“To her the Apostles render their holy allegiance, the Angels their song, Christ His embrace, the clouds their transport, as her holy Assumption renders Paradise” (Bobbio Missal, VII century)
The Assumption of Our Lady has many titles in ancient liturgical texts, such as the Depositio and the Transitus; in the East the title is the Koímesis (Dormition). While it is certain that the body of Our Lady did not undergo any corruption due to death, the received Tradition regarding death itself is less certain, and theologians over the centuries have varied on this point. While there has been a tendency in the East to assert her exemption from physical death (thus the term “Dormition,” meaning “repose”), the West more closely unites Our Lady with her Son, Who suffered death on the Cross, Whose sacred body likewise knew no corruption, and Who rose from the Holy Sepulcher victorious. In fact, her death would be due to union with Jesus alone rather than due to sin, as she was preserved from sin, both original and actual. St. Epiphanius comments, “No one knows what was the earthly end of the Mother of God,” deducing that this remains hidden in God like so many of the discreet details of her life.
The knowledge of Our Lady’s Assumption is the fruit of Tradition, meaning in its strict sense that it is something received, something which has been handed on. Some liturgical texts and apocryphal writings led to a preference in past centuries to reticence about it, and one may even sense that this reticence was due to a hesitancy to tread too boldly on sacred ground. Nevertheless, the Assumption is mentioned by theologians including St. Thomas Aquinas. It was at the dawn of the pontificate of Bl. Pius IX that the movement towards a dogmatic definition took shape, with requests from the ecclesiastical hierarchy being submitted to the Holy See beginning in 1849. In the only dogmatic council to have been held at the Vatican (1869-70), two hundred bishops advocated for a dogmatic definition of the Assumption. Pope Pius XII, of blessed memory, made inquiries among the hierarchy close to a century later, in 1946, and having received an almost unanimous response, the holy pontiff made the dogmatic definition on November 1, 1950, with the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus.
In the Apostolic Constitution Pope Pius XII stated, “[T]he outstanding agreement of the Catholic prelates and the faithful…, since it shows us the concordant teaching of the Church’s ordinary doctrinal authority and the concordant faith of the Christian people which the same doctrinal authority sustains and directs, thus by itself and in an entirely certain and infallible way, manifests this privilege [viz., the Assumption] as a truth revealed by God and contained in that divine deposit which Christ has delivered to his Spouse to be guarded faithfully and to be taught infallibly[.]
For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God Who has lavished His special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”
With the manner of expression used in this last phrase, Pius XII did not include physical death in the dogmatic definition itself. He alluded to it, however, earlier in the Apostolic Constitution: “…St. Francis de Sales, after asserting that it is wrong to doubt that Jesus Christ has himself observed, in the most perfect way, the divine commandment by which children are ordered to honor their parents, asks this question: ‘What son would not bring his mother back to life and would not bring her into paradise after her death if he could?’ And St. Alphonsus writes that ‘Jesus did not wish to have the body of Mary corrupted after death, since it would have redounded to his own dishonor to have her virginal flesh, from which he himself had assumed flesh, reduced to dust.’”
Sacred Scripture provides only the briefest glimpse into the life of Our Lady and St. John: “ex illa hora accepit eam discipulus in sua—and from that hour, the disciple took her to his own” (Jn. 19:27). It is nevertheless certain that the Apostle and the Blessed Virgin resided at Ephesus for some years, in the holy house on Mt. Koressos.
But the site of the Assumption is identified as being either Ephesus or the place in Jerusalem known as the Tomb of the Virgin. There is indeed mystical support for Ephesus, but historical sources and tradition along with other mystical sources support Jerusalem. It is cited in most of the ancient pilgrimage itineraries, including that of Antonino of Piacenza from AD 570 which adds “de quo dicunt sanctam Mariam ad coelos fuisse sublatam—from which it is said that St. Mary was taken into heaven.” This is also asserted in a well-regarded sixth-century Greek text known as De transitu Mariae, or Joannis liber de dormitione S. Deiparae (On the Transitus of Mary, or the Book of St. John on the Dormition of the Mother of God), which was influential on many of the eastern Fathers, including St. John Damascene.
Furthermore, a second site on Mount Zion lends support to the Jerusalemite tradition: the Cenacle, adjacent to Dormition Abbey. There is a longstanding tradition that Our Lady’s passing or dormition took place in the holy aedicule of the Cenacle, and that her virginal body was then laid in the Tomb across the Kedron before she was assumed into heaven.
The Tomb of the Virgin venerated in Jerusalem lies at the foot of the Mount of Olives, only a few yards from Gethsemani and the place of the Agony. It lies therefore at the Valley of Josaphat, the place traditionally assigned to the Last Judgment based on the third chapter of the Prophecy of Joel.
The sepulcher is similar to that of Christ in that the surrounding rock has been carved away from the tomb so that it may be venerated on its own and within a church structure. The first such church built upon the Tomb of the Virgin, an octagonal church with a dome, was built between 431 and 451. It was destroyed by the Persians, except for the tomb itself which remained untouched. With the arrival of the Crusaders, a monastery called the Abbey of the Valley of Josaphat was built on the site, and Godfrey de Bouillon entrusted it to the monks of Cluny. The Saracens later razed the monastery, but the church itself built in 1130 was spared and is the current shrine visited by pilgrims.
The feast of August fifteenth originates precisely in Jerusalem. It was a feast of the glorification of Our Lady, even if not yet specifically commemorating her Assumption. It is found in the Lectionary of Jerusalem from the time of St. Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem from 422 to 458, which was kept in use by the Armenians of the city. It lists Psalm 131:8, “Surge, Domine, in requiem tuam, tu et arca sanctificationis tuae—Arise, O Lord, into thy resting place: thou and the ark, which thou hast sanctified,” which in a Marian feast alludes quite clearly to her Assumption in union with Christ’s Resurrection. This feast originates in the era of Ephesus (431), when the Divine Maternity of the Theotokos was vigorously defended and dogmatically defined.
The feast becomes more clearly a feast of the Assumption in the sixth century in Palestine and Syria with references in the Sees of Jerusalem and Sarug. At the end of the century, the Byzantine Emperor Maurice (582-602), a contemporary of St. Gregory the Great, decreed that the feast of the Koímesis (Dormition) would be celebrated on August fifteenth in all of the churches of the Empire.
Among the non-Roman Latin rites (Ambrosian, Mozarabic, Gallican), the primary feast of Our Lady was on the eighteenth of January, without reference to the Assumption. Their adoption of the August feast came from Rome during the ninth century. There is, however, a much-studied fourth-century sarcophagus in the church of Santa Engracia in Saragossa, Spain, which depicts a woman standing between the Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul, while a hand from above grasps her wrist as if to lift her up to heaven. It has long been interpreted as a depiction of the Assumption, which would certainly attest to a devotion to this privilege of Our Lady many years before the introduction of the liturgical feast.
In Rome, the principal feast of Our Lady coincided with the Octave day of the Nativity. It was Pope Sergius I (687-701) who brought the feast of the Assumption into the Roman liturgy, as he was of a Syrian family which had settled in Sicily. The feast took the place of the January commemoration and was fixed to August fifteenth with the title in adsumptione sanctae Mariae (On the Assumption of St. Mary). At the end of the eighth century the feast was celebrated with a nocturnal vigil and was later enriched with an Octave. Pope Nicholas I compared it to the feasts of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost in an apostolic instruction in 863.
The Gelasian Sacramentary of the eighth century later assigned an eloquent Preface for the feast, which extolls the heavenly choir of virgins, “among whom the blessed and unblemished Virgin Mary Mother of God shined forth, whose assumption day we celebrate with all the devotion of the present Sacrifice.”
The year following the dogmatic definition of the Assumption by Pope Pius XII, a new Mass formulary was composed to enrich the feast. Previously, the Mass was Gaudeamus from the 11th century, with the Epistle from Wisdom and the Gospel pericope about Martha and Mary, which was often used in past centuries for Holy Virgins.
The 1951 composition has its Introit from the Apocalypse: “A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” The three orations are drawn from various liturgical texts honoring Our Lady, with the collect underscoring the close connection of the dogma of the Assumption with that of the Immaculate Conception.
The Epistle has the saving heroine Judith as a type of the Virgin Mary: “The Lord hath blessed thee by His power, because by thee He hath brought our enemies to nought. Blessed art thou, O daughter, by the Lord the most high God, above all women upon the earth. Blessed be the Lord who made heaven and earth, who hath directed thee to the cutting off the head of the prince of our enemies. Because He hath so magnified thy name this day, that thy praise shall not depart out of the mouth of men, who shall be mindful of the power of the Lord forever.…” The Gospel is that of the Magnificat, wherein Our Lady proclaims: “My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid; for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.”
When the feast was introduced into the Roman Rite, it was initially given the collect known as Veneranda, which neatly ties together the Feast’s themes: “May it avail us to eternity, O Lord, to venerate the Feast of this day on which the blessed Mother of God underwent temporal death, but could not, however, be oppressed by the bonds of death, she who had given birth to Thy Son, our Incarnate Lord.”
“Tu gloria Ierusalem, tu lætitia Israel, tu honorificentia populi nostri—Thou art the glory of Jerusalem, thou art the joy of Israel, thou art the honor of our people” (Epistle).