What do we know about Mary’s assumption?

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Mary Assumption
Mary is depicted in a stained-glass window at St. Mary Church in Manhasset, N.Y. (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Question: The Blessed Mother was assumed into heaven. Did Mary die a natural death, or was she assumed into heaven with her whole body and soul? Does the New Testament or the Acts of the Apostles cover the Assumption like Christ’s ascension into heaven was recorded?

Joseph Ricciardi, via email

Answer: We are not sure if Mary died a natural death and that afterward her body was taken up, or if she was taken up without experiencing death. Generally, the Eastern Churches and the Orthodox Churches hold that she died a natural death and her body was taken up shortly afterward. This is often called the “Dormition of Mary.” Dormition here refers to the sleep of death. In the Western Church, there is more the view that she did not die but was taken up by the Lord. Some of the ancient Fathers of the Church (such as Melito of Sardis and John Damascene) speak of her as dying, but when her tomb was subsequently opened to complete the burial, her body had vanished.

Both views have a certain fittingness associated with them. On the one hand, it would seem that Mary, who knew no sin, did not deserve death. On the other hand, it is clear that she experienced sorrow and that her Son, though also undeserving of death, did surely die.

The bottom line is that we just don’t know if she died before being assumed or not. The main point that has been taught, nearly as far back as the Church can remember, is that Mary is in heaven both body and soul.

As for Scripture, there is not an exact account of the event later testified by early Church writers. However, the presence of Mary in heaven with her body is hinted at in the Book of Revelation where John says he saw the Ark of God in the heavenly Temple. He goes on to describe a woman clothed with the sun who had given birth to the one destined to rule the nations with an iron rod. The ruler is Jesus, and the woman is Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant, who physically carried the presence of the Lord as the ancient ark did, but now more perfectly and bodily: in her womb and later in her arms. St. John sees this new ark, Mary, not moldering in some tomb or earthly cave, but in heaven (cf. Rev. 11:1912:9).

Msgr. Charles Pope

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.