It is a dogma to be held definitively that the Blessed Virgin Mary was assumed, body and soul, into heaven at the end of her earthly life. The Assumption plays a significant role in the life of the Church: millions of Catholics reflect on this event every day in their praying of the Rosary, and most poignantly, the liturgical feast commemorating the Assumption is a holy day of obligation.
But where does this belief come from? Why do Catholics believe it? Where is it contained or referenced in Scripture?
On November 1, 1950, as the culmination of a long process of counsel, discussion, and debate, Pope Pius XII solemnly defined the dogma of the Assumption of Mary in the apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus:
For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, 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 into heavenly glory (44).
The question Pius posed to bishops and theologians worldwide was essentially whether or not it was opportune to define this dogma at that point in time. There was no debate about the teaching, as it was long established and universally believed. Even many of the Protestant reformers, including Martin Luther, believed in the Assumption (at least at various times in their lives).
As an aside—it is interesting to note that Pius XII does not include in the dogma’s definition whether or not Mary died before her assumption. Instead, he chose to use the somewhat ambiguous phrase “at the end of her earthly life,” which avoids the question. There is no official Church teaching on whether or not Mary died, although there is a long tradition in the West that she did. In the East, however, they refer to Mary’s dormition, or going to sleep, rather than a death.
The Assumption is a historical event. Although it is true that the end of Mary’s life is not explicitly described in Scripture, there are allusions to it, passages that resonate with the truth of the Assumption. Here are a few examples:
- “Arise, O Lord, into your resting place: you and the ark, which you have sanctified” (Ps. 132:8). An ancient tradition compares Mary to the Ark of the Covenant; in that light, this passage’s reference to the sanctified ark being brought to the Lord’s resting place can be seen as speaking of Mary’s assumption.
- “Come with me from Lebanon, my bridge; come with me from Lebanon” (Song of Sol. 4:8).
- “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” (Rev. 12:1ff).
We do not rely on Scripture for our belief in the Assumption, but Scripture does sort of “point to” it.
Fortunately, there’s more to justifying the Assumption than Scripture. There are also some interesting historical reasons for our belief, including the unbroken consistent belief down through the centuries. There are extant manuscripts, and fragments, that date back as far as the second or third century that document the early Church’s belief in the Assumption. The Assumption is celebrated in the liturgy as early as the fifth century in Palestine, the sixth in Gaul, universally in the East in the seventh, and in the West in the eighth century.
In some of the early literature, there is legitimate disagreement about whether or not Mary died before being assumed. However, there is no disagreement as to whether or not she was assumed.
There is another fascinating historical reason to believe in the Assumption. There are two claims to tombs of Mary—one in Ephesus and one in Jerusalem. However, there are no claims that either tomb is the permanent resting place for Mary’s body, nor are there any supposed relics. Why would this be? We have relics from the earliest Christians, including the apostles and other contemporaries of our Lord. So if there were relics to be had, why in the world would Our Blessed Mother’s relics not be constantly publicly venerated?
The simple answer is, because her relics are not to be had. Her body is not on earth, as it was assumed into heaven at the end of her life.
We are then left with a question: if Scripture does not explicitly state that Mary was bodily assumed into heaven, why must we believe it?
In short: because the Church teaches it. As has been pointed out many times by many apologists over the years, the very idea that Scripture is the sole infallible rule of faith is not only nonsense, but explicitly refuted by Scripture itself.
- “Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:13).
- “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thess. 2:15).
- “Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account” (Heb. 13:17).
- “If I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
So, the idea of the Bible being the ultimate source and arbiter of truth is false on its face. Scripture itself disproves this belief. The Church is the guardian of the deposit of faith, faithfully transmitting the teachings of Jesus Christ. Christ commissioned the Church to teach all nations (see John 14:26, 16:13), and we know that under the protection and guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church teaches us what is true.