At the hour of our death
Reflecting on Mary’s assumption as hope for all believers
Have you ever been with someone as they passed from this life to the next? As a priest, I have been. I also hear many stories about someone’s last moments before drawing their dying breath. The richness of our Catholic tradition preserves the stories of holy men and women and the last moments of their life. The reasons vary, but often these stories testify to the holiness of the individual, or that someone witnessed something so profound they had to share it.
Scripture tells us about the death of St. Stephen, who saw the heavens open and later prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). St. Bernadette Soubirous, near death, prayed: “Holy Mary, pray for me a sinner.” St. Pio of Pietrelcina died with the names of Jesus and Mary on his lips. St. Teresa of Kolkata professed her love for Jesus: “Jesus, I love you. Jesus, I love.” St. John Paul II said, “Let me go to the Father’s house.”
One of my elder parishioners, a gentleman whose memory was stolen by dementia, in the moments before his death began saying the name of his wife, who died a few years earlier. Could he have experienced something other worldly? Another parishioner, a 35-year-old husband and father whom I accompanied during the final weeks of his life, called out the name of Jesus as he took his last breath. Did he, in that moment, see his Lord and Savior, the one in whom he believed?
The hour of death is a sacred moment because it is a passing from this life to the one promised by the Lord. It marks the end of our earthly pilgrimage and the beginning of our pilgrimage to the kingdom of heaven.
‘Let me go to the Father’s house.’
What about Mary?
What about the end of Mary’s life? What do we believe? What does Mary’s assumption mean for Christians?
Pope Pius XII defined the dogma of Mary’s assumption on Nov. 1, 1950. After an inquiry among the world’s bishops and in consultation with theologians, the Holy Father declared in Munificentissimus Deus (The Most Bountiful God) 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” (44).
In the paragraphs leading up to the declaration, Pius XII recounted how this dogma has been handed down from generation to generation. It wasn’t the invention of the Church, but something that had been piously believed for centuries and the subject of many homilies given by the Church Fathers.
It is important to pay attention to the words of the definition: “having completed the course of her earthly life.” The Church did not use precise language regarding the Assumption because the exact nature of the Assumption is not known to us. This has resulted in the emergence of three theological camps offering their interpretation of the belief.
The Church did not use precise language regarding the Assumption because the exact nature of the Assumption is not known to us.
What does it mean to say the completion of Mary’s earthly life? The immortalists, arising out of the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, argue that it means that Mary did not die but was taken up in heavenly glory body and soul at a time appointed by God. They base their reasoning on the fact that death is a consequence of sin, and if Mary was free of all sin, including original sin, then she was not subject to the penalty of death.
The second position, that of a dormitionist, is a little more nuanced. This belief holds that Mary fell asleep in the Lord but did not undergo the complexity of death. It was as if she entered a trancelike state and then later was translated (assumed) body and soul into heaven.
The third position, the assumptionist position, is more matter-of-fact. This position asserts the death of Mary, who was placed in the tomb, and then three or four days later, the apostles discovered her tomb empty. In those few days in the tomb, Mary did not undergo any type of bodily corruption.
In response to the immortalists who believe Mary did not need to experience death, the assumptionists would respond that Mary chose to experience death in order to share in the life and mysteries of her Son.
Given the three positions the Church puts forward, an individual may hold any of the three. Since the pope did not dogmatically state Mary died, theologians continue to reflect on the Assumption, evident in the many theological books about Mary.
Theologians continue to reflect on the Assumption.
What do we know about the end of Mary’s life?
The base text for many beliefs about Mary’s dormition, or assumption, come from a centuries-old document, Transitus Mariae, which originated in the second or third century. Eastern Church Fathers such as St. John Damascene preached homilies for the feast of Mary’s dormition.
A book attributed to Maximus the Confessor called The Life of the Virgin (translated into English by Stephen J. Shoemaker, Yale University Press, 2012) sought to bring together all the traditions and apocryphal stories of Mary into one place and detail her life from conception to death. Other mystical biographers of Mary, such as Ven. Maria of Agreda or Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich, recount the life of Mary, including the end of her life.
What do these accounts suggest? Similar to the Annunciation in which Mary received the announcement of Christ’s birth, she receives another annunciation, this time that the end of her life is drawing near. She began to prepare for her reunion with her son. A call went out to all the apostles, who came to be with Mary in her final days and were present for her death (or transition to eternity).
A funeral procession led Mary to the place where she was laid in the tomb. The apostles remained at the tomb and could hear the singing of angels. An apostle, presumably Thomas, arrives late, and requests the tomb to be opened so he can pay his respects. Upon opening the grave, her body is not there — she was assumed body and soul into heaven.
Artists who depict the Assumption often show Mary ascending above the grave in the presence of the apostles. The place of Mary’s death and burial are disputed. The stronger tradition proposes the Holy Land, where you can visit Dormition Abbey and the tomb of Mary in the Kidron Valley, near the Garden of Gethsemane. The biography of Mary by Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich suggests Ephesus as the location.
The place of Mary’s death and burial are disputed.
Given that none of these accounts come from Sacred Scripture — meaning they are outside of public revelation — a person need not believe them. The stories related to the end of Mary’s life satisfy curious minds and aid in our meditation about this mystery of her life.
The significance of the Assumption
With all the questions surrounding Mary’s assumption already addressed (i.e., did she die?), the more important question to be asked is: What does Mary’s assumption mean for me and the Church? When theologians talk about Mary, they do so by talking about her privileges — the unique actions of God in her life.
Mary’s immaculate conception, declared a dogma in 1854, was a singular privilege of Mary, meaning that she, and she alone, experienced this privilege. When theologians reflect on Mary’s assumption, they also refer to it as a privilege. The significance is that Mary, as the first of the redeemed, being assumed into heaven anticipates what God will do for us on the last day, as we profess in the Apostles Creed, “I believe in … the resurrection of the body.” God will raise our bodies from the grave, and we will experience the fullness of resurrected life.
Mary’s transition from earthly life to heavenly glory is the same transition we will experience. For her, it was a reunion with the God she carried in her womb; for us, it will be a meeting with the God who became incarnate to save us from death and give us eternal life.
Mary’s transition from earthly life to heavenly glory is the same transition we will experience.
The Assumption is significant for the pilgrim Church on earth, too. In Madonna: Mary in the Catholic Tradition (Our Sunday Visitor, 1986), Fr. Frederick M. Jelly, OP, quotes a homily from St. Paul VI:
She died, in fact, but immediately crossed that abyss which led her to ascend to the fullness of life in the glory of God. Mary is in paradise. There she still preserves and multiplies her contacts with us. With the Lord she becomes the Mother of the Church, the mother of humanity.
Mary’s contact with the Church on earth manifests itself in varied ways, most especially through her role as intercessor and advocate and in her motherly concern expressed through her many apparitions. Pope Benedict XVI believed that Mary’s assumption meant she was forever close to the Church and each of her members, available whenever we pray our Hail Marys.
The Assumption of Mary gives hope to all believers that what God has accomplished in Mary, he will do for us, too. It offers us the assurance of Mary’s intercession when we seek her prayers, especially as we often say, “Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.” Through Mary’s intercession, may we be granted the grace of a holy death, holding fast to all we believed during our earthly sojourn to the kingdom of heaven.
To learn more:
The Assumption of Mary by Kilian J. Healy, O. Carm (Carmelite Media, 2011)
Madonna: Mary in the Catholic Tradition by Frederick M. Jelly, OP (Our Sunday Visitor, 1986)
There Is No Rose: The Mariology of the Catholic Church by Aidan Nichols, OP (Fortress Press, 2015)
The Mystery of Mary by Paul Haffner (Gracewing, 2004)
The Marian Mystery: Outline of a Mariology by Denis Farkasfalvy, O. Cist. (Alba House, 2014)
Out of the Box’s film Full of Grace provides a unique portrayal of Mary. Unlike any other film about the Blessed Mother, it tells the story of Mary’s last days on earth. At the end of the movie, Mary gives a beautiful soliloquy and final message to the apostles worthy of our prayer and meditation. This film will truly enrich your devotion to Mary and meditation about her assumption.