From the earliest centuries of the Church, the Assumption into Heaven of the Blessed Virgin Mary, body and soul, has been a subject of veneration and Christian doctrine.
However, there is no direct biblical source for this belief. There is no historical record. We don’t know the time or the place of the end of Mary’s life on earth. Our most faithful source is Apostolic Tradition. There are references to the Apostles’ belief in the Assumption in the writings of the early Fathers of the Church. Finally, after centuries of belief and veneration, just sixty years ago, in 1950, Pope Pius XII stated that Mary’s Assumption is Church dogma. Pope Pius XII wrote that Mary, “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” He merely stated as dogmatic truth what the Church has believed and taught from the beginning.
His statement said nothing about whether Mary experienced death. We simply don’t know. We do know that this important person of the Church, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of God, is the same person to whom the Archangel Gabriel appeared and announced God’s love and intention for her to conceive and bear a child. We know that there has never been a time in the Church when the Church witnessed to her death and burial. We think we know where Jesus was buried at Calvary in Jerusalem after his Crucifixionn, but before his Resurrection. But there is no traditional burial site for Mary. The Church teaches only that she was assumed into heaven, body and soul at the completion of her life.
The Greek Orthodox Church calls this feast the “Dormition”, for the belief that Mary did not die but just fell asleep one last time before she was assumed into heaven. Other early Fathers say she had to have died. How could the Mother of Jesus not experience the same thing that Jesus experienced? Jesus clearly died. If Jesus died and resurrected, why wouldn’t Mary have also died prior to her Assumption into heaven? Again, we have no facts. All of this discussion is merely evidence of a powerful sense of devotion and contemplation by the Church.
In order to understand this devotion, we must first believe that Jesus is the Son of God and son of Mary. Jesus is God made flesh in the womb of Mary. If we don’t believe this, then none of it makes any sense.
Next, we must believe that Jesus’ promises of Resurrection and Eternal Life are also true for us and his Mother. At the Last Supper, Jesus told his closest friends, the Apostles, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and will receive you to myself; that where I am, you may be there also.”
According to our Catholic theology, Mary is the pledge of the fulfillment of Christ’s promise. Jesus gave to his own Mother what he promised to all of his followers. When we celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we also proclaim our belief in our own victory over death, our own Resurrection and Eternal Life. If it didn’t happen for her, we don’t have a chance. On a related point, consider for a moment that if Mary’s Assumption didn’t happen, then the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe was simply not possible. Only Mary, Assumed into Heaven body and soul, could have appeared to San Juan Diego from Heaven.
The truth of our Resurrection and Eternal Life is completely interwoven with the truth of Mary’s Assumption. She is one of us. She is human. She is not a goddess. She is not divine. She was Jesus’ human mother. Mary bore her creator. She is the first tabernacle. We often think of tabernacles as a womb. We have seen in early Church architecture an occasional baptismal font was made in the shape of a womb, because we are reborn to New Life though our baptism, as Jesus explained to Nicodemus.
There is a story of a man who took his son to the park. At the park there was a vendor selling colored balloons filled with helium. The boy watched as the vendor released several balloons of different colors, and they floated up into the sky. One of the balloons went higher and faster than the others, and it was a yellow balloon. The father offered to buy a balloon for his son. The boy responded excitedly, “Yes, Daddy. I want a yellow one because it can fly higher!” The father took his son aside and said, “Son, it had nothing to do with color of the balloon. It was what was inside the balloon that caused it to fly.”
And, so it is with Mary. She is not venerated because she was pretty or for any other earthly reason. The only reason we venerate Mary, and believe in her Assumption is because she bore God within her body. God took flesh from the Virgin Mary. Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mary was assumed into heaven with her Son. And, so it will be with us if we live faithfully our baptismal promises. Mary shows us the way to Heaven.