CHAPTER XIII MARY'S
DEATH AND GLORIOUS ASSUMPTION
Mother of Christ, and all men's Mother,
Where thou sittest the stars between,
Pluck His Robe for His toiling brother,
Stricken with sin.
Yea, the strong desire of His Passion ;
Yea, the fruit of His mortal pain—
Intercede for thy mournful nation,
Mother of men,
Intercede for thy mournful nation,
Toiling, stricken, seething beneath—
Yea, the strong desire of His Passion,
Bought with His Death.
IN the early ages of Christianity we find a certain disinclination to believe that Mary had really died. Death, as we know it, is the punishment of sin, and Mary had not sinned. St. Epiphanius, arguing against heretics who denied our Lady's perpetual Virginity, observed that we read nowhere in Holy Scripture of Mary's death, and that, since he refused to deny to the Mother of God any privilege that had ever been granted to any Saint, he thought that it well might be that, like Elias, she had not died. (Haer., Ixxix. 5.) This feeling was strengthened by another opinion that was also common, that death had not been allowed to overtake the beloved Disciple of whom Jesus had said to Peter: " If I will that this man stay, what is it to thee?"
It is, however, now held amongst Catholics to be certain that both our Lady and St. John really died, as Elias must one day die. The words of the Gospel: " But Jesus did not say to him that he should not die," (John xxi. 23.) ought to have obviated the misunderstanding with regard to the Apostle; and in our Lady's death there was no dishonour. It is not the sleep of death—the temporary separation of soul from body—that is incompatible with sinlessness—for such a separation was permitted even in the case of Christ—but the corruption of the constituent elements of the body, which in sinners follows death. This corruption was impossible, as is evident, in the case either of Christ or of His Mother. Still both Jesus and Mary really died.
Theologians are accustomed to assign three reasons which made the death of Mary seemly, if not absolutely necessary.
1. As Bossuet has written in one of his famous sermons on the Assumption :
"Nature and grace are in accord as to the necessity of death for all. To die is to pay the debt to nature which every mortal owes. 1 Nor has grace exempted any from this necessity. On this account, when the Son of God determined to destroy death itself, He laid down the law that to escape death all must pass through death's hands, that to be born anew all must enter the tomb, and that to be stripped of mortality all must die once. Therefore, this solemn Feast [of the Assumption] must have its beginning in the death of the Holy Virgin. It is a necessary part of the triumph of our Queen that she should leave in the hands of death —even in his bosom— all that she had of mortality." 2
2. It is a general principle that in all things, where possible, our Lady was conformed to the Image of her Son. Had our Lord exempted His Mother from the law of death, He would have deprived her of a point of likeness to Himself, which surely she cherished dearly. As, then, Jesus died, Mary would also die. In her death, as in her life, she was made like to her Son, surrendering herself to the Will of God, committing her soul into her Father's Hands.
3. It is well for us that our sinless Mother should have died. Her death gives her a new claim to protect us when we come to die. She teaches us not to fear death, if with her we may learn to love Jesus Christ our Lord, in whose Death is our only hope for Life Eternal. " Holy Mary," we may say to her, "thou who didst die once, pray for us who have still to die." The thought of Mary's death gives us courage and devotion—it infuses a new element of confidence in the most familiar of all our petitions to Heaven's Queen: " Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, Amen."
Maria, Mater Gratiae,
dulcis Parens Clementiae,
tu nos ab hoste protege,
et hora mortis suscipe.
Let me quote Bossuet again on this subject. In his first sermon on the Assumption he speaks most beautifully on the power of love, especially of the love of desire for the " mystery of unity after which all souls sigh in their exile, as they weep by the waters of Babylon when they remember Sion — a mystery of unity which grows day by day until it is consummated in that Peace which is God Himself." In his second sermon on the same Feast we find these words:
"If you will believe what I say, you will not exercise your minds, searching for any other cause of Mary's death. Her love was so ardent, so strong, so burning, that it did not cause her to draw one single breath which ought not to have broken all the bonds of her mortal body ; it did not form in her one regret which ought not to have troubled all the harmony of her being ; it did not send her one desire for heaven which ought not to have drawn with it Mary's soul. Oh, Christians, I have said to you that Mary's death is miraculous, now I change my mode of speech. I prefer to say that it was not her death which was the miracle. Rather her death caused the miracle to cease. The continual miracle was this, that Mary could live, separated from her well-beloved. But shall I be able to explain to you how it was that this miracle ended, and how it came to pass that at last Love slew its victim ? Was it some desire more inflamed than the rest, some movement more vigorous, some transport of love more violent that released her soul ? If I may be allowed to express my thought, I attribute the Holy Virgin's death not to any impulses other than those which were habitual to her, but rather only to the perfection of her love. . . . As the lightest shake of the bough will suffice to set free the fruit which is already ripe, as the flame will rise of itself and fly towards its centre—even so the Virgin Mother of God died through an impulse of divine love and her soul was borne to Heaven on a cloud of holy longings. This it was which made the angels cry aloud: 'Quae est ista, quae ascendit, sicut virgula fumi, ex aromatibus myrrhae et thuris ?' " (Cant. III. 6.)
1 Every mortal owes this debt in virtue of natural generation from Adam. The Immortal, whose Human Birth was supernatural, could not be included in the Universal Law.
2 Second Sermon on the Assumption.