|"The Death of the Virgin Mary" by Caravaggio|
August 15th, Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Many Catholics (at least in the West) are under the impression that the Latin (Roman) Church favors the opinion that the Mother of God did not die, but was assumed at the end of her life without suffering the separation of body and soul; while the Eastern Church favors the opinion that the Blessed Virgin Mary did die, and that they refer to this death as a “dormition”. In truth, although there are certain modern westerners who (quite rashly) maintain that the Virgin did not die, the Latin tradition has generally been even stronger than that of the East in affirming that our Lady suffered death: While the East speaks of “the falling asleep (dormition) of the Theotokos”, the West has traditionally favored the more blunt “the death of the Virgin Mary”.
The Latin tradition is so strongly in favor of the doctrine that our Lady suffered death before her Assumption that this was very nearly adopted at the Second Vatican Council after being promoted especially by mariologists of the Roman school.
On the less-than-reliable web source Wikipedia (as of July 2011), we find this same confusion - as though the Latin Church was not just as strong as the East in affirming the death of the Virgin Mary: “The Orthodox Church teaches that Mary died a natural death, like any human being. […] Roman Catholic teaching holds that Mary was ‘assumed’ into heaven in bodily form. Some Catholics agree with the Orthodox that this happened after Mary's death, while some hold that she did not experience death. Pope Pius XII, in his Apostolic constitution, Munificentissimus Deus (1950), which dogmatically defined the Assumption, left open the question.”
We shall briefly consider at least one reason as to why this confusion has crept into popular thinking. [For a discussion of whither the Blessed Mother was assumed, please consider this article, or this one.]
Dormition vs. Death
It seems that the Eastern “Dormition” tradition entails the notion of death. Certainly, the Eastern Fathers do not use dormition to deny bodily death. However, it is worth noting that the Eastern theologians generally refrain from speaking directly of “death”, but prefer the more metaphorical language of “falling asleep”. Perhaps they mean nothing different from the Latins, I do not know – What I do know is that the East does not generally speak of “The Death of the Virgin Mary”.
The West, on the other hand, has traditionally spoken first of our Lady’s death and then of her Assumption. The Latins emphasize the distinction between the two events, which the Greeks tend to collapse under the title “Dormition”. The Latins are clear: First, the Mother of God died; then, she was resurrected and assumed into heaven. Evidence of this language can be found in the Encyclical of Pius XII, excerpts of which are reproduced below.
A point of confusion: Artistic depictions in the West, Mary was alive at the Assumption
|"The Assumption", Annibale Carracci of the Western tradition|
It seems that a major factor which has led to the common misconception – as though the Latin Church favors the opinion that our Lady did not die, while the East presumes that she did suffer death – is the representations of the Assumption in Western art.
When the Western artists depict the Assumption of Mary, they depict her as being alive – whereas the Byzantine iconography generally shows our Lady “sleeping” on earth while her soul is with Christ in heaven. From this fact (that the Latin art shows the Virgin alive at the Assumption), some have presumed that the Western tradition maintains that our Lady did not die, but was assumed directly. However, this is plainly not the case.
The Latin tradition (as I mentioned above) stressed more clearly the two distinct events: First, our Lady died; then, she was resurrected and assumed into heaven. Therefore, it is entirely natural that the Western depictions of the Assumption would show our Lady alive while being taken up – this does not imply that she did not die, but only that she had been raised before being assumed.
It would be incorrect to state that Mary was still alive when she was assumed; rather, the Latin tradition maintains that Mary was again restored to life when she was assumed. [This is taught by the ordinary Magisterium of the Church, which speaks of Mary's resurrection.]
|"The Dormition of the Theotokos"|
in the Eastern tradition of Theophanes the Greek
In any case, it is at least a sententia certa (a certain teaching) that our Lady died before being raised and assumed into heaven. This is the clear and explicit tradition of the West and is maintained in a slightly less-clear (and more metaphorical) manner also in the East.
The Magisterial teaching of Pope Pius XII in Munificentissimus Deus
Again and again, the Holy Father alludes (more or less explicitly) to the death of the Virgin Mother of God.
“She was not subject to the law of remaining in the corruption of the grave, and she did not have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of her body” (n. 5)
“It was not difficult for [the Christian faithful] to admit that the great Mother of God, like her only begotten Son, had actually passed from this life.” (n. 14)
“Venerable to us, O Lord, is the festivity of this day on which the holy Mother of God suffered temporal death” (n. 17, quoting the Sacramentarium Gregorianum)
“As he kept you a virgin in childbirth, thus he has kept your body incorrupt in the tomb and has glorified it by his divine act of transferring it from the tomb.” (n. 18, quoting the Byzantine liturgy)
“This feast shows, not only that the dead body of the Blessed Virgin Mary remained incorrupt, but that she gained a triumph out of death.” (n. 20)
“It was fitting that she, who had kept her virginity intact in childbirth, should keep her own body free from all corruption even after death.” (n. 21, quoting St. John Damascene)
“She has received an eternal incorruptibility of the body together with him who has raised her up from the tomb and has taken her up to himself in a way known only to him.” (n. 22, quoting a work attributed to St. Modestus of Jerusalem)
“Thus, during the earliest period of scholastic theology, that most pious man, Amadeus, Bishop of Lausanne, held that the Virgin Mary’s flesh had remained incorrupt.” (n. 28)
“What son would not bring his mother back to life and would not bring her into paradise after death if he could?” (n. 35, quoting St. Francis de Sales)
“Jesus did not wish to have the body of Mary corrupted after death” (n. 35, quoting St. Alphonsus, the Marian Doctor)
“Consequently, just as the glorious resurrection of Christ was an essential part and the final sign of this victory, so that struggle which was common to the Blessed Virgin and her divine Son should be brought to a close by the glorification of her virginal body, for the same Apostle says: When this mortal thing hath put on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory.” (n. 39)
“Hence the revered Mother of God […] finally obtained, as the supreme culmination of her privileges, that she should be preserved free from the corruption of the tomb and that, like her own Son, having overcome death, she might be taken up body and soul to the glory of heaven.” (n. 40)
|"The Assumption of Mary" by Juan de Valdes Leal|
However, the definition infallibly declared by Pius XII does not explicitly state that the Blessed Virgin suffered death: “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.” (n. 44)