THE DEATH OF MARY (ABOUT THE YEAR 41 OR 42?)— THE ASSUMPTION—RELATIONS OF THE CHURCH AND OF THE FAITHFUL WITH MARY IN HEAVEN
MARY was soon to be where her thoughts and aspirations always dwelt. The measure of her holiness was full, a holiness which was beyond all human estimation. How, at that final end, one looks back to the Immaculate Conception; how one recalls the superabundance of that first grace, which was, however, only the starting point; how one sees again the path traversed since that dawn, a path like unto " the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day "; 1 how one thinks of the uninterrupted merit of all her acts throughout her life, up to the sanctification of her last years by the daily communion and that most solemn hour when the Holy Trinity absorbed, as it were, the soul of the mother of God; how one recalls the divine law of the increase of grace, how it is proportioned to the worthiness of the person and the intensity of the love, how "whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance," 2 how, the greater is the store of heavenly riches, the more will it multiply, and how grace will increase in amazing proportion, inestimable beyond all measure, and as illimitable as the sea. To suggest some idea of this, eminent divines have imagined the grace of all the saints and all the angels gathered together in one, if that were possible, and they say that Mary in her last days, if not indeed much earlier, surpassed in her fulness of grace, all the outpourings of the divine bounty upon the whole multitude of the elect. Without exaggeration, they are right in speaking thus, for Mary by her close union with her Son, was placed on a higher level than either the saints or the angels; and moreover, it is possible to conceive grace growing without limit and ever increasing, since it is the participation in an infinite good, and in the life and the likeness of God.
The love which Mary bore within her, a love proportioned to the grace within her and the active agent in her marvellous development, appears to have been the means which God made use of to set her free from the bonds of the flesh. As she had never acquired original sin, she had not, like us, contracted the debt of death. Nevertheless, since Jesus Himself, without sinning, had taken upon Himself all the consequences of sin, and especially death, Mary must be like unto Him. Guiltless, she had, like her guiltless Son, endured all the evils of life. Like Him, she had to die, and again like Him, in order that she might console and encourage our weakness, she went before us through the valley of the shadow of death.
But it is the general opinion that she felt none of the feebleness of old age, and illness had no power over the perfection of her virginal body. She died when it pleased God to call her, and in calling her, He only, so to speak, gave full scope to the ardour of her love. For the power of her love was a love even unto death. Her life was prolonged because God acted as He willed with His created being, and augmented as He pleased her power to love, just as at certain times He augmented her power to suffer. Further, Mary herself had control over all her desires, even the most holy, and it would appear that she was able to regulate the perceptible effects of her spiritual love. But when God, either suddenly, or rather by degrees, withdrew His extraordinary aid, and when by His consent Mary allowed the force and vehemence of her love to overflow more and more throughout all her being, her physical life was impaired, the organs became weaker, and the vessel of the flesh was broken so that the ardent flame might leap towards heaven.
It is not, however, necessary to suppose that she experienced violent ecstasies of love, such as the saints occasionally experienced. Mary's perfection was so great that, even in the region of similar phenomena, she greatly surpassed them all. In her, divine love was too entirely and too tranquilly dominant to cause any violent or abrupt action; she possessed her soul entirely and it grew without any obstruction ; the life of her body was worn out not by repeated attacks of emotion, but by a strength steadfast and irresistible in its suavity.
And when that all-powerful fervency, weakening the body towards the end, had finally stretched Mary upon the couch on which she would die, 3 the last bond was broken without any effort. Sorrow, agony, and martyrdom, all these she had already endured with Jesus; her last hour was a sweet slumber, a transition, a rapture. Apostles and holy women must have watched the mother, who but now was speaking to them and blessing them, wrapped in the silence of holy meditation, with her gaze fixed upon heaven, perhaps upon the actual vision of her Son. And imperceptibly, with a last smile, the soul quitted the sacred body without disturbing its unchangeable peace. " Charity never faileth." 4 The Virgin passed from earth to heaven without any interruption in the continuity of her love ; but now she loves in the light without shadow, in the vision face to face, in a glory equal to her fulness of grace, in the eternal and ever blessed possession of her God.
There is no well authenticated document, nor any uniform and indisputable tradition concerning that last " sleep." 5 According to some, Mary had been in the world about fifty-nine years, according to others, sixty-three, while others say seventy-two or even more. She must then have died either in the year 42, or 48, or 52, or about those years, or even at a still later date. If one must choose among such diverse opinions, the first of these dates, the year 42 or thereabouts, has perhaps a little more probability than the others. Perhaps it may even reconcile apparent differences of opinion ; for, according to the method of reckoning, the starting points of which remain doubtful, we find that Mary, in the year 42, was fifty-nine years old, or, rather, a little more than sixty, and possibly sixty-three.
Furthermore this year 42, according to trustworthy calculation, was the year of the general dispersion of the apostles. Twelve years, almost thirteen, had passed since the departure of the Master; it was the limit which seems to have been fixed upon in which to offer first to the Jews the grace of the Gospel; 6 and, towards the Feast of the Passover in the year 42, Herod Agrippa the new king of the country, by beheading James, imprisoning Peter, and persecuting the Church, obliged the pastors to take flight, and to carry into far countries the light of the faith. It was, in fact, the same year which has been regarded as the year in which Peter, freed from his bonds, made his first appearance in Rome. If, then, Our Lady died in the midst of the assembled apostles, as tradition appears to have preserved the remembrance, and if we seek to explain that gathering in a natural manner, her death must be placed before the Feast of the Passover in the year 42. The Church of France formerly kept the Feast of the Assumption about the middle of January; and if the date of this feast has any value in indicating that of the event, we might place the date of Mary's death in January, 42 ; but if the commonly accepted date, 15th of August, be taken, she must have died in August of the year 41.
From SAINT MARY THE VIRGIN BY RENE-MARIE DE LA BROISE
TRANSLATED BY HAROLD GIDNEY
1 Proverbs iv. 18.
2 St Matthew xiii. 12.
3 Did Mary, who was the pattern of the Christian life, receive extreme unction ? The question is disputed. It is quite clear that she could not, like us, receive it as a remedy for sin. But extreme unction is also a divinely instituted means of augmenting the grace of the righteous and of sanctifying their death ; and there was also the good example to be set. These considerations are sufficient to render the affirmative opinion tenable.
4 I Corinthians xiii. 8.
5 The bodily Assumption (see further on) remains certain and incontestable. The age at which the Holy Virgin died, and consequently the date of her death, is very variously indicated by ancient writers. As to the circumstances which accompanied her "transition," we have very detailed accounts, but we cannot place entire confidence in them. For the most ancient writings in which these narrations are found, the most ancient at least that have been preserved, belong to that category of works, so much studied at the present day, which are called apocryphal, works which have been falsely attributed to the apostles, or to authors of a very early period. Tischendorf has published (Apocalypses apocrypha, 1866) three versions of the account of the death of Mary. Many others concerning the same subject, in all languages, have been published since.
Among these works we may quote: The book "of the Dormition of Mary," which goes under the name of Saint John the Evangelist ; the book " of the Transition of Mary," attributed to Saint Melito of Sardis (and it seems that in the time of Saint Melito, that is to say in the second century, there may actually have been a first recension of the work); some narratives attributed to Evodius, successor to Saint Peter in the see of Antioch (certain scholars support the authenticity of a fragment of Evodius) ; some passages in the Dionysian writings (one knows, of course, that these writings are generally regarded as later, by several centuries, than the time of Saint Dionysius; as to the Areopagite himself, his conversion took place after the year 50, and so, probably, after the death of Mary). Several of the oriental Fathers and church historians have certainly drawn from these sources, the historical basis of which is far from being free from additions. If they have also made use of more trustworthy documents, and this is quite possible, it is extremely difficult to distinguish the parts which have been taken from them, and to draw the line with any certainty between history and legend. The value of the " Euthymiaca Historia" quoted by Saint John of Damascus at the end of his second sermon upon the Assumption (PG. xcvi. 748) is also a matter of debate ; but, in any case, this history is not earlier than the end of the fifth century.
6 An ancient tradition. See, Clement of Alexandria : Stromates, VI. v. (PG. ix. 264) ; Apollonius (end of the second century) quoted by Eusebius: historia ecclesiastica, v. 18 (PG. xx. 480); Ada Petri cum Simone ex codice Vercellensi, v., in Lipsius : acla apocrypha, t. i. p. 49.