My friend Margie, who teaches two- to three-year-olds in our parish religious education program, says that the secret to teaching this age group is a healthy prayer life. The week she taught her class about the Assumption of Mary, Margie spent a long time on her knees.
She was stumped. “How is it possible to explain this to a two-year-old?”
Fortunately, our Lord always answers the prayers of those who want to honor His Mother. “As I prayed, the idea came to me a helium balloon! I tied a string on the balloon and taped a picture of Jesus to the front. I let one of the children release the string in class to illustrate how Jesus was taken into heaven. Then I tied a picture of Mary to the end of the string and released the balloon a second time to show how Jesus ‘pulled’ His Mother up to heaven to be with Him. It was a simple thing but it worked!”
This simple truth, that Mary was taken body and soul into heaven, is difficult for some Christians to grasp. Why is this dogma an important part of the Catholic faith?
The Assumption of Mary is one of four Marian dogmas to be infallibly defined by the Magisterium. In 1950, Pope Pius XII promulgated this dogma in a letter entitled Munificentissimus Deus:
Immaculate in her conception, a spotless virgin in her divine motherhood, the noble companion of the divine Redeemer Who won a complete triumph over sin and its consequences, she finally obtained as the crowning glory of her privileges to be preserved from the corruption of the tomb and like her Son before her, to conquer death and to be raised body and soul to the glory of heaven, to shine refulgent as Queen at the right hand of the Son, the immortal King of ages [cf. 1 Tm 1:17].
Although this was the first time the doctrine was formally defined, it should be noted that belief in the Assumption of Mary has long been a part of our faith tradition. There are three strong arguments for this tradition: Scripture, the devotional practices of the early Church, and the writings of the Church Fathers.
The concept of the Assumption is not unprecedented in Scripture. The Bible gives three examples of people who did not experience death the normal way: Enoch (Gn 5:25), Elijah (2 Kgs 2:9-11), and Moses (Dt 34:5-7, Jude 1:9). Both Moses and Elijah are visible at Christ’s Transfiguration (see Mk 9:4-5; Mt 17:3).
Even so, the Assumption of Mary has a unique place in the redemption story: Her purity and dignity as the Mother of God has accorded her a unique place in heaven, in anticipation of the heavenly glory that we will one day receive ourselves: “In teaching her doctrine about the human person’s destination after death, the Church excludes any explanation that would deprive the assumption of the Virgin Mary of its unique meaning, namely the fact that the bodily glorification of the virgin is an anticipation of the glorification that is the destiny of all the other elect.”
It is from this heavenly place of glory that she intercedes for us, as the “woman clothed with the sun” whose descendents are “all those who obey God’s commandments and are faithful to the truth revealed by Jesus” (Rv 12:17).
Why would Mary receive such special graces from God? In the Revelation of John, we find one clue. In Revelation 11:19, John reports seeing “the ark of his covenant within his temple,” just before he sees “a woman clothed with the sun” (Rv 12:1). The proximity of these two images suggested to some Church Fathers that the two are actually one that is, that Mary is herself the Ark of the New Covenant.
As you may recall, the Ark of the Covenant was a sacred box that contained three reminders of God’s presence among His people Israel: a jar of the manna God fed His people in the desert; the flowering rod of Aaron, a sign of his priestly office; and the tablets of stone containing the Law, which Moses received from God. The Ark was kept in the Holy of Holies, where the high priest entered once a year to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people.
As the Ark of the New Covenant, Mary held within her the Bread of Life, the great High Priest, and the one who came “not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it” (Mt 5:17). And so, just as the first Ark remained within the Holy of Holies, where the priest offered God sacrifices on behalf of the people, so the Ark of the New Covenant has a cherished place in heaven, near the one Who offers up the perfect offering (Heb 12:22-24).
There is no explicit statement in Scripture about Mary’s death, any more than it gives us details about the end of Joseph’s life or the deaths of most of the Apostles. These things have been preserved for us through Church Tradition, and particularly through her liturgical and devotional practices.
For example, the Church has always preserved and revered the relics of her saints that is, the bodies and personal effects of those who have gone before us to heaven. However, no relics of Jesus’s mother exist, or are even mentioned in the writings of the early Church. Had Mary’s body remained in the tomb, her relics would certainly have been given the highest place of honor like the bits of the Apostles’ relics that are cherished in altars of Catholic churches all over the world.
We need not be alarmed at Scripture’s silence. Much of the New Testament was likely written within Mary’s lifetime. It is also likely that the full implications of Mary’s unique role in the salvation story took some time to develop. This is true in many areas of Catholic teaching.
How can this be? While the full revelation of the Gospel was completely transmitted by the Apostles, the implications of this revelation have fully developed over the course of centuries. This is why the Holy Spirit was sent, to guide us “to all truth” (Jn 16:13). And this is why we draw from Tradition, the Magisterium, and the Scriptures for our storehouse of spiritual truth.
Since Mary was kept from the stain of original sin, and remained holy throughout her life (CCC 966), Mary may not have experienced physical death. For this reason, the Eastern Church Fathers speak of the “dormition” or “falling asleep” of Mary. As St. John of Damascus observed: “The earth could not bear her divine body and dissolve it, as with other mortals. Nay, though necessary that it be delivered to death, three days thereafter, her relics were delivered incorruptible into angelic hands. She becomes incorruptible, rises, and is translated to heaven. There she stands before her Son and God in a living body.”
The Roman Catholic Church affirms only that Mary was taken into heavenly glory “when the course of her earthly life was finished…” (CCC 966). Some sources suggest that all Apostles except Thomas (even those who had already died) were present at Mary’s bedside, and carried her to her tomb where three days later her body disappeared, leaving only a few grave clothes and the strong aroma of roses in her wake.
In his apostolic letter Redemptoris Mater, Pope John Paul II reminds us of the most important aspect of Mary’s Assumption she is our roadmap to that blessed state of grace, the string that guides us ever heavenward: “It can be said that ‘in the Most Holy Virgin the Church has already reached that perfection whereby she exists without spot or wrinkle.’ Hence, as Christians raise their eyes with faith to Mary in the course of their earthly pilgrimage, they “strive to increase in holiness.” Mary, the exalted Daughter of Sion, helps all her children, wherever they may be and whatever their condition, to find in Christ the path to the Father's house.
Raised in the Evangelical Protestant tradition, Heidi Saxton was confirmed Catholic in 1993. She is the author of With Mary in Prayer (Loyola) and is a graduate student (theology) at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. You may contact Heidi at firstname.lastname@example.org.