Today is the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary; also called in old liturgical books Pausatio, Nativitas (for heaven), Mors, Depositio, Dormitio S. Mariae. This feast has a double object: (1) the happy departure of Mary from this life; (2) the assumption of her body into heaven. It is the principal feast of the Blessed Virgin.
Regarding the day, year, and manner of Our Lady’s death, nothing certain is known. The earliest known literary reference to the Assumption is found in the Greek work De Obitu S. Dominae. Catholic faith, however, has always derived our knowledge of the mystery from Apostolic Tradition. Epiphanius (d. 403) acknowledged that he knew nothing definite about it (Haer., lxxix, 11). The dates assigned for it vary between three and fifteen years after Christ’s Ascension. Two cities claim to be the place of her departure: Jerusalem and Ephesus. Common consent favours Jerusalem, where her tomb is shown; but some argue in favour of Ephesus. The first six centuries did not know of the tomb of Mary at Jerusalem.
The belief in the corporeal assumption of Mary is founded on the apocryphal treatise De Obitu S. Dominae, bearing the name of St. John, which belongs however to the fourth or fifth century. It is also found in the book De Transitu Virginis, falsely ascribed to St. Melito of Sardis, and in a spurious letter attributed to St. Denis the Areopagite. If we consult genuine writings in the East, it is mentioned in the sermons of St. Andrew of Crete, St. John Damascene, St. Modestus of Jerusalem and others. In the West, St. Gregory of Tours (De gloria mart., I, iv) mentions it first. The sermons of St. Jerome and St. Augustine for this feast, however, are spurious. St. John of Damascus (P. G., I, 96) thus formulates the tradition of the Church of Jerusalem:
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.
Today, the belief in the corporeal assumption of Mary is universal in the East and in the West; according to Benedict XIV (De Festis B.V.M., I, viii, 18) it is a probable opinion, which to deny were impious and blasphemous. (1)
Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
“Today the Virgin Mary ascended to Heaven; rejoice, for She reigns with Christ forever.” The Church will close Her chants on this glorious day with this sweet antiphon, which resumes the object of the Feast and the spirit in which it should be celebrated.
No other solemnity breathes, like this one, at once triumph and peace; none better answers to the enthusiasm of the many and the serenity of souls consummated in love. Assuredly that was as great a triumph when Our Lord, rising by His own power from the tomb, cast Hell into dismay; but to our souls, so abruptly drawn from the abyss of sorrows on Golgotha, the suddenness of the victory caused a sort of stupor to mingle with the joy of that greatest of days. In presence of the prostrate angels, the hesitating apostles, the women seized with fear and trembling, one felt that the divine isolation of the Conqueror of death was perceptible even to His most intimate friends, and kept them, like Magdalene, at a distance.
Mary’s death, however, leaves no impression but peace; that death had no other cause than love. Being a mere creature, She could not deliver Herself from that claim of the old enemy; but leaving Her tomb filled with flowers; She mounts up to Heaven, flowing with delights, leaning upon Her Beloved (Cant. 8: 5). Amid the acclamations of the daughters of Sion, who will henceforth never cease to call Her Blessed, She ascends surrounded by choirs of heavenly spirits joyfully praising the Son of God. Never more will shadows veil, as they did on earth, the glory of the most beautiful daughter of Eve. Beyond the immovable Thrones, beyond the dazzling Cherubim, beyond the flaming Seraphim, onward She passes, delighting the heavenly city with Her sweet perfumes. She stays not till She reaches the very confines of the Divinity; close to the throne of honor where Her Son, the King of ages, reigns in justice and in power; there She is proclaimed Queen, there She will reign for evermore in mercy and in goodness.
Among the feasts of saints, this is the solemnity of solemnities. “Let the mind of man,” says St. Peter Damian, “be occupied in declaring Her magnificence; let his speech reflect Her majesty. May the Sovereign of the world deign to accept the goodwill of our lips, to aid our insufficiency, to illumine with her own light the sublimity of this day.”
It is no new thing, then, that Mary’s triumph fills the hearts of Christians with enthusiasm. If certain ancient calendars give to this Feast the title of Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we cannot thence conclude that in those times the Feast had no other object than Mary’s holy death; the Greeks, from whom we have the expression, have always included in the solemnity the glorious triumph that followed Her death.
At Rome the Assumption or Dormition of the Holy Mother of God appears in the 7th century to have already been celebrated for an indefinite length of time; nor does it seem to have had any other day than August 15. According to Nicephorus Callistus, the same date was assigned to it for Constantinople by the Emperor Mauritius at the end of the 6th century. The historian notes, at the same time, the origin of several other solemnities, while of the Dormition alone, he does not say that it was established by Mauritius on such a day; hence learned authors have concluded that the Feast itself already existed before the imperial decree was issued, which was thus only intended to put an end to its being celebrated on various days.
At that very time, far away from Byzantium, the Merovingian Franks celebrated the glorification of Our Lady on January 18. However the choice of this day may be accounted for, it is remarkable that the Copts on the borders of the Nile announce on January 28, the repose of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and the Assumption of Her body into Heaven; they, however, repeat the announcement on August 21, and two weeks earlier they, like the Greeks, begin their Lent in honor of the Mother of God.
Some authors think that the Assumption has been kept from apostolic times; but the primitive liturgical documents are silent about it. The hesitation as to the date of its celebration, and the liberty so long allowed with regard to it, seem to point to the spontaneous initiative of divers Churches, owing to some fact attracting attention to the mystery or throwing some light upon it. Of this nature we may reckon the account everywhere spread abroad about the year 451, in which Juvenal of Jerusalem related to the Empress St. Pulcheria and her husband Marcian the history of the tomb which the Apostles had prepared for Our Lady at the foot of Mount Olivet, and which was found empty of its precious deposit. The following words of St. Andrew of Crete in the 7th century show how the solemnity of the Assumption gained ground in consequence of such circumstances. The Saint was born at Damascus, became a monk at Jerusalem, was afterwards Deacon at Constantinople, and lastly Bishop of the celebrated island from which he takes his name; no one then could speak for the East with better authority. “The present solemnity,” he says, “is full of mystery, having for its object to celebrate the day whereon the Mother of God fell asleep; this solemnity is too elevated for any discourse to reach; by some this mystery has not always been celebrated, but now all love and honor it. Silence long preceded speech, but now love divulges the secret. The gift of God must be manifested, not buried; we must show it forth, not as recently discovered, but as having recovered its splendor. Some of those who lived before us knew it but imperfectly; that is no reason for always keeping silence about it; it has not become altogether obscured; let us proclaim it and keep a feast. Today let the inhabitants of Heaven and earth be united, let the joy of Angels and men be one, let every tongue exult and sing Hail to the Mother of God.”
In 1870 an earnest desire was expressed to have the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption defined as a dogma of faith; however, due to the Italian civil war, the Vatican Council was suspended too soon to complete our Lady’s crown. This was accomplished in 1950, by His Holiness, Pope Pius XII. (2)
The Feast of the Assumption of the
Blessed Mother of Our Lord
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
Three things are today recalled to our memory: the happy departure of Mary, the mother of Jesus, from this world, her glorious entrance into heaven, and her coronation in heaven. Christ, our Lord, did not take His mother with Him when He ascended to heaven, as He had the power to do, but preferred that she should remain on earth a few more years, to be a consolation and an example of virtue to the Christians. The holy mother passed this time, which, according to the opinion of many, lasted twenty-three years, in great holiness, occupied in prayer, meditation on the heavenly mysteries and joys; in the remembrance of all that her beloved Son had done for thirty-three years for the salvation of mankind, and in instructing and encouraging the Christians. She had the great joy of seeing and hearing how the faith in her Divine Son was spreading everywhere among the Jews and the heathens. Her desire to be called away from earth to be re-united to her Son daily increased. God at length heeded her prayer and sent an Angel to announce to her the day of her departure. O! how rejoiced was the heart of Mary at this message! When the day arrived, on which her soul was to go to heaven, not only those Christians who were related to her, and those who knew her were there, but all the apostles, excepting St. Thomas, who were preaching all over the world, were present.
Mary had requested her Son that they might be there in her last hour. She spoke to all most lovingly, exhorted them to continue in their zeal, assured them of Divine assistance and of her motherly intercession in heaven, and thus bade them farewell. Then Christ Himself, accompanied by numberless holy spirits, appeared to His Blessed Mother, and invited her to enter into the glories of heaven. Mary, filled with an inexpressible joy, repeated the words she had so often uttered: “Be it done unto me according to Thy word;” and then gave her soul into the arms of her Divine Son, in a transport of heavenly love. Her death took place, according to many authentic historians, in the 72nd, or according to others, in the 63rd year of her age. How her loss afflicted the apostles and other Christians, may easily be imagined; but they consoled themselves by her promise to intercede for them and guard them. The glory, with which the soul of the Blessed Virgin was received into heaven, no human tongue can describe, no human understanding comprehend; nor the joy with which she was received, nor the veneration manifested to her by the Saints and other holy spirits.
Meanwhile, nothing was left undone by the apostles and other Christians, necessary for the burial of so pure, so holy a body as that of the Divine Mother. Kissing it most piously, they embalmed it with spices and most precious ointments, while they praised the glory of the Lord. The angels themselves, it is related by some historians, chanted, during this time, a hymn of praise, which was heard by all present. This was continued, St. Juvenalis, bishop of Jerusalem, writes, until the holy body was interred. The apostles and Christians remained at the tomb for three days, incessantly glorifying the Almighty; and several authors of great reputation testify that the Angels continued singing their hymns of praise during all that time, near the body of their Queen.
At the end of the three days, St. Thomas came, and the following event will show that it was providential that he was not there before. Inexpressibly grieved that he had not had the honor of being present at the departure of the soul of the Blessed Virgin, he begged the Apostles to open the tomb, that he might, at least, see and honor her sacred remains. The apostles did so, but found not the body, but only the linen with which it had been covered. They all concluded, enlightened from above, that the soul of the Mother of Jesus, which had, immediately on its departure from this world, gone to heaven, had, by especial divine favor, united itself again with her body, which had been thus received in the Eternal Kingdom. And it is this which is commemorated by the festival of this day.
No Christian can hesitate to believe the ascension of Mary and her reception, in soul and body, into Heaven, if he considers that the Son of God dwelt nine months in her chaste womb. It was surely not meet that her body, which had been unstained by sin, and only used in the service of the Most High, and which had been a dwelling of the Word of God, should decay and become food for worms. The Almighty has preserved the bodies of many of the Saints; who then can suppose that He would allow the body of Mary to corrupt and become dust and ashes? And if the body of the Blessed Virgin were still somewhere upon earth and uncorrupted, it is hardly possible to believe that God would have kept it so long concealed from the knowledge of the church; especially as He has miraculously revealed the resting-place of the bodies of several of His Saints, who were far below the Divine Mother in dignity and holiness. Hence, the belief that the Blessed Mother entered heaven in body and soul, is one which cannot reasonably be doubted by those who profess the Christian faith. It is equally without doubt that the Blessed Virgin was exalted to such glory as no other Saint enjoys ; therefore, it is right to believe that she was crowned Queen of all Saints.
On earth she was not only far beyond the Saints in the exalted position in which the Almighty placed her when He chose her as the mother of His only Son, but she also immeasurably surpassed them in grace, virtue and merit. How, then, can we think otherwise, than that she is raised far above them all in the kingdom of her Son? The just, according to Holy Writ, shall shine like stars in Heaven. How bright, then, must be the light of her, who-surpassed all the just in fidelity and holiness? “If no eye hath seen, nor ear heard, nor the mind of man hath been able to conceive, what God prepares for all those who love Him,” says St. Bernard, “how can we describe what was prepared for her who gave Him birth, and who loved Him above all others?” King Solomon, wishing to honor his mother, made her sit upon a throne at his right hand. How can a Christian doubt that Jesus Christ, who loved His Mother much more than Solomon loved his, would honor her in like manner? No; all the faithful recognize and honor the Divine Mother, raised as high above all the Saints in heaven, as she surpassed them in all things on earth. “The glory of the Blessed Virgin surpasses that of the other Saints,” says St. Bernard, “as the light of the sun does that of the stars of heaven.”
“Our greatest comfort should be that, as much as Mary is exalted above all the Saints of heaven, so she is far more solicitous about us than they are.” These are the words of St. Bonaventure. St. Bernard writes, that Mary, the Blessed Virgin, was taken to heaven, to become our intercessor with her Divine Son. The same is written by other Holy Fathers, as St. Irenaeus, St. Ephrem, St. Anselm, St. Gregory Nazianzen and St. John of Damascus, who all confer upon the holy Mother the title of Intercessor, and hence beg her intercession. “We all,” says St. Ephrem, “prostrate ourselves before thee; we all ask thy intercession.” “Why shouldst thou not come to the assistance of us sinners,” says St. Anselm, “as thou hast been so highly exalted in our behalf? We recommend ourselves to thy mercy; watch over us that we may not go to destruction.” The true Church also, agreeing with the holy fathers, in the Holy Mass of yesterday and today, testifies, that the Blessed Virgin was taken into heaven, there to pray for us. Besides, it is well known that the Church often has recourse to the Mother of God as our intercessor with the Most High, in the beautiful hymn of praise, “Salve Regina;” “Hail! holy Queen.” (7)
Image: Crop of Assumption of the Virgin, artist: Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1626. (3)
Research by REGINA Staff