Today the Catholic Church celebrates what Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches call the Dormition of the Theotokos, more commonly referred to by Roman Catholics as the Assumption—when Mary the Mother of God is said to have “fallen asleep” and was promptly assumed body and soul into heaven.
Where did we get this outlandish idea? Pope Pius XII himself, as David Mills points out, who issued this Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus in 1950 did not even give Biblical proof for this “divinely revealed dogma.” He merely stated that it “is in wonderful accord with those divine truths given us in Holy Scripture.” David goes on:
Wonderful accord with” does not mean “can be proven from,” and here much popular Catholic apologetics fails because it tries to argue the second. We have to go deeper, to a deep difference in the way Protestants and Catholics understand the Church and the way she carries God’s revelation through history. Both traditions agree that we have been given a deposit of faith, but disagree on what it contains and how it is correctly discerned.
Here the Church, the Catholic would say, has seen the truth without being able to argue for it fully. Which is why arguments for or against the dogma don’t get anyone very far.
The “Catholic conception of Church history,” he says, “recognizes that the Church has, or indeed is, a living tradition, and that she has a Magisterium that allows secure growth in our knowledge of the Truth, and allows Pius to make the declarations he does.”
Leaving aside the dogmatic debate for just a moment, what is the significance of the Assumption for Catholics? Why does it matter that this be declared a “divinely revealed dogma”?
Fr. Robert Barron offers a pretty good explanation of both how Catholics understand Mary and why the Assumption (an in fact everything fleshy) matters. Some excerpts:
Mary is for us [Catholics] like the moon, which is to say, she’s a reflected light. Mary’s light comes not from herself. It comes from Christ. But here’s the thing: it’s easier to look at the moon than at the sun. The sun is so brilliant that we can’t look directly at it. But we can see something of the sun’s light by looking at the moon. So in the great tradition.
Mary the greatest disciple of the Lord, the first disciple, the model of the Church, is therefore the one who shares first in this bodily act of resurrection.
Barron references George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic: “One of his master themes is this: for Catholics stuff matters. What he means is: the body matters, the physical matters. It’s not meant to be cast aside, left behind, but matter too will be elevated by God’s grace to a share in this new life.”
The Assumption of Mary, body and soul into heaven, matters because it gives us hope that we too might someday join in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.