In this question we put two dogmas together: belief in the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Assumption and in the virgin birth of Jesus. We might add the Immaculate Conception of Mary, because a discussion of one of these touches them all. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson calls these dogmas “prophecy in the midst of the history of suffering.” Prophetic statements are matters of faith and not available for scientific validation.
Nor do these dogmas necessarily spring from the record of scripture. Chapter-and-verse proof texts for the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception in particular are unsatisfying because neither event is covered in the New Testament. The Assumption was formally declared (“promulgated”) as dogma in 1950 by Pope Pius XII, but that doesn’t mean the church has only recently taught it.
The early church fathers don’t address the matter of Mary’s departure from this world, but possibly as early as the 3rd century the tradition of Mary’s “transitus” recounted her bodily reception into heaven. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and even some Anglicans hold some version of the Assumption in their traditions. Roman Catholicism does not define whether Mary “fell asleep” or “died” before her body was taken up.
The theological argument for the Assumption is one of “fittingness.” Mary is the Ark of God’s new covenant in Christ. She was preserved from sin for this end (Immaculate Conception) and should not undergo the corruption of death (see Romans 6:23 on the wages of sin). Her body, given over to God’s purposes in the divine plan of salvation, became a vessel too sacred to be discarded or forgotten afterwards. Scholastic thinkers like Aquinas and Bonaventure used the Latin phrase “potuit, voluit, fecit” to sum up the idea: God “could do it, willed it, and did it.”
Perhaps a more humanly compelling argument arose in the wake of the 20th century’s two brutal World Wars. Pius XII surveyed the ghastly indignities suffered by the human body in recent memory and saw an opportunity to teach emphatically that God cares what happens to our mortal flesh. Mary’s exalted destiny may bring “clearly to the notice of all persons” the destiny of our bodies and souls. You and I are also vessels of divine life too precious to God to forget.
• Apostolic Constitution of Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, Defining the Dogma of the Assumption
• Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion by Hilda Graef and Thomas A. Thompson (Christian Classics, 2009)
• Mary: Images of the Mother of Jesus in Jewish and Christian Perspective by Jaroslav Pelikan, David Flusser, and Justin Lang (Fortress Press, 2005).
• Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture by Jaroslav Pelikan (Yale University Press, 1996)
• Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary by Miri Rubin (Yale University Press, 2010)
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