The MOST Theological Collection: Mary in Our Life
"Chapter VI: Death and Assumption of Mary"
SUCH is the description given by the "mystics' mystic, St. John of the Cross, of the death of those souls that reach the highest states of love of God possible on this earth.1 Now if any person ever literally died of love of God, that one was Mary. Whose love of God was anything but a pale shadow compared to the living flame of her love? For the love of God might be compared to a powerful magnet, attempting to draw the soul toward God. The assaults of this force become ever stronger and stronger in the purest souls, until finally a state is reached in which, as it were, the soul, being no longer able to resist that drawing force, leaves the body.
St. John of the Cross speaks of loving impulses and encounters. These expressions suggest violent movements and assaults. And so it is in other souls-that is, in all others who reach such a height, except Mary. For in her case, death must have come without a shock. Such is the opinion of St. Francis de Sales:
For we must remember that Mary's love of God was from the very start at a higher level than that of the greatest saints at the end of their lives. St. Francis de Sales brings Mary's death into relation with Calvary. Speaking of her at the foot of the cross, he says:
... Love had given at the foot of the cross to this divine Spouse the supreme sorrows of death, and therefore it was reasonable thee at length death should give her the sovereign delights of love.3
Before the definition of the Assumption, the opinion of the majority of theologians was that Mary actually did die. A few, however, defended the view that she never died at all.4 The chief argument of the smaller group was based on the fact that death is a penalty of original sin: but, they said, Mary never was infected with original sin; therefore she did not suffer death, the result of original sin.
The argument is interesting. The sufferings of Jesus and Mary, however, were the result of all sin, even though both were completely free of sin. Jesus accepted death for us. Mary is, as we have seen, the sharer in the lot of her Son at every step. Hence she must have died. Few of the Fathers and modern theologians have thought the doubt about her death serious enough to disturb them. Nonetheless, the constitution defining the Assumption, the Munificentissimus Deus, carefully refrained from defining, or even stating flatly, that Mary did die. Yet the same document does quote numerous Fathers who take it for granted that Mary died; and since the whole tone of the text shows the general belief that Mary did die, it seems difficult to continue to hold the view that she was exempted from death. On the other hand, a heated controversy has flared up since the definition. Some theologians believe that they have an argument for Mary's immortality in the very fact that Pope Pius XII carefully refrained from defining that she died.
Since there is no unanimity as to whether Mary died at all, we must not expect to find any general agreement on the details of her death. There are two places competing for the designation as the place of her death: Jerusalem and Ephesus.5 The claim of Ephesus would rest chiefly on the fact that Mary had been entrusted to the care of John, and that John later resided there. But this argument is far from conclusive: we do not know the date of her death, and so we do not know where she may have been at the time. If Mary went with John to Ephesus, she probably would have been between sixty and eighty years old at the time. The traditions associated with Jerusalem seem to have far better support, and consequently most students of the question today defend the claims of Jerusalem.
But let us leave these insoluble though interesting matters and turn to the Assumption itself. Since the most authoritative work we have on the subject of the Assumption is the above-mentioned constitution of definition, let us review some of the chief points of this document.6
It is obvious that one of the thoughts most strongly in the foreground of Pope Pius XII's mind was the principle of consortium: the constant sharing of Mary, at every point, from beginning to end, in the life and work and lot of her Son, for he makes use of this principle both at the beginning and at the end of the document. In the opening section he shows the relation of the Assumption to the Immaculate Conception:
Yet God wished that the Blessed Virgin Mary be exempt from this general law. For she, by a completely singular privilege, conquered sin in her Immaculate Conception, and thus was not liable to that law of remaining in the corruption of the grave, nor did she have to wait for the end of time for the redemption of her body.7
Pope Pius XII then goes on to show some of the reasons for the definition. He tells us that he had asked the opinions of all the bishops of the world on this matter. Their response was almost unanimous in the affirmative. This universal teaching of the authorities of the Church by itself, he tells us, supplies us with a proof. For this teaching is a reflection of the faith of the Church, the depositary of Tradition, which, since the beginning, has preserved the divine revelations, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He reviews for us some of the outstanding statements of Tradition down through all the centuries. The teaching that Mary was assumed into Heaven is found at a very early date in the ancient books of the liturgy; it is found in the teachings of the Fathers. After the patristic age, the same doctrine is studied in detail by the scholastic theologians. For example, the Pope quoted the words of St. Bernardine of Siena who,
Pope Pius XII also thought the words of St. Francis de Sales worthy of special attention in this matter:
The samples which we have just quoted form but a small part of the review of the earlier teachings given in the Munificentissimus Deus. Following this survey the Pope offered some comments of his own, in the paragraphs immediately before the definition itself:
Here again we encounter the principle of consortium with which the document had opened. Pope Pius XII continued, endorsing the argument which he had quoted earlier from St. Francis de Sales:
We have already seen two passages in which Pope Pius XII made use of the principle of consortium. We also noted his statement that the arguments of the Fathers and theologians were ultimately based on Scripture. He next amplifies this last point, and shows us that it is the New Eve concept which he has especially in mind-and this concept is really but another way of stating the principle of consortium. We have already studied it at some length insofar as it applied to the earlier phases of the life of Mary. We noted that it implied the Immaculate Conception, that it applied to the Annunciation, and, especially, we tried to see its application to Calvary. We now see the Pope making a further application of it:
The thought is crystal dear: Mary is "most closely associated" with Christ in the struggle against the devil. That struggle won victory over sin and death. The victory over sin was won on Calvary. Mary shared in it, as we saw in an earlier chapter. The victory over death was, for Christ, the Resurrection, for Mary, the Assumption. The "struggle ... was common to the Blessed Virgin and her Son." The Resurrection was "an essential part ... of this victory." Hence, he infers, since Mary had taken a common part in the struggle that won the victory, she must also have shared in the fruit of the victory, the conquest of death-the Resurrection-which was "an essential part ... of this victory." She did this by means of the Assumption. In the mind of the Holy Father, the lives of Jesus and Mary might be represented by two parallel lines. They are, in his thought, not merely parallel in all things, from the start on earth to the finish in the glory of Heaven, but there is also a common sharing: the struggle is "common" to both. It is precisely because the struggle was common to both that the Assumption, which was Mary's way of sharing in the Resurrection, had to take place. Here we see the grand sweep of the New Eve concept: nothing is an exception to it; it embraces every step from beginning to end of the Redemption.
In passing we may note what a difficulty it would be for a theologian who wished to deny Mary's immediate co-operation on Calvary to explain away the words of this document of definition. We would have two lines parallel at beginning and end, but not in the middle: only a gap in the middle of Mary's line. We would have to suppose Pope Pius XII argued that Mary, having had a common share with Christ in all but the struggle, would thereby be expected to share in the victory. We would have the Assumption parallel to the Resurrection, although the Resurrection is an "essential part" of the victory of Calvary, in which victory Mary would have no immediate part!
The definition of the Assumption is especially fitting and beneficial in this our age. For we live in an age given to gross materialism and the excessive cult of the body. By showing us the true destiny and worth of the body, Pope Pius XII provided us with a powerful weapon against our modern diseases For if Christ is the first fruits of those that sleep,13 so also is Mary: their resurrection and assumption show us vividly the true destiny and purpose of our own bodies.