That’s a pretty big Assumption

A Pillar Explainer

Sunday, August 15, is the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

It could be assumed that you’re an expert on such matters, but here are a few things you might need to know.

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What do Catholics believe about the Assumption?

In 1950, Pope Pius XII defined in a dogmatic and infallible way the doctrine of the Assumption. The pope expressed it this way:

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.

While all who are saved in Christ will experience the resurrection of their bodies, the Church teaches that because Mary was conceived without original sin, “she did not have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of her body.”

Interestingly, the Church does not teach definitively whether Mary died before her Assumption. 

Theologians have usually taught that Mary died, and that her body and soul were then assumed into heaven, where she is crowned the queen of heaven and earth. In the East, theologians have usually talked about Mary’s “dormition,” — a kind of falling into peaceful sleep, and into death, which preceded her Assumption.

But when Pope Pius XII defined the Church’s dogmatic understanding of the Assumption, he did not take a position on whether the Blessed Virgin Mary actually died before she was taken into heaven.

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Why did Pius XII declare and define Mary’s assumption as a dogma of the Church?

Christians in the second and third centuries — just a few hundred years after Christ — believed that Mary was assumed into heaven at the end of her life. A text from that period, called the Transitus Mariae, even gives a poetic (and non-canonical) account of the Assumption:

The apostles.. laid down her precious and holy body in Gethsemane in a new tomb. And, behold, a perfume of sweet savor came forth out of the holy sepulcher of our Lady the mother of God; and for three days the voices of invisible angels were heard glorifying Christ our God, who had been born of her. And when the third day was ended, the voices were no longer heard; and from that time forth all knew that her spotless and precious body had been transferred to paradise.

There were other traditions in the early Church about Mary — some said that she had died a martyr, while others that she had undergone a normal death and burial.

But in the fifth and sixth centuries, a number of books about the Assumption began to emerge, drawing from earlier communities and earlier traditions, especially in the East. 

The Assumption began to be celebrated annually as a liturgical feast in the East in the fifth or sixth century, and in the eighth century in the West. It was a commonly held doctrine in the Middle Ages, even by some Protestant reformers, including Martin Luther.

Pius XII declared the dogma of the Assumption as Europe recovered — spiritually, economically, socially, and politically — from the ravages of the Second World War. In the wake of the war, and as Europe itself began to change in previously unimagined ways, the pope had encouraged a resurgent wave of Marian devotion, and increased study by theologians of the theology of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

In Munificentissimus Deus, the pope was clear about his reasons:

We may hope that those who meditate upon the glorious example Mary offers us may be more and more convinced of the value of a human life entirely devoted to carrying out the heavenly Father's will and to bringing good to others. Thus, while the illusory teachings of materialism and the corruption of morals that follows from these teachings threaten to extinguish the light of virtue and to ruin the lives of men by exciting discord among them, in this magnificent way all may see clearly to what a lofty goal our bodies and souls are destined. Finally it is our hope that belief in Mary's bodily Assumption into heaven will make our belief in our own resurrection stronger and render it more effective.  

And in a 1946 encyclical, the pope explained a resounding call for the a dogmatic definition of Mary’s Assumption:

…numerous petitions (those received from 1849 to 1940 have been gathered in two volumes which, accompanied with suitable comments, have been recently printed), from cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, priests, religious of both sexes, associations, universities and innumerable private persons have reached the Holy See, all begging that the bodily Assumption into heaven of the Blessed Virgin should be defined and proclaimed as a dogma of faith. And certainly no one is unaware of the fact that this was fervently requested by almost two hundred fathers in the Vatican Council. 

Ok, but this year the 15th is on a Sunday. I thought Sundays kind of “trumped” feasts. So why are we having the Feast of the Assumption?

Good question. The Church’s liturgical calendar is meant to celebrate and commemorate the events central to the mystery of salvation, and the various feasts of saints from the Church’s history. 

As with many things in our faith, the Church has a kind of ranking system within the liturgical calendar to keep things organized.

  • At the lowest rank are memorials, first optional then obligatory, which commemorate a saint or group of saints.

  • Above that are feasts, properly speaking, which commemorate some more significant saints, but also commemorate important events in the life of Christ or the Blessed Virgin Mary  — the Presentation of the Lord, for example, is a feast, properly speaking.

  • Ahead of feasts are solemnities — celebrations regarded with great importance in the Church, on which Mass is celebrated much like Sunday, with two readings ahead of the Gospel, and the “Gloria” and the creed. Some solemnities, but not all, are also “holy days of obligation,” on which Catholics are obliged to go to Mass. The Assumption is a solemnity, and normally a holy day of obligation.

  • Then there is Sunday, which is meant to be central to the liturgical calendar. Sunday usually knocks other kinds of celebrations right off the calendar, or sees them transferred to a different day.

But solemnities— if they happen to fall on a Sunday — sometimes trump the usual Sunday celebration, so that the Mass for the solemnity is celebrated instead of the ordinary Sunday Mass.

The rules for when Sunday transfers a solemnity, or when the solemnity trumps the Sunday, get a little bit more complicated than you’re probably after — they have to do mostly with the liturgical seasons. But it suffices to say that because of the rules of liturgical precedence, we will celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Sunday, Aug. 15.

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Apart from Mass, how is the Assumption celebrated?

There are traditional processions and feasts in countries around the world to celebrate Mary’s Assumption. And because August 15 is for a lot of Catholics toward the end of summer, many traditions involve spending the day at the beach or a lake — in some cultures, a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary is taken to the beach while the sea is blessed.

For some Catholic countries, the Assumption falls right in the middle of the traditional August shutdown — so the Blessed Virgin Mary is celebrated with a kind of long vacation. 

The Assumption is certainly a good day to pray the glorious mysteries of the rosary, and to spend some time — perhaps by the water — with family.

For some people, though, the Assumption is also the beginning of a period of fasting — St. Michael’s Lent — a custom started 800 years ago by St. Francis. 

Francis kept a period of fast from the Assumption until the feast of St. Michael on September 29, in honor of St. Michael the Archangel, and as a kind of spiritual discipline. It’s during that fasting period that St. Francis received the stigmata in 1224.

While St. Michael’s Lent lost popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries, some Catholics have begun keeping it again.

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Is there a corny joke for the Solemnity of the Assumption?

There is a corny joke for everything. Here’s one:

Mary and Joseph were at the breakfast table one morning, and Mary said to her husband, “You know, Joseph, I’ve been thinking about this, and, well, it seems to me that at the end of my life, I'm going to be taken up into heaven, body and soul.”

Joseph took a sip of his coffee and thought it over.

Here comes the corny —

“I don't know Mary. That sounds like a pretty big assumption to me.”

If you hear this in the homily on Sunday, feel free to cringe. If you say this in the homily on Sunday, The Pillar promises, people will cringe. Resist the urge.

Blessed Solemnity!