Death of Mary

Q: What about Mary's death?

A: The dogma of the Assumption has a narrow scope. It defines that Mary "was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory" (Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus (1950); DS 3903; LG 59; cf. Rev. 19:16). She was exalted by the Lord "as Queen over all things" in the sense that she "might be the more fully conformed to her Son" who is lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death. She shares in the glory of her son; she is also the "eschatological icon" anticipating the resurrection of all members of Christ's body. And as Paul VI says: "We believe that the Holy Mother of God, the new Eve, Mother of the Church, continues in Heaven to exercise her maternal role on behalf of the members of Christ" (Paul VI, Solemn profession of Faith, June 30, 1968, #15). These are the various elements of the dogma of the Assumption and some of its doctrinal consequences.

Concerning Mary's death the dogma is non-committal. It says only: "when the course of her earthly life was completed." This somewhat evasive formulation points to two things: (1) At the time of the discussions and subsequent definition there was no unanimity regarding the end of Mary's life. Due largely to M. Jugie's expertise and influence, the question of Mary's death was therefore removed from the scope of the dogma. The dogma does not say that she died, and Vatican II adopted the same position (LG 59). A considerable literature on this issue grew up between 1950 and 1964, but very little has appeared since the Council. (2) It did not seem possible to establish a solid historical tradition favoring either Mary's death or her immortality. Evidence from Scripture does not exist, and the Fathers have little to say about this theme. Gregory of Nyssa and Epiphanius are both inconclusive. Timothy of Jerusalem (ca. fifth-eighth centuries), on the other hand, was explicit: "...the virgin is immortal...he who dwelt in her transported her to the regions of her assumption" (PG 86, 245C).

During the following centuries the death of Mary was taken for granted. Ideas favoring her immortality emerged only as reflection on the Immaculate Conception progressed. Nonetheless, we know of only few positive opinions on her immortality in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The situation changed after the declaration of 1854 and voices in favor of her immortality became more numerous after the dogmatization of the assumption (for example, Gallus, Roschini). Others, like Balic, opposed the immortality thesis. Recent excavations at the site of the Gethsemani Church in Jerusalem seem to corroborate the presence of a chamber hewn in the rock traditionally called Mary's tomb (Bagatti, 1972). More recent attempts to explain Mary's assumption with the help of the theory of the so-called "intermediary eschatology," and its refutation, take as their point of departure the actual death of Mary.

As it stands now, both opinions are acceptable and accepted: Mary's death, resurrection and glorification as well as glorification at the end of her life without death. However, the majority of theologians seem to admit Mary's death. Pros and cons are based on the following lines of argumentation:

1) The immortality of Mary is derived from the meaning of Mary's privilege of the Immaculate Conception. She is sinless in a sinful world, thus exempted from certain effects of sin. Would therefore the exemption from death not be logical?

2) The death of Mary seems equally logical for those who insist on her perfect Christoformity. Mary was Christ's first disciple and perfect associate. She participated in a real but subordinate role in his salvific work. Would therefore the participation in his death through her own death not be logical?

Contemporary Marian studies seem to favor the latter position. Vatican II presented us with a figure of Mary akin to that of the early centuries of Christianity: closely related to the Church, its eminent member and model, and pilgrim of faith. She is highlighted as faithful follower of Christ and our sister. If the incarnation sets her apart to warrant the divine origin of our redeemer (through her Immaculate Conception), her participation in Christ's work draws her into his suffering and death (through her death) to express its fully human realization.

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