Why do the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches celebrate the assumption of Mary? It turns out, it’s because of Easter.
But Easter has to do with Jesus, and this feast day is about Mary, right? As with all celebrations of the Saints, of course, it’s Jesus who shines through them to receive the highest and ultimate praise. When we depict the Saints in our iconography, they have a halo around their heads; that halo is the light of Christ shining out of them. They have surrendered their old life, the mere life of bios—biological life—in exchange for zoe, the divine life that is God himself, united to human nature in Jesus Christ, and shared now with all his brothers and sisters, if they will receive it. Those who shine through with that light most brilliantly, who have evidenced to the Church that their lives are full of the Christ-life, we call Saints.
And so a feast day for a Saint is never really just about that Saint. It’s always about Christ who that Saint conforms to. There are some Christians who think of the Kingdom of heaven as a zero sum game, where any praise a Saint gets is praise that God isn’t getting. But that’s not how the Kingdom works at all. Christ glories in his Saints, and his Saints glory in him. Christ’s glory is not diminished when we celebrate those who belong to him; just the opposite—his glory increases. And so let’s look to Mary, and see how she increases her Son’s glory.
The dormition and assumption of Mary isn’t found in Scripture. It isn’t even found in the earliest Church writings. It’s a story only first recorded with any authority in a letter preserved by St. John of Damascus, which was written in the 5th century by the Patriarch of Jerusalem at the time, Juvenalius, to the Empress St. Pulcheria. She had apparently asked for the relics of the Blessed Virgin Mary to be brought to Constantinople. The Patriarch informed her that there were no relics of the blessed Virgin Mary, but that according to ancient tradition, the body of the Mother of God had been taken up into heaven after her death. He expressed surprise that the Empress didn’t know this. Quoting apologist and author Dr. Robert Stackpole,
“Juvenalius joined to this letter an account of how the apostles had been assembled in miraculous fashion for the burial of the Mother of God, and how after the arrival of the apostle St. Thomas, her tomb had been opened, and her body was not there, and how it had been revealed to the apostles that she had been taken to heaven, body and soul. Later, in the 6th century, belief in the Assumption was defended by St. Gregory of Tours, and no saint or father of the Church thereafter disputed the doctrine.”
So we learn two things from this letter from the 400’s AD. First, and I think the most compelling, is that there were no relics preserved among the faithful of Mary’s body. This is highly unusual; the bodies of the Saints from the earliest days of the Church were looked after, guarded, venerated—especially those of the martyrs. Christians would collect the the martyrs’ bodies from the amphitheaters where they were torn apart by wild animals. They would celebrate the Eucharist over the tombs of the apostles and Saints. And the fact that the Mother of Jesus Christ himself, who gave her flesh to God so that he could redeem all flesh—that her earthly flesh and bones weren’t preserved by the Church, by St. John who was given the task of looking after Mary by Jesus from the Cross… why would that have been the case?
The second thing we learn from the letter is the explanation of the first thing: from centuries of oral tradition the story was told of the Apostles being at the funeral of Mary, all except Thomas, who requested to see her body upon his arrival. When her tomb was opened, and her body wasn’t there, the Apostles learned from the Holy Spirit that Christ had taken both her soul and her body to be with him in heaven. And we learn that this story was at least fairly well known because Patriarch Juvenalius was surprised Empress Pulcheria didn’t know it.
Despite the lack of a ton of positive and direct historical evidence of Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven, we do have a shocking negative evidence in her missing relics, and we have the eventual written recording of an oral tradition which the entirety of Saints who do comment on it (again, Saints being those who are filled with the Spirit of Truth) affirm to be true.
But it’s good that we should still want more evidence for this belief the Church holds, and it would be silly in the extreme if the Church had preserved this belief and even celebrated it liturgically if this story were just completely arbitrary—if it didn’t actually accord with everything else we believe about the life of God, his saving action in the world, and the Scriptures he inspired to teach us. There’s a term theologians use called the analogy (or proportion) of faith. It comes from Romans 12:6 where St. Paul says that any true prophesying will be done according to the proportion of faith (analogia fidei). That doesn’t mean that however much faith you have, that’s the amount of prophesying you should do. It means that true prophesy must fit, must be in the correct proportions, to the rest of what has been revealed, what our faith teaches. So you can’t prophesy something that doesn’t fit with everything else, and you certainly can’t prophesy something that contradicts it. That’s why Paul tells the Galatians that “even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!”
So does this story about Mary fit with our Faith? Of course it does. Not only does it not contradict anything from the Scriptures and from the Apostolic Tradition, it actually fits it perfectly, and we could even argue, fulfills it. How does it do this?
During the lifetime of Empress Pulcheria, a council was called of the whole Church (what became the third Ecumenical Council) at Ephesus to defend, in essence, the use of the title Theotokos (meaning birth-giver of God) for the Virgin Mary against those who rejected it (favoring instead Christotokos—birth-giver of Christ). The Church did affirm the title Birth-giver or Mother of God, precisely because that’s who was in Mary’s womb. Those rejecting the title didn’t believe God had become 100% human in the womb of Mary, instead thinking of Christ as a man in whom God dwelt as a separate and distinct person. We Orthodox of course believe that the man Jesus and the Logos are not separate persons with separate natures joined up in one body. We believe that Jesus is the divine Logos, the Son of God according to his divinity now made the Son of Mary according to his humanity—one and the same person. That makes Mary, the pregnant Virgin, the container of God himself. What other container in the bible can you think of that held God’s Presence?
The Ark of the Covenant, of course. The Ark, it turns out, was a type, a typos, of Mary. There’s an incredible amount of writing out there demonstrating all the ways Scripture tells us this—especially in the masterful way St. Luke communicates this in his account of Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth—but suffice it to say, it’s there. It’s clear. So what? What does that have to do with the Assumption? Well, you remember how I said this event isn’t found in Scripture? That’s not entirely true. It’s not recounted as a history, like we’d find in the book of Acts, nor is it referred to in any of the Epistles of Paul or Peter. But, in that great mystical vision of St. John, the disciple who took care of Mary after Jesus’ ascension, we do read this: “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of His covenant was seen within His temple, and there were flashes of lightening, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake and heavy hail.” Was John seeing that old Ark that was carried around by the Hebrews in the desert, later put into the Temple, and eventually lost during the Babylonian exile? Here’s what he writes in the next verse: “And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child.” This woman “brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” Clearly, this woman is Mary, the only woman ever to give birth to a male child who is to rule all the nations. And she’s here linked very clearly with the ark just mentioned, and described in glorious apparel, indicating her…well, glory.
The honor paid to the one creature in all of creation chosen to be the vessel of God, from whom he would take flesh, who raised him, parented him and treasured in her heart all the shining moments from that role—his birth, the prophesies pronounced over him at his dedication in the temple, the finding of him teaching there when he was twelve—and even who could prompt him by her holy intercession to commence his first public miracle: this honor paid to her is eminently fitting to the Mother of our King, the Queen Mother, as it happens, of the whole universe (thus the cosmic clothing in John’s vision).
And in Psalm 132 we read with new eyes the meaning of verse 8: “Arise, O Lord, into thy resting place: thou and the ark of thy strength.” Arise, literally, in your glorious Ascension, Lord Jesus, to your heavenly temple, and rest, sitting at the right hand of the Father. And take your Ark , your Mother, there with you.
I think only recalcitrance could prevent the conclusion and happy affirmation that it is fitting for Mary to have been preserved from bodily corruption and taken up to be honored at the side of her Son, she whose body was guarded through perpetual Virginity to have welcomed first and only to that sacred, incubating chamber the only-begotten Son of God.
And that’s wonderful for Mary. We should celebrate that for her. But what about us? Does all of this biblical imagery, and this fantastic tradition, have anything to do with us? You bet it does. And here’s why.
The dormition and assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary are just other words for her death and resurrection. I told you this was ultimately about Easter. We believe Mary was chosen to be the Mother of God not because she was just lucky, but because she was the most like him, being full of Grace, as Gabriel said. And she as the creature most like her Creator and Savior by measures unfathomable, fittingly conformed to him even in following him as the first fruits of the Resurrection. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15—well, Paul drives home the point with ferocity, is more what he does—that Jesus in his resurrection shows us that resurrection is in store for us, too, that that’s really the whole point of the Gospel, the good news: that God is saving the world in a way in which nothing good is lost (including our bodies), preserving and renewing them through a kind of beautiful continuity through to the new creation. So in Jesus’ resurrection, we see the first fruits, the foretaste. And Mary, being so conformed to her Son, is like the first fruits of the rest of us.
Let me put it this way: Jesus shows that our human nature is now capable of this new, indescribable Resurrection Life. But he is also God—something we’re not. So in order to demonstrate to us, to our great comfort I think, that also mere creatures who aren’t themselves God incarnate, can and will participate in that same Resurrection Life, he raises up Mary. She demonstrates what Paul said is true: “Christ the first fruits [of resurrection], then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” Christ is the first fruits of all humanity, and Mary the first fruits of those who belong to him. Again, from Ps. 132: “If thy children will keep my covenant and my testimonies that I shall teach them, their children also shall sit upon thy throne forevermore.” We all, “each in his own order” as Paul reminds us (1 Cor 15:23), will be raised, will take our place in the Temple, will be regaled with cosmic clothing, will reign with Christ (2 Tim 2:12).
So you see that the resurrection of Mary to be at the side of Jesus is not simply in order to honor her (as meet as that is), but also to show us what our resurrection will look like. We don’t honor Mary in her assumption as an exception, but as an example. Her glory certainly doesn’t diminish Christ’s, but then neither does it diminish the other Saints’, nor ours. Not a zero sum game, remember. The Kingdom of God is about superabundant grace.
And so we rightly honor, venerate, and give our “Ave” to she who is Full of Grace. To the glory of God the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Christ is risen! Indeed he is risen!