DEATH OF MARY. PART 3.They returned into Israel, after an absence of several years. Mary retired to Mount Sion, at a short distance from the ruined and deserted palace of the ancient princes of her race, and into the house which had been sanctified by the descent of the Holy Ghost. St. John on his part went in search of St. James, who was related to the Blessed Virgin, and Bishop of Jerusalem, to inform him, as well as the faithful who composed his already numerous Church, that the Mother of Jesus was come among them to die.
The day and the hour were come : the saints of Jerusalem beheld again the daughter of David, still poor, still humble, still beautiful; for one would have said that this admirable and holy creature escaped the destructive agency of time, and that, predestined from her birth to a complete and glorious immortality, nothing in her was to decay. 1 Serious, but not ill, she received the apostles and disciples, seated on a small bed of poor appearance, suitable to her costume as a woman of the common sort of people, which she had never discontinued. There was something so solemn and affecting in her air, full of dignity and grandeur, that the whole assembly melted into tears. Mary alone remained calm in that ample and lofty chamber, where a crowd of old disciples and new Christians flocked in, alike eager to hear her and contemplate her.
The night had come on, and lamps with many branches seemed to cast, with their white light, something mysterious and solemn upon this sad and silent assembly. The apostles, deeply moved, stood round about the funeral couch. St. Peter, who had so loved the Son of God during his life, contemplated the Virgin with a feeling of sorrow, and his speaking look seemed to say to the Bishop of Jerusalem, " How much she is like Jesus Christ 1" Indeed the likeness was striking ; 2 and the stooping posture of Mary, which brought to mind that of our Saviour during the Last Supper, completed it. St. James, who had received from the Jews themselves the surname of " Just," and who knew how to control his emotions, suppressed his tears; the prince of the apostles, a man of openness and first impulse, was deeply affected, and showed it ; St. John had hid his head in one of the folds of his Grecian mantle, but his sobs betrayed him. There was not in the whole assembly a heart which was not broken, or an eye which was not moist. Mary, sharing in the general emotion, and forgetting the splendours which awaited her on high, in order to wipe away the tears which were shed on earth, began to speak, with a view to strengthen the faith of her children, to revive their sacred hopes, and inflame their charity; she spoke to them, with unrivalled eloquence, those strong and sublime things which we listen to breathless, which exalt man above himself, and enable him to undertake everything. Her speech, so sweet that the Scripture has poetically compared it to a honeycomb, became gradually powerful; the daughter of David and Solomon, the inspired prophetess who had pronounced, without premeditation, the triumphant hymn of the " Magnificat," rose to consideration so sublime, that every one forgot, in his delight, that death was at the end of this song of the swan. But the fatal hour drew near. Mary stretched out her protecting hands over the poor orphans whom she was about to leave, and raising up her fine countenance to the stars which shone outside with serene majesty, she beheld the heavens opened and the Son of Man stretching out his arms to her from the bosom of a bright cloud. 3 At this prospect, a rosy tint diffused itself over her countenance, her eyes expressed all that maternal love mingled with divine joy carried to its completion, and* adoration arrived at the state of ecstasy can express, and her soul, leaving without the least effort her fair and virginal mortal envelope, softly sunk into the bosom of God. 4
Mary was no more,—but her face, which had taken the expression of a tranquil sleep, was so sweet to behold, that one would have said that death hesitated to plant his banner on that trophy which he was to hold but for one day.
The lamp of the dead was lighted ; all the windows were opened, and the summer breezes made their way into the apartment with the pale rays of the stars. It is said that a miraculous light filled the mortuary chamber at the moment when Mary had just drawn her last breath ; it was perhaps the glory of God surrounding the spotless soul of the predestined Virgin. When the death of Mary was no longer doubtful, nothing was heard at first but weeping and deep groaning; then, funereal canticles arose amid the silence of night; the angels accompanied them on their golden harps, 5 and the echoes of the mouldering palace of David sorrowfully repeated them to the tombs of the kings of Juda.
The next day, the faithful brought, with holy profusion, the most precious perfumes and the finest stuffs for the burial of the Queen of Virgins. She was embalmed, according to the custom of her people, but her blessed remains exhaled an odour sweeter than the perfumed bandages in which they enveloped her. The funeral preparations being finished, they placed the Mother of God upon a portable litter full of aromatic ingredients: 6 they covered her with a sumptuous veil, and the apostles bore her upon their shoulders into the valley of Josaphat. 7 The Christians of Jerusalem, carrying lighted torches, and singing hymns and psalms, followed the funeral of Mary with sad and downcast looks.
Arrived at the place of sepulture, the mournful procession stopped. By the care of the holy women of Jerusalem, the tomb was deprived of its unpleasant aspect, and the sepulchral cave appeared only like a cradle of flowers. 8 There the apostles gently laid Mary, and as they laid her down, they wept. Of all the panegyrics pronounced on this circumstance, that of Hierothus was the most remarkable. St. Dionysius the Areopagite, who describes this scene as an eye-witness, relates that in praising the Virgin, the orator was almost out of himself. 9
For three days the apostles and the faithful watched and prayed near the tomb, where sacred concerts of angels seemed to enchant the last sleep of Mary . 10
An apostle, returned from a far distant country, and who had not been present at the death of the Virgin, arrived in the meantime : it was Thomas, he who had put his hand to the wounds of his Master risen from the dead. He hastened to take a last look, and to water with his tears the cold remains of the privileged woman who had borne in her chaste * womb the sovereign Master of nature. Overcome by his entreaties and his tears, the apostles removed that piece of stone which closed the entrance of the sepulchre ; but they found nothing but the flowers, scarcely faded, upon which the corpse of Mary had rested, and her white winding-sheet of fine linen from Egypt, which diffused a celestial odour. The most pure body of the immaculate Virgin was not the destined prey of the worms of the coffin: during her life, earth and heaven equally had part in that admirable creature; after her death, heaven had taken all, and glorified all. 11
1 St. Denis, an eye-witness of the death of the Blessed Virgin, affirms that at that advanced period of her life she was still wonderfully beautiful.
2 Jesus Christ stooped a little, and this made him appear something shorter; his countenance was very much like that of his mother, particularly in the lower part of it.—(Nic, Hist. Eccl., tip. 125.)
3 St. John Damascene.
4 Some of the ancient fathers, and among others St. Epiphanins, seem to doubt whether the Mother of God really died, or whether she has remained immortal, having been taken up body and soul into heaven; but the sentiment of the Church is that she really died according to the condition of the body, and the Church plainly declares this in the prayer of the mass on the day of the Assumption. —The Blessed Virgin died in the night before the 15th of August. The year of her death is very uncertain. Eusebius fixes it in the year 48 of our era; thus, according to him, Mary would have.lived sixty-eight years; but Nicephorus (lib. xi. c. 21) formally says that she ended her days in the year 5 of the reign of Claudius, that is, in the year 798 of Rome, or 45 of the common era. Then, supposing that the Blessed Virgin was sixteen years old when our Saviour came into the world, she would have lived sixty-one years. Hippolytus of Thebes assures us in his chronicle that the Blessed Virgin gave birth to our Saviour at the age of sixteen, and died eleven years after Jesus Christ. According to the authors of the Art de verifier les Dates, the Virgin died at the age of sixty-six.
5 " All the heavenly host," says St. Jerom, " came to meet the Mother of God with praises and canticles, and surrounded her with a light of intense brilliancy, and conducted her to the throne. ' Militiam ccelorum, cum suis agminibus, festive obviam venisse Genitrici Dei cum laudibus et canticis, eamque ingenti lumine circumfulsisse et usque ad tronum perdusdsse.' "
6 The coffins among the Jews in the time of Mary, were a sort of litter, made so that the body could be easily carried; this litter was filled with aromatical herbs. Josephus, describing the interment of Herod the Great, says that his litter was ornamented with precious stones, that his body reposed upon purple, that he had the diadem on his head, and that all his household followed his litter.
7 Metaphrastes affirms that the apostles bore the Virgin to the tomb on their shoulders.
8 Greg. Tut., lib. i. de Gl., c. 4.
9 Books of the Divine Names, c iii. These books of St. Dionysius, the Areopagite, have been rejected by Protestants; but they are no less authorised by an infinity of testimonies of the most ancient Fathers and Doctors of the Church, by the third ecumenical council of Constantinople, and also by others.
10 Juvenal, Patriarch of Jerusalem, who lived in the fifth century, writing to the Emperor Marcian and the Empress Pulcheria, says that the apostles, relieving one another, spent the day and night with the faithful at the tomb, mingling their canticles with those of the angels, who, for three days, ceased not to make the most heavenly harmony heard by them.
11 A very judicious remark of Godescard comes in support of the Assumption: it is that "neither the Latins, nor even the Greeks, so greedy after novelties, and so easily persuaded in the matter of relics, histories, and legends—no people, in a word, no city, no church, has ever boasted of possessing the mortal remains of the Blessed Virgin, nor any portion of her body. Thus, without prescribing the belief of the corporal assumption of Mary into heaven, the church sufficiently gives us to understand the opinion to which she inclines."—(Godescard, t xiv. p. 449.)