I believe most Protestants know more about what they don’t believe about Mary than what they do believe about Mary. In an effort to get us to think about Mary, I wrote The Real Mary. I think we’ve got to get back to the Bible to see what it says. Themes about Mary are found not only in the Bible; the early churches struggled with how to understand Mary. Was she sinless? the immaculate conception? and what about her death?
When we were in Denmark and I chose to teach one morning on Mary, I was told that some were a bit nervous that I would talk about Mary. Some were worried that I might be “too Roman Catholic.” I must say, however, that from what I heard my teaching session about Mary was the talk that they most liked. Since today is the feast of Mary’s assumption in the high-church traditions, let me give a bit from a chapter in my Mary book on the assumption of Mary — which I didn’t discuss in Denmark.
Because Roman Catholics believe Mary was immaculately conceived and sinless, and because sin’s consequences are disease, aging, and death, they also concluded that Mary’s end could have been, and indeed was, abnormal. Instead of dying and decaying as other humans, Mary “died” in the presence of others, yet when they checked on her tomb she was gone. This is called the “glorious assumption” of Mary.
What do you think of the dogma of Mary’s assumption? What can we as Protestants (who in most cases do not believe in the Assumption of Mary) learn from this? The Gospel of Luke tells us that “from now on all generations [except Protestants!] will call me blessed.” How do you do this?
Before I resume my section from the book, let me say this: the first step for all of us is one of understanding what the RCC teaches about the assumption of Mary. Before we interact or criticize, first we must listen. And I think it important, also, to ask why the RCC developed their Marian teachings in this direction. Now, back to what I said in The Real Mary.
John of Damascus, in the 7th Century and a highly-esteemed theologian, pulled together various traditions and stated it like this:
St. Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, at the Council of Chalcedon (451), made known to the Emperor Marcian and Pulcheria, who wished to possess the body of the Mother of God, that Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles, but that her tomb, when opened, upon the request of St. Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven.
This conviction became official dogma on 1 November 1950 when Pope Pius XII declared it binding and infallible dogma:
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.
There is, of course, biblical warrant for humans being “assumed” into heaven: In the fifth chapter of Genesis, we read these words: “Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.” About Elijah, the great prophet, the second chapter in 2 Kings says this: “When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind…” and then later, after blessing his successor Elisha, the Bible records this: As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two.
And, of Jesus, the first chapter of Acts records a similar event: “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” Such things can happen.
The question we need to ask about Mary is this: Was she also taken into the presence of God miraculously? As Protestants we go to the Bible first, but we find nothing like this in the Bible. Does that mean it didn’t happen to Mary? None of us believes that everything was recorded in the Bible, so we are left to examine the evidence and make up our own minds.