By Liz Hoefferle
Handing on the Faith
Growing up, I had no trouble remembering the date on which the church celebrates the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That’s because my best friend was born on Aug. 15 — the Solemnity of the Assumption — and was thus named Mary.
While I’ve long understood that the Assumption celebrates the Blessed Virgin Mary’s being assumed body and soul into heaven, I continue to grow in appreciation of the significance of what this celebration means.
The Assumption is part of God’s providential plan for the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom he chose to be the mother of our Savior. We recall Mary’s important role in her Son’s redemptive work, and we celebrate her participation in his Resurrection.
Mary’s Assumption is best understood through its intimate connection with her Immaculate Conception. Being conceived without original sin, Mary was prepared by God to be a fitting tabernacle for our Lord. When her earthly life was complete, her sinless body was preserved from the corruption of death.
However, “what is commemorated in this feast [the Assumption] is not simply the total absence of corruption from the dead body of the Blessed Virgin but also her triumph over death and her glorification in heaven, after the pattern set by her only Son, Jesus Christ” (Munificentissimus Deus 20).
What Mary experienced through the assumption of her body and soul into heaven is the basis for our hope at the end of time, when the bodies and souls of the righteous will be reunited and “will reign for ever with Christ, glorified in body and soul” (CCC 1042). We profess this in the Nicene Creed when we pray, “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
Through her Assumption into heaven, Mary “did not have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of her body” (MD 5). She has already fully experienced the fruits of her Son’s saving work, something we hope to experience one day.
Pope Pius XII wrote the document “Munificentissimus Deus” in 1950 to define the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. Through prayer, invocation of the Holy Spirit, the study of historical church teachings, input from bishops and theologians, and observance of the devotions of the faithful, he formally articulated this dogma.
A dogma is the church’s proclamation of God’s revealed truth. It is not a man-made teaching. It is the proclamation of something that the church has always believed, taught and celebrated as having been revealed by God.
In the cases of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her Immaculate Conception, these dogmas were defined “ex-cathedra,” which means “from the chair” of the pope.
Dogmas are defined by the magisterium, the teaching authority of the church. The magisterium consists of the pope and the bishops in communion with him. A dogma can be proclaimed in a “definitive manner” by the pope (“ex-cathedra”) or through such means as an ecumenical council of the church (a council in which bishops throughout the world participate).
It sometimes becomes necessary for the church to formally define and articulate what she believes in order to counteract false teachings that may mislead the faithful. For example, in the early centuries of the church there arose a need to formally clarify the revealed truth of Jesus’ humanity and divinity.
Some persons began teaching that Jesus was not truly human, while others taught that Jesus was not truly divine. In order to clarify the church’s teachings, a series of church councils defined the dogmas of the divinity of Christ and of the Incarnation. The church, thus, clarified that Jesus Christ is one divine person with a fully human nature and a fully divine nature.
A dogma may also be defined to help the faithful know with certainty what the church holds as a revealed truth. Such is the case with the Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. These revealed truths, which are found implicitly in Sacred Scripture and had been expressed in various church writings and liturgical celebrations, needed to be formally articulated for the faithful to understand.
Thus Pope Pius XII did not declare something new in 1950 when he defined the dogma of the Assumption. He formally proclaimed something that was discerned to have been revealed by God and which had been believed and celebrated throughout the history of the church.
Within Sacred Scripture, the Virgin Mary’s Assumption is manifested in the “woman clothed with the sun” in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 12:1). The Old Testament prefigures Mary as the new “Ark of the Covenant,” which is preserved from corruption and placed in the Lord’s temple: “Arise, Lord, come to your resting place, you and your majestic ark” (Psalm 132:8). Mary is also prefigured as the “Queen of Heaven,” who takes her place at the right hand of the king (cf. Psalm 45:10).
References to the Assumption are found in writings from the early centuries of the church. Liturgical references to the Assumption are found in homilies by St. Andrew of Crete and St. John Damascene in the seventh and eighth centuries.
The celebration of a feast day in honor of the Assumption of Mary is contained in a sacramentary given to the Emperor Charlemagne by Pope Adrian I in the eighth century (Sacramentarium Gregorianum).
Much has been written about the Assumption by fathers, doctors, saints and popes, including St. Anthony of Padua, St. Albert the Great, St. Bonaventure, St. Alphonsus Liguori and St. Robert Bellarmine. Acts of piety and devotion by the faithful throughout the centuries show a universal understanding of the significance of the Assumption.
The Assumption of Mary has long been one of the decades of the rosary, through which we meditate upon the mysteries of our redemption. And the Assumption continues to be a Holy Day of Obligation, in which we celebrate the important role of the Blessed Virgin Mary within God’s plan of salvation and pray that we, too, will share in her Son’s glory in heaven.
Liz Hoefferle is director of religious education for the Diocese of Duluth.