Having been closely associated with Christ's
redemptive work, it was fitting for Mary to share the experience of death before partaking of the Resurrection.
"The experience of death personally enriched the Blessed Virgin: by
undergoing mankind's common destiny, she can more effectively exercise her spiritual motherhood towards those approaching
the last moment of their life", the Holy Father said at the General Audience of Wednesday, 25 June, as he reflected
on the dormition of the Mother of God. Here is a translation of the Pope's catechesis, which was the 53rd in the series
on the Blessed Mother and was given in Italian:
1. Concerning the end of Mary's earthly life, the Council uses
the terms of the Bull defining the dogma of the Assumption and states: "The Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from
all stain of original sin, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, when her earthly life was over." [Lumen
gentium, n. 59]. With this formula, the Dogmatic Constitution, Lumen gentium, following my Venerable
Predecessor Pius XII, made no pronouncement on the question of Mary's death. Nevertheless, Pius XII did not intend to deny
the fact of her death, but merely did not judge it opportune to affirm solemnly the death of the Mother of God as a truth
to be accepted by all believers.
Christ made death
a means of salvation
Some theologians have in fact
maintained that the Blessed Virgin did not die 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.
2. Could Mary of Nazareth
have experienced the drama of death in her own flesh? Reflecting on Mary's destiny and her relationship with her divine Son,
it seems legitimate to answer in the affirmative: since Christ died, it would be difficult to maintain the contrary for his
The Fathers of the Church, who had no doubts in
this regard, reasoned along these lines. One need only quote Saint Jacob of Sarug (d. 521), who wrote that when the
time came for Mary "to walk on the way of all generations," the way, that is, of death, "the group of the Twelve
Apostles" gathered to bury "the virginal body of the Blessed One" (Discourse on the burial of the Holy
Mother of God, 87-99, in C. Vona, Lateranum 19 , 188). Saint Modestus of Jerusalem (d. 634), after
a lengthy discussion of "the most blessed dormition of the most glorious Mother of God," ends his eulogy by exalting
the miraculous intervention of Christ who "raised her from the tomb," to take her up with him in glory (Enc.
in dormitionem Deiparae semperque Virginis Mariae, nn. 7 and 14; PG 86 bis, 3293; 3311). Saint
John Damascene (d. 704) for his part asks: "Why is it that she who in giving birth surpassed all the limits of
nature should now bend to its laws, and her immaculate body be subjected to death?" And he answers: "To be
clothed in immortality, it is of course necessary that the mortal part be shed, since even the master of nature did not refuse
the experience of death. Indeed, he died according to the flesh and by dying destroyed death; on corruption he bestowed
incorruption and made death the source of resurrection" (Panegyric on the Dormition of the Mother of God, n.
10: SC 80, 107).
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. Involved
in Christ's redemptive work and associated in his saving sacrifice, Mary was able to share in his suffering and death for
the sake of humanity's Redemption. What Severus of Antioch says about Christ also applies to her: "Without
a preliminary death, how could the Resurrection have taken place?" [Antijulianistica, Beirut 1931, 194f.].
To share in Christ's Resurrection, Mary had first to share in his death.
4. The New Testament provides no information on the circumstances of Mary's death. This silence
leads one to suppose that it happened naturally, with no detail particularly worthy of mention. If this were not the
case, how could the information about it have remained hidden from her contemporaries and not have been passed down to us
in some way?
As to the cause of Mary's death, the opinions
that wish to exclude her from death by natural causes seem groundless. It is more important to look for the Blessed
Virgin's spiritual attitude at the moment of her departure from this world. In this regard, Saint Frances de Sales maintains
that Mary's death was due to a transport of love. He speaks of a dying "In love, from love and through love,"
going so far as to say that the Mother of God died of love for her Son Jesus [Treatise on the Love of God, bk. 7,
Mary's death was an event of love
Whatever from the physical point of view was the organic, biological
cause of the end of her bodily life, it can be said that for Mary the passage from this life to the next was the full development
of grace in glory, so that no death can ever be so fittingly described as a "dormition" as hers.
5. In some of the writings of the Church Fathers we find Jesus himself
described as coming to take his Mother at the time of her death to bring her into heavenly glory. In this way they present
the death of Mary as an event of love which conducted her to her divine Son to share his immortal life. At the end of
her earthly life, she must have experienced, like Paul and more strongly, the desire to be freed from her body in order to
be with Christ for ever (cf. Phil 1:23).
of death personally enriched the Blessed Virgin: by undergoing mankind's common destiny, she can more effectively exercise
her spiritual motherhood towards those approaching the last moment of their life.
Editor's Note: For an Eastern Christian, it is not possible to celebrate the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of
God and not to ponder her death. For two weeks we have been preparing for this, the last of the Twelve Great Feasts
of the Liturgical Year. The first of those feasts is the Birth of the Theotokos on September 8th. Serving as a bookend
to the Church year, the Dormition also serves as an occasion for us to reflect on the end that must come to us all. Yet,
at the same time, we are consoled knowing that for a Christian to die is less about the biological process and more about
falling asleep in the Lord. In the words of John Donne, "One short sleep past, we wake eternally. And
death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die."