By Dave Kopel
"The immaculate mother of God," announced Pope Pius XII in his Munificentissimus Deus in 1950, "when the course of her earthly life was run, was assumed in body and soul to heavenly glory." The proclamation of the Assumption of Mary as "divinely revealed dogma," while a modern event, was consistent with beliefs that date back at least to the 3rd century, and perhaps even before. Are those beliefs inconsistent with the Bible, as some critics suggest, or are they in truth a fulfillment of the Bible's deepest themes?
The first known analysis of the Assumption was produced by Theoteknos, a 6th century Bishop of Jericho. He argued that since Elijah ascended and since a place in heaven had been prepared for the apostles, so the much the more must Mary have ascended to a place prepared for her.
The wedding music of Psalm 45, reasoned Pope Pius, prefigures the Assumption, as the singers rejoice, "All glorious is the princess within her chamber; her gown is interwoven with gold. In embroidered garments she is led to the king."
Mary has often been seen as symbolic of the people of Israel, and in Exodus, God describes the liberation from Egyptian bondage in terms that foreshadow the Assumption: "You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself." (Exodus 19:4)
The literal significance the Assumption, of Mary's body rising from the earth toward the heavens, should not be underestimated. The morning prayer on the day of the Assumption asks us to "See the beauty of the daughter of Jerusalem, who ascended to heaven like the rising sun at dawn." "Whither goest thou, bright as the morn?" the antiphons of the Assumption ask Mary, "All beautiful and sweet art thou, O daughter of Zion, fair as the moon elect as the sun." She "is taken up into the bridal chamber of heaven, where the King of Kings sits on his starry throne."
This celestial imagery of the Assumption feast in turn prefigures Mary's role in the apocalyptic battles between good and evil described in Revelation. There, Mary (representing both the Church and the messianic populace) pregnant and "clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head" is attacked by "an enormous red dragon" (representing the Roman Empire in particular, and evil and persecution in general).
And then history repeats (or will repeat) itself, as Mary (and messianic community) is "given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the desert, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent's reach." (Rev. 12: 1-14).
On another level, the Assumption epitomizes the reconciliation of the material and spiritual world, as the human Mary enters "body and soul to heavenly glory." Carl Jung, the transpersonal psychologist, concluded that the doctrine of the Assumption reflected an acceptance of the physical world. A similar thought was expressed by the Russian Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov, who described Mary as "the creature glorified and deified. In her is realized the idea of Divine Wisdom in the creation of the world; she is Divine Wisdom in the created world."
From time immemorial Orthodox and Eastern churches have recognized the Assumption; Orthodox Russia celebrates a special feast honoring the Assumption with Holy Wisdom. And while the Anglican Church does not make the Assumption an article of faith, since "it is not read in Holy Scripture, 'nor may be proved thereby'," many Anglicans do choose to believe it. Whatever scriptural interpretation can or cannot prove, the decision to believe in the Assumption has always been, for many people, intuitively easy, for the Assumption is in its own way the fulfillment of the gospel.
Since Mary was, on one level at least, an ordinary human being, her assumption suggests the future that is open to every human: the entry into glory through and after a life of walking with God. Like Israel, like the Church, like the messianic community, and like Mary, the individual who travels with God will, in spite of all earthly persecutions, be taken up to a place of security and sanctity in the wilderness. Or as Pope Paul VI put it: The Assumption "is a feast that set before the eyes of the Church and all mankind the image and consoling proof of the fulfillment of their final hope."
For more: You can buy Fr. Bulkagov's book, Sophia, the Wisdom of God : An Outline of Sophiology at Amazon.com.
Discourse: "Of the Assumption of Mary," by St. Alphonsus de Liguori
Catholic Answers, defense of the Assumption (and of the Immaculate Conception).
Painting of The Assumption of the Virgin, by Peter Paul Rubens.
Painting by El Greco. By Piazetta. Cerezo. Orthodox artists. Kolbneva. Titian. Perugino. Vrouwekathedraal. Correggio. Poussin. van Dyck. Broughton, Oxfordshire. Sucevita monastery. Jordaens.
Catholic Encyclopedia on the Feast of the Assumption. Wikipedia.
Visit Kopel's MaryLinks website for links to websites and articles on the Assumption, and for a daily calendar of Marian feasts, history, devotions, and events.