Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Debate with "Little Les" on the Assumption of Mary: Part 3

Here is the final installment of my debate with Little Les, where I provide the evidence for the Assumption from Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Also see Part 1 and Part 2.
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Sacred Scripture

First note that the concept of an assumption into heaven is not foreign to Scripture. We will all experience the resurrection of the body when Jesus comes again (cf. Dan 12:2; Isa 26:19; Jn 5:28-29; 6:39; 11:23-25; Acts 26:8; Rom 8:11; 1 Thes 4:6-7). Mary was not even the only one to experience this before the Second Coming. Enoch (cf. Gen 5:24; Heb 11:5) and Elijah (cf. 2 Ki 2:11-12; 1 Mac 2:58; Sir 48:4,9) were assumed into heaven. Paul suggests that a third man may have been as well (cf. 2 Cor 12:2-4) and Matthew speaks of "many bodies of the saints" who were raised from the tomb after Jesus' resurrection (cf. Mt 27:52-53). So, the principle is scripturaly sound. We have left only to answer the question, "Did this happen to Mary?"

There is no one verse that definitely answers this question. But, is this anything new? Protestants often have to refer to many different passages to defend their unique doctrines. It is often enough for them that a particular belief have implicit scriptural witness and that there be an absence of any verses that directly contradict it. The Assumption of Mary is such a teaching. I find nothing in Scripture, explicit or otherwise, that condemns the teaching. What I do find, however, are several verses that seem to point to it, at least implicitly [from the RSV, unless otherwise noted]:
Psalm 45:9 daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor; at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.

Psa 132:8 Arise, O LORD, and go to thy resting place, thou and the ark of thy might.

Isa 60:13 The glory of Lebanon shall come to you, the cypress, the plane, and the pine, to beautify the place of my sanctuary; and I will make the place of my feet glorious.

So 3:6 What is that coming up from the wilderness, like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all the fragrant powders of the merchant?

So 8:5 Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?

Rev 11:19-12:1 Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. 1 And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.

Rev 12:13-14 and when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had borne the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle that she might fly from the serpent nto the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.
Please note that I do not offer these passages as "proof texts." I realize that the literal meaning of the verses from the Old Testament can refer to other things. Also, I think Rev 12 is about Mary, but I grant that the "woman" can be a symbol of the People of God as well. The early Church fathers, in the light of the faith that they had received from the Apostles themselves and in their meditation upon Scripture, saw in all of these passages certain indications or forshadowings of Mary's Assumption.

At this point, Protestants usually cry foul and accuse Catholics of "eisegesis." But, reading Scripture in the light of faith is a sound, even biblical hermeneutic. Take, for example, the various Messianic verses from the Old Testament (one list of such verses is here). You'll notice that the majority of them were first about a king, or some holy object, or a prophet speaking about himself. But the New Testament writers saw in them a reference to Christ. Paul looked at the rock that Moses struck (cf. Exo 17:6) and saw Christ (cf. 1 Cor 10:4). Jesus Himself looked at the serpent raised up (cf. Num 21:8-9) and Jonah inside the whale (cf. Jon 1:17) and saw His own Passion, Death, and Resurrection (cf. Jn 3:14-15; Mt 12:39-41). Matthew looked at Isaiah's prophecy concerning the birth of King Hezekiah (cf. Isa 7:14) and saw Mary (cf. Mt 1:23).

Are Protestants alarmed at these "radical" readings of the text? Certainly not. Well, I assert that the early Church fathers were utilizing the same hermeneutic when they read these many passages and saw Mary's Assumption. The doctrines of the Church come from the sacred deposit of faith she has received, and the early Church fathers testify to this deposit. The light of the New Testament and of this sacred deposit often reveals meanings to Scripture other than what the authors themselves initially intended.

It is also important to note that the Assumption of Mary is logically consistent. Once one establishes from Scripture that Mary was without sin (and this is certainly possible), it follows that she would not suffer the death and decay of her body, which is the result of sin (cf. Gen 3:19).

The Assumption also follows from the nature of Christ's Kingship. After all, Christ is the new king of David (cf. Mk 11:10; Lk 1:32), who once ascended into heaven, sat upon His throne where He reigns over the new Davidic kingdom forever. In the Davidic kingdoms, the Queen is actually the mother of the king, not his wife (cf. 1 Ki 2:19; Psa 45:9; Jer 13:18). This, by the way, is why any time the reign of a particular king is first introduced in Scripture, it is almost always followed by the name of the king's mother (cf. 1 Ki 14:21; 15:2, 9-10; 22:42; 2 Ki 8:26; 12:1; 14:1-2; 15:1-2, 32-33; 18:1-2; 21:1, 19; 22:1; 23:31, 36; 24:8, 18). Considering all this, it makes perfect since that Jesus, who fulfills the Kingdom and Reign of David, would from the moment He took up His throne be anxious to assume Mary into heaven to be with Him and to install her as His Queen Mother. In the Davidic Kingdom, there is no King without a Queen.

Finally, keep in mind that the Assumption of Mary is just as much a historical event as it is a dogma of faith. There are many historical events that are not recorded in Scripture. Does this mean that they did not happen? Of course not. As with any historical event, especially one concerning the formative years of Christianity, we can look to the Bible, but we can also look to other early writings from that period. When we look to these writings, we see that early Christians believed in what we are describing here: Mary, at the end of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.

Sacred Tradition

Contrary to what many claim, modern research reveals evidence of belief in Mary's Assumption from at least the third century, and maybe even earlier. I offer you the following points:
  • "Tomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary", an entry in the New Advent encyclopedia, attributes Joannis liber de Dormitione Mariae, or "the book of John on the Dormition of Mary" (read a summary of it here or the full text here) to the third to fourth century.
  • The book Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary's Dormition and Assumption, by Stephen J. Shoemaker (which is considered one of the most objective and scholarly works on Mary's Dormition and Assumption), states that "a few of the narratives were almost certainly composed by the third century, if not even earlier."
  • Traci Regula's article, "Feast of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary" states that "written records dating back to as early as the third century" gives accounts of her Dormition and Assumption in Ephesus.
  • David Scott tells us, in his article, "In Her End, The Promise of Our Beginning", that the Acts of John — a fifth-century text from Constantinople that includes material originally written in the second century — recalls that "the mother of us all has departed this life," which is quite an enticing statement. He goes on to say:
    "Archeologists have discovered that the Church of Mary’s Tomb was built in a first–century Jewish burial ground and that the fifth–century church was likely built to replace a much older church on the site. This has led some to speculate that devotion and worship at the site began within years of Mary’s death"
  • I have read several articles that speak of a version of the Transitus Mariae stories that dates from the third century as well (for example, here and here).

What all of this shows is that scholars are beginning to find evidence of the Assumption from a much earlier time then first expected. The fact that the earliest Marian feast in the Church is of her Dormition/Assumption (fourth century) tells us that belief in this was widespread and longstanding. Church feasts don't just sprout up with every "new" doctrine or "pious legend" that surfaces. They arise as a result of the traditional beliefs of the people.

From here we come to the more explicit references:
"If therefore it might come to pass before the power of your grace, it has appeared right to us your servants that, as you, having overcome death does reign in glory, so you should raise up the body of your mother and take her with you, rejoicing into heaven. Then said the Savior [Jesus]: 'Be it done according to your will" [Pseudo-Melito, The Passing of the Virgin 16:2-17; (300 AD)].

"If the Holy Virgin had died and was buried, her falling asleep would have been surrounded with honour, death would have found her pure, and her crown would have been a virginal one...Had she been martyred according to what is written: 'Thine own soul a sword shall pierce', then she would shine gloriously among the martyrs, and her holy body would have been declared blessed; for by her, did light come to the world" [Epiphanius, Panarion, 78:23 (A.D. 377), in PG 42:737].

"Therefore the Virgin is immortal to this day, seeing that he who had dwelt in her transported her to the regions of her assumption" [Timothy of Jerusalem, Homily on Simeon and Anna; (400 AD)].

"And from that time forth all knew that the spotless and precious body had been transferred to paradise" [John the Theologian, The Falling Asleep of Mary; (400 AD)].

"The Apostles took up her body on a bier and placed it in a tomb; and they guarded it, expecting the Lord to come. And behold, again the Lord stood by them; and the holy body having been received, He commanded that it be taken in a cloud into paradise: where now, rejoinedd to the soul, [Mary] rejoices with the Lord's chosen ones..." [Gregory of Tours, Eight Books of Miracles, 1:4; (575-593 A.D.) ].

"As the most glorious Mother of Christ, our Savior and God and the giver of life and immortality, has been endowed with life by him, she has received an eternal incorruptibility of the body together with him who has raised her up from the tomb and has taken her up to himself in a way known only to him." [Modestus of Jerusalem, Encomium in dormitionnem Sanctissimae Dominae nostrae Deiparae semperque Virginis Mariae (before A.D. 634), in PG 86-II,3306].

"It was fitting...that the most holy-body of Mary, God-bearing body, receptacle of God, divinized, incorruptible, illuminated by divine grace and full glory...should be entrusted to the earth for a little while and raised up to heaven in glory, with her soul pleasing to God." [Theoteknos of Livias, Homily on the Assumption; (before 650 A.D.)].

Perhaps the greatest historical evidence for the Assumption is actually in the lack of it! Robert Payesko, in his book The Truth About Mary: Vol 2, explains what I mean:
The biblical witness for the truth of the Assumption is complemented by the witness of history. It is a remarkable fact that there is no tradition or legend whatsoever about either the physical relics of the Blessed Mother or of a tomb in which she presently lies buried. The earthly resting places of all the other Apostles and of holy Christians through the ages have inspired shrines and pilgrimages; relics associated with them have been treasured by the faithful. Is it conceivable that the greatest saint of them all, the Mother of God, would not have been thus honored if there had been even the slightest inkling that she was buried somewhere in this world? Like “the empty tomb" that testified so strongly to the resurrection of Our Lord, the absence of belief in a tomb holding Mary's remains testifies powerfully to the truth that she was assumed into Heaven (of course there are traditions of the tomb where her body was laid prior to the Assumption much as Jesus too was laid in a tomb prior to His Resurrection) [pgs. 260-261]

For more on the Assumption of Mary, see my post for the Solemnity of the Assumption.

Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven ... pray for us.

Pax Christi,
phatcatholic

2 comments:

Amy M. said...

*Psst* I read this one too.

Very interesting, btw. I never really looked into this before.

phatcatholic said...

yay! you learned something! i'm glad you read it :D

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