The Death and Assumption of Mary

The Death and Assumption of Mary August 14, 2019
Yoav Dothan: Photograph of an Icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos / Wikimedia Commons

Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus,  who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name,  that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Php 2:5-11 RSV).

Mary, the Mother of God, heard the word of God and kept it (cf. Lk. 11:28).  Her life was one constant yes to God. She joined herself and her life to her son: where he led, she followed. And where did he lead? A life of self-giving love, a love so humble it was great.  Mary followed the path set up by her son to the very end, a path which led to her death and assumption.

Just as Paul said Jesus did not hold onto and promote his divine greatness, but rather divested himself from it so that he could become one of us, so Mary was full of grace because she did not hold onto that grace and try to keep it to herself. Rather, she was willing to let it flow through her, to share it with all, to hand it over to all, as she followed and did what God had called her to do.  Her devotion to God was one with her humility, a humility which was not born out of humiliation and fear, but out of simple love. Thus, as St. Ambrose explained, she was able to do what she was asked to do because she did not resist God by trying to claim grace for herself:

“Behold,” she said, “the Handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word” [Saint Luke 1:38]. See her humility, see her devotion. She says she is the Handmaid of the Lord, she who is chosen as His Mother, nor is she exalted by the sudden promise.  At the same time, in calling herself the Handmaid, she claimed no prerogative of such great Grace, she who would do as she was bidden; for as destined to give birth, she herself must also shew mild and lowly humility [cf. Saint Matthew 11:29]: Behold the Handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word” [Saint Luke 1:38] is the purpose of the prayer. [1]

When Mary understood that she had come to the end of her life, she once again acknowledged God and humbly indicated that his will should be done. She accepted that it was time for her to die. She was ready. She did not want to claim for herself some divine prerogative where she did not have to die: if her son died, and died willingly, so she willingly followed her son on the path of death. It was not a cruel death; it was not a painful death; it was not a martyr’s death at the hands of others, but it was death, a death which she freely accepted and embraced so that she could follow after her son and receive her share in the resurrection from the dead.

“When some time had gone by, this glorious virgin, the Mother of God, left the earth by a natural death.”[2] This is the ancient teaching of the church: Mary, the Mother of God, died, and then three days later, was assumed into heaven. In her death, she completed her life, and in her willingness to let death come to her instead of trying to  prevent it, she truly followed her son in kenotic self-giving that allowed her not only to be full of grace at the incarnation, but to be glorified with deifying grace in her death and assumption into heaven.

The Apostles, we are told, came together to experience her funeral procession as well as to be witnesses to her assumption into heaven:

The Apostles, however, lifted up the previous body of the most glorious lady, Mary, the Mother of God and ever-virgin, and placed it in a new tomb, in the place the Savior had showed them. They remained in that place, awake in unity of spirit, for three days. And after the third day, they opened the sarcophagus to venerate the precious tabernacle of her who deserves all praise, but found only her grave-garments; for she had been taken away by Christ, the God who became flesh from her, to the place of her eternal, living inheritance. [3]

The day of the assumption was long established to be August 15th:

The assumption of the body of the holy one, and her ascension to heaven, took place on the fifteenth day of August, which is the sixth day of the month of Mesore. And there was joy in heaven and on earth, as the angels struck up the hymn, while human beings glorified the mother of the King of Heaven, who had herself glorified the human race: the Mother of God, the pure one, the three-storied ark, the impenetrable rock that gushed forth the stream of life – Christ, who said, “If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink.” (Jn. 7:37)[4]

Those who wonder how and why she should die should be reminded that the path to eternal life is found in and through the path established by Jesus. We join him in death so that we can be raised by him and partake of the eternal kingdom of God. Thus, death for her was not a curse; she died on earth so she could live in heaven – and be with us in spirit, as St. Germanos of Constantinople beautifully indicated:

To us Christians, then, who reverence you in our Christian faith, show the mercy of your unchanging patronage. We rightly consider your falling asleep as [entry into] life, O Mother of God, and we believe you dwell with us still in the spirit. For in times of tribulation you are near, and we find safety in seeking your help; and when it is time to rejoice, you are joy’s sponsor. [5]

St. Gregory Palamas further tells us why she was taken and assumed into heaven three days after her death, unlike Christ, who ascended several weeks after his resurrection:

It was right, therefore, that the body which brought forth the Son should be glorified with Him in divine glory, and that the ark of Christ’s holiness should arise with Him who rose on the third day, as the prophet sang (cf. Ps. 132:8 LXX). The linen clothes and winding-sheets left behind in the tomb, which were all that those who came to look for her found there, proved to the disciples that she too had risen from the dead, just as was earlier the case with her Son and Lord (cf. Luke 24:12; John 20:5-7). It was not, however, necessary for her, as it was for her Son and God, to stay for awhile longer on earth, so she was taken up directly from the grave to the heavenly realm, whence she sends bright shafts of holy light and grace down to earth, illuminating all the space around the world, and is venerated, admired, and hymned by all the faithful.[6]

The resurrection of Jesus, the conquest over death, had to be proven, while Mary’s assumption into heaven did not. The disciples understood what happened to her after seeing her empty tomb. They had experienced the empty tomb of Christ, then the resurrection, and then they were filled with the Holy Spirit.  They knew and understood Mary’s relationship with her Son and how and why her son would take her into heaven to reveal to all that the glory of the resurrection is not his alone, but for all, starting with the woman whose flesh and blood was the source of his own humanity. It was, in this way, a continuation of his ascension, just as it is when we too are taken into heaven and experience the glory of the kingdom in our own death. Just as Jesus did not leave his body behind, so he did not leave his mother, the earthly source of that body behind, nor will he leave us, his mystical body, behind.

The joy Christians have with Mary’s assumption should be the joy they have in seeing the way God shares his grace with humanity. Mary, a great and wonderful vessel of his love, lived out that love to the very end, showing that none of us should be scared when the time of our end comes to meet us. Like Jesus, like Mary, we should be willing to accept death so that we can have true life, the life of the kingdom of God. This is the meaning and message of the assumption. God’s love is so great that death cannot prevent his intention for us. Instead, he can and will use it to help us transcend our earthly life so that we can receive the greater glory of the kingdom of God.


[1] Saint Ambrose, Exposition of the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke. Trans. Theodosia Tomkinson (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2003), 49.

[2] John of Thessalonica, “The Dormition of Our Lady, the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary” in On the Dormition: Early Patristic Homilies. Trans. Brian E. Daley, SJ (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 47.

[3] John of Thessalonica, “The Dormition of Our Lady, the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary,” 67

[4] Theoteknos, Bishop of Livias, “An Encomium on the Assumption of the Holy Mother of God,” in On the Dormition: Early Patristic Homilies. Trans. Brian E. Daley, SJ (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 74.

[5] St. Germanos of Constantinople, “Homily I On the Most Venerable Dormition of the Holy Mother of God” in On the Dormition: Early Patristic Homilies. Trans. Brian E. Daley, SJ (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 163.

[6] St. Gregory Palamas, “Homily On the Dormition of the Mother of God” in Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies trans Christopher Veniamin et. al. (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing Company, 2009), 293.

 

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