The gift of the Assumption

In the Litany of Loreto, Mary is called "cause of our joy." There are many reasons for considering her such; many of them are caught up by the feast of the Assumption.

This glorious feast, celebrated today, August 15, is a testimony to the power of the laity and of our devotion to the mother of God. It also underscores Catholic belief in the goodness of the human body and in its promised resurrection. The feast likewise counters any and all tendencies to think that the female human body is excluded from such goodness and from the possibility of glorification with God in eternity.

Belief in Mary's Assumption has a long history. Stories of Mary's Dormition, or "falling asleep," circulated as early as the fourth century.

According to most commentators, the narratives fall into two groups. In one, Mary's body is preserved intact in an earthly paradise but awaits reunion with her soul in heaven. In the other, Christ himself reunites her body and her soul.

The texts show the tendency of the Christian imagination to draw parallels between Mary and Jesus. Thus, some accounts have her soul descending into Hades. Some recount that Thomas was not present at her death but returned three days later to find Mary's tomb empty.

What seems to have been unimaginable was that her body, the body from which the Lord received his own, would be consigned to the grave and undergo corruption. By the sixth century, the churches of the East were celebrating a feast in honor of Mary's Dormition.

As the feast moved from East to West, "Dormition" was gradually replaced by "Assumption," and the issue of Mary's death receded — though it was not denied. Despite the skepticism typical of the Latin fathers with respect to imaginative materials and their arguments against a too-ready acceptance of a bodily translation to the heavenly realm, by the seventh century, Pope St. Sergius I had added the Assumption to the other three Marian feasts: the nativity, the Annunciation and the Presentation or Purification. Thus, the belief in the Assumption, a belief that would eventually be raised to the status of a dogma, began in the devotion of the people of God who used their sympathetic imagination to extend the story of Mary's life beyond the scope of the New Testament. In doing so, they affirmed her as living and present to the community of believers, someone to whom the faithful can have recourse for assistance in this life.

Theological reflections on the Assumption intensified after the declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. A central argument in defense of the Assumption rested on the belief that Mary was free from all sin, including original sin, and thus could be welcomed, body and soul, into the divine presence.

In addition, there arose a kind of Marian fervor as the faithful desired to honor her more and more. That was not the only influence on Pope Pius XII to make the declaration of the dogma of the Assumption and do so definitively in November of 1950. In the text of the declaration, Munificentissimus Deus, the pope refers to "very severe calamities that have taken place." Commentators saw in this reference and others as a desire on the part of the pope to affirm the essential goodness of the human body for a world that had witnessed the atrocities of World War II.

Novelist Graham Greene wrote this in the November 1950 Catholic Digest: "The definition of the Assumption proclaims again the doctrine of our resurrection, the eternal destiny of each human body, and again it is the history of Mary which maintains the doctrine in its clarity."

One aspect of the definition that did not receive enough attention at the time is the impact of this dogma on an understanding of the goodness of the female body. If Mary is a real woman and if she experienced in her earthly life the cycles of a woman's life, her Assumption means that there is no incompatibility between that womanly body and the divine life.

After centuries in which the female body was considered impure and a source of defilement — kept out of holy places and considered with revulsion — this declaration opened the way for a new and positive assessment of female bodily existence.

Moreover, it means that there are two human bodies in glory: the male body of Jesus and the female body of Mary. This is the gem hidden in the definition of the Assumption. The definition does not imply or state that Mary is the only human being in glory; it only assures the faithful that she, at least, is there and that being a woman did not prevent that glorification.

Coverage of the definition in 1950 reported nearly universal acclaim for the pope's action among Catholics. But Protestant reaction to the declaration of the dogma of the Assumption, which was negative in the extreme, has caused some Catholics since to downplay its importance because of ecumenical concerns.

Protestants rejected this affirmation of faith in Mary's Assumption both because there was no clear scriptural basis for it and because of the exercise of papal authority involved in making it an official tenet of belief. In addition, Catholic theologians who initially interpreted the dogma, while seeing its implications for human beings in general, failed to note the nearly revolutionary implications for reversing centuries of scorn for women's bodies.

Understood as an insight derived from faithful believers and their loving meditation on the mystery of Mary, as an exercise of authority that confirms the belief of the faithful and as an affirmation of the goodness and sacredness of all bodies — female as well as male — the Assumption can function as a gift to the whole Christian community. May these insights enable many to celebrate this "cause of our joy" with renewed devotion.

[Mercy Sr. Mary Aquin O'Neill holds a doctorate in religion from Vanderbilt University. After many years of college teaching, she founded Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women and was its director from 1992 to 2009. Since the center closed in August 2013, Aquin is in semi-retirement, writing as well as giving lectures and retreats.]

Read the latest from our new monthly feature, "The Life." Get email alerts so you never miss it!