Assumed into Heaven: Sleep Tight, Virgin Mary
It’s late night after the feast day of the Assumption, as in the Virgin Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven, the day of her Dormition, “falling asleep,” dead to the world. Sometime between three and fifteen years after the Resurrection of Christ, the apostles were transported, white-cloud express, from Corinth, Jericho, Kalyan (ancient Bombay)—wherever they were preaching that day, to the place where the Virgin lay dying, in Ephesus or Jerusalem—the sources disagree. Apostle Thomas was late as usual, according to an Eastern-church version of story, three days late. He set out for her grave at Gethsemane so he could say goodbye, only to be surprised by no body in the tomb. But Mary’s grave clothes and the girdle she dropped down from heaven, according to a later tradition, testify to the assumption that she was taken up by God.
Disclaimer: I’m retelling this story according to my self-taught one-day crash course in Assumption—a morning mass devoted to the Blessed Mother at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic church in Birmingham, Alabama, an afternoon of flipping through the three Virgin Mary books at the Homewood Library, an evening of surfing apocryphal and church-vetted sources online. Take my amalgamation of Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions with a grain of blog-cursory salt—and a mustard-seed leap of curiosity.
Where are Enoch and Elijah, the other Biblical characters assumed to be in heaven, since their bodies disappeared from earth? The Scriptures don’t boil heaven down to one place. Shamayim, “heavens” take multiple forms in the Hebrew Bible—from the abode over the earth where birds fly in Genesis, to a realm of celestial lights, to a “Heaven of Heavens” traveled by God and the angels. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul writes of “a man caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows” (2 Corinthians 12:2-4). Though the church fathers didn’t practice midrash on the Scriptures like the rabbinical fathers, they filled in gaps in the gospel stories, caulked and sealed tombs, picked up where Matthew, Mark, Luke and John left off.
The Virgin Mary last appears in Acts, among the apostles in Jerusalem at Pentecost. According to Dormition tradition, Peter, Paul and James were among the pall bearers in the Virgin’s funeral procession to Gethsemane. Suddenly, a circular cloud appeared like a crown over her body, protecting the sleeping Virgin all the way to her grave. When the wailing and weeping subsided towards evening, the apostles closed the tomb with a large stone.
What happened in those three days between the covering of the mouth of the cave where Mary was laid and the discovery of her empty tomb? It’s a matter of Assumption. According to doctrine, the Virgin was taken up to heaven before any corruption of her body. What longing or curiosity does this assumption serve? The vessel of the Immaculate Conception must remain forever pure. She doesn’t decay with the rest of us. No ashes to ashes, dust to dust, for the Mother of God; no sin, no pain. She fell dead asleep without physical distress, anxiety or sorrow, according to Jon M. Sweeney’s account of the life and afterlife of Mary in Strange Heaven.
Wayward pilgrims, playful theologians, outsider icon artists unite. Let us be astonished apostles tonight. Look up, after the sun has long gone down on Assumption Day, after the meteors of the Perseid shower have passed our earthly lines of sight. Look up and see stars still falling through the centers of our dreams, and in their shooting wake, an everlasting after party: Enoch gallivants around the clouds with the Father, Son and Dove. Elijah takes the chariot out for a whirl on the wind. Angels and archangels toast the Northern Lights. Tonight, let’s turn the Virgin’s perpetual sorrow into exuberant laughter, womb-leaping whoops at how fantastically strange it’s all been—from the night Gabriel flew into her window to announce that she would conceive, to the moment her disembodied soul flew into the arms of her resurrected son. Tonight let’s turn the water of her tears into wine—all the last drops from communion chalices fallen on the altars, all those fifth cups of Manischewitz left out on seder tables. To her eternal repose: Hail Mary, L’Chaim. Good night, Dear.
A long-winded P.S.: The Virgin’s Assumption after falling asleep is not to be confused with Christ’s Ascension after the resurrection. “To ascend is to rise up under one’s own power; while to be assumed means something that is done to one,” the Women for Faith and Family website points out—a crucial cautionary difference between absolute agency and passive power. “Jesus, being the Second Person of the Trinity, had no need of assistance; whereas Mary did not have this power.”
Mary doesn’t have a place in the Trinity, but the fruit of her womb is seated at the right hand of the Father. The Apostles’ Creed tells us so. And centuries of imaginative tradition after its composition offer an image of Mary seated in between Father and Son, her shoulders at the level of their knees, an inverted triangle. In his Coronation of Mary in Heaven, Diego Valasquez has Christ to the left of the Father, whose right hand trails off canvas. Together they hold, on either side, a wreathy crown over Mary’s head. A line of light radiating from a dove in the background guides our gaze to an unseen focal point: The ray shines through the center of the crown to the part in the middle of Mary’s hair, the line we can envision behind the painted face, down the back of her skull to the nape of the place where her spine begins. The right hand of creed gives over to a different scene, a turned-over Trinity. Iconography and theology begin to fill in the bodies the Bible leaves to the imagination, the skin and the hair and the bones we find all over the world, relics of long-lost life, intimations of afterlife.
Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.