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!