What do we really know about the life of Mary beyond what the Bible tells us? Scripture gives us only glimpses of the Blessed Mother before she vanishes from history, only to reappear in the Book of Revelation as the “woman clothed in the sun” (Revelation 12:1-6).
We have the last words she speaks, resonating down the through the ages as a message to all who follow: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:1-12). The Wedding at Cana is, in fact, the only place in Scripture where Mary addresses the adult Jesus directly.
We have her appearance at the foot of the cross with St. John, in which she is commended to the care of the Beloved Disciple:
But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:25–27)
She appears one final time in Acts 1:14, where we are told she was with the twelve in Jerusalem, along with the other women and the brethren of Jesus, devoted to prayer.
And then she is gone from the canonical scripture and from history.
Or is she?
As Catholics, we know that the faith is not merely contained in the Scripture but also in the Tradition: the unwritten wisdom found in the Church herself. Does the tradition tell us anything of her later years?
It certainly does. This long tradition, along with the consistent witness of the Fathers, the Doctors of the Church, and the bishops, informed Pius XII’s “Munificentissimus Deus,” which defined the dogma of the Assumption this way: “Mary, the immaculate perpetually Virgin Mother of God, after the completion of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into the glory of Heaven.”
The question of whether or not Mary died, fell asleep (the dormition), or was assumed bodily is left open to interpretation by the careful phrase “after the completion of her earthly life.”
In paragraph 966, the catechism elaborates on the dogma
Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free 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. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians.
In the dogma of the Assumption, therefore, we find the Immaculately Conceived Mary, the first and most perfect Christian, given the grace of a foretaste of what is promised to us all: the resurrection of the body and eternal life with Christ. If we believe in the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection at the end of time, we can see the Assumption as a promise of what awaits us.
There is much theology, as well as tradition, undergirding this dogma, but right now we’re concerned not with theology or even dogma, but with history. Is there anything that suggests a historical tradition maintained from the earliest days of the Church?
The most detailed, widely circulated, and earliest account of the Assumption of Mary is attributed to St. Melito of Sardis (2nd century), and is found in various forms. Here is a basic retelling:
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
After the apostles divided the world by lot for preaching, Mary settled in a house belonging to the parents of St. John the Evangelist, near Mount Olivet.
One Sunday two years after the death of her son, while Mary was alone in her home weeping, an angel came and stood before her. The angel said, “Hail, you who are blessed by the Lord! Receive the greeting of Him who commanded safety to Jacob by His prophets.” The angel showed her a palm branch brought from heaven, and instructed her to have it carried before her funeral bier, promising in the name of the Lord that three days later, she would be “taken up from the body.”
Mary said to the angel, “I beg that all the apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ be assembled to me.” She also asked “that no power of the lower world may withstand me in that hour in which my soul shall go out of my body, and that I may not see the prince of darkness.”
The angel agreed to her requests, and departed, whereupon “the palm shone with exceeding great light.” Mary changed into “better garments,” then went out to pray at the mount of Olivet, saying, “I would not have been worthy, O Lord, to bear you, if you had been compassionate to me; but nevertheless I have kept the treasure which you entrusted to me. Therefore I ask of you, O King of glory, that the power of Gehenna hurt me not. For if the heavens and the angels daily tremble before you, how much more man who is made from the ground, who possesses no good thing, except as much as he has received from you good bounty! You are, O Lord, God, always blessed for ever.”
Mary returned home, and at that moment St. John was taken by a cloud from Ephesus, where he was preaching, to the very doorstep of Mary. (Remember, Mary was living with John’s parents.) They greeted each other with joy, and Mary told him about the visit from the angel. After reminding him of his promise to care for her, she said, “Behold, on the third day, when I am to depart from the body, I have heard the plans of the Jews, saying, ‘Let us wait for the day when she who bore that seducer shall die, and let us burn her body with fire.’” She leads John to a “secret chamber of the house,” where she showed him her burial robe and the palm of light to be carried before her body on the way to the tomb.
John protested that he could not perform the funeral rites without his brother apostles. At that moment, the remaining apostles were caught up in a cloud and brought to the house at Mt. Olivet.
Three days later, at the third hour, “Suddenly the Lord Jesus Christ came with a great multitude of angels, and a great light came down upon the place, and the angels were singing hymns and praising the Lord. Then the Savior spoke, saying: ‘Come, most precious pearl, enter into the treasury of eternal life.”
When her Son finished speaking, Mary “laid herself upon her bed, and giving thanks to God she gave up the ghost. But the apostles saw her soul, that it was of such whiteness that no tongue of mortal men can worthily express it, for it excelled all whiteness of snow and of all metal and silver that glitters with great brightness of light.”
Jesus then said, “Arise Peter, and take the body of Mary and bear it unto the right-hand side of the city toward the east, and you will find there a new sepulcher where you shall place it, and wait till I come unto you.”
Melito continues: “And when the Lord had so said, He delivered the soul of the holy Mary to Michael, who was set over paradise and is the prince of the people of the Jews: and Gabriel went with them. And immediately the Savior was received up into heaven with the angels.”
The apostles laid the body upon the bier, and said to each other, “Who shall bear the palm before her bier?” John deferred to Peter: “You who are before us in the apostleship ought to bear this palm before her bed.”
Peter protested: “Among us you are the only virgin, chosen of the Lord, and He loved you so much that you laid on His breast. And when He hung for our salvation on the tree of the cross, he committed her to you with His own mouth. You, therefore ought to carry this palm; and let us take up the body to bear it to the sepulcher.”
Peter lifted up the head of the body, and the other apostles all bore the load as well, and began to sing, “Israel is come out of Egypt, alleluia” while John carried the palm.
They carried her to the valley of Josaphat, where the Lord had showed them the tomb. The location is between Mt. Olivet and Jerusalem, and is known now as the Kidron Valley. In the Book of Joel (chapter 3), it is the place where God will gather all the nations. They laid her in the new tomb, shut the door, and sat down. The Lord and his angels appeared and said, “Peace be with you.” They replied, “Let your mercy, O Lord, be upon us, for we have hope in you” (Psalm 33:22).
Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Before I ascended to My Father, I promised those who followed me that you would sit on the twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel, when the Son of Man shall sit on the throne of His majesty. I chose this woman out of the tribes of Israel by the commandment of My Father, that I would dwell in her. What do you want me to do with her?”
Peter said, “Lord, you chose your handmaid to be your immaculate chamber, and chose us to be servants of your ministry. You know all things, and share equally in the Godhead with the Father and the Holy Spirit. It seems fitting that, just as you overcame death and now reign in glory, so should you raise up the body of your mother and take her with you, rejoicing, into heaven.”
Jesus commanded the archangel Michael to bring the soul of Mary back from heaven. Michael rolled the stone away from the tomb, and calls out. “Rise up my love and my kinswoman. You did not suffer corruption by union of the flesh, and you shall not suffer corruption in the tomb.”
Immediately, Mary arose and fell at His feet, saying: “I cannot thank you enough for your countless graces given to me, your handmaid. Let your name be blessed forever, redeemer of the world, God of Israel.”
Jesus kissed her, and gave her to the angels to bear into paradise. And He kissed the apostles, too, saying, “Peace be with you; as I have been always with you, so will I be, even unto the end of the world.”
And then Jesus was gone, too.
What are we to make of this account? Since this post is already getting long, I’m going to break at this point. We’ll look at the source of the story in part 2, and consider a newly translated text that suggests how she spent her final years.