A goodly number of years ago there was a little girl who learned about the saints. She was pleased to know that there were good people, who tried their best to please God, and that God took these people to heaven with Him to share His everlasting happiness. Some of these people were so well known for their efforts that the Church even had special days of the year on which to honor them. She read about Isaac Jogues and the North American Martyrs, and knew their day was September 26th. Pope Saint Pius V had his day on May 5th, Saint Joseph on March 19th, and her favorite, the “Little Flower,” Saint Thérèse, had her day on October 3rd.
“On what day,” she wanted to know, “does the Church celebrate the special day for the Blessed Mother?” I explained that Our Lady is so special that she has quite a few days during the year to honor her: We celebrate her birthday on September 8th, her Immaculate Conception on December 8th, and the Annunciation of the Angel that she was to become the Mother of God on March 25th – and if one were to look in the missal, one would find a lot of other days. But, the little girl persisted, “But which day is really her day?”
To be truthful, the question had never occurred to me before, and, at the time, I really didn’t have an answer. But in retrospect, if asked the question again, I would have to say that today, August 15th is the feast of the Blessed Mother. You see, with all of the other wonderful things about Mary that we commemorate throughout the year, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the most important day for each and every saint is the day on which they are united with Almighty God forever in heaven. In the cases of most saints, the day of their death is the only day we observe in connection with them.
Of course, we are not completely sure that Mary actually died—sometimes this day is referred to as her “dormition” (falling asleep, in Greek), or her “transitus” (her moving from earth to heaven, in Latin). But we do know that the “Mother of God, when she had finished the course of her earthly life, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven.” Those are not my words, but the words of Pope Pius XII, when he declared the Assumption of the Immaculate Virgin a dogma of the Catholic Faith.[ii] In any event, then, this is the day on which Mary began her heavenly eternity—even though her entire life was lived in the sinless perfection of sanctifying grace, and in close unity with her divine Son, this is the day on which her unity with God became complete.
There is nothing in the Sacred Scriptures about Mary’s birth, or about this day of her death or dormition. While we generally acknowledge her parents to have been Joachim and Anne, who lived near the Probatica in Jerusalem, the only written records we have of Mary’s early and later life are contained in the extra‑Scriptural writings we call the “apocrypha.” We have such written texts describing the Assumption, as early as the second century.[iii] Perhaps more convincing is the virtually unanimous Tradition of the early Church—the fact of Mary’s Assumption really didn’t need to be written down, for it was something that everyone knew.
And when Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire, this devotion took material form as churches were built in her honor, specifically with the title of the Assumption or Dormition. The most well known is probably that at Gethsemane, built around 450. But an even earlier Marian-crypt-church was later found in proximity to the Cenacle, the place of the Last Supper—a very good candidate for being the actual location of Mary’s Dormition, as it was one of the few real properties owned by Christians in apostolic times. For many years, the entire month of August was celebrated in commemoration of our Lady’s passing, until the Emperor Maxentius (582-602) declared the 15th of August to be the day of celebration throughout the Empire.[iv] The custom, which we will observe today, of blessing the first fruits of the harvest in honor of the Blessed Virgin’s Assumption, goes back to the times of antiquity. Today’s feast and blessing are celebrated as well in the Churches of the East—even those separated from the Catholic Church now for almost a thousand years.
Significantly, there are no relics of the Blessed Virgin. A few places claim to posses her veil, perhaps a lock of hair, or a few drops of her milk—but no one claims to posses her mortal remains.[v] That may be negative evidence, but it carries some weight when you consider that people of the middle ages were able to find two heads of Saint John the Baptist.
Theologically, the fact of the Assumption is compelling, even without the historical evidence or the dogmatic definition of Pope Pius XII. The Assumption is cut, so to speak, from the same cloth as the Immaculate Conception. In order that she might be a fit dwelling place for the Son of God, and, indeed, the entire source of His material being, God brought her soul into existence in the same state of Original Justice as Adam and Eve—preserved, we say, from Original Sin. In the words of the Angel, she was “full of grace,” the Lord was with her, “blessed ... among women.”[vi] She was “full of grace” at that time before the Redemption, when one would have otherwise expected no human being to have much grace at all. The second Adam (Jesus Christ) would receive His sinless flesh from the sinless second Eve, His Blessed Virgin Mother—a woman who, unlike the first Eve, would persevere in the graces of her creation all her life. Like Adam and Eve before the fall; Mary, the second Eve, was not subject to the travail of giving birth, nor to the corruption associated with sin and death.
Our Lord promised “life everlasting” to those who would “eat His flesh and drink His blood.”[vii] How much more, then, did Mary possess “life everlasting” by virtue of the reality that His flesh was her flesh? Our Lord had already promised the resurrection of the dead on a number of occasions, and had demonstrated His ability to bring about that resurrection on a few other occasions, culminating, of course, with His own resurrection. It is unthinkable that God would have allowed the Devil the victory of subjecting Jesus’ own flesh—the flesh of His mother—to undergo the corruption of the grave caused by sin and death. Couple this with the great love that such a Son would have had for His mother, and the Assumption becomes undeniable. If we mere mortals can say that God “had to do” anything—if we are wont to say that He was “compelled” to do something—that something would be taking of Mary’s body and soul into heaven at the end of her earthly life.
One more thing remains. As always, we must ask ourselves how this mystery of Mary’s feast day pertains to us. Mary is a human being; she is neither a god nor a goddess. One suspects that God planned things this way so that we could have an achievable role model. In some respects, asking us to be “Christ-like” would always be somewhat beyond us, for we are not God-men, as He was. But imitating Mary is at least theoretically possible! We were not conceived Immaculate as she was, but we have Baptism and the Sacrament of Confession, so we can come very close. We did not give Christ His human flesh as she did, but we certainly can make that very same flesh part of our own flesh by receiving It in Holy Communion.
Human, as we are, Mary possessed intellect and a free will. Theoretically, she could have sinned. She could have but she did not! The historical reality of the Assumption is proof that men and women are capable of saying “fiat,” and making God’s will their own. The good news of this primary feast day of the Blessed Virgin is that we are capable of imitating her—we too can say to God, “be it done to me according to Thy will”—and together with Mary, we too can spend eternity with God, body and soul.
“His mercy is from generation to generation on all those who fear Him.”
[ii] Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, 1 November 1950: "We declare and define as revealed dogma that the Immaculate Mary ever Virgin, Mother of God, when she had finished the course of her earthly life, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven." http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_p-xii_apc_19501101_munificentissimus-deus.html
[iv] Otto Hophan, OFMCap, Mary-Our Most Blessed Lady (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1959), pp. 314-315.