The Transitus (time of passing from death to life) of Mary, Mother of Jesus, is among the most popular subjects of great artists. Many of these masterful religious pieces were painted between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, depicting magnificent images that resonate in our minds and hearts. They exalt Our Blessed Lady as a beautiful middle-aged woman, fully alert in prayer, robed in majestic garb, standing on a cloud, and surrounded by angels, as the Apostles look up to her in heaven from their place on earth below.
Our mid-August calendar marks one of the Catholic holy days of obligation: the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “Obligation” sounds like a chore to many, even a penalty to some; it might be healthier, even holier, to think of them as a holy days of opportunity. Like many things in life, I suppose it depends on our perspective, for this could be a good opportunity for us to imitate her in ways that are potentially life-changing. This memorial of her transitus is known in many parts of the world as the Feast of the Dormition; and though either word will do, it, again, depends on our perspective.
The words emphasize different facets of Mary’s departure from this world. Though the Bible contains no information about her transitus, our earliest Christian traditions teach that she died; she fell asleep to rest in eternal peace. She did not go to heaven alive as Elijah is recorded to have done (2 Kings 2); it was not a “beam me up, Scotty,” sort of moment as some Catholics imagine. Ancient writings exist, like “The Account of St. John the Theologian of the Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God,” fourth century, that tell of the final events of Mary’s life. Though various legends offer assorted details, e.g., she may have been as young as sixty-one or as old as seventy-two, she may have lived her final days in Ephesus or Bethlehem, the Apostles may have been mysteriously transported back from “the ends of the earth” to bid her farewell on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, the constant part of the story is the dormition (the falling asleep). When Pope Pius XII, in 1950, proclaimed the infallible church dogma of The Assumption in a declaration called Muntificentissimus Deus, he stated that the dead body of the Blessed Virgin Mary remained incorrupt, gaining a triumph out of death that followed the example of her Son.
To me, a most valuable characteristic of this Marian feast is that Our Lady remains the prime example for us on how to live and how to die. Though her life was probably not as glamorous as the paintings, as a child, like many children who are taught about God, she would have done anything for the Lord. When she was barely a teenager and chosen to be His mother, she offered her fiat (her ‘yes’, her assent to the divine will). From that act of love, she responded to each opportunity that followed, reiterating her surrender to God’s mission, not as an obligation but a tremendous privilege. Then, in the end, after much joy and sorrow—after she had completed all that had been commanded of her here on earth—she made the final surrender; she fell asleep, breathed her last, rested in peace, and was taken into glory, body and soul.
Though not sinless like her, the journey should be similar for us. Here for a limited time, God asks us to share in His mission from our childhood to final day; periodically, we realize it and respond to the opportunities with acts of love. Called to surrender to His will, we should submit as she did so that, after we have done all that is commanded of us, we can offer our final surrender, take our last breath, and rest peacefully. We are told that a glorified body awaits us in heaven (hers remained pure and glorified here on earth) and our soul will be taken to experience His loving embrace. I pray that our transitus will imitate hers.
Life, essentially, is a series of surrenders and opportunities, through both our joys and sorrows. If we submit to God’s will for us and respond to the opportunities He offers us with acts of love, we, too, will be called into His glory.