliant outdoor ceremony, from his throne in front of the façade of St. Peter’s, in the presence of hundreds and thousands of the Faithful who overflowed the vast square in front of the Vatican basilica, His Holiness, Pope Pius XII, solemnly declared the dogma as an article of faith.’
The full text of Munificentissimus Deus is too long to cite here, however a few points should be noted. Quite clearly Assumption theology is based upon Mary’s dignity as the Theotókos. Testimony as to historical evidence regarding the continuity of belief is provided from patristic, mediaeval and later scholars who collectively situate the Assumption within a broad scriptural and ecclesial context – something that has been particularly significant for recent ecumenical dialogue. Thus, the 2006 ARCIC statement, Mary, Grace and Hope in Christ, has been able to state that ‘the teaching that God has taken the Blessed Virgin Mary in the fullness of her person into his glory as consonant with Scripture and that it can, indeed, only be understood in the light of Scripture.’ (n.60) Notwithstanding the fact that the wording of the decree is weighted towards a theology of ‘privilege’, there is recognition that the Assumption of Mary is ‘of blessed profit to human society’—that while ‘the illusory teachings of materialism and consequent corruption of morals threaten to extinguish the light of virtue…’ there is hope that faith in Mary’s being taken into glory by God, will strengthen our belief in the credal confession of resurrection of the body and life everlasting.
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Liturgical Celebration of the Assumption of Mary
The celebration of August 15th, of Mary’s whole person being taken by God15 into eternal life remains a holy day ‘of obligation’ in Australia. The liturgy of the feast provides an excellent source for gathering ‘theological underpinnings’. The Vigil readings from the first Book of Chronicles and the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians along with the responsorial Psalm 131, together point to the prophetic dimension of the life of Mary—she is a living Ark of the Covenant, the desired dwelling place of God, the one whose death ‘has been swallowed up in victory’ through Jesus Christ her son. The Gospel is simply one sentence from Luke 11:27-29; she is proclaimed as the perfect disciple:
As Jesus was speaking, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said: ‘Happy the womb that bore you and the breasts that you sucked!’ But he replied, ‘Still happier are those who hear the word of God and keep it.’
The first reading of the Liturgy of the Day associates Mary with the ancient figure of the Church, the pregnant Woman of the Apocalypse ‘clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet and crowned with twelve stars’, whose newborn son was rescued from the great red dragon and taken with her by God to a heavenly place a safety. What powerful Mary-Church symbolism! The second reading from 1 Corinthians 20-26 also places Mary within the Church, within the company of all members of Christ who is the first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep in death.16 Selections from Ps 44 proclaim Mary as the Daughter-Queen who ‘gives ear’ to God’s words and who is joyously escorted with her retinue to the palace of the King. The Gospel (Lk 1:39-56) takes us with the pregnant Mary into the hill country of Judah to the home of Elizabeth and Zachary where she receives (and the Church receives again year by year…) the blessing of Elizabeth, ‘Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.’ Then, how better to enter liturgically into the spirit of the feast than to hear the words of Mary’s Magnificat on the lips of the Church?
In attempting to address theological ‘underpinnings’ for the mystery of the Assumption of Mary, we have emphasized that all marian theology is Christological and Ecclesial in intent. Exultation of the Mother of God is never directed to Mary-in-herself. Within the Catholic ‘hierarchy of truths’ marian dogmas stand in relationship ‘under’ the central truths upon which Christian faith is founded and are given verbal expression in the great Creeds of the Church.17 It is useful to remember that a definitive text such as Munificentissimus Deus is time bound; it reflects sensitivities of the mid-twentieth century. While the formula of definition itself is ‘set’, so to speak, its theological interpretation has been developed in succeeding years. We know from the history of its inception about the meaning lying behind the text; we have tried here to explore the meaning on our side, in front of the text. In ‘receiving’ the Assumption of Mary as an article of faith, contemporary theologians have sought to ‘unpack’ its meaning in terms of Christian life, death, of human and cosmic destiny in Christ.
[Mary’s] Assumption nourishes hope with an assurance that out nature and our history have already, in her, reached their term. She embodies the reality of our world as having received into itself the mystery that is to transform the universe in its entirety.18
Mary assumed into heaven and Spiritualised in her whole personhood is a prophetic symbol of hope for us all. In his Resurrection-Ascension, Jesus has shown the way to eternal life. In the mystery of Assumption, the Church sees Mary as the first disciple of many to be graced with a future already opened by Christ, one that defies comprehension for ‘…no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him…’(1 Cor 2: 9)
Sr Marie T Farrell is a Mercy Sister who is a Senior Lecturer with the Sydney College of Divinity and who teaches theology at the Catholic Institute of Sydney.
1 See Marie Farrell, ‘Ecumenical Consensus on Mary’, Compass: 41 (2007), 37-38.
2 See Marie Farrell, ‘Ancient Marian Piety: Testimony to the Doctrine of the Incarnation’, Australasian Catholic Record lxxvi:4, 1999, 449-461.
3 A number of these texts are now available in English. See Daniel Rops, The Book of Mary (1960), 192-214
4 Mary H. Allies, St John Damascene on Images followed by three Sermons on the Assumption (London: Thomas Baker, 1898) 147-211. Literal translation of the Greek into English.
5 A debate sparked by Rom 5:12, that ‘death has spread to all people because of sin’.
6 Literal translation: cf. DZ 3800-3804.
7 Rene Laurentin, Queen of Heaven: a Short Treatise in Marian Theology (London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1956), 10.
8 Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeekx, Otto Semmelroth et al.
9 Note focus on the ‘whole’ human person (body, soul & spirit) vs. the philosophical idea that the ‘body’ is merely an ‘instrument’ of the soul.
10 Donal Flanagan, Hugh McElwain et al.
11 Elizabeth A. Johnson, ‘The Symbolic Character of Theological Statements about Mary’, Journal of Ecumenical Studies 22:2 (1985), 324.
12 For meditation on the role of the Mother of Jesus as Disciple in Gospel IV, see Francis J. Moloney sdb, Mary, Woman and Mother (Homebush: St Paul Publications, 1988), 31-55.
13 G. Hentrich & R.G. de Moss, Petitiones De Assumptione Corporea B.V. Mariae in Caelum Definienda Sedem Delatae (Vatiban, 1942).
14 See William J. Doheny & Joseph P. Kelly (Compilers), Papal Documents on Mary (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1954), 215-219.
15 While the Assumption is theologically analogous to the Ascension of Jesus, the mode of glorification is passive in Mary’s case; Jesus’ ascent was by virtue of his own power.
16 Emphasis mine.
17 See Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism (n 11) for teaching on the ‘Hierarchy of Truths’.
18 Tony Kelly, Touching on the Infinite (Blackburn Vic.:Collins Dove, 1991), 213.