"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."
- Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus 44, 1950.
At the dawn of the space age, Pope Pius XII defined this Roman Catholic doctrine in the encyclical Munificentissimus Deus. Since then, some Catholics do not give it much notice, while some Christian sects have completely rejected the notion. The explanation of this doctrine, as well as the point of contention, is very important not only to the Marian doctrine, but to the entire foundation of the Church.
Assumption is used here not in the contemporary sense of creating fact without evidence, but in the meaning of "taking up." It is important to note this fact, that Mary did not ascend to Heaven as Jesus did. Jesus, being divine, had the power to ascend to Heaven of his own volition, while Mary, being human, required the power of God to take her up. Thus, calling the event Mary's ascension is erroneous. What the event does is show believers that Mary enjoys a special state that no one other than Jesus has1 - being in Heaven with a unified body and soul - something which humans cannot achieve until the end of time.2 So as God saved Mary's soul from Original Sin in her Immaculate Conception, He completes her by saving her body in the Assumption.
This is the source of contention with some denominations. They argue that this elevates Mary to the same level as Jesus, and thus diminishes the importance of Jesus. The Church explains that not only does this do no dishonor to Jesus, but exemplifies the power of his Resurrection. The Assumption is a singular participation in the Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians.3 In the context of Jesus' Resurrection, Mary is not an equal to Jesus, but an example of what believers have to look forward to. The event serves believers, and not Mary. In this sense, getting an answer to why God assumed her into Heaven is more apparent. While a perfect being in Jesus would do anything for a perfect mother in Mary, this is more of a "favor" to humanity than to her.
Mary thus becomes a model for believers. She is the first to believe in Christ4, submitted completely to God5, is free of sin, and therefore fully redeemed by Jesus.6 While Jesus is also a model, he is of divine nature and therefore unattainable in some respects. Mary, being human, reminds believers that redemption comes through Jesus alone.
An interesting problem presented by the Assumption is carefully sideskirted by the Church. It lies in the definition of Original Sin. In the book of Genesis, Original Sin was created when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge. God then told Adam, "from dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return."7 The Church further extrapolates the consequences as thus:
As a result of original sin, human nature is weakened in its powers, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death, and inclined to sin (this inclination is called "concupiscence").8
Therefore, death is a result of Original Sin. Mary, however, due to the Immaculate Conception, was free from Original Sin. Consequently, she should be free from the stigma of death. Given this, the Assumption could be viewed differently if Mary was in fact immortal. Pope Pius XII, however, was very careful to not actually say Mary died, rather calling it the end of her "earthly life." This weak point in the doctrine provides ample ammunition to discredit it.
It is important to note that out of all the Marian doctrines prescribed by the Church, this particular one argumentally causes the most friction and is the most rejected one by other sects, rivalled only by Immaculate Conception. These both came well after the Protestant reformation. Aside from that, there is no mention of the Assumption in the gospels, but that can be explained by dating the gospels. Most scientific estimates place all four gospels' completion before Mary's death. Although the Pope, considered by believers as infallible, does not have to provide any apostolic evidence, the Church often cites the Protoevangelium of James as one of the earliest documents to support the claim.
1 It is argued by some that a select few share this state based on a verse in Matthew 17:3 desrcibing Jesus' transfiguration: Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. This, some argue, implies the two prophets appeared in bodily form, so they conclude the prophets' souls have unified with their bodies.
2 The Catechism of the Catholic Church details this in 1016: By death the soul is separated from the body, but in the resurrection God will give incorruptible life to our body, transformed by reunion with our soul. Just as Christ is risen and lives for ever, so all of us will rise at the last day.
3 Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 966.
4 I make this claim based on the sequence of events in the gospels. Mary is the first human to know that Jesus is the Son of God (Luke 1:31-35). Whether or not the entire concept of redemption through Jesus was clear to her at that point, or not until after Jesus died, is debatable. However, she submitted completely to God and anything he would bring, implicitly becoming a full believer at that point. In any case, due to her sinlessness and devotion, she holds the highest place any human can attain.
5 Luke 1:38 describes Mary's complete submission: "I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.
6 It could be contended that Mary did not require any redemption, as she was free not only of sin, but the stain of Original Sin, and therefore required no redemption from a fallen state. Given that logic, the Assumption then becomes a given. I will expound further on this in a more relevant node and will hardlink it here when it is complete.
8Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 418
important disclosure: I am not a theologian, and I am an ex-Catholic. This is based on my understanding of the Catechism and relevant documents and does not constitute advice. Consult the clergy in your district. =) Comments (email or msg) are most welcome.