DID THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY EXPERIENCE DEATH?
Readings: Revelation 11:19.12:1-6.10; Psalm 45; 1 Corinthians 15:20-27 and Luke 139-56.
Today we celebrate one of the most controversial doctrines among Christians – the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. Did her body experience decay or was she “assumed” into heaven body and soul? Does the Bible mention her assumption into heaven? If not, why does Catholicism promote the doctrine that she was taken body and soul to heaven to live with her Son forever? What does the doctrine uphold and what is the basis for this doctrine?
Over the years, there have been questions surrounding the death of Mary, if she died a normal and peaceful death; if she died a martyr; or she did not die. The Catechism of the Church teaches us that Mary was taken to heaven when the course of her earthly life was finished. The Church does not declare whether Mary died and then was assumed into heaven or whether she was assumed before she died. It leaves open both possibilities. However, the majority of theologians and saints throughout the centuries have affirmed that Mary did experience death. Among them was St. John Damascene, who established in the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) that Mary died in the presence of the Apostles, but her tomb, when opened upon the request of St. Thomas (who was absent) was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that her body was taken up to heaven.
This debate about the death of Mary continued for centuries until in 1950 when Pope Pius XII declared it as a dogma of faith. He said, “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.” This was clearly in harmony with other Catholic Ideas about Mary. That is, Her Immaculate Conception which serves as the basis for her Assumption; her perpetual virginity; and she being the Mother of God.
In view of the above, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that the Immaculate Virgin Mary was preserved from all stain of original sin due to her role in the history of salvation. To this effect, it is fitting that God would prepare Mary as an immaculate dwelling place, full of grace and not stained by sin, for the God-man (CCC 699). Also, if the consequences of original sin is corruption/decay as seen in Gen 3:19 (unto dust you shall return) and in CCC 400, since Mary was full of grace and did not suffer original sin, it is fitting that she, like her son, would not experience such bodily corruption or decay.
Delving into the Biblical perspective of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, it is worthy of note that there is no explicit proof in scriptural texts for it. However, there are some Biblical foundations for this theology. 2Kings 2:11 tells us how Elijah was taken up to heaven by the whirlwind without his body experiencing death. Hebrew 11:5 tells us that by faith, Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death. If God could take Enoch and Elijah to heaven without the experience of death, how much more the Mother of God, who is full of grace, whose womb is the dwelling place of God? Psalm 132:8 says, “Go up Lord, to the place of your rest, you and the ark of your strength.” Today’s Psalm tells us, “On your right stands the queen in gold of Ophir” and the first reading of today from the book of Revelation draws our attention to, a “Woman clothed with the sun… she was with child and she cries out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery.” Another sign was “The red dragon who stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that it might devour her child when she brought it forth.”
It is worthy of note that the book of Revelation is symbolical when the reading says, “A great sign appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun.” The woman here in accordance with the dream of Joseph in Gen 37:9-11 represents Israel. Israel is often referred to as woman (Is 54:1-6; Jer. 3:20). The offspring of the woman, representing Gentiles who come to faith in the tribulation, parallel to Daniel 7:7-8. Other interpretations to this woman is the Blessed Virgin Mary, who bore her Son Jesus Christ, and the attempt of Satan to devour the child was fulfilled when Herod attempted to kill the infant Jesus.
In view of the above, we have in the Gospel the visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and recognizing the wonders God has done for Mary, she said, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” Mary in turn sang the Magnificat (Song of praise to the Lord). She said, “My soul magnifies the Lord… the almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name… He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy…” In line with this, St. John of Damascene makes an eloquent comparison between the high privilege conferred on the Mother of God in General and her bodily Assumption. He said, “It is fitting therefore, that she who had borne the Creator as a child in her bosom should have a dwelling place with God. It is fitting that the Mother of God should enjoy the privileges of the Son and should be honoured by all creation as the Mother and the handmaid of God.”
Finally, St. Paul in the second reading tells us, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead… as in Adam all die, in Christ shall all be made alive.” From today’s office of readings, we read, “From the second century, our Lady has been identified by the Fathers of the Church as the second Eve. Not on the same level indeed as the second Adam, but intimately associated in his warfare against the enemy of our race,” which St. Paul in reference said, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death. Death is swallowed up in the victory of Christ, and she shared in this victory. For us as Christians, her Assumption gives us the hope of the resurrection.
Fr. Ken Dogbo, OSJ.