Did the Virgin Mary Die?

Artistic Depictions of the Dormition and Assumption of Mary, from the Tomb of Mary in Jerusalem
Artistic Depictions of the Dormition and Assumption of Mary, from the Tomb of Mary in Jerusalem

I spent the last half of January in the Holy Land on a pilgrimage with my new employer, Holy Family School of Faith. (For those not in the know, I discerned out of seminary last year, and began working in January for School of Faith, which provides Catholic catechesis and mentoring). One of the spots at which we prayed was the Tomb of Mary, depicted above.

After her death, the Apostles brought Mary’s body here, and it is from here that she was assumed into Heaven, leaving behind an empty tomb, courtesy of her Resurrected and Ascended Son. St. John Damascene, in the 7th century, said of this place that her empty tomb is a resting place for us:

She, who brought about the Word’s divine Incarnation, rests in her glorious tomb as in a bridal-chamber, whence she goes to the heavenly bridals, to share in the kingdom of her Son and God, leaving her tomb as a place of rest for those on earth. Is her tomb indeed a resting-place? Yes, more famous than any other, not shining with gold, or silver, or precious stones, nor covered with silken, golden, or purple adornments, but with the divine radiance of the Holy Spirit.

While we were there, the Greeks and Copts were celebrating Divine Liturgies simultaneously in front of her tomb, after which the Catholics and a couple of Muslims went in to pray by her empty tomb. It was fascinating, but it also reminded me that many people (including Catholics!) think that the Catholic Church teaches that Mary never died. That’s not the case. As Pope St. John Paul II pointed out,

Some theologians have in fact maintained that the Blessed Virgin did not die and and was immediately raised from earthly life to heavenly glory. However, this opinion was unknown until the 17th century, whereas a common tradition actually exists which sees Mary’s death as her entry into heavenly glory.

Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Munificentissimus Deus, which infallibly defines Mary’s Assumption, doesn’t shy away from the fact that Mary died before being assumed into Heaven. Pius makes this point by quoting from both Western and Eastern liturgies:

17. In the liturgical books which deal with the feast either of the dormition or of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin there are expressions that agree in testifying that, when the Virgin Mother of God passed from this earthly exile to heaven, what happened to her sacred body was, by the decree of divine Providence, in keeping with the dignity of the Mother of the Word Incarnate, and with the other privileges she had been accorded. Thus, to cite an illustrious example, this is set forth in that sacramentary which Adrian I, our predecessor of immortal memory, sent to the Emperor Charlemagne. These words are found in this volume: “Venerable to us, O Lord, is the festivity of this day on which the holy Mother of God suffered temporal death, but still could not be kept down by the bonds of death, who has begotten your Son our Lord incarnate from herself.”(11)

18. What is here indicated in that sobriety characteristic of the Roman liturgy is presented more clearly and completely in other ancient liturgical books. To take one as an example, the Gallican sacramentary designates this privilege of Mary’s as “an ineffable mystery all the more worthy of praise as the Virgin’s Assumption is something unique among men.” And, in the Byzantine liturgy, not only is the Virgin Mary’s bodily Assumption connected time and time again with the dignity of the Mother of God, but also with the other privileges, and in particular with the virginal motherhood granted her by a singular decree of God’s Providence. “God, the King of the universe, has granted you favors that surpass nature. As he kept you a virgin in childbirth, thus he has kept your body incorrupt in the tomb and has glorified it by his divine act of transferring it from the tomb.”(12)

Pope Adrian I, who Pius cites in the encyclical, was pope from 772-795, so the idea that Mary died before being assumed isn’t some modern invention. And we find this belief resounding throughout the ages, as Pius goes on to note:

35. In like manner St. Francis de Sales, after asserting that it is wrong to doubt that Jesus Christ has himself observed, in the most perfect way, the divine commandment by which children are ordered to honor their parents, asks this question: “What son would not bring his mother back to life and would not bring her into paradise after her death if he could?”(38) And St. Alphonsus writes that “Jesus did not wish to have the body of Mary corrupted after death, since it would have redounded to his own dishonor to have her virginal flesh, from which he himself had assumed flesh, reduced to dust.”(39)

Of course, given the purpose of the encyclical, the focus isn’t on the fact that Mary died, but on what happened next… that her Divine Son assumed her bodily into Heaven, reuniting body and soul in heavenly bliss.

But we might still ask, why should Mary have to die? After all, she was free of original sin, and death is part of the curse of Adam (Genesis 3:19; Romans 5:12). Why didn’t the same God who preserved Mary from original sin preserve her from death? Pope St. John Paul II addressed this question in a General Audience from 1997:

3. It is true that in Revelation death is presented as a punishment for sin. However, the fact that the Church proclaims Mary free from original sin by a unique divine privilege does not lead to the conclusion that she also received physical immortality. The Mother is not superior to the Son who underwent death, giving it a new meaning and changing it into a means of salvation.

Here, I think it’s helpful to connect Mary’s death with her earlier purification in the Temple. In Luke 2:22-24, we find Joseph and Mary presenting Jesus in the Temple, and offering a sacrifice of two turtledoves for Mary’s purification. This event is celebrated on February 2, which called both the Feast of the Presentation and the Purification of Mary. But this has led to some confusion: why was Mary being “purified,” if she’s without sin? Because ritual impurity isn’t the same thing as sin, as Jesus explained to the Pharisees (Mark 7:1-23).

But what’s striking is that this offering is only made by a woman who has “received seed” (Leviticus 12:2) which Luke has already informed us Mary hasn’t, because of the Virgin Birth (Luke 1:34-35). In other words, Mary was free of the strictures of the Law, but like her Son would later do, nevertheless submitted to the Law:

Mary, God’s blessed mother and a perpetual virgin, was, along with the Son she bore, most free from all subjection to the law. The law says that a woman who “had received seed” [Lev 12:2] and given birth was to be judged unclean and that after a long period she, along with the offspring she had borne, were to be cleansed by victims offered to God. So it is evident that the law does not describe as unclean that woman who, without receiving man’s seed, gave birth as a virgin. Nor does it teach that she had to be cleansed by saving sacrificial offerings. But as our Lord and Savior, who in His divinity was the one who gave the law, when He appeared as a human being, willed to be under the law…. So too His blessed mother, who by a singular privilege was above the law, nevertheless did not shun being made subject to the principles of the law for the sake of showing us an example of humility.

So even though Mary was conceivably exempt from this purification, she nevertheless submitted to it. It was the same sort of humility practiced by her Son throughout His earthly life (for example, in paying the Temple tax in Matthew 17:24-27) and supremely in His voluntarily Death. How fitting, therefore, that the Virgin Mary’s death should echo that of her Son!

21 Comments

  1. Joe,
    I’m sadly surprised and anguished about the discernment. The new picture did provide some clue.

    Also, Scripture suggests that the tradition of Mary’s ‘sleeping’ (as in Lazarus’ sleeping) was death. The deaths of all–Mary, Lazarus, Jesus–reiterate that only One has power over it. Without Him, we are most certainly bereft orphans.

    Best to you, brother Joe.

    1. Me too, Margo. Nonetheless, I wish Joe all the best as he turns onto a new path to God. I will pray that he will continue to discern God’s will for him and be guided by the Holy Spirit in all his ways.

      1. After reviewing the link that Joe provided for the ‘School of Faith’, I can see that it is an incredible institution, and looks like a very good place for him to put to good use his obvious talent for teaching catechetics.

  2. Hi Joe,

    As a man who wanted ardently in my younger years to be a Franciscan Friar but was rejected by the OFM, I can now easily understand as an ‘after thought’ analysis, that my true vocation was to be married. And yet, surprisingly, I first encountered and conversed with the wife that I need up marrying…on Oct. 3rd, which coincidentally happened to be the feast of St. Francis’ death. I also had a the time, 15,000 copies of selections from St. Boneventures “Life of St. Francis” in my garage that I was re-publishing, which I printed on a small Hamada 600 off-set press that I had in those days. So, regarding this, we might reiterate the old saying… “The Lord works in mysterious ways”. One thing is certain though, and that is that a true ‘servant of God’ will always blaze a trail towards Him, even if it zigs and zags in different directions while doing so; and every experience given by God on our way can work out for not only our own benefit, but also for many others as well. A true servant of God never stops searching, following and seeking what is the best way to advance the cause of the Christ’s holy Gospel. And, as Jesus said “I come to spread fire on the Earth, and what will I but that but that it spread”, so too, this should be the goal of every Christian, and all such servants should proceed in their lives accordingly towards this end.

    So, what ever the vocation you , or anyone, chooses, if we keep our eyes on spreading Christ’s true gospel, I think we can never go wrong. And with a genius like you, the opportunities to do this are almost endless. Moreover, in my experience, he laity today have tremendous opportunities towards these goals that even religious and priests might not have. The laity can be are like creative entrepreneurs who can take many risks and chances, which many religious and priests might not be permitted to pursue. They can often be inventors of holy projects and evangelical endeavors, like you were when you founded this exceedingly excellent blog. So, if bringing people towards the Kingdom of God is our only major focus, no matter what vocation we have we will always succeed. Our only ultimate concern should be that we be capable and successful ‘fishers of men’, as Jesus our Master wishes us to be.

    Best to you in whatever vocation you choose. I just pray that you never stop using your (obvious) genius for the sake of Christ’s Holy Kingdom….which I highly doubt that you will ever stop doing. So, keep up the great work that you doing for the Lord’s Kingdom!

    …On the topic of Marys death, I generally accept the ancient tradition found in the ‘Protoevanglium of St. James’. But I think any such speculation is merely pius recreation, and not necessary for promoting Christ’s Gospel message.

    – Al Williams ….(The least capable of the commenters here…as you all pretty much know by now).

    1. Dear Mr. Williams,
      You are NOT the least capable. You are very knowledgeable, very devout, very generous with your time and prayer and knowledge, and you have been wonderfully personable and KIND to all, even toward those with whom you take strong issue. We are all lucky to have you.

      That said, for Joe, and I bet he’s heard these type stories over and over, I’ll share my personal story. I’m not a young woman. I was once engaged to a charming man but before the wedding, I was shown a few heartbreaking negative aspects of his character. I broke the engagement. It was not easy. People would say, “It’s best you break now rather than later.” And over the years, I came to realize that was SO true.

      On the other hand, I was once invited to enter into deeper community with a group of contemplative Carmelites. I loved those ladies and had so many meaningful experiences in their midst. But I remember the value I placed upon a beautiful cut crystal on the face of a supreme piece of machinery called a Swiss watch. The band holding it upon my wrist was a delicate, black twist of ribbon and bound by solid gold. How I valued the look of that thing! At that time, the thought of giving that up horribly bothered me. I said no.

      Today, after a decent marriage and family, I’d honestly say I wish I could go back and do it all over again. For what it’s worth, that’s my experience. The final word I give from all that: God LOVES US ALL IMMENSELY, WILDLY, AND BEYOND OUT STRANGEST KNOWING, and He shall never stop doing so. Thank Him, Praise Him, Love Him in return.

      1. You are a wise woman, Margo.

        May God continue to bless you and your family in your devout service to Him and His glorious Kingdom, now and forever. And may He do the same for Joe and all others associated and encountered on this site here.

        Best to all in the Lord.

    2. “On the topic of Marys death, I generally accept the ancient tradition found in the ‘Protoevanglium of St. James’.”

      What tradition about her death is that? All I have read in it is 1. The Story of her birth, 2. The story of her presentation at the Temple and marriage to Joseph, 3. A retelling of the birth of Christ, and 4. the connection of the martyr Zechariah Jesus mentions with His cousin.

      1. Anthony, you are right, I was mistaken in my source.

        What I thought came from the ‘Protoevangelium’ was actually from a fourth-century document called “The Account of St. John the Theologian of the Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God.” I mistakenly mixed them together because they are so similar in style. This account from the “Falling Asleep” was used in the early Eastern Church for the 6th century AD celebration of the ‘Feast of the Assumption’, where it was known back then as the “Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos”.

        As said, I just accept it on very general terms as ancient pius literature.

        Here is a link to it from New Advent:

        http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0832.htm

  3. Joe – I empathize with you.

    My son discerned out after two years, but mostly due to health issues that would interfere with his ability effectively to be a priest. It was a tough decision. God is leading you both to other callings and places in His service. My son is now K-5 RE director for a large parish and is shaking up the whole RE program with what he learned at Mount St. Mary’s.

    And our parish vocations have picked up bigly this year, so it seems God opens a door for every one He closes.

    1. Great news about your son AK! I think the main goal for all of us is to keep busy spreading the ‘fire’ that Jesus said He wants ‘kindled’. Laziness and fear of communicating the faith to others is the big problem, because those who actually have the true faith, often times out of fear, only want to keep it to themselves. They thereby deprive many who are ignorant of the holy faith the chance to be inflamed with Christ’s truth and love. St. Paul was not ashamed to call himself a ‘fool’ for Christ. And because of this great zeal, nothing stopped him from spreading the Gospel all over the ancient Roman world back then. And where his zealous preaching couldn’t reach, his zealous writings could. So, this is a lesson for Catholics to never stop trying, never stop strategizing on how to be better ‘fishermen of men’. It’s an endless task, and many would say…a task only for fools; but one that Jesus teaches will bear fruit for all eternity.

      Best to you.

      1. Awlms – thank you my friend.

        Yes, my son is living a dream for any parent, to have the life one would have wished for oneself. He starts at the Augustine Institute this fall for his MA in theology. To be that deeply immersed in the Word and the Fullness of Truth, with the purpose of spreading same – think globally, evangelize locally – and they’re paying him to do it all!

        God is indeed great….

      1. It’s actually Latin. It indicates a high quality situation. The superlative, biglissimus, will apply when we double this year’s number ;).

        1. Funny you should mention it, AK! Google translates this Latin word into English as the exact same word! Merriam Webster says:

          Did he really say bigly? Is bigly even a word?

          Donald Trump actually said big league and not bigly during the September 26 debate, as linguists were able to demonstrate with spectrogram analysis and evidence of Trump’s frequent use of big league as an adverb, as in: “I’m going to cut taxes big league.”

          Since English speakers expect many adverbs to end in -ly, it’s easy to understand the confusion. It’s also true that we only give definitions for big league as a noun and adjective in the dictionary. Bigly is indeed a real word, but it is rarely seen (or heard). All of which means that bigly stands out as the most looked-up word that was never actually used in 2016.

          https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/word-of-the-year-2016/bigly

          I say: I’m sorry to hear about your son’s health issues. As you say, God will show another way just as good if not better, or the biglissimus best.

          1. Is covfefe Latin as well? Cofeviffisimus?

            There’s a more recent expression I think I’ll pass on discussing here (guffaw).

            Yes, sadly Crohn’s Disease is a hard life companion, and both of my boys are so accompanied.

          2. AK,
            That word derives from lack of keyboard skill together with insomnia aided by haste. Don’t know if that translates to Latin! Perhaps it originates from our prior president Bush: “Please do not misunderestimate me.”

            Happy St. Valentine’s Day! 🙂

  4. Our Blessed Mother died as we all will die. Here is an excerpt about Her death from an absolutely incredible book about Her life and more. I have read it.

    740. The most prudent Mother prostrated Herself at the feet of her Son and with a joyous countenance answered: “My Son and my Lord, I beseech Thee let thy mother and thy servant enter into eternal life by the common portal of natural death, like the other children of Adam. Thou, who art my true God, hast suffered death without being obliged to do so; it is proper that, as I have followed Thee in life, so I follow Thee also in death.”

    Venerable Mary of Agreda. The Mystical City of God: Complete Edition: The Divine History and Life of the Virgin Mother of God (Kindle Locations 33773-33776). Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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