In her end, the promise of our beginning
Nicolas Poussin, “The Assumption of the Virgin” (1650s)
On November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII declared a new dogma of the Catholic Church—a truth revealed by God to be believed by the faithful: that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the end of her time on earth, was assumed, or taken up, into heaven.
But it was Protestants, not Catholics, who set the tone for the world’s reaction. And Protestant reaction was just this side of apocalyptic.
Rev. Marc Boegner, president of the World Council of Churches, repeatedly called the new dogma a “scandal.”
The don of cold–war American Protestantism, Rev. Reinhold Niebuhr, called it a species of idolatry.
The dogma, he declared, “incorporates a legend of the Middle Ages into the official teachings of the Church, thereby placing the final capstone on the Mariolatry of the Roman Church.”
Scholars, too, apparently struggled to remain charitable—without much success.
Rev. R.L.P Milburn, delivering the 1952 Bampton Lectures at Oxford—then the most distinguished lectureship in Protestant theology—said the Pope had made “fantasy, however pious, to masquerade as fact.”
His verdict: “The grave difficulty concerning the doctrine. . .is that. . .something has been solemnly stated as assured historical fact that has no other strictly historical basis even pretended than a Coptic romance.”
To this day, our understanding of the Assumption’s origins languishes in the long shadow of these early polemics, which so often betrayed a deep–seated animus against Catholicism.
From the Encyclopedia Britannica to the daily newspaper—the received wisdom is that the Assumption belief has no basis in the Bible, but instead grew out of the colorful imaginations of unlettered medieval Catholics with an overzealous devotion to the Virgin.
In fact, Stephen Shoemaker, who teaches religion at the University of Oregon, says the whole field of early Christian studies suffers the lingering effects of inherited “anti–Catholic prejudice”—particularly when it comes to studying Mary.
In an important scholarly book, Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption (Oxford, 2003), he writes: “There is a palpable tendency in much scholarship to minimize the strong devotion to Mary evident in the ancient Church [and to] ‘trivialize any early mention of [Mary] so as to reduce its import for mariology.’”
There are signs, however, that all this might be changing.
Shoemaker’s book is part of a new wave of books, dissertations, academic articles and translations that seeks to look at Mary and the early Church through a new lens.
For sure, Shoemaker has no interest in defending Catholicism or the dogma.
But by simply taking an honest look at Mary’s place in the culture and worship of the early Church, he and others promise to shake up settled assumptions about the Assumption—and may unintentionally bring new appreciation for the papal proclamation.
Already, their findings should lay to rest the charge that the dogma was a popular fantasy based solely on a “Coptic romance.”
In fact, their findings would seem to support what Pope Pius said back in 1950—that belief in Mary’s Assumption was based on the Scriptures, was rooted in the minds and hearts of the earliest generations of Christians, and was part of the prayer and worship of the Church from the earliest times.
The end in the beginning
It’s true that the origins of this belief remain shrouded in mystery and silence.
The story of Mary’s end—like the story of her beginning and most anything about her life—isn’t told in the New Testament. Nor is it mentioned in the writings of the earliest Church fathers.
That doesn’t mean that Mary wasn’t being talked about. To the contrary, Mary was being prayed to and talked about in tones of reverent awe.
She wasn’t ever worshipped. But believers surely gave Mary her due. She was after all, the one woman chosen from before all time to bear God’s only Son.
Early Church fathers read the Old Testament as Jesus had taught the apostles to read it—as filled with symbols or signs pointing to Him (Luke 24: 27, 44–47).
Paul had seen Jesus as the “new Adam” and the Church as the “bride” of the new Adam. And it was natural for Church Fathers like Irenaeus and Justin Martyr to begin seeing Mary as the “new Eve.”
Mary, they said, was the “woman” that God had promised in the Garden of Eden—whose “seed” would crush the head of the ancient serpent, the Devil (Genesis 3:15).
Still, we have no mention of her death, except in passing assertions by Fathers like Tertullian and Origen that Mary remained a virgin until her death.
But we have a different kind of “evidence” in the oldest–known Marian prayer—the Sub tuum praesidium:
We fly to your patronage , O holy Mother of God
Discovered in 1938 in a third–century Egyptian papyrus, it’s a short prayer that says nothing about the Assumption. But it does presume that Mary has somehow attained a place of heavenly glory as the exalted Mother of God. And it presumes she is both capable of hearing prayers and of somehow answering them.
Neither immortal nor dead
Despite the evidence that Christians were praying to Mary as a heavenly intercessor, it’s not until the fourth century that we have any speculation about how she made it from here to there in the first place.
The first to break silence about Mary’s death was St. Epiphanius, a heresy–fighting bishop on the isle of Cyprus.
Epiphanius was arguing with two camps of Marian heretics—one that denied she was “ever–virgin” and another, a women’s sect known as the Collyridians, who worshipped Mary as a goddess.
It’s not quite clear why, but in the course of refuting these heretics, Epiphanius took up the question of Mary’s death. He quickly conceded that he could find no reliable teaching on “whether she died or did not die, whether she was buried or was not buried.”
He ventured some very cautious lines of inquiry. Among them was a suggestion that “the woman clothed with the sun” in the Bible’s last book (Revelation 12) might be a prophecy of something like Mary’s heavenly assumption.
Epiphanius is credited with being the first to have advanced such a reading, which has since become a part of accepted Catholic worship and belief.
Still, he wasn’t really going out on a limb:
“Perhaps this [Revelation 12:13–14] can be applied to her,” he writes. “I cannot decide for certain, and I am not saying that she remained immortal. But neither am I saying that she died.”
From this early conflict, we can see that Church leaders like Epiphanius were already concerned to protect a proper Catholic understanding of Mary—and that belief about her “end” was in some way important to that concern.
Praying is believing
Similar concerns were on the minds of the Church’s Pope and bishops. That’s why a half–century later, at the Council of Ephesus in 431, they declared Mary the Theotokos— the “Mother of God.”
The years following this declaration are marked by a flurry of Marian activity: Churches and basilicas are built in her name, Masses are added to the calendar, hymns and homilies are written about her.
We know from ancient lectionaries—church calendars—that decades before Ephesus, a Mass in “Memory of Mary” was being celebrated on Aug. 15 in most places throughout the Christian world.
It’s an ancient principle—Lex orandi, Lex credendi (“the law of prayer is the law of belief”). It means that if you want to know what Catholics believe in any age, all you have to do is study their liturgies—the prayers they say, the hymns they sing, the Scriptures they hear read and preached in the Mass.
When we study these early Marian celebrations we see signs of the Church’s deep reflection on Mary’s place in God’s plan of salvation.
In these liturgies, she is seen fulfilling prophecies and promises of the Old Testament. She is the “beloved” of the Bridegroom, once sung about in the Bible’s Song of Songs. She is the feminine Wisdom of God, “bearing glorious and abundant fruit,” as foreseen in the books of Proverbs and Sirach.
And in the most frequent image—she is the new Ark of the Covenant, the vessel that in the Old Testament was built to bear the glory of God. Believers sang Psalm 138:2 about her: “Advance, O Lord to Your resting place,/You and the ark of Your majesty.”
In the Old Testament, God ordered the Ark to be built as a dwelling for His very presence among the people (Exodus 25:10-22). The Ark contained signs, too, of God's covenant with Moses (Hebrews 9:4)— the tables of the 10 commandments (Exodus 40:22) and Aaron's priestly staff (Numbers 17:25) and some of the manna upon which the Israelites fed in the desert (Exodus 16:32-33).
The prophet Jeremiah hid the Ark before the final fall of Jerusalem. And it was to be restored only when the Messiah comes (2 Maccabees 2:1-8).
In Mary, the Church fathers believed, the Ark had returned. She bore the presence of the living God in the midst of the people. The Child in her womb was the Word of God, the Bread of Life and the High Priest of the new people of God.
This understanding of Mary as the new Ark can be traced to the New Testament. Luke’s account of the “visitation” contains what many scholars believe to be deliberate echoes of the story of King David’s returning the Ark to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5–6).
Scholars also note something very curious about the vision of the woman clothed with the sun in Revelation 12.
They note that the last verse of the preceding chapter speaks of God’s temple being open, revealing “the ark of his covenant.” The very next words declare the “great sign. . .a woman clothed with the sun.”
When we remember that the original book was written without chapter breaks, Revelation seems to be revealing that the ark of the covenant is a woman, Mary (Revelation 11:19–12:2).
The Virgin’s dormition
By the mid–500s, the August 15 feast had become a universal Church celebration of Mary’s “dormition,” or falling asleep.
A Georgian–language hymnal from the period says the August 15 feast was celebrated at the Church of Mary’s Tomb near the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. The first hymn for the feast begins:
You went forth from the world,
The fifth–century church at Mary’s tomb was a center of early devotion, as was the Church of the Seat of the Theotokos—a nearby fifth–century church, discovered in 1992 along the road to Bethlehem.
Archeologists have discovered that the Church of Mary’s Tomb was built in a first–century Jewish burial ground and that the fifth–century church was likely built to replace a much older church on the site.
This has led some to speculate that devotion and worship at the site began within years of Mary’s death.
It’s interesting, too, that while the early Church promoted devotion to the bones of other saints, there’s no record of the Church even searching for the bones of Mary.
From this same period, between 550 and 620, archeologists have uncovered numerous artifacts—such as oil lamps and medallions bearing the inscription “Blessings of the Theotokos.” These too point to a lively devotion to Mary.
Most revealing, however, was the discovery in the 1990s of a small devotional token—about 1 inch in diameter and bearing the Greek word for Mary.
It’s our earliest known artistic representation of the Virgin’s death. It shows her on her death bed, three bearded figures looking on, each with a nimbus around his head. In the corner is a figure that scholars believe represents Christ—holding in His hand what they believe to be Mary’s soul.
Telling of mother’s departure
It’s in this period—filled with such an array of evidence of Marian piety— that we start to see the first literary references to Mary’s death.
The Acts of John—a fifth–century text from Constantinople that includes material originally written in the second century—recalls that “the mother of us all has departed this life.”
In a Syrian work called On the Divine Names, a mystic known as Pseudo–Dionysius claims that he was on hand, along with the Apostles James and Peter, for “a vision of that mortal body, that source of life, which bore God.”
By the late 5th century, the first full accounts of Mary’s end, or transitus Mariae, begin to emerge. These are the “romances” and “legends” that became the key exhibits in Protestant criticism.
Scholars say the earliest such work is the Obsequies of the Holy Virgin, which dates to the turn of the fifth century. In broad outlines, here’s how the tale goes:
An angel announces to Mary that it’s time for her to die. Miraculously, the apostles appear at her home in Jerusalem, and gather around her dying bed.
Jesus comes and takes her soul to heaven, and the apostles lead a procession to lay her body in a tomb at Gethsemane. An angry Jewish mob tries to burn her body, but is repulsed by intervening angels.
Three days later Jesus takes Mary’s body to Paradise and reunites her soul with her body. After that, Jesus gives Mary and the apostles a guided tour of heaven and hell.
The Apostles are then returned to earth as the story ends, but not before seeing “our Lord Jesus Christ and Mary sitting at the right hand of God.”
Many variations on this basic story have been found, preserved in various languages—Armenian, Georgian, Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Slavonic and Latin—all written sometime between the years 400 and 750 A.D.
Together they form a small library of fractured fairytales—with colorful characters, bloated dialogue, dramatic fight scenes, magical appearances, implausible plot twists, strange religious ideas, and fanciful recastings of biblical history.
The sheer number and the dizzying diversity has made it nearly impossible for scholars to sort out the traditions and figure out where they all came from.
They do seem to agree with early Church authorities that most of these tales were written by heretical splinter groups—perhaps the gnostics, or dissenters from the 451 Council of Chalcedon.
The legends no doubt satisfied a popular hunger for details about Mary’s death. But Church teachers never seemed too comfortable with them.
It didn’t take long for the Latin translation of the legend to land on the sixth–century decree of heretical works attributed to Pope Gelasius I.
And some of the earliest homilies we have on Mary’s Assumption are at pains to put distance between themselves and the legend–writers.
“Although those who were present described her end truthfully. . .mischievous heretics later corrupted their accounts,” said John of Thessalonica in a homily delivered on August 15 sometime between the years 610 and 649.
Sometimes they sprinkled their homilies with some of the more fantastic details from the legend. But telling the story was of less concern it seems than celebrating what the story means.
In these early dormition homilies we see the full flowering of centuries of Marian prayer and devotion—a faith grown strong and tall from roots thrown down deep in sacred Scripture.
All the ancient biblical images—so familiar in liturgies, and prayers and sermons over the centuries—are summoned to celebrate the translation of the one woman whom the bonds of death could not hold.
These biblical images—of Mary as the New Eve, the Beloved of the Bridegroom, the Ark of the Covenant, the Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven—remain the foundation of the Church’s Assumption Liturgy today.
In the end, though, Mary remains the mother of mystery. Even today, we don’t know what became of her mortal coil. Was she raised up like Enoch (Genesis 5:24) or Elijah (2 King 3:11)? Or did she die—as the ancient faithful and most ancient commentators believed?
Pope Pius XII deliberately left the question open, saying that she was assumed after “having completed the course of her earthly life.”
Pope John Paul II made it clear that he believes Mary, like her Son, experienced the “human drama of death.”
However we want to think about it, it’s clear that the Church has believed from the earliest times that Mary shared in her Son’s dramatic victory—what Paul and the prophet Isaiah before him called “the swallowing up of death.”
And this may be the greatest loss in all the disinformation and outcry over the original dogma.
In their rush to condemn Catholic idolatry, the critics of Pope Pius missed the divine truth revealed in the Assumption. In the glorious example of Mary, we see, in the Pope’s words, “to what lofty goal our bodies and souls are destined.”
We may never know what exactly happened at the end of Mary’s life. But we know the one thing God wants us to know—that in her end is the promise of our beginning, the pledge of our resurrection.