With these words, Pope Pius XII formally declared, in 1950, the bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven to be a dogma of the Catholic Church.
Over fifty years later, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary remains Catholic dogma that cannot change. But in the intervening years, the attitude of many Catholics regarding Our Lady has changed. For them, the Assumption of Mary has become largely irrelevant-a doctrinal antique cluttering up the Church's theological attic. They may well nod affirmatively when asked whether they believe it, but their minds are not gripped by its meaning. They see no point to the doctrine.
Evangelical Protestants, on the other hand, think the dogma of Mary's Assumption anything but irrelevant. For them, it is all-too-relevant because it is utterly irreverent, and this for at least two reasons. First, because, in their view, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin unduly exalts Mary's role in salvation history, giving her an honor they say is due Christ alone. Second, because, resting on the claim of the Pope's authority to define dogmas, the Assumption is regarded as the most recent and perhaps most vivid demonstration of the Catholic Church's alleged penchant for "inventing" new dogmas without warrant in Scripture and then imposing them of the faithful as infallibly true.
But the Assumption of Mary is neither irrelevant as some Catholics think, nor irreverent as most Evangelicals believe. It is an immensely important truth, which neither diminishes the honor of Christ nor imposes on believers something contrary to Scripture.
But before anything else is said on the subject, some false assumptions about the Assumption must be cleared away. The first concerns the word assumption itself. Many Catholics assume people understand what the Church means by the word, when in fact they often don't. In this context, the word doesn't mean, as it usually does in contemporary English, a statement one holds without proof or demonstration. "Assumption" means here "to take up" and refers to Mary's being "taken up" body and soul to heaven by God.
This last point needs underscoring. We speak of Mary's Assumption, not her Ascension. Christ ascended, but the Blessed Virgin Mary was assumed into heaven. In other words, unlike her Son Jesus, Mary didn't "go up on her own power" to heaven, so to speak, but was taken up by the power of God. The Assumption of Mary, then, is something God did for her, like her Immaculate Conception and Virginal Motherhood, not something she did herself. It is a result of Christ's redemptive power applied to the Blessed Mother.
Another erroneous assumption people sometimes make is to conclude that the Assumption means the Blessed Virgin never died. In reality, the doctrine says only that "having completed the course of her earthly life, [the Virgin Mary] was assumed body and soul into heaven," not that she in no way experienced death. Some theologians have argued (rightly or wrongly) that Mary didn't die, but the dogma itself doesn't say this.
The dogma of the Assumption means that the Virgin Mary now experiences in heaven that union of glorified body and soul which her son enjoys. She is no disembodied spirit, but a complete human person, body and soul, matter and spirit, reigning with Christ.
One final faulty assumption often made: that the doctrine of the Assumption is exclusively about Mary herself, without reference to Christ or the Church. But as Pope John Paul II reminds us, Catholic teaching about the Blessed Virgin Mary must be understood in light of the mystery of Christ and of the Church (Redemptoris mater, no. 4). These two basic Marian principles, as we might call them, help us understand the Blessed Virgin's Assumption too.
Consider the first principle-that Mary should be understood in light of the mystery of Christ. This principle explains why the Evangelical criticism about the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin misses the point. Mary's Assumption takes nothing from Christ himself, but rather demonstrates his power-the power of his Resurrection-at work in raising Mary, the first to believe in Christ, to the glorified life of heaven. It is, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "a singular participation in her Son's Resurrection" (no. 966), not a salvific event which stands on its own.
Undoubtedly we can ask why Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven. The immediate and obvious answer is that this was a "favor" Jesus granted his mother. If we could to take our mothers body and soul to heaven, wouldn't we do it?
The idea of the "Perfect Son's love for the Perfect Mother" certainly casts some light on the Assumption. But Jesus' relationship to Mary, though as human as our relationships with our mothers, entails more than mere personal love and devotion. If the Assumption were only about that, then Jesus needn't have bothered to reveal it to us. That he did so implies it has something more to teach us-something more about himself and about us.
The relationship of Christ's redemption to Mary's "privileges" is, foremost, that of cause to effect. The whole, salvific mystery of Christ-his Incarnation, death and Resurrection-is the cause of Mary's divine motherhood, her Immaculate Conception and her Glorious Assumption. And not just the "final cause"-that for which these Marian privileges came to be-but also the "efficient cause" or that by which they came about.
"My spirit rejoices in God my Savior," Mary said in the Magnificat (Luke 1:47). Fundamentalists quote this passage against Mary's Immaculate Conception, arguing that since she needed a savior, she couldn't have been free of sin. But it was precisely because God was her savior that Mary was free of sin. God saved her from sin in advance, through the saving action of Jesus Christ to come. The Immaculate Conception, then, was a preemptive strike against sin, the full spiritual benefits of Christ's sacrifice on Calvary having been communicated to Mary in anticipation of the Incarnation. And the Assumption was God's way of finishing the job he started at Mary's Immaculate Conception, redeeming her body from the effects of sin as well.
The second Marian principle is that we should understand Mary in light of the mystery of the Church. Vatican II's Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, tells us that Mary is a symbol or icon of the Church, of all Christians. She is not only the first Christian and most preeminent member of the Church, she is also a model of the Church, a paradigm for what God wills to accomplish in and through the Church. Consequently, by reflecting on the graces God gave the Blessed Virgin, we understand more about his gifts to us. The Assumption of Mary points to a profound gift to all believers-the resurrection of the body.
"But wait," someone might object, "isn't Christ our model, rather than Mary?" Yes, Christ is our model, but in a different way. Christ is a divine person, God the Son, who worked through human nature to redeem us. He effected the perfection and elevation of human nature by grace. Through Christ, we become children of God and are empowered to follow his example of humble submission to the Father. But Mary is a human person, fully redeemed by Christ, and one who followed Christ's humble submission perfectly. She represents the perfection and elevation of the human person by grace. And the human person, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, consists of body as well as soul, of matter and of spirit (nos. 362-368). A fully redeemed human person, then, would be redeemed in body as well as soul, as was the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In this way the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin reminds us of who and what we are as human beings. There is a kind of puritanism, to use the word in its pejorative sense, which suggests that only the soul is important; the body is at best a hindrance and at worst, evil. The Assumption of Mary reminds us that we are more than souls: whatever the weaknesses of our bodies after the Fall of humanity, the body, as such, remains good and is part of our ultimate destiny.
When the fullness of redemption comes, then, it will include our bodies, not simply our souls. These glorified bodies will be spiritualized, yes-properly subordinated to the spiritual order-but they will still be real bodies. The Christian hope is not so much the immortality of the soul, which many pagans affirm, but the Resurrection of the Body. The Assumption of Mary reminds us that our bodies too will be redeemed.
Why did Mary experience bodily redemption before the rest of the Church? No doubt God has reasons for this which we cannot glean, but one reason seems obvious enough. If Mary is to be a model of the Church, then it makes sense that she would experience in advance the fullness of bodily redemption that awaits the whole Church at the end of time. Mary's Assumption is a vivid portrait of that glorious destiny to which all Christians are called.
There's another lesson, though, we might draw from Mary's Assumption, one relevant to present debates about gender and the Church. The Assumption reminds us that gender isn't an ephemeral, superficial part of who we are. It is integral. Even after experiencing the fullness of redemption, the Blessed Virgin remains female-Virgin and Mother, in fact. Although in the resurrection there is no "marrying, nor being given in marriage" (Matt. 22:30), our sexual identities as men and women persist. There is "neither ... male nor female" when it comes to accessing the life of grace (Gal. 3:28), but this doesn't obliterate the distinction between men and women altogether, nor does it imply they must have identical roles in the Church. Christ remains the Bridegroom of the Church; Mary remains Mother of the Church. Their personal identities remain gender-specific.
A final point on the Blessed Virgin's Assumption and us involves the Queenship of Mary. This notion is really a corollary to the doctrine of the Assumption. Like Christ, Mary too was raised bodily to reign in God's kingdom. Her Son is "King of Kings and Lord of Lords," so she is "Mother of the Lord" (cf. Luke 1:43)-the "Queen Mother" as it were-sharing now in Christ's reign. Again, in this she is both a model of the Church and its precursor. As Paul says of all Christians, "If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we persevere, we shall also reign with him" (2 Tim. 3:11, 12). Through her glorious Assumption, Blessed Virgin Mary has begun to reign with Christ as all Christians shall at the Resurrection of the Dead.
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, then, is neither irrelevant, nor irreverent. It is relevant because of what is says about who we are as human beings-beings of body and spiritual soul-and who are called to be-sons and daughters of God who will share in the fullness of divine life with Christ in heaven, a life of body and soul. And it is reverent because it exemplifies Christ's power in thoroughly redeeming his Mother, a redemption in which we hope to share one day. Until then, as Lumen gentium reminds us, "the Mother of Jesus in the glory which she possesses in body and soul in heaven is the image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected in the world to come. Likewise she shines forth on earth ... a sign of certain hope and comfort to the pilgrim People of God" (no. 68).