Today, in the midst of the summer heat, we pause to refresh ourselves as we celebrate the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, commemorating the moment when Mary was assumed bodily into heaven.
Each year on this date a common question for Catholics to pose to their pastors is whether Mary was assumed into heaven alive or after she had died. I have heard responses given in support of both possibilities, and given quite emphatically, but the fact remains that this is a point on which we are free to believe either possibility, since the Church does not provide a definitive teaching on the matter.
What we are held by faith to believe is that “the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” This was the statement Pope Pius XII made when proclaiming the dogma of the Assumption of Mary in 1950 (Munificentissimus Deus 44). Over the centuries many commentators have weighed in on either side of the question of Mary’s death, and Pius XII himself did implicitly, but in using the words “having completed the course of her earthly life” he purposefully left ambiguity in his teaching and thus the faithful may believe that Mary underwent a natural death or that she was assumed living into heaven.
The Church chooses powerful scripture passages to focus our attention on key lessons of our Blessed Mother’s Assumption. First, we turn back to a relatively obscure place in the Old Testament, the First Book of Chronicles. There we hear how King David, having just conquered the Philistines and captured back the Ark of the Covenant, was bringing the Ark up to Jerusalem to enthrone it in a place of honor and worship the Lord in its presence.
Some Catholics may remember that in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also called the Litany of Loreto, we refer to Mary as the “Ark of the Covenant.” The original Ark was eventually placed in the Temple in Jerusalem and later lost at the time of the Babylonian exile. Mary is invoked as the new “Ark of the Covenant” because her womb held the long-awaited messiah and redeemer of Israel and of the whole world—the one who fulfilled all the promises of the Old Testament represented by the Ark, as well as the hopes of King David and all who followed in his footsteps.
For the next lesson stemming from the Assumption, we go to Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. There we hear of our future sharing in the resurrection and are reassured that we too will share in the glory that Mary has first experienced, we through the resurrection and she through her glorious Assumption. Then we will know the joy Paul felt in saying: “O death, where is your victory? … Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:55, 57).
Finally, to remind us of our responsibility to imitate Mary’s devotion to the Lord, seen perfectly in her acceptance of God’s invitation to be the Mother of the redeemer—“May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38)—we are invited in the Gospel reading to follow the example of Mary during her earthly life, that we might rejoice with her in eternal glory, for “blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it” (Luke 11:28). A blessed and joyful feast of the Assumption to all.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.