In a papal document entitled Munificentissimus Deus (“The most bountiful God”) released in late 1950, Pope Pius XII declared, ex cathedra (infallibly), the doctrine of the Assumption of Blessed Mother Mary: “We proclaim and define it to be a dogma revealed by God that the Immaculate Mother of God, Mary ever-virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up, body and soul, into the glory of heaven.”
As we celebrate the annual Feast of the Assumption of Mary, we ponder the end of her life here on earth. Like many matters of faith, what happened to her then remains a mystery. A few years ago, the German author and biblical scholar, Michael Hesemann, published a book entitled Mary of Nazareth: History, Archaeology, Legend that shed light on numerous aspects of her human existence. His story mixes unverified legends and traditions with archaeological findings and historical data to enlighten us. Among the intelligence we learn from him, and others, is that Mary was born about nineteen years before the current era. Some historians are convinced that she died in the year 42 (current era), though others contend that it was six years later. But some religious orders are certain, through visionaries and revelation to sainted members of their community, that her age when her life ended was not sixty-one or even sixty-seven, but seventy-two; some rosaries are even made with seventy-two Ave Maria beads to commemorate each year. Obviously, we do not know which speculation, if any, is accurate.
We also do not know from where Mary departed earth after she breathed her last. Both Mount Zion in Jerusalem and Ephesus in modern-day Turkey claim to house the spot of her departure. Each has built and venerates a Church of the Dormition to commemorate the designated holy location. Again, we don’t know which is true. In the United States, most of us refer to this feast as The Assumption, but many around the globe call it The Dormition. Either is correct because they both refer to Mary’s transitus, or passage from this life to eternal life, but they have different emphasis. The latter emphasizes Mary’s final submission to God and resting in peace; the former emphasizes that her earthly body was taken to heaven with her divine soul. Pius is shrewd not to clarify whether Mary actually died or if she was taken away before she experienced dying. It probably doesn’t matter what was her age, the place from which she took leave of earth, or whether she fell asleep to make her last fiat or stood upright as she was assumed; what matters is that, after she had completed all she was here on earth to do, she offered herself to God in total surrender as she had done at the Annunciation and at every step thenceforth.
Hesemann retells one of the most popular versions of how her final days unfolded. According to the legend, Mary was consumed by a desire to see her Son again when an angel appeared bringing her a palm branch from paradise and announced that in three days, she would be taken away to heaven to be reunited with Him. She summoned the Apostles, as well as some relatives and friends, to bid them farewell. She took a bath, put on new clothes, and lied down on a couch. The Beloved Disciple asked permission to prepare her for burial. With many gathered, praying and singing, Jesus appeared in radiant light, surrounded by a host of angels and took Mary’s soul into heaven. Then three ladies washed and dressed her body before the disciples carried it to her tomb, led by the heavenly branch. They laid her body in the Valley of Josaphat and closed the tomb, then remained there for three days of prayer. On the third day, Jesus, with a host of angels, appeared again; one of the angels removed the stone from her tomb as the others carried her to paradise.
It’s a fantastic story—one which I hope helps us ready ourselves for the end of earthly life and strengthens our trust that Christ will take us home, too.