The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Protestants as well as Catholics believe that the Body of Jesus Christ is now in heaven.

This doctrine is called the Ascension and is explicitly revealed in the Bible. All Christians believe, too, that the bodies of the just will be united to their souls at the end of the world and be glorified in heaven after the manner of the Risen Body of Christ. This is also revealed explicitly in the New Testament. It follows, therefore, that the bodies and souls of the departed saints are now separated, that their souls are in heaven and their bodies in the grave. Christians of every conceivable denomination are agreed on these two dogmas.

After that, however, Protestants and Catholics part company, for Catholics believe that the body of the Blessed Virgin Mary is also in heaven. We call this doctrine the Assumption. By it we hold that the glorification of the flesh, which will take place for us only at the end of time, was granted to Mary at the end of her earthly life. We believe, therefore, that the bodies of both Jesus and Mary are now in heaven. There is, however, this difference: Jesus arose from the tomb and ascended into heaven by his own power, whereas Mary’s body was taken up to heaven by the power of her Son. For that reason we use two different words: the Ascension of Christ and the Assumption of Mary.

The Assumption of Mary is one of the four Marian dogmas of the Catholic Church. Pope Pius XII defined it on 1 November 1950 in his apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus as follows:

We proclaim and define it to be a dogma revealed by God that the immaculate Mother of God, Mary ever virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven.

The declaration was built upon the 1854 dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which declared that Mary was conceived free from original sin, and both have their foundation in the concept of Mary as the Mother of God. It leaves open the question of whether Mary died or whether she was raised to eternal life without bodily death.

The equivalent belief (but not held as dogma) in the Eastern Orthodox Church is the Dormition of the Mother of God or the “Falling Asleep of the Mother of God”.

The word ‘assumption’ derives from the Latin word assūmptiō meaning “taking up”.

Traditions relating to the Assumption

In some versions of the assumption narrative, the assumption is said to have taken place in Ephesus, in the House of the Virgin Mary. This is a much more recent and localized tradition. The earliest traditions say that Mary’s life ended in Jerusalem (see Tomb of the Virgin Mary). By the 7th century, a variation emerged, according to which one of the apostles, often identified as Thomas the Apostle, was not present at the death of Mary but his late arrival precipitates a reopening of Mary’s tomb, which is found to be empty except for her grave clothes. In a later tradition, Mary drops her girdle down to the apostle from heaven as testament to the event. This incident is depicted in many later paintings of the Assumption.

Teaching of the Assumption of Mary became widespread across the Christian world, having been celebrated as early as the 5th century and having been established in the East by Emperor Maurice around AD 600. John Damascene records the following:

St. Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, at the Council of Chalcedon (451), made known to the Emperor Marcian and Pulcheria, who wished to possess the body of the Mother of God, that Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles, but that her tomb, when opened upon the request of St. Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven.