Feast of the Assumption – a Catholic belief


6 Aug 2022

The doctrine of Mary’s Assumption into heaven, celebrated on 15 August, reflects the long insistence on the importance of Mary in the Catholic Church.

The Catholic belief that Mary was taken into heaven has a long history. Though not mentioned in the Scriptures it appears in other early Christian writings. It became widespread in the fifth century when a fierce debate about how to account for Christ’s divinity and humanity arose. The description of Mary as the mother of God affirmed both his divinity and the earthy reality of his human life. It also deepened devotion to Mary as mother, as one who was without sin, as someone to whom we could pray, and as example of the Christian life.

In this world belief that Mary was taken into heaven, either before or after her death, was natural. Like Son, like mother. In the Western Church Mary was believed to have been taken to heaven before her death. In the Eastern Church she was believed to have died and then to have been taken to heaven. The belief was expressed in devotions, in liturgical celebration, in art and in theological exploration. It was part of Catholic life.

Although not questioned by Catholics, faith in the assumption of Mary became defined only in 1950 as belonging to Catholic faith. This was the highwater mark of Catholic devotion to Mary in the life of the Church. In a Church where women were its core in nurturing faith and in pastoral activities, while the visible and aspects of the Church was represented by men, the austerity of Catholic life and devotion was softened by praying to Mary as mother. Women, whose role in society was largely confined to the home, could identify with Mary’s experience of childbirth and raising Jesus, with Mary as the mother whose child had left home, with her pride and anxieties as she followed his life, with her final cruel waiting with him at his public execution, and with Mary in hope of sharing in Jesus’ glory.

Although Mary was often represented in popular art as unshakeable in her faith and as totally self-possessed, as a model of conduct and self-control, and so a reliable companion in prayer, she could also be prayed to as sister who shared our hardships.

In the austere masculinity of church ministry, too, Mary represented the ideal woman and mother. A century earlier she had been proclaimed as free from original sin at her conception and so made fitting to receive the birth of the Son of God.

The doctrine of Mary’s Assumption reflected the long insistence on the importance of Mary. For many Catholics, too, the definition of doctrines concerning Mary were also a statement of Catholic identity. Protestants were seen to be hostile to devotion to Mary and to any definition of doctrine for which there was no explicit Scriptural grounding. Although the feast of the Assumption and devotion to Mary continued in Lutheran and Anglican churches, Christians in Reformed Churches feared that devotion to Mary and the saints drew attention away from Christ and sometimes obscured God’s free gift by turning our prayers into a currency. The Definition of the Assumption could then be seen as emphasising the difference between Catholics and Protestants.

In fact, the feast of the Assumption is for all Catholics. Its meaning has been caught in a later feast instituted by Pope Francis for a more inclusive Church, Mary Mother of the Church. It focuses on Mary’s links to us as well as to God, and also points to the links that unite all Christians and all Churches. The Feast of the Assumption enlivens our hope that we shall be with Christ as Mary now is. It promises that after the struggles and losses of this life that we shall find happiness and companionship with God.

Image: Guido Reni, The Assumption of Virgin Mary (1638-9), Alte Pinakothek, Munich (Germany). Wiki Commons images

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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