Updated: Sep 23, 2020
As a Protestant convert to Catholicism, I had the usual difficulties connecting to the Blessed Mother. Sure, I knew she was special. After all, she had been chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus. I could even believe in her perpetual virginity.
As for the Immaculate Conception, I seemed to find some solace in the fact that the founder of my childhood faith, Martin Luther, had accepted this dogma before it was definitively declared.
What was more problematic in my mind was the Marian dogma of the Assumption, which Catholics celebrate on August 15. How could I assume or accept something to be true without question or proof when the Bible was silent on this topic? After all, the unusual circumstances of both Enoch’s translation into heaven (Genesis 5:24; Hebrews 11:5) and Elijah’s earthly departure in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11-12) are mentioned; shouldn’t Mary have been given the same dignity?
Instead, all I had to go on were what I viewed as murky writings from the Early Church Fathers and Pope Pius XII’s apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus, which he proclaimed in 1950.
The Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium, paragraph 59, describes the Assumption this way:
“The Immaculate Virgin, preserved from all stain of Original Sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death.”
According to Catholic theology, we don’t know the details of Mary’s death. Did she physically die? Or was she whisked away into the upper regions of the sky, while the apostles stood by watching? Orthodox Christians seem to be a bit more definite in their beliefs. Rather than the Assumption, they celebrate the Dormition or “falling asleep” of Mary, as the Theotokos or Mother of God. “Falling asleep” in Greek is a euphemism for dying, as when Jesus told the disciples that Jairus’ daughter was only sleeping (Matthew 9:24; Mark 5:39; Luke 8:52).
I had to make a lot of assumptions about the Assumption…until I experienced the death of my own father and grandmother. My father died in 2016 at the age of 74 from a sudden stroke. He was already comatose and in hospice care by the time my husband and I reached the hospital after driving an hour and a half from our home in Detroit.
Watching my father die, I launched immediately (as a good Catholic!) into praying for his soul. Since my dad was Lutheran, I don’t know what he would have thought about me praying the Rosary so I fingered the beads and said the litany silently while holding his hand.
I remember how I had felt like a doula, a kind of midwife who helps the pregnant woman push through her labor pains until the child is born. In this case, prayer was my way of helping my dad “push through” to Heaven. And, while he did not believe in Purgatory, I felt anything would be better than nothing in terms of shortening his time in that “space.”
Earlier this year, I said goodbye to my ninety-four year old grandmother. Her physical health had steadily declined over six months. This allowed me and my whole family to spend lots of time with her in preparation for her death. I recall one Sunday when my husband, uncles, and cousins were gathered in a circle around her bedside, each voicing a short prayer of thanksgiving for her. When she finally passed, I remember feeling a kind of victory for her.
Both my father and grandmother had chosen to be buried rather than cremated. When I visit their grave-sites, I am reminded that the soul has left the body but the physical remains or shell of what was my father and grandmother are still inside the earth. There is something yet incomplete.
The dogma of the Assumption states that Mary was taken up both “body and soul.” So she is a foretaste of the future resurrection and eventual uniting of the deceased body with the living soul.
Sure, Jesus is the “first fruits of those who sleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20) but He is both human and divine. It would make sense that, because of his divinity, that death could not keep his body in the grave.
The Blessed Mother, on the other hand, was fully human. As a human being, she had to be fully conformed to her own Son in his humanity. Whether she physically died or not, like her Son, her body was not left to decay. Since Christ was resurrected both body and soul, she had to be assumed both body and soul. In Heaven, she remains a human being, not a goddess.
She who gave flesh to the Son of God was in turn redeemed by His own flesh so that her flesh would not see corruption (Psalms 16:10). Mary bore the Second Person of the Trinity into earthly life. He bears her to heavenly life.
For me, the Assumption now signifies a kind of promise or down-payment, if you will, for all of us who have faced the death of our loved ones. In whatever way Mary died (or didn’t die), her united presence of body and soul is a sign of hope of what each of us can experience in the fullness of our humanity at the end of time.
I trust, even assume, that the Blessed Mother both met and accompanied the souls of my father and grandmother on their journeys to Jesus.
Tamra Fromm, Ph.D., is an instructor in Old Testament for the Catholic Biblical School of Michigan, adjunct faculty member at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit), and associate academic in the Bachelor of Divinity program at Maryvale Institute (Birmingham, UK). She is married and enjoys traveling, running, and entertaining (all with appropriate social distancing). She is awaiting the publication of her first manuscript on pre-evangelization of American young adult “native nones” through Wipf and Stock.