The Feast of the Assumption – What does it mean?
The Feast of the Assumption
The word ‘assumption’ means to take something for granted, even without proof. E.g. a mother might say to her child, who is off out to play in the evening, “I assume you have finished all your homework?”
In the Catholic context the Assumption of Mary refers to the taking up of Our Lady into heaven (body and soul) when her earthly life was over. This Thursday we celebrated the Feast of the Assumption and in the Catholic calendar this is a very important day. Indeed it is one of the six days (other than Sundays) when Catholics are obliged to attend Mass.
From the beginning of the sixth century various churches celebrated Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven. The belief originated not from biblical evidence or the saintly writers of the early centuries, some of whom would have known the Apostles, but as the conclusion of a so-called argument of fittingness. It was “fitting” that Jesus should have rescued his mother from the corruption of the flesh and therefore the assumption was that he must have taken her bodily into heaven.
The first trace of belief in the Virgin’s Assumption can be found in the apocryphal accounts entitled Transitus Mariae (Latin, “The Crossing Over of Mary”), whose origin dates from the second and third centuries.
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it is known as the Dormition of the Theotokos (the falling asleep of the mother of God).
One of the passages in the Old Testament that resonates, at least, with the concept of the Assumption goes as follows;
“Arise, O Lord, into your resting place: you and the ark, which you have sanctified” (Ps.131:8).
Some have interpreted the Ark of the Covenant, built of incorruptible wood and placed in the Lord’s temple, as symbolising the most pure body of Mary, preserved and immune from the corruption of the tomb. This woman had carried the Son of God and played a singular role in the Incarnation so her union with God in Christ was unique from the beginning. She was to bear no comparison with any other human being. Mary is, by reason of her faith and obedience to the Word of God, a disciple par excellence.
In the words of the New Testament: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:28).
Pope Pius XII
Although various popes since Pius IX mentioned Mary in their official pronouncements, no pope did more to emphasize the importance of Marian devotion than Pope Pius XII (d. 1958), who was particularly devoted to Our Lady of Fatima. In 1942 he consecrated the entire world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
His major contribution, however, was the enshrinement into Catholic dogma (and made a required belief) in 1950 when he used Papal Infallibility to declare, ex cathedra, “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.”
The idea that the pope had some special, overriding authority derived in part from Matthew 16:18-19. The passage describes the powers of binding and loosing – or forbidding and permitting – that Jesus gave to St Peter, later Rome’s first bishop and which early Christians believed were also given to his successor. Rome had spiritual claims to authority as Peter and Paul were martyred there and political power as the seat of the Western Roman Empire.
The significance of Mary is lost on many Protestants who regard her as a good woman and servant of God, but no greater than any other biblical figure – and certainly not someone to pray to. Their critique of the doctrine – especially in Evangelical circles – is that it simply does not appear in Scripture, or the earliest Church councils. They would also be dubious with regard to its historical grounding. When did it happen? Between three to fifteen years after Christ’s ascension? Where did it happen? In Ephesus? In Jerusalem?
In the Anglican tradition, the doctrine is regarded as adiaphora (a thing indifferent), but the day is regarded as a festival in the Church of England.
Contested by some, beloved by others, the Assumption remains a major date in the Church calendar.
We will leave the last word to Pope Francis “Mary’s Assumption regards our future: it turns our gaze heavenward announcing the new heaven and new earth with Christ’s victory.”
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan