“And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon was under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.” – Apocalypse 12:1
“How do we know Mary ascended into heaven?” I asked. I was standing in the clergy dining room of my high school, where I had just had lunch with my spiritual director. A wry smile crept across Father’s face.
“We don’t.” He said. “That’s why we call it ‘The Assumption.'”
Almost 20 years later, I still laugh at the joke. The Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a uniquely Catholic feast day, a commemoration based not specifically upon Scripture, but upon that pillar of authority known as Tradition. Most Catholics are aware that the feast of the Assumption, while not obligatory this year since it falls on a Monday, remains one of the few relatively consistent holy days of obligation on the new liturgical calendar. (Even if you’re not technically obligated this time around, you should go – it’s for your mother!) But how many of us know the history of this august (see what I did there?) feast day?
Celebration of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is an ancient Christian custom. Its specific origins are unknown, but its widespread observation dates back to at least the sixth century. The origin of the feast dates back even further, to the fourth century, where it was celebrated in the Eastern churches under the title of “The Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God.” To this day, the Eastern Catholic rites refer to this feast day as “The Dormition of Mary” or “The Dormition of the Theotokos.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 966, states:
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 giving birth you kept your virginity; in your Dormition you did not leave the world, O Mother of God, but were joined to the source of Life. You conceived the living God and, by your prayers, will deliver our souls from death’
The phrasing relating to sleep has a basis in theological speculation. There is no definitive teaching on whether Mary died before being taken body and soul into heaven or if she simply fell into a deep sleep, resembling death, before being assumed. Lacking complete certitude, the Church allows us some latitude in our conclusion on this matter. The salient truth, however it really happened, is that Mary, perpetually sinless, was taken to share in the glory of the Resurrection and her holy and ever-virgin body was preserved from all decay.
It is believed that Mary’s Assumption took place between three and fifteen years after Christ’s Ascension. Scholarly consensus indicates that it took place in Jerusalem, where her tomb (which was unknown to most members of the early Church) stands to this day.
There is no explicit biblical evidence for Mary’s Assumption, body and soul, into heaven, which is why fundamentalist Christians of the sola scriptura variety do not join us in its commemoration. This is not to say that there is no scriptural evidence. Long-standing Catholic exegesis points to clues within the Bible — particularly the Old Testament — pertaining to Mary’s glorification. Psalm 131:8 says:
Arise, O Lord, into thy resting place: thou and the ark, which thou hast sanctified.
Who is this “ark” which has been sanctified, and arises with the Lord into heaven, if not Mary, who carried the Son of God in her stainless womb?
Psalm 44:10-14 relates a heavenly scene that can be seen as a depiction of Mary’s splendor in heaven:
The daughters of kings have delighted thee in thy glory. The queen stood on thy right hand, in gilded clothing; surrounded with variety.
Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline thy ear: and forget thy people and thy father’s house.
And the king shall greatly desire thy beauty; for he is the Lord thy God, and him they shall adore.
And the daughters of Tyre with gifts, yea, all the rich among the people, shall entreat thy countenance.
All the glory of the king’s daughter is within in golden borders…
Song of Solomon 3:6 asks:
Who is she that goeth up by the desert, as a pillar of smoke of aromatical spices, of myrrh, and frankincense, and of all the powders of the perfumer?
Song 6:9 is also seen as a reference to Mary in glory:
Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array?
If these references are somewhat oblique, they lend credibility to the truly ancient understanding of the Church that Mary was taken into heaven and exalted as the crowning glory of all creation. For Catholics, Mary’s Assumption is not just a nice idea that we can choose whether or not we want to believe. It is a defined dogma of the Catholic Faith. In 1950, Pope Pius XII acted infallibly to declare it such (see the video of the proclamation here) in the encyclical Munificentissimus Deus:
Since the universal Church, within which dwells the Spirit of Truth who infallibly directs it toward an ever more perfect knowledge of the revealed truths, has expressed its own belief many times over the course of the centuries, and since the bishops of the entire world are almost unanimously petitioning that the truth of the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven should be defined as a dogma of divine and Catholic faith-this truth which is based on the Sacred Writings, which is thoroughly rooted in the minds of the faithful, which has been approved in ecclesiastical worship from the most remote times, which is completely in harmony with the other revealed truths, and which has been expounded and explained magnificently in the work, the science, and the wisdom of the theologians-we believe that the moment appointed in the plan of divine providence for the solemn proclamation of this outstanding privilege of the Virgin Mary has already arrived.
We, who have placed our pontificate under the special patronage of the most holy Virgin, to whom we have had recourse so often in times of grave trouble, we who have consecrated the entire human race to her Immaculate Heart in public ceremonies, and who have time and time again experienced her powerful protection, are confident that this solemn proclamation and definition of the Assumption will contribute in no small way to the advantage of human society, since it redounds to the glory of the Most Blessed Trinity, to which the Blessed Mother of God is bound by such singular bonds. It is to be hoped that all the faithful will be stirred up to a stronger piety toward their heavenly Mother, and that the souls of all those who glory in the Christian name may be moved by the desire of sharing in the unity of Jesus Christ’s Mystical Body and of increasing their love for her who shows her motherly heart to all the members of this august body. And so we may hope that those who meditate upon the glorious example Mary offers us may be more and more convinced of the value of a human life entirely devoted to carrying out the heavenly Father’s will and to bringing good to others. Thus, while the illusory teachings of materialism and the corruption of morals that follows from these teachings threaten to extinguish the light of virtue and to ruin the lives of men by exciting discord among them, in this magnificent way all may see clearly to what a lofty goal our bodies and souls are destined. Finally it is our hope that belief in Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven will make our belief in our own resurrection stronger and render it more effective.
For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.
Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith.
That’s a lot to unpack on a Monday in August. But it’s important. Really important.
Putting the words of Pope Pius more simply: the Church has always believed that Mary was taken bodily into heaven. It doesn’t contradict any prior Church teaching or understanding of Scripture. It is such an important truth, and so benefits our devotion to the Blessed Mother, that it bears concrete definition as a dogma. In a world riddled with materialism and the immorality that follows in its wake, being reminded that our bodies, too, are destined for resurrection in glory should help us to recall the purpose for which we have been made: to share eternal happiness with God in heaven.
Here’s the kicker: if you don’t believe it, you aren’t Catholic. It’s that essential.
The Feast of the Assumption is a cause for joy and celebration. It is the highest and most significant of Marian feasts. We honor Mary on this day first and foremost by assisting at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, where we receive her Divine Son — the source and summit of her glory — in the Eucharist. We should, if we are able, buy a beautiful bouquet of flowers and place it at the feet of our favorite Marian statue. We should get together with friends and family to mark the occasion. Have festive dinners. Pop open a bottle of wine and have a toast.
The most beautiful, faithful, perfect woman God ever placed on this earth was so beloved that she was assumed bodily into heaven lest her mortal coil suffer even the slightest corruption. And she now intercedes for us in heaven, protecting us from all evil, crushing the head of the serpent, and bringing our petitions before God, adding to them the sweetness of her special favor before God, making them pleasing to Him.
If that’s not a reason for a party, what is?
There are many traditions around the world to mark this august (no pun intended) feast. The Feast Day Cookbook tells us of a few:
In France, August 15th is in general a day for parties and excursions into the country. At Quimper in Brittany, there is held the Feast of the Soul, dedicated to Mary as the great consoler. It is here considered a day for betrothals, when young men and women come to ask her blessing on their future. The image of the Virgin is placed at the church door during the day, and at night carried into the village square, later to be returned in procession to her shrine. Then to the light of bonfires and the music of bagpipes, the young people dance and make merry. A Quimper specialty is Crevettes à la Béchamel (Shrimps with Bechamel Sauce).
In Armenia there is the Blessing of the Grapes on the Sunday nearest the feast of the Assumption. Great trays of the fruit are brought into the churches, and after they are blessed each member of the congregation carries a bunch home. Feasts are held in the vineyards, and at this time the first grapes of the season are eaten.
In many parts of Italy, the statue of Our Lady is carried in procession through the streets to the cathedral or church. And in Siena there takes place a noted race called the Palio (Standard) in honor of the Assumption of the Virgin. This race is held in the splendid public square of the city, shaped like a scallop shell and surrounded by ancient and beautiful buildings draped with banners for the occasion. Each ward or parish sends to the race a horse, which is first taken past the cathedral door to receive the bishop’s blessing. The medieval costumes of the pages and grooms, of the captain and standard bearers, the furious race of the bareback riders around the stone-paved square, the crowds of onlookers from adjoining streets and balconies, make of this a memorable occasion. The winning parish or ward carries on a celebration after the race. Scaloppine al Marsala is the appropriate dish for Italians.
In Poland the day is known as the Feast of Our Lady of Herbs, for the peasants take to church sweet-smelling bouquets of their finest blossoms mixed with the green of herbs. And Poles in America also honor the feast as that of Our Lady of Flowers; at church children sing hymns both in Polish and English, and later to the lively music of a polonaise the grown-ups swing into the dances of their motherland.
Whatever traditions you observe, give thanks to God for Mary. Love her. Pray the rosary today, and each and every day. Come to her with your greatest needs. She is so precious to God, and through the great and magnanimous love she has for His children, we are so precious to her.
Today is an incredible day. It is a day to honor the greatest woman who ever lived. She is the Mother of the Church and your mother, and she is praying and interceding for you always.
A version of this article was originally published on August 15, 2014.