Making Assumptions about the Assumption

Every year the Church obliges Catholics to attend Mass on August 15th, in the middle of summer, to honor the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The belief pertaining to Mary’s Assumption, while celebrated for centuries (many saints have homilies on the Assumption), was elevated to the status of dogma with the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus on November 1, 1950 by Pope Pius XII. Essentially the Holy Father declared it to be true that Mary was assumed body and soul into Heaven, and to support this claim, he provided the witness of the Catholic Church throughout the centuries. Despite the definition and support throughout history for the belief, the document leaves open-ended certain questions pertaining to the Assumption. As a result, individuals hold a variety of opinions regarding this Marian event.

You could say, people make assumptions about Mary’s assumption—specifically whether or not she died, where it occurred, and how old she was. Let’s look at the questions and see what assumptions we can make about the Assumption dogma.

1. Did Mary Die?

Last year I celebrated the feast of the Assumption as an outdoor Mass at the local Catholic cemetery. I thought it was quite the appropriate imagery for the Assumption, since it is our hope to go where Jesus ascended, and where Mary was assumed to reign as Queen of Heaven and Earth. The feast of the Assumption presents us with the question of whether or not Mary died. The Holy Father did not answer this question, as he chose to reflect on her bodily assumption, and not her death, thus leaving the question open to speculation.

There are three theological camps that emerge within Assumption theology: the dormitionists, assumptionists, and immortalists. Dormitionists believe Mary fell asleep until “she was transferred, body and soul to share her Son’s glory.” Assumptionists maintain Mary died and was placed in a tomb, and later the tomb was found empty. The Immortalists argue that Mary had no need to undergo death since she was not the savior and because death is a consequent of original sin. They believe that Mary was glorified and taken to heaven while still alive. (See Denis Farkasfalvy, The Marian Mystery: Outline of a Mariology, p. 167).

What assumption have I made about the Assumption?  I align myself with the Assumptionist position, that Mary died and was placed in a tomb, later to be discovered empty. I reached my opinion based off the many biographies of Mary by spiritual and mystical authors. The first work that I personally place a high value on is by Maximus the Confessor called The Life of Mary. I trust this account because it presents a synthesis of the Catholic tradition from the early Church to the seventh century. I also have reviewed the works of Venerable Maria of Agreda and Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, who through visions, saw the life of Mary and related it in their accounts The Mystical City of God and The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, respectively. All three accounts seem to confirm the assumptionist position. Our authors recount a second-annunciation moment for Mary, in which the angel appears and tells Mary that her time to be reunited with her son would soon be approaching. In the accounts, the Apostles are summoned to Mary’s bedside and are present at her passing, and then carry her body in funeral procession to the tomb. When an apostle arrives late, the tomb is opened, only to find the burial cloths.

Why would Mary have chosen to die?  One of the biographers recounts Mary’s option of choosing to be assumed into heaven according to the immortalist position, or to experience death. To closer identify with her son, Maria of Agreda says Mary chose to experience death and fall asleep in the Lord. With the Assumptionist account, there are parallels to the resurrection with Mary’s empty tomb. Have you considered whether Mary died?  What assumption will you make?

2. Where did the Assumption take place?

Most pilgrims to the Holy Land will visit Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem, where Benedictine monks worship and pray. In the crypt of the church, the pilgrim will discover a resting Mary on a funeral bier. Again, turning to Maximus the Confessor’s biography, he says that the apostles processed through the streets of Jerusalem from Mount Sion (where Dormition Abbey is) to the Mount of Olives, where Mary was placed in a tomb near Gethsemane. At the foot of the Mount of Olives is an Armenian/Greek Orthodox church which claims to house the tomb of Mary. From this tradition, it would appear that Assumption took place in Jerusalem, which is present in the biographies by Maximus and Maria Agreda. Emmerich though, recounts a different version based of her mystical visions.

From the cross, Jesus entrusted Mary to John, and John to Mary, and from that hour he took Mary into his home. Many believe that Mary accompanied John to Ephesus for his apostolic work. Maximus the Confessor, however, disagrees, alleging Mary never made it to Ephesus and was instructed in an apparition of Jesus to return to Jerusalem. Mary of Agreda claims Mary did go to Ephesus but eventually returned to Jerusalem. Anne Catherine Emmerich proposes for our consideration that the Assumption took place in Ephesus. And to a certain degree, Emmerich’s account received quasi-validation from the efforts of a Visitation nun, Sr. Marie de Mandat Grancey (1837-1915) who was profoundly moved by Emmerich’s mystical life of Mary (See Mary’s House in Ephesus from Tan Books).  Responding to Leo XIII’s call for missionaries to the Middle East, Sr. Marie worked in Turkey, near Smyrna, and during that time encountered the writings of Emmerich.

Given Sr. Marie’s status as a daughter of nobility, she received support from her family to fund archaeological excavations in Ephesus to locate the home of Mary as described by Emmerich. With the descriptions from Emmerich’s private revelations, the house of Mary was discovered, and to this day remains a site of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims. This lends some credence to Emmerich’s account. If a person who never ventured to Ephesus (Emmerich) could in detail describe the surroundings to the point that an archeological excavation team could find the alleged home of Mary, what more does it offer us in terms of accepting the claims made by Emmerich’s visions?  Her account asks us to consider an alternative location for the dormition.

Despite the recent evidence in favor of Emmerich’s version, I make my assumption about the location to be Jerusalem. It could be because I’ve been a pilgrim to the Holy Land and prayed several times at Dormition Abbey and the Orthodox tomb of Mary. I believe there is a strong history for Jerusalem, as the tomb church dates to the 400’s. If I one day make it to Ephesus on pilgrimage, maybe I’ll change my mind. But for now, I’ll stick with my assumption.

3. How old was Mary?

Another question people often ask me about Mary’s life relates to her age. I’m not sure why this is an important question, but it gets asked more than you could imagine. You can get a rough idea by calculating Mary as a teenage girl plus 33 years with Jesus, and then several years following the Resurrection and Ascension. What do the biographers say?  Maximus, age 80; Agreda, 70 years; Emmerich, 64 years. Maximus bases his answer off the psalm that says 70 years, 80 for those who are strong, characterizing Mary as a strong person. Between the three, there is no point of agreement regarding Mary’s age. To be honest, I have not made any personal assumptions regarding Mary’s age, because I consider it a topic of least importance.

Final Thoughts about Assumption Assumptions

The sacred scriptures only tell us so much about Mary. The curiosity of our minds wants to know more than what is biblically accessible to us. I guess we can thank God for the synthesizing of Maximus the Confessor, and the mystical visions received by Maria of Agreda and Anne Catherine Emmerich. Their biographies can help fill in some of the gaps about Mary’s life, especially as we strive to make assumptions about the Assumption. For the record, everything I have presented about the Assumption, is open to criticism, and you are not obliged to believe any of it. These questions are simply posed to help us delve deeper in our personal reflection about the person of Mary. Whether or not she died, where it took place, or how old she was, has no consequence for our eternal salvation. The most important assumption we can make about the Assumption is this: because Mary now is in Heaven, she intercedes for us, and knows our needs before we do ourselves. That’s an assumption we can all believe.

image: By Livioandronico2013 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Fr. Edward Looney is a priest in the Diocese of Green Bay, a Marian theologian, author, columnist, media personality, podcaster, film enthusiast, and fellow pilgrim. He is the host of the podcast, Hey Everybody! It’s Fr. Edward. You can follow him on social media at the handle @FrEdwardLooney.

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