Did Mary die?
As Catholics, we believe as a matter of dogma that the Virgin Mary was conceived without Original Sin and that she was taken to heaven body and soul. We celebrate the former on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. We celebrate the latter on the Feast of the Assumption (which is today). But the question is whether or not Mary died before she was assumed to paradise? When the dogma of the Assumption was promulgated by Pope Pius XII, he stated “that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” (Munificentissimus Deus). But notice that he does not specifically use the words “death” or “died.”
So what do we as Catholics believe?
There is a long tradition, especially held by the Eastern Orthodox Church, of a memorial called the Dormition. This Dormition refers to the belief that Mary experienced death and then was resurrected like Christ before being her assumption. It is called the “Dormition,” because Mary’s death is looked as a brief sleep that she enters into before waking to eternal life.
The main argument against the Dormition is that death is an effect of Original Sin. Before the Fall of Man, death was not a part of humanity’s essential nature. That isn’t to say that human beings could not be killed, but the “natural” corruption of our bodies by age and deterioration was not something in our original parents before they sinned. Mary is free from that Original Sin and she is also completely sinless her entire life. If sin did not enter into her life, how could death touch her?
To this objection, you need only remind the objector that Christ too was without Original Sin. In fact, the only reason that Mary was Immaculately Conceived was so that the Body of Christ would also be free from that metaphysical stain. And yet, Christ endured death on the cross and entered into death. He did this by His own will. He allowed death to take Him even though He did not need to have the same relationship to death that we, His fallen creatures, experience.
In the same way, Mary experiences death. There is a powerful scene in The Passion of the Christ where Mary goes to her Son on the cross and asks Him to allow her to die with Him. This moment is not found in the Gospels, but it is there to demonstrate the immense love that she had for Jesus. In our own lives, we know what that is like. Sometimes we love someone so much that we even want to be with them in their suffering. Since St. Francis of Assisi, we have had Catholic saints who have experienced the stigmata: the 5 founds of Christ from His hands, feet, and side. The stigmata is not a punishment. Instead, it is a sign of the saint’s devotion. In the case of St. Francis, he loved Jesus so much that he wanted to be united to Him in every way, even to the point of experiencing His pain. While Mary was not a stigmatist, we know that her love for her Son was unfathomably powerful. It would make sense that she would follow Him into experiencing death.
This tradition of the Dormition is found throughout the writings of the Church Fathers, which gives it a high level of credibility. To disbelieve in the Dormition would be to contradict centuries of Catholic tradition. In the Apostolic Constitution where Pius XII declared the dogma of the Assumption, he makes reference to the death of Mary several times and often quotes the Church fathers on this point. The confusion seems to come from the fact that, as stated earlier, the line that declares the dogma does contain the word death, but refers that her life was “completed.”
For that reason it could be argued that the Dormition is not a part of that extraordinarily infallible Ex Cathedra teaching of the Assumption. But it seems to be a consistent teaching of the ordinary magisterium. And all the evidence points to the fact that Mary died before she was raised up.
And this should give us comfort. When we pray to the Blessed Virgin, she not only experienced the death of her Son, but she also entered into that mystery. We ask her to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” And this “hour of death” is not something alien to her. She walked ahead of us through the gates of death. And she shows us the light at the end of that tunnel. She reminds us that death is not our end. On the last day, we will be raised up in a glorified body like her and her Son.
The Dormition reminds us that Mary walks with us into the deepest darkness and remains with us when we rise in glory!
Copyright 2022, WL Grayson