On Aug. 15, Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Most years in most dioceses, the date is a holy day of obligation. The Church in her wisdom wants us to understand how important Mary is in our devotional life — and practicing Catholics are required to attend Mass.
But depending on your faith background, you may think of this feast in one of two ways.
As a Western Catholic, you celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The longstanding belief of the Church that that Mary was taken up into heaven was declared infallibly by Pope Pius XII on Nov. 1, 1950. In his Apostolic constitution “Munificentissimus Deus” declaring the Assumption to be true, he said,
“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 to heavenly glory.”
So medieval paintings of Mary’s Assumption into heaven often resemble paintings of Jesus’ own Ascension — although the two are not the same. In the case of the Assumption, we believe that God transported Mary’s body to heaven; while in the case of the Ascension, Jesus traveled heavenward while the crowd watched, and of His own volition. Here is the Assumption as interpreted by Bartholomäus Strobel, the Baroque painter from Silesia:
But if you worship in an Eastern Church, you celebrate the Dormition of Mary, or the “Sleep” of Mary. Christians in those traditions believe that Mary actually died. Only after her death and burial, they would say, was she taken up from the tomb and drawn, body and soul, into heaven where she sits beside her Divine Son. The story is usually that all of the Apostles were gathered around her body. One variant is that she had been buried and the Apostle Thomas — yes, that doubting one, again — was not present for her death. The tomb was opened for him to view the body, but she was gone!
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