St Mary The Virgin Chapter XII. Part. 2.

As to the other circumstances, the principal details, as they are related by the old writers, may be thus epitomized. The details vary very much, according to the different texts and their various editions. After an angel, carrying a palm branch, had come to announce to Mary her coming deliverance, the apostles suddenly assembled round her— brought miraculously upon the clouds of the sky, say a large number of the texts. In the midst of the band of disciples and holy women, Christ Himself appeared, surrounded by a multitude of angels. In accordance with Mary's own request, He promised that at all times and in all places, whosoever should pray to her and make a request in her name should find grace and mercy with God. The Virgin blessed the faithful, who all honoured her as their mother, and she committed her soul to Jesus. The hymns of the disciples mingled with the songs of the angels; numberless miracles were performed to punish the perverse Jews and to console those who believed ; the sacred body was deposited in a tomb near the Garden of Olives at Gethsemane, in the valley of Jehoshaphat. The song of the angels was continued round the tomb, and was heard for three days after. Finally, the glorifying of Mary's body was manifested to the apostles. It was Jesus Himself who, appearing again before them, raised His mother from the dead ; or rather it was Thomas who, returning from India only after the burial, saw at the moment of his arrival, the Virgin ascend to heaven, and announced to the others her Assumption ; or at least, it was the late arrival of Thomas which gave occasion for opening the tomb, and for the consequent discovery that it was empty.

Who shall say where history ends and where legendary additions commence ? In any case, however legendary and uncertain a great part of it may be, we may be sure that a foundation of historic truth lies hidden under these ancient narratives, and a foundation of theological truth also. From the most distant period these theological truths have made a part of the Christian belief; and it is thus that they have found their way into the apocryphal books, the compilers of which were often not very scholarly, and sometimes even untrustworthy, 1 but who have preserved for us the current ideas of their times. It is because of these truths that the more learned writers and orators, historians and Fathers of the Church, have largely accepted these accounts and sometimes the legends. And whilst repeated from age to age, the words of the Fathers, powerless to give historical value to legend, add at least a substantial guarantee to the truths which concern the dogma and also the idea which we must have of Mary. We find there besides, in addition to the details of history, that which they professed and claimed to preach; and in that domain they have weight and authority.

Among these true ideas, which belong to catholic tradition, we may note the maternal relations of Mary with the faithful, the eagerness of Jesus to introduce into His heaven her who had introduced Him into this world, and the consolation left to the Church in her heavenly protection and her all-powerful intercession. We should especially note the fact, which belongs both to history and to dogma, of Mary's resurrection and of her entire glorifying both in body and soul.

In spite of the rarity of very ancient writings in which the Assumption is explicitly mentioned, several indications cause us to think that if it was not known by all or in all countries with equal clearness, the remembrance of it was, however, never lost. If popular imagination developed and embellished the narration, it is because the memory of it was regarded as an important fact. As for the marvellous stories, these would help to render the remembrance more notable, but we can see also that in certain places and at certain times they would give rise to doubts, and obscure the truth of which they were the disputable guarantee.

The substantial basis of tradition which had preceded the legends and which continued to exist independently of them, testifies to the wide and ancient observance of the feast. For the Assumption was honoured from the sixth century, and perhaps even much earlier, not only in eastern countries, but also in the West, which is much less open to belief in legends. It is not certain that the feast did not exist at Rome, even at the time when Rome rejected the apocryphal books, that is to say, towards the end of the fifth century or at the beginning of the sixth; and during the seventh century it certainly was celebrated there. Further, antiquity has never professed to possess any relics of the Holy Virgin ; and when what is claimed to be her tomb is shown at Jerusalem, it is always pointed out that it is empty. And further, the very words handed down by the old Christian writers, to designate the death and glorifying of Mary, have something special and peculiar; they speak of her alone, or they refer to her with a particular shade of difference which distinguishes her from other saints. They speak only of her " sleep," of her " repose," of her " transition " from earth to heaven, and finally of the " Assumption " of her whom God her Son has bodily taken to Himself. All this appears to demonstrate that the resurrection of Mary has always been remembered, recounted doubtless in the beginning by the apostles or by those of the apostles and disciples who knew of it.

Nevertheless, the presumption of an explicit, uninterrupted tradition does not appear to be the firmest foundation upon which the Church builds the certainty of her belief. The rank and dignity of Mary are much stronger reasons for this. Among the great number of arguments which may readily be advanced upon this subject, several indicate only simple suitability ; but others—for which a special work would be necessary to set out and demonstrate their full force—make us feel that the privilege of the Assumption was an absolute necessity. For they show it to be the logical outcome of other privileges already known, or that it is implicitly contained in those privileges, and in the whole work which Jesus Christ gave to His mother to perform. And as this work and the other privileges were revealed by God, serious thinkers believe that the Assumption also rests upon divine revelation, that it is part of the trust confided to the Church, and that it should therefore become the subject of dogmatic definition.

Everything concerning Mary is opposed to the idea of the decomposition of the tomb, everything seems to require incorruption and life. Her incomparable purity, and the absolute innocence of her soul claimed the preservation of her body; and it was not only her virginity preserved in her maternity which demanded that her flesh should remain untouched by death. There was also the special and unique love of Christ for His mother which would not permit Him to leave her to await a far off resurrection. So close was the bond that united them, that " the flesh of Jesus is the flesh of Mary." 2

The Eucharist gives the Christian a claim to rise again at the last day because his body is united to the body of Christ. But did not the mother and Son become of the same flesh in quite another manner at the Incarnation ? And is there not in this a more pressing claim to resurrection, or rather a kind of impossibility of remaining in death ? " She, most truly and entirely blessed . . . How can death destroy her who was entirely united to God ? How should hell receive her ? How should corruption dare to touch the body which has received the Life ? All these ideas are contrary and in every way foreign to the soul and the body of her who has borne her God." 3

The privilege of the Immaculate Conception, considered by itself, makes it certain that in relation to death, Mary was in a different position to us. For in the usual order of things, we are assured by revelation that death is the punishment which justly follows original sin. To the innocence preserved by the first man, the preservation of life must correspond; while death corresponded to his sin; as his sin was transmitted to his descendants, so must death be transmitted in like manner. Therefore to whomsoever the hereditary sin has not been transmitted, the law of death cannot apply. Consequently Mary's death was for other reasons than those under which the rest of mankind suffered death. She was like Jesus, who without inheriting sin, accepted the physical consequences and pains of it. But then must she not even to the end be compared with Him; to be in death like Him and not as the rest of mankind; to succumb for an instant, only to be raised again soon after ? It is true that Jesus is the heavenly Redeemer, and that Mary is numbered among the redeemed. But even to this we may answer that as she was redeemed in a peculiar and more exalted manner than the rest of mankind, so it is due to her to be freed from death in a peculiar and more exalted manner also. For Jesus redeems at the same time from death and from sin; as He redeems from sin, so He redeems from death. To others redemption comes as a deliverer, freeing them from evils they have already experienced; from sin, after its marks have been traced upon the soul; from death, after the body has been reduced to dust. But to Mary redemption came as a preserver, which prevented her from ever being stained by sin or vanquished by death; if it did not exempt her from passing, like Jesus, through death itself, it at least exempted her from all the consequences of death, and soon brought her back again to life untouched by the tomb.


1 The book entitled "The Transition of Mary" is condemned in the Gelasian catalogue of apocryphal books (about the year 500).

2 This phrase, frequently repeated, is found (for the first time ?) in the treatise upon the Assumption, composed probably about the time of Charlemagne, which has often been attributed to Saint Augustine (PL. xl. 1145).

3 St John of Damascus: homilia ii in dormitionem B. V. MariÓ•, 3 (PG. xcvi. 728).