I would commend to all interested in this subject the riches of Newman for a profound reflection on the feast of the Assumption. Here I want to offer a few reflections on objections to the whole dogma of the Assumption.
The gravamen of the critics is ‘give me a Scriptural source for the Assumption, and I will accept it, but I find none.’ Here we witness the gulf between a Catholic/Orthodox theology and that common in the churches of the Reformation. The former accept the Gospels and the Canon as a whole for the same reason they accept the teaching of the Assumption – namely that these things are all part of the unbroken tradition of the Church. Men and women believed in the Assumption before there was a Canon. No where does Scripture tell us what books should be in the Bible, or even that there is a Canon, and yet we accept these things. Paul taught nothing new, he passed on what he had received orally and in writing. It was thus that the early church proceeded. It could, after all, not resort to a written Canon that was not then accepted or, in the earliest times, in existence.
The earliest episcopal statement of the New Testament Canon comes in 367 in Athanasius’ 39th festal letter, which is not to say there were not earlier collections, but is to say that the early codices, like Siniaticus, have in them books we no longer receive. This means that at that time those books were received. By what authority do we leave them out? That of the consensus of the early church. I am making no denominational point here; Athansius’ view became the one everyone accepted; Alexandria was considered the intellectual powerhouse of the early church, and even so great an authority as St Jerome accepted Athanasius’ verdict that Hebrews belonged in the Canon; Jerome knew the book was not by St Paul and in the West that made it doubtful; Athanasius confirmed the East had always received it as part of the Apostolic deposit, so it found its way into the Vulgate.
It has been thus with what the Orthodox call the ‘Dormition’ and we Catholics call ‘the Assumption’ of Our Lady. Texts going back to the third century attest to the absence of any sites of pilgrimage associated with Our Lady’s death, and to the belief that either she did not die, or that if she did, she was ‘assumed’ into Heaven. The early Church loved relics, and yet there were none associated with Our Lady. So when Pius XII enunciated the belief in the Assumption as dogma in 1950, he was simply stating infallibly what the Church had always held.
The dogma is part of the teaching of the Church about Our Lord himself. Our Lord was without sin, and since the pure cannot coexist with the impure, it was natural for the Church to believe that the first fruit of Our Lord’s redeeming blood was his Blessed Mother, who was relieved from the stain of Original Sin. If that was the case, and the Church has taught it always, then it followed that if she was without sin, she did not pay the penalty of our flesh, which is to die and then decay:
Hence the revered Mother of God, from all eternity joined in a hidden way with Jesus Christ in one and the same decree of predestination, immaculate in her conception, a most perfect virgin in her divine motherhood, the noble associate of the divine Redeemer who has won a complete triumph over sin and its consequences, 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 where, as Queen, she sits in splendor at the right hand of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages.
All Marian dogma is Christological. St Cyril of Alexandria knew that to deny Our Lady the title of Theotokos was to deny that her Son was fully-divine, and the Church knows that to believe in his redeeming blood is to believe that the Theotokos was untouched by Original Sin thanks to her Son, and that being so, she did not suffer the process of decay, but was assumed, body and soul, into Heaven. We believe these things on the same testimony as we believe that Scripture is what we believe it to be – the testimony of tradition of the Church which Christ founded and which, if it can identify Scripture, knows also how to read it.
It is a great sadness that this traditional teaching should make any barrier between us and our fellow Christians, but we can only believe what has been passed on to us by oral and written tradition; we can do no other. A blessed solemnity of the Assumption to you all.