Today is the feast of the Assumption.
For Orthodox and Catholics, the bodily assumption of the Blessed Mother of Christ is a historical event. The falling asleep of Blessed Mary and her assumption are just as historical as, say, the fact that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated or the fact that the St. Louis Cardinals won the 2006 World Series. One day Mary’s body lay in a tomb. The next day it did not. When did this happen?
In the fifth century, St Juvenal, Patriarch of Jerusalem, told the holy Byzantine Empress Pulcheria: “Although there is no account of the circumstances of Her death in Holy Scripture, we know about them from the most ancient and credible tradition.” He sent to the empress the grave wrappings of the Theotokos from her tomb. St Pulcheria then placed these grave-wrappings within the Blachernae church.
What is the Assumption of Mary?
The “ancient and credible tradition” of the dormition and assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is that when she came to the end of her life, she was translated body and soul to Heaven. In this way she received the eschatological promise of the resurrection of the body. This is fitting because she is an icon of the Church and Christ’s redemption of his mother prefigures the hope of all Christians. That Mary was honored in this was is proper to love of Christ who fulfilled the commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother.”
The Eastern Orthodox refer to this day as the Dormition or the “Falling Asleep” of the Blessed Mother. Some have wrongly concluded that this means that the Orthodox Church does not teach the bodily assumption of Mary. However, the Kontakion for the feast of the Blessed Mother’s Dormtion reads:
Neither the tomb, nor death could hold the Theotokos,
Who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions.
For being the Mother of Life,
She was translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb.
Note that the Eastern Church confesses that “neither the tomb, nor death” could hold the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ.
If Eastern and Western Church agree on the historical event of her assumption, has there been an attempt to discover the date at which it happened?
The Date of the Assumption
There is no record of the exact day or year in which our Lady was assumed. This should not bother us too much. After all, we are not sure of the day and year of Christ’s birth, baptism, or death and resurrection. However, we can get close. Let’s look a few clues pertaining to the life and death of Mary.
We know that she was alive at the death of Christ, because she stood at the foot of the cross. At this point she was placed under the care of St. John, when Christ said, “Behold your mother.” She was also present at Pentecost. After that, there is no mention of her (unless you count St. John’s description of the “woman” in Rev 12 – more on this later).
Why is there little mention of Mary in Acts or the Epistles? I believe that the New Testament speaks of the mysteries of the faith in clouded language on account of the fierce persecution that Christians received from both the Jews and the Romans. Cases have been made that Galatians and 1 Peter are basically tracts on baptism, despite the fact that baptism is only alluded to in the most minimal way. The Gospel of John in particular is reluctant to spell out baptismal theology (John 3) or Eucharistic theology (John 6), although it does so in a way that only an insider would “get it”. Think also of John’s language about the “blood and the water”. He’s making points for “insiders”. Mary would have been revered, but to speak of her openly would have placed her danger.
The martyrdom of St. James the Greater is recorded in Acts 12:1-2 and the date of this event is safely placed at A.D. 43 or 44. This was a Jewish persecution of the Christians. It seems that this martyrdom further widened the growing separation between the incipient Jewish community of Christians within the synagogues of Palestine and the establishment of a separate “Way” that began to gain Gentile adherents. The unique nature of the Church as distinct from Judaism would finally be ecclesiastically recognized at the Council Jerusalem in A.D. 49 or 50 (Acts 15). Acts 12 shows the Jews in a fierce attempt to destroy those closest to Christ. They kill James and imprison Peter (apparently with the intent to kill Peter).
Here is where we turn to Tradition. St. John had seen his brother St. James martyred, and St. Peter imprisoned. Everyone knew that Christ’s inner circle consisted of Peter, James, and John. They had killed James and captured Peter. Obviously John was next on the hit list. Tradition also indicates that the Jews sought to kill or disgrace the Mother of Christ. So John took Mary and relocated to Ephesus sometime shortly after the martyrdom of his brother James (A.D. 43 or 44).
Thus, the falling asleep and assumption of Mary occurred sometime after this date. The tradition is almost universal that her death and resurrection occurred in Jerusalem. An alternate version has arisen from the visions of Ven. Anne Catherine Emmerich that her death, funeral, and assumption occurred in Ephesus. Interestingly enough, Emmerich places the date of the assumption at A.D. 43 or 44. However, I tend to mistrust the visions of Emmerich.
One tradition places the falling asleep of Mary after the conversion of St. Dionysius the Areopagite which occurred in Acts 17:34. This kicks the date back into the 50s. All the traditions place her Dormition sometime after the other Apostles have gone out into the world, but before the death of the other Apostles (ca. A.D. 63).
I think Mary fell asleep at this time. It fits the historical setting of most of the apocryphal legends retelling the Dormition of Mary (even though they contain a lot of miraculous events – such as bilocation or the translation of human bodies). Here is a list of reasons for placing the Dormition at AD 63:
- The Apostles (but not James Zebedee) are all still alive.
- The great miracle of the Dormition and Assumption are not mentioned in Acts, something we might expect if it happened before the composition of Acts (A.D. 63).
- The Book of Revelation seems to describe some sort of miraculous intervention of God meant to preserve the “the woman”. I believe Revelation explains the seven year tribulation leading up to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Thus, A.D. 63 fits perfectly.
So I’m going to say that Mary was assumed about A.D. 63 when Herod’s temple was finally finished. So Mary’s Assumption is a sort of “pre-tribulation rapture” occurring before the seven years of Roman-Jerusalem gridlock culminating in the end of the Mosaic age – the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. I’d love any comments from anyone aware of any published studies on this topic.