Mary in Her Immaculate Conception and Her Glorious Assumption
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”
The Apostle’s Creed is perhaps the most basic complete statement of Christian Faith. In it all Christians profess what we hold to be true, namely belief in the one and triune God who created heaven and earth; the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary; the holy passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus that saved us from our sins; the ascension of Jesus and his second coming to judge the living and the dead; the constant presence of the Holy Spirit to guide the universal Church through history; that we will share heaven with all whose sins have been forgiven and have been redeemed by the mercy of God; and that our bodies will also be resurrected and rejoined to our souls in heaven for all eternity.
These basic statements of faith are starting points into exploring the vast mystery of God and of our own humanity. Salvation history tells a fascinating and dramatic story of the human condition that starts with Creation, takes an immediate wrong turn at the Fall of Adam and Eve, and spends the remainder of each book of the Bible cataloguing God’s loving pursuit of a sinful humanity. The grand crescendo of Jesus’ crucifixion and death on the cross are preceded by a pause – a measure of silence – when God’s holy angel asks the permission of a young virgin from Nazareth whether she would permit God to work through her to save humanity and restore divine favor upon creation.
Of course we know that the Virgin Mary consented to bear the Christ within her and to be the Mother of the Redeemer. There are a few other important events where Mary is the main protagonist in the narrative of salvation, many times accompanied by Joseph her husband. We know of her immediate going in haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke detail the events of the birth and nativity of Jesus – the traveling to Bethlehem, the angels’ glorious appearance to the shepherds, Jesus presentation in the Temple and Simeon’s prophecy over Jesus and Mary, the visit of the Magi from the East, Herod’s massacre of the holy innocents, and the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus into Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous wraith. The childhood narrative of Jesus closes with the Finding of Jesus in the Temple by Mary and Joseph at age twelve.
Mary has a few other appearances where she is named in the Gospels including the Wedding Feast at Cana, an appearance in the crowds while Jesus was preaching (Luke 8:19–21: Matthew 12:46–50; Mark 3:31–35), and at the foot of the cross (John 19:25-27). In the Acts of the Apostles, Mary is mentioned as being devoted to prayer in union with the Apostles in the upper room (Acts 1:14).
The Mother of Jesus has a comparatively small quantity of text devoted to her role in Salvation History. Yet, it would be foolish to confuse or correlate small quantities of chapters and verses with a small or insignificant role in the order of salvation or in the continued life of the Church.
Mary’s significance to our salvation is inseparable from the truth of her son Jesus. Plainly stated, without Mary we do not have Jesus. And it is this basic point which is the foundation for the Catholic Dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary body and soul into heaven. Of everything that divides Catholics and Protestants, this is one of the biggest points of division. Some Protestant traditions go so far as to level charges of blasphemy against Catholics for the venerable status we give to Mary, claiming hell awaits all Catholics because of it!
This post aims to clear up a few points concerning Mary and her Immaculate Conception and glorious Assumption. It is my hope that doing so will demonstrate the entirely reasonable nature of these Catholic teachings and show that they are fruits of the Gospel revelation handed on through the Apostles and the Church.
Before going into detail on each teaching, it is important to draw out a few general points that apply to both. First, each teaching is proclaimed as a Dogma of the Catholic Church. Dogma is the highest form of doctrine within the Church, and the faithful are obliged to adhere to defined dogmas. Concerning the fruit of dogma, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states in section 89:
“There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith.
The reason for the obligatory nature of dogmatic adherence is meant to safeguard a belief in the whole Revelation of God through the mystery of Jesus Christ. Defined dogmas ensure that we are dwelling in the full truth of Jesus.
Secondly, each of these Dogmatic teachings was proclaimed relatively recently — the Immaculate Conception was promulgated in 1854 by Pope Pius IX and the Assumption was promulgated in 1950 by Pope Pius XII. The reason for these recent developments in dogma has to do with the nature of history. Before the Church could attend to these later questions surrounding the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, she first needed to define more foundational questions, such as the Dogmas concerning the Trinity and the relationship of Jesus’ human and divine natures.
As certain questions concerning the deposit of revelation were answered and defined by the teaching authority of the Church (called the Magisterium), the doors to new questions opened. Questions concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary could only begin to be asked once the questions concerning Jesus were properly answered and defined. In fact, the questions concerning Mary were direct and necessary consequences of the answers concerning Jesus’ Incarnation. Jesus cannot be fully known unless we explore all aspects of his Incarnation, including properly understanding his human nature. Since he received his human nature from a young virgin from Nazareth named Mary, knowing her fully becomes necessary to fully know Jesus.
This somewhat lengthy introduction enables us to now explore Mary’s Immaculate Conception and her Assumption into heaven.
Mary, Immaculately Conceived
The word immaculate describes someone or something that is most innocent, entirely spotless, holy, stainless from sin, most pure, most beautiful and lovely, or possesses complete integrity. The word conception refers to the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (some mistakenly assign this title to the conception of Jesus, which is properly understood as the Annunciation). But where is it revealed that Mary was immaculately conceived, and why is it thought that she was immaculately conceived?
Let us begin by stating an obvious fact – so obvious that it almost need not be stated. God Himself chose to make Mary the mother of His son. God chose her in such a way the Jesus would be, “The one and the same common Son of God the Father and of the Blessed Virgin Mary” (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus).
The dogma of the immaculate conception rests upon this very truth. All other details are consequences of it. Yet, where in scripture does it speak of Mary being in an immaculate state of being since her conception? We turn once more in our series of reflections on Mary to the words of the Angel Gabriel at the moment of Jesus’ conception — words that are pregnant with theological significance.
“And [the Angel Gabriel] came to [Mary] and said, ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you'” (Luke 1:28)!
The Greek word Luke uses for grace is κεχαριτωμένη (kecharitōmenē). This word is used in the perfect passive participle of the Greek χαριτόω (charitoō). Such a usage is significant in our understanding of God’s action upon the Virgin of Nazareth. The perfect form denotes the verbal action, “occurred in the past but which produced a state of being or a result that exists in the present.” (1) The passive usage means the subject is being acted upon — in this case that Mary is being acted upon by God. The participle designates both action and description, both verb and adjective. This is a subtle, but important word to interpret correctly, because it affects how we understand the role of Mary not just in the Incarnation of Jesus, but also her role in the future work of the Gospel up to our present day. The past action upon God to bestow his favor and grace upon Mary was to create her as a worthy dwelling for Himself.
It is also important to note that the greeting, “Hail, Full of Grace” replaces Mary’s name. As described in our series of reflections on names, a name bespeaks of the truth about someones core essence. A true name is based on what something is. To name Mary as such, the Angel Gabriel is reflecting the truth that she is and always will be a privileged channel through which the grace of the Incarnation will flow in an eminent way.
Mary as Full of Grace means that Original Sin is now met and conquered by an original grace bestowed upon Mary that was obtained through her son Jesus. This leads to the final point — Mary as the New Eve. Since we have already explored this point in its own post, only a few points need to be made in relation to Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
From the moment after the Fall of Adam and Eve, God prophesied His eventual salvation of the human race. To the serpent God spoke, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15).
In order to crush the head of the serpent as God prophesied, Mary (the woman) could not be under the taint of Original Sin. The woman in Genesis is given the name Eve because she will be the “Mother of all the living.” Yet, we know that death reigned from Adam onward (see Romans 5:12-21). A true mother of all the living was forthcoming in Mary. Jesus said of himself, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). Mary was the very first person in all of human history to believe in Jesus when she said, “Let it be done unto me.”
Jesus himself is the source of our life and Mary is his mother. All the living are alive in Jesus and because of Jesus. Therefore, Mary is the true Eve — the true mother of all the living.
We close with the exact statement promulgated by the Catholic Church concerning the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. This is the authoritative definition that the Catholic Church has given concerning the Immaculate Conception, and it is what is meant when we speak of Mary being immaculately conceived. The Church means nothing more nor less than what is stated here:
“We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.” (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus)
The Immaculate Conception is a singular grace and privilege granted by God to Mary. It is not because of merit that this grace was bestowed, but a necessary action on God’s part in order for Him to assume our human nature in the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh!
Mary, Assumed Body and Soul into Heaven
“Arise, O LORD, and go to your resting place, you and the ark of your might.” (Psalm 132:8)
Like the Immaculate Conception, the Mystery of the Assumption of Mary is another one of the more recently defined dogmas of the Catholic Church. The Assumption of Mary body and soul into heaven as defined by by Pope Pius XII in his Apostolic Constitution Munificentissium Deus, like all dogma, is a necessary doctrine of the faith.
The dogma itself is quite simple. The Catholic Church states:
“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” (Munificentissium Deus no. 44).
The main reason for the necessity of this dogma has to do with the object of our faith. To not believe in the Assumption would be an implicit denial of our final hope of salvation and resurrection from the dead in Jesus Christ. Mary, who was the perfect vessel of grace and true tabernacle of our Lord Jesus Christ, and who was chosen from all eternity by the loving will of the Father to bear the Son of God into the world, is most worthy of heaven. No other creature at any other point in history merits the grace of heaven as does the Blessed Virgin Mary, chosen so by God Himself. If the Mother of our Redeemer is not in heaven fully and completely, what hope do we poor sinners have of cooperating with grace and receiving the saving mercy of Jesus in order to dwell in heaven with him for all eternity?
The Assumption of Mary challenges all Christians to a complete faith in Jesus Christ. An unfortunate and damaging effect of the Enlightenment on Christian Faith is to see a “pure” faith in minimal terms using skepticism and fear as guide rails. Faith for too many Christian traditions and communities has become a task of what we cannot say or believe. This is opposed to the truest purpose of theology to understand our faith as revealed by God in its fullest terms.
True faith is expansive, not restrictive. The Catholic Faith seeks a perfect knowledge of faith, guided by the Holy Spirit and in perfect harmony with all revealed truth. God came to liberate, not bind up and imprison. The Holy Spirit is given to the Church in order to guide her through time and history into a fuller realization of what God has contained in the deposit of revelation. Defining the Dogma of the Assumption flows from our understanding of the revelation of God’s union with humanity in the Incarnation of Jesus.
We can clearly see that it is reasonable and consistent to believe in the Assumption of Mary into heaven. Yet, the question remains of where in the deposit of Revelation that God has given us do we find that the event actually occurred historically.
For this we must point once again to the understanding of Mary as the New Eve and Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant. As God sought to redeem a fallen humanity and bring her into a new creation, He did not wish to abolish and destroy His original masterpiece, marred though it was. To restore that perfect union with himself, God took up all the details of our broken history in order to make them new. Just as Eve was at Adam’s side in the Garden of Eden, so too Mary must be at Jesus’ side in heaven. The might of Lord in the Old Testament was often accompanied by the Ark of Covenant. The might of Jesus that conquered death through his Resurrection and Ascension also drew the New Ark to his side.
The Prophet Simeon said of Mary and the infant Jesus, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35). The sword that pierced Mary’s heart was the crucifixion and death of her son performed before her very eyes. Mary’s union with Jesus was so complete, that his death resulted in her own spiritual death.
Jesus words, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29) are a statement about true faith, which Mary possessed in its fullness. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. . . . .blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:42-45). Mary did not see what was to be the glorified fulfillment of her initial “yes” to the Lord when she conceived Jesus. Yet, she believed, and she suffered for it as no other disciple of Jesus has or ever will suffer. Her union with her son was perfect.
The first statement about humanity in Sacred Scripture is that God has made us in His Image and Likeness. What God reveals about Himself always will lead to a greater knowledge about who we are as human persons, what we are made for, and what our final destiny is. The Assumption takes up the quest to know fully the faith which God has granted to us. The Blessed Virgin Mary is God’s supreme instrument of salvation among creatures. She gives to us the perfect model of discipleship with our Lord Jesus and contains in her life the model of the Christian life.
In closing, we turn to the words of Pope Pius XII, who promulgated the Dogma of the Assumption of Mary. These words reveal the motive for declaring this Mystery a dogma rather than leaving it in the realm of pious belief.
“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” (Munificentissium Deus no. 42).
(1) Heiser, M. S., & Setterholm, V. M. (2013; 2013). Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database Terminology. Lexham Press.