The word “holiday” means “holy day” and that brings us to a significant holy day of obligation in the Church’s calendar – The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Assumption of Mary was first officially defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950. As typically is the case, many non-Catholics insists the Church concocted this teaching as they see no Scriptural evidence that Mary was bodily assumed into heaven. However, in this article, we’ll go through a meticulous investigation to demonstrate that the Virgin Mary’s body did not experience decay and that she, in fact, was bodily assumed into heaven at or near the point of death.
Why would God take Mary into heaven like that? Its’ not that far of a stretch because after all God lifted up Enoch and Elijah into heaven without them ever tasting death (Hebrews 11:5, Genesis 5:24, 2 Kings 2:11). God raised many righteous Jews from the dead at Jesus’ resurrection (Mt 27:52-53), and he has promised to “rapture” up both living and dead believers at the end of time (1 Thess 4:16-17). Why wouldn’t Jesus do the same for his mother, the woman whom he is bound to honor by his own law? While these tidbits shed light on the possibility of the Assumption, in order to better substantiate the Assumption, we must back up to grasp the theological reality of how a body would remain pristine despite the reality of earthly decay.
When God created the first human, he created him in two forms that were designed to be united together. These two forms are body and soul. The body is a part of the physical dimension while the soul represents the totality of a person’s thoughts spaced in this spiritual dimension. As it states in Genesis, “God created man from the dust of the ground and breathed into him the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7). The dust of the ground represents the body (material dimension) and the breath of life personifies the soul (spiritual dimension). These dimensions of body and soul are so closely connected that if you affect one, you necessarily affect the other.
A helpful analogy would be to imagine the human creation as a book. A book, similarly, has two interconnected parts to it – the words of the book (i.e., material dimension) and the meaning of the book (i.e., spiritual dimension). If you change the words of the book, you would simultaneously alter the meaning of the book, and if you changed the meaning of the book, you’d instantaneously alter alter the words of the book. Therefore, if your soul is negatively changed by sin, your body would be negatively affected by sin with an eventual death. However, if your soul never experienced the stain of sin, then it would follow that your body would not encounter a physical decay.
The death of the soul at the fall, triggered the eventual corrosion of the body into the grave. When sin first arrived in Eden, God declared to man, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Therefore, this bodily decay into dust of the body at death is a direct result of original sin. But, if Mary was made without sin (Immaculate Conception), she can bypass this “return to dust” corruption. In other words, Scripture tells us the consequences of original sin is an eventual rotting of the body. This formula would then be reversed by Mary not being subject to either original sin or the bodily deterioration that ensues from sin. This concept is rather basic to grasp. Because of the united dimensions of body and soul and since sin acts as a vector of contagion of the body, if one is without sin, then no bodily decomposition will occur.
So, the next question is – was Mary created without original sin?
If Mary is to bear sinless Jesus it would make theological sense that, she, herself, needs to be created, pure – without sin. The idea that Mary was created without sin is divulged from the angel’s greeting to Mary, “Hail you who are full of grace, the Lord is with thee” (Luke 1:28). The word “hail” is what one said when before a person of royalty and high honor – much like people would declare, “Hail Caesar.” In this verse, we see a holy angel giving high admiration to Mary. Mary’s reaction of being “greatly troubled” by this type of greeting insinuates her privileged status before an angel.
Many theologians point out that the “full of grace” phrase acts as the angel declaring that Mary’s name is now “full of grace.” That is, Mary’s whole being is embodied as being “full of grace,” thus her name is proclaimed as such. The Greek phrase St. Luke uses is the perfect passive participle, kekaritomene, as his “name” for Mary. This word literally means “she who has been graced” in a completed sense. The perfect tense is used to indicate that an action has been completed in the past resulting in a present state of being.
Therefore, if Mary is in a “full of grace” she must be sparkling with radiance, dare we say without blemish – without sin (see CCC 490-493). If Mary was not subject to original sin, then she would not have to suffer bodily corruption in human decay after death. That is, Mary was received bodily into heaven and resurrected without going through the usual process of physical decay that is universal for all sinners.
The teaching that Mary was assumed into heaven builds off the evidence that Mary is the New Eve and The Ark of The New Covenant. If Mary is the New Eve, this means just as Eve was created without sin, so too Mary was created without sin. If Mary is the New Eve, who shares in the New Adam’s victory over sin, then she should also share in his victory over death and physical decay.
Given that Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant it follows that she is pure, without sin. Nothing defiled was allowed to touch the Ark. The presence of God was always overshadowing the Ark as the Ark was made with the finest of gold and was highly revered (see Exodus 25:11-21, 1Chronicles chapters 15-16). If Mary is the new Ark, death and decay – which is the totality of what is defiled cannot touch her. She is pure. She is full of grace. She will by-pass decay altogether. Why would God allow this sacred Ark to rot in the grave? It is not fitting that the body which was sanctified to bear God Incarnate should see this corruption.
Is the Woman of Revelation 12 Mary?
God gave the Apostle John a grand revealing into heaven. John then penned this vision in the famous Book of Revelation. When John compiled this book, there was no chapter and verse separating the layout. John began to describe that the Ark of the Covenant was physically located in heaven. However, instead of describing a gold box, he begins to describe a woman.
“Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. . . And a great sign appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child . . . . she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all nations with a rod of iron” (see Revelation 11:19-12:5).
A couple important clues we can pick up from this passage. The woman the John describes has a body and soul and is physically, bodily, in heaven. Now, some can say, “How does this mean she is in heaven bodily? There are lots of souls in heaven, but they don’t have their bodies.” It seems clear that “the woman” is depicted as having “the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown.” Elsewhere in Revelation and in other Scriptures, saints in heaven are referred to as the “souls of those who had been slain” (Rev. 6:9) or “the spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb. 12:23). Why? Because they do not have bodies! They are disembodied “souls” or “spirits.” But the ‘woman’ of Rev. 12 is portrayed as having a body with a head and feet.
As we keep contemplating this woman, there are at least three reasons why one cannot escape including Mary when examining Revelation 12 and specifically the identity of “the woman.”
1. “The woman” in Rev. 12 “brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with an iron rod: and her son was taken up to God, and to his throne.” This child is obviously Jesus. If we begin on the literal level, there is no doubt that Mary is literally the one who “brought forth” Jesus.
2. Though we could discover many spiritual levels of meaning for the flight of “the woman” to avoid the vile dragon (Rev. 12:4-6, 14), Mary and the Holy Family literally fled into Egypt (see Matt. 2:13-15) with divine assistance to evade a demonic-like figure in King Herod.
3. Mary is referred to prophetically as “woman” in Gen. 3:15, Jer. 31:22, and by Jesus as “woman” in John 2:4 and 19:26. Especially considering the same Apostle John wrote the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation, it is no stretch to say St. John would have had Mary in mind when he used the familiar term “the woman” as the descriptor of the Lady of the Apocalypse.
Early Christian Witness
Now, that we see the Assumption makes logical Biblical sense, we need to see if the earliest Christians believed in the Assumption. Do we have evidence that the earliest members of the faith acknowledged the Assumption? Yes, and the clues that the earliest Christians believed in the Assumption is the lack of any Marian relics, and numerous quotes from early Christians.
Where are the bones of Mary? Bones and other remains of saints are called relics. Bones were treated with the utmost reverence and respect throughout salvation history. Joseph placed his brothers under an oath in giving them specific instructions about what they are to do with his bones (Gen 50:25). Moses then took the bones of Joseph with him to Egypt (Exod 13:19, Josh 24:32). When a dead man was thrown on to the bones of Elisha he came back to life (2 Kgs 13:21). The prophet Samuel as well highlighted the significance of gathering up the bones of Saul as well as others (2 Sam 21:12-14). In fact, it was considered a punishment if one was unable to have their remains buried with their ancestors (1 Kgs 13:21-31). In sum, those in the Jewish and Christian faith were intensely meticulous in honoring the bones and relics of the saints and martyrs, even if it involved great risk. They did this out of great reverence for the body as a member of Christ and temple of the Holy Spirit (see 1Corinthians 6:15, 19).
In the Church, we have the bones of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John as well as many others who lived at the time of Jesus. We even have the bones of Mary’s mother Anne. However, the bones of the Blessed Mother are curiously missing. Even though the bones of the early saints were highly prized among the churches, no church has ever claimed to have the remains of Mary. Why is that? This would have been the most treasured relic of all – the mortal remains of the Savior’s only blood relative, the very same body which had carried God Incarnate for nine months and nursed and cared for him afterward. Yet in all of Church history, both biblical and extra-biblical, there is no record of Mary’s remains.
Just as the fact that we don’t have the bones of Jesus is a supporting argument for his Resurrection and Ascension; the fact that we don’t have the bones of Mary is a supporting argument for the Assumption of Mary.
While no church has declared that they have the bones of Mary, there is a church dating back fairly early that claims to be the spot where Mary was assumed into heaven. In 600 A.D., Emperor Marice decreed that the feast of the Assumption was to be observed on August 15 in Constantinople. One of the oldest shrines in the Holy Land is the Church of the Dormition, the spot venerated from which Mary was assumed into heaven. This church dates back to the 5th century.
The early Christians actually knew that something unusual and miraculous had happened to Mary’s body soon after her death. Some of the earliest writings about Mary’s death surface in what scholars call the Transitus or “the passing.” These writings date back to 150 to 300 A.D. The Syrian fragments date as far back as 100 to 200 A.D. While these writings don’t claim to be eye witness accounts of Mary’s Assumption, they rather act as poetically describing a real event through the lens of a fictional story. Therefore, the passing of Mary stories were like novels written today that have for their setting some fact of history. For example, novels written about World War II would not be true stories, but would have some truth in them because they have for their setting an actual event – World War II. This is factually true even though the story itself would not be true.
The Transitus has for its setting the Assumption of Mary and the kernel of truth here is, of course, a real event – the Assumption. There are some who mistakenly maintain that the Assumption has for its source the Transitus. This of course is not true anymore than we would say that World War II has for its source a novel written on World War II. Therefore, the stories in the Transitus are still valuable, for they attest to the fact that the Assumption was a widespread belief in the Church. Early Christians knew that God had raptured Mary into heaven, so they wanted to write various fictional stories describing how it occurred.
Many Church Fathers positively deduce the Assumption of Mary, as seen in the following quotes:
“If therefore it might come to pass before the power of your grace, it has appeared right to us your servants that, as you, having overcome death does reign in glory, so you should raise up the body of your mother and take her with you, rejoicing into heaven. Then said the Savior [Jesus]: ‘Be it done according to your will” (Pseudo-Melito The Passing of the Virgin 16:2-17; 300 AD).
“Therefore the Virgin is immortal to this day, seeing that he who had dwelt in her transported her to the regions of her assumption” (Timothy of Jerusalem Homily on Simeon and Anna; 400 AD).
“And from that time forth all knew that the spotless and precious body had been transferred to paradise” (John the Theologian, The Falling Asleep of Mary; 400 AD)
“The Apostles took up her body on a bier and placed it in a tomb; and they guarded it, expecting the Lord to come. And behold, again the Lord stood by them; and the holy body having been received, He commanded that it be taken in a cloud into paradise: where now, rejoinedd to the soul, [Mary] rejoices with the Lord’s chosen ones…” (Gregory of Tours, Eight Books of Miracles, 1:4; 575-593 A.D.)
“As the most glorious Mother of Christ, our Savior and God and the giver of life and immortality, has been endowed with life by him, she has received an eternal incorruptibility of the body together with him who has raised her up from the tomb and has taken her up to himself in a way known only to him.” (Modestus of Jerusalem, Encomium in dormitionnem Sanctissimae Dominae nostrae Deiparae semperque Virginis Mariae (PG 86-II,3306, before A.D. 634)
“It was fitting…that the most holy-body of Mary, God-bearing body, receptacle of God, divinized, incorruptible, illuminated by divine grace and full glory…should be entrusted to the earth for a little while and raised up to heaven in glory, with her soul pleasing to God.” (Theoteknos of Livias, Homily on the Assumption; before 650 A.D.)
Given we have ample Biblical clues and evidence from the early Church on the Assumption, let’s look at the common objections about the Assumption. The first oft lamented objection is that the teaching of the Assumption makes Mary equal with Jesus. People who assert this are simply showcasing their ignorance of what ascension and assumption mean. There is a big difference. Mary did not ascend into heaven; she was assumed into heaven. Jesus ascended by his own power, Mary was taken up into heaven by God. The Assumption is essentially the same as what Evangelicals call the “rapture.” we could even say that Mary was “raptured” into heaven at the end of her life.
Another common objection is the all too predictable line that “the assumption of Mary is not in the Bible.” This idea assumes if something is not plainly stated in the Bible, it must not be true. Nobody actually holds to the logic if it’s not in the Bible in a straight-forward manner, it must not be true. Almost all Christians will assert the doctrine of the Trinity as a true and established fact Yet, the word “Trinity” and definition of the Trinity is also not in the Bible. All Christians assert that Jesus is God. Yet, the Bible doesn’t say this in a straight-forward manner. Jesus used parables, riddles, and Old Testament prophecies to reveal he is God. In fact, even the Protestant mantra of Sola Scriptura (Bible alone) is not taught in the Bible, and certainly not asserted in a straight-forward verse.
Jesus even indicated to his followers that the reason he teaches in parables and riddles is so that his followers would have to hunt for the meaning of his words in a humble fashion (see Matthew 13: 10-15, 34). As I’ve shown under the Biblical evidence, the essential building blocks of the Assumption are scattered in the Bible. Just like love requires two entities who endlessly pursue each other, the Church takes God’s data and masterfully unpacks the meaning to its full flowering. God wants us to take his data and seek out what it means (through the Church he left us). He doesn’t want us to lazily assert, “If I don’t see something in a straight forward manner, it must not be there.”
In fact, the Apostle John said that Jesus did many things that were not written down. “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). By this verse, John is signifying that there are many teachings of Jesus that are not in the Bible.
The final clue that vindicates the Assumption is that there is actual scientific evidence that confirms the Assumption. Modern science reveals that mothers retain the children’s cells in them for years on end after they give birth. That is, the child’s biological DNA that is in the mother before birth, stays with the mother throughout her life. Given the fact that Mary would actually have God’s holy DNA cells in her for her whole life, confirms in no way would her body decompose in death. No part of God is tarnished. Therefore, by God having his inner being fully integrated into Mary’s body, guarantees that Mary was both Immaculately Conceived and Immaculately Assumed into heaven.
As Catholics, we put Mary in a place of high honor because this is what God wants. Everyone needs a mother – and oh, what a mother we have. She was Immaculately Assumed into heaven. And there she stands with a body and soul that is perfectly united ready to help us to her Son.