On August 15 each year, the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is one of only a few days of the year considered to be a holy day of obligation — meaning we are to treat it like a Sunday and celebrate by worshiping at Mass if at all possible. If you pray the Rosary, you may know the Assumption as the fourth Glorious mystery. But how much do you know about the Assumption, really?
The first of January is not just New Years Day for Catholics. It is also the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. It happens to fall on New Years not because the Catholic Church wanted to ring in the new year with Marian devotion, but because January 1 is the eighth day after Christmas. The Octave of Christmas, which began with the celebration of Jesus’ birth, ends with a celebration devoted to the woman who birthed Him. It seems fitting.
Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God
Today, August 15, is the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, when we celebrate our Catholic belief that Mary, the Mother of God, was assumed body and soul into heaven at the end of her life.
To many Protestant Christians, the Marian doctrines of the Catholic faith are the most troubling. Our devotion to her seems to them to take away from our worship of her son, Jesus Christ. The various things that we believe about Mary, that she was immaculately conceived, that she remained a virgin all of her life, and that she was assumed body and soul into heaven, all seem “non-Biblical” and therefore non-Christian to them.
It is helpful to first define just what the Assumption is and what it is not, as many who question it do so because of a poor understanding of the doctrine. When Pope Pius XII defined this doctrine infallibly, he wrote that “at the end of her earthly life [she] was assumed body and soul into the glory of Heaven.” Note that the Pope is silent on whether or not she actually died. Most theologians are in agreement that she did, in fact, die a normal death. But the Church has not defined the issue one way or another.
What this doctrine means is that at the end of Mary’s life, her body was not allowed to decompose or become corrupt. It was assumed into heaven along with her soul. This is not the same as Christ’s Ascension into heaven. Christ ascended into heaven by His own power and will. Mary was assumed into heaven through the will and power of God.
Sometimes questioners will claim that “that this was not a Catholic doctrine until 1950.” It is true that this particular doctrine of faith was not defined until 1950. But there is a big difference between “define” and “invent.” Beliefs and practices can be around a long time before they are officially defined. Most often, the Church waits until the need is present before it will make an official proclamation on a subject. In fact, the dates of the definitions of various doctrines usually correspond to the first time the doctrine is widely questioned (and thus the need for a formal definition), not when it was first believed.