The Immaculate Misconception

Friday, January 13, 2012

Does the Roman Catholic Church really teach that Mary did not taste death?

I grew up as a Roman Catholic before taking my faith Eastward.  I was taught about the dogma of the Assumption, and that Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven.  It's one of the basic beliefs of every Catholic, East and West.

But upon my journey East, I came upon the 12 Great Feasts. One of them is the Great Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (for readers not familiar with Eastern theology, Theotokos is Mary's title and is how she is addressed by Eastern Christians.  The same way Christ is a title that eventually used as a proper name for Jesus because he is the one and only Messiah, Mary is referred to as the Theotokos which is Greek for "the one who bore God" or "God-bearer".  Loosely, it is also translated as "The Mother of God").  Now the Dormition is an interesting feast for a Roman Catholic to come upon on.  It is celebrated on August 15, which is the same day the Assumption is celebrated.  And the reason for that is that they are the same feast, we celebrate the Assumption of the Thetokos into heaven.  But the interesting part is that the Dormition does not merely celebrate the Assumption, but the entire translation of Mary from this life to the next.  Part and parcel of the tradition is that she died, was burried, resurrected by Christ on the third day and immediately assumed into heaven.  The tradition tells that the Apostles, who at that time have already been at different parts of the world preaching and establishing the early Churches, were miraculously transported to the bedside of Mary.  Instead of the usual death that every man and woman faces which is a violent separation of body and soul, believed to be painful, she had a light falling asleep.  Thus the term Dormition.

Now, many Roman Catholics today contend that Mary did not taste death.  She was assumed into heaven body and soul before she died, some say the very moment before.  Is this true?  And is this what the Roman Catholic Church teaches?  Why is there conflict between the traditions of East and West?  Is one right and the other is wrong?

One contention most Roman Catholics who want to come off respectful to Eastern traditions will say is that the death of Mary is a minor tradition of the East, something that is not "de fide" or required belief.  While the East does not dogmatize everything in Papal documents like the West, one proof that this is not a minor tradition, thus meaning "optional" belief, is the Troparion and Kontakion for Divine Liturgy on the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos.

In giving birth you retained your virginity, in falling asleep you did not abandon the world, O Mother of God.
You passed into life, for you are the Mother of Life, and by your prayers you deliver our souls from death.

The tomb and death could not hold the Mother of God, unceasing in her intercession and unfailing hope of patronage,
for as the Mother of Life, she was transferred to life by Him Who had dwelt in her ever virgin womb.

The highlights are mine.  Clearly during the Divine Liturgy we pray and profess to the belief that Mary did die.  Lex orandi, lex credendi.  The law of prayer is the law of belief.  What we pray in our Liturgies is what we (should) believe in.  Its not optional belief, its not minor "t" tradition that people may or may not believe in if they want to.  Imagine if its optional and one would pray the Troparion and Kontakion on August 15, isn't that person lying during Liturgy?

Now, in relation to Roman Catholicism, does the Roman Catholic Church teach that Mary did not die?  Some would say that is the teaching, others say that we do not know and people are free to believe either she died or not.  Lets look at what the CCC says:

CCC 974 The Most Blessed Virgin Mary, when the course of her earthly life was completed, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven, where she already shares in the glory of her Son's Resurrection, anticipating the resurrection of all members of his Body.

The CCC uses the phrase "when her earthly life was completed" which seems like an open ended statement.  One can validly contend that death followed immediately after the completion of one's life, and taking this phrase alone would suggest that she ether did not taste death, or that one is being careful in the wording so as not to suggest death while being completely open to that possibility.

So thats it?  Case closed?  Hold on a minute.  The best place to check what the dogma says is to read the Apostolic Constitution itself that dogmatically defined the Assumption (for those unfamiliar with dogmatic definitions, its not the creation of new belief but formalizing what the belief is so that there is no more disagreements or any contrary points to the belief.)  The document MUNIFICENTISSIMUS DEUS can be found here in the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus which proclaimed the Dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

On paragraph 17, we read that:

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."

Clearly here we see two instances mentioning Mary's passing from this world, with the second one clearly stating that Mary suffered temporal death.  Lets look at paragraph 20:

20. However, since the liturgy of the Church does not engender the Catholic faith, but rather springs from it, in such a way that the practices of the sacred worship proceed from the faith as the fruit comes from the tree, it follows that the holy Fathers and the great Doctors, in the homilies and sermons they gave the people on this feast day, did not draw their teaching from the feast itself as from a primary source, but rather they spoke of this doctrine as something already known and accepted by Christ's faithful. They presented it more clearly. They offered more profound explanations of its meaning and nature, bringing out into sharper light the fact that this feast shows, not only that the dead body of the Blessed Virgin Mary remained incorrupt, but that she gained a triumph out of death, her heavenly glorification after the example of her only begotten Son, Jesus Christ-truths that the liturgical books had frequently touched upon concisely and briefly.

Here we see that the document is already discussing the fact of the incorruptibility of the dead body of the Theotokos.  And further of course that she was granted a triumph out of death, which is the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection that eventually all of us will receive at the end of time.  The privilege granted to her is that her body did not suffer corruption (or decomposition) but that she was resurrected before that happened.  We all will suffer through bodily corruption before being restored on the last day.  Further on paragraph 21:

21. Thus St. John Damascene, an outstanding herald of this traditional truth, spoke out with powerful eloquence when he compared the bodily Assumption of the loving Mother of God with her other prerogatives and privileges. "It was fitting that she, who had kept her virginity intact in childbirth, should keep her own body free from all corruption even after death. It was fitting that she, who had carried the Creator as a child at her breast, should dwell in the divine tabernacles. It was fitting that the spouse, whom the Father had taken to himself, should live in the divine mansions. It was fitting that she, who had seen her Son upon the cross and who had thereby received into her heart the sword of sorrow which she had escaped in the act of giving birth to him, should look upon him as he sits with the Father. It was fitting that God's Mother should possess what belongs to her Son, and that she should be honored by every creature as the Mother and as the handmaid of God."

Again, conclusively specifying that Mary did not suffer corruption after death.  Some Roman Catholics would contend that being free from corruption means being free from death, but here we see it says "after death", the corruption pointing to decomposition.  And this is made clear on paragraph 22:

22. These words of St. John Damascene agree perfectly with what others have taught on this same subject. Statements no less clear and accurate are to be found in sermons delivered by Fathers of an earlier time or of the same period, particularly on the occasion of this feast. And so, to cite some other examples, St. Germanus of Constantinople considered the fact that the body of Mary, the virgin Mother of God, was incorrupt and had been taken up into heaven to be in keeping, not only with her divine motherhood, but also with the special holiness of her virginal body. "You are she who, as it is written, appears in beauty, and your virginal body is all holy, all chaste, entirely the dwelling place of God, so that it is henceforth completely exempt from dissolution into dust. Though still human, it is changed into the heavenly life of incorruptibility, truly living and glorious, undamaged and sharing in perfect life." And another very ancient writer asserts: "As the most glorious Mother of Christ, our Savior and God and the giver of life and immortality, has been endowed with life by him, she has received an eternal incorruptibility of the body together with him who has raised her up from the tomb and has taken her up to himself in a way known only to him."

Again very clearly stated that the corruption being talked about is the decomposition of the flesh, which happens to all who died.  Even saints who are incorruptible do suffer from some point of corruption.  Though their bodies are relatively preserved than what would be the normal course for dead bodies in the given time.  They definitely do not look like the day they died.  And by giving Mary the resurrection soon after her death, it was ensured that her body do not suffer even the mildest of corruption.  On paragraph 29, it is explained how and why:

29. Among the holy writers who at that time employed statements and various images and analogies of Sacred Scripture to Illustrate and to confirm the doctrine of the Assumption, which was piously believed, the Evangelical Doctor, St. Anthony of Padua, holds a special place. On the feast day of the Assumption, while explaining the prophet's words: "I will glorify the place of my feet,"(27) he stated it as certain that the divine Redeemer had bedecked with supreme glory his most beloved Mother from whom he had received human flesh. He asserts that "you have here a clear statement that the Blessed Virgin has been assumed in her body, where was the place of the Lord's feet. Hence it is that the holy Psalmist writes: 'Arise, O Lord, into your resting place: you and the ark which you have sanctified."' And he asserts that, just as Jesus Christ has risen from the death over which he triumphed and has ascended to the right hand of the Father, so likewise the ark of his sanctification "has risen up, since on this day the Virgin Mother has been taken up to her heavenly dwelling."

"Since likewise" is a crucial term here because what happened to Mary is compared to what happened to Jesus.  Clearly the belief is like Christ, Mary died, was resurrected by her Son and lifted up to heaven the same way.  "So likewise... has risen up," Christ has risen up in his resurrection.  Mary likewise resurrected.  

Now most of the paragraphs quoted were from Eastern or Early Church teaching when the definition of East and West was still somewhat blurred.  But a more contemporary, definitely Western Saint is quoted on paragraph 35 saying:

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?" 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."

St. Francis de Sales clearly believed and taught that Mary did die.  Otherwise he would not asked that question that way.  Clearly at his time it is what Roman Catholics believe, and what they believed then went into the dogma.  Further on paragraph 40:

40. Hence the revered Mother of God, from all eternity joined in a hidden way with Jesus Christ in one and the same decree of predestination, immaculate in her conception, a most perfect virgin in her divine motherhood, the noble associate of the divine Redeemer who has won a complete triumph over sin and its consequences, finally obtained, as the supreme culmination of her privileges, that she should be preserved free from the corruption of the tomb and that, like her own Son, having overcome death, she might be taken up body and soul to the glory of heaven where, as Queen, she sits in splendor at the right hand of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages.

To overcome something means to experience it and conquer it.  So Mary, overcoming death, means she died and subsequently resurrected.  Further to remove any doubt, its says "like her own Son."  And we know there is only one way Jesus overcame death.  In the Byzantine Rite we sing during Easter, "Christ has risen from the dead, conquering death by death, and to those in the tombs He granted life."

And there you have it!  Conclusive evidence from a Vatican document that the Roman Catholic Church do indeed believe that Mary died prior to being resurrected and immediately assumed into heaven.  To be clear, what the document declares as dogma and "de fide" is Mary's Assumption into heaven.  The part about the death is not what was declared infallibly, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen or that there is an option not to believe it.  Because of the entire event of the Dormition tradition of the East, that is Mary died then was resurrected and assumed into heaven by Christ, is what is the basis of the dogma.

What is the point of all this?  First, its to show that the faith of East and West really is not that different.  We may want to emphasize on things differently, in this case the West just wants to look solely on the Assumption while the East wants to look at the entire event, but what we believe especially the essential things are one and the same.  So stop the polemics between East and West, stop accusing the Eastern Catholics of being "anti-Pope schismatics" because what we believe in is not the same as what is dogmatically defined.  This proves, at least with the Assumption/Dormition, we believe in EXACTLY the same thing.  Second, more importantly, this puts into better perspective what Mary's roles is in our lives.  We have always talked about her being the best example we have in our lives, total submission to God.  And because the end of her life is something that we all can go through as well, she provides us a complete roadmap on how each and everyone of us will enter heaven.  Live life in total submission to God, die a peaceful death, be resurrected by Christ and partake in the Divine Life of God for all eternity.


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