The title and the idea of “the sleep of Mary” is more formally known as “the Dormition of Mary.” (Dormition comes from the Latin dormire, meaning “to sleep.”) The title “Dormition” can be misleading because it seems to focus more on the death and burial of Mary. For instance, St. Paul in his First Letter to the Thessalonians wrote of those “who sleep in death” and have “fallen asleep” before the second coming and await the resurrection of the dead (4:13ff). However, the belief surrounding the dormition is intrinsically linked with the assumption of our Blessed Mother, body and soul, into Heaven. With that preliminary answer, we need to review the dogma of the Assumption and how it is related to “dormition” or “sleep.”
Granted, the event of the Assumption is not recorded in Sacred Scripture. For this reason, many fundamentalists who literally interpret the Bible have a difficulty with this belief. Nevertheless, a reflection on the role of our Blessed Mother in the mystery of salvation provides the foundation for the belief in the Assumption. We firmly believe that from the first moment of her conception, Mary was free of all sin including Original Sin by a special favor of Almighty God. The Archangel Gabriel recognized her as “full of grace,” “blessed among women,” and “one with the Lord.” Mary had been chosen to be the Mother of our Savior. By the power of the Holy Spirit, she conceived our Lord, Jesus Christ, and through her, true God became also true man: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” During her lifetime, although the Gospel citations are limited, Mary always presented our Lord to others: to Elizabeth and her son, John the Baptist, who leapt for joy in the womb at the presence of the Lord still in His own mother’s womb; to the simple shepherds as well as the wise Magi; and to the people at Cana when our Lord acquiesced to His mother’s wish and performed the first miracle. Mary also stood at the foot of the cross with her Son, supporting Him and sharing in His suffering through her love as only a mother could do; moreover, as the exemplary disciple, she stood there courageously with the hope of the resurrection. Finally, she was with the apostles at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended and the Church was born. Therefore, each of us can step back and see Mary as the faithful servant of God who shared intimately in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of our Lord.
For these reasons, we believe that the promises our Lord has given to each of us of sharing eternal life, including a resurrection of the body, were fulfilled in Mary. Since Mary was free of Original Sin and its effects (one of which is corruption of the body at death), since she shared intimately in the life of the Lord and in His passion, death, and resurrection, and since she was present at Pentecost, this model disciple appropriately shared in the bodily resurrection and glorification of the Lord at the end of her life.
Given this understanding, Pope Pius XII solemnly defined in Munificentissimus Deus on November 1, 1950 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.” Note that the solemn definition does not specify whether Mary physically died before being assumed or just was assumed; it simply states, “Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life….”
So did Mary die first before being assumed? Did she fall “asleep”? Was she buried? The Church does not bind us to a particular answer because the tradition is not clear. In an apocryphal collection of stories called Transitus Mariae (The Passage of Mary), attributed to Bishop St. Melito of Sardis (d. c. 200), Mary died in the presence of the apostles in Jerusalem, and then depending on the story, her body just disappeared, or was buried and then disappeared.
St. John Damascene (d. 749) also recorded an interesting story concerning the Assumption: “St. Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, at the Council of Chalcedon (451), made known to the Emperor Marcian and Pulcheria, who wished to possess the body of the Mother of God, that Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles, but that her tomb, when opened, upon the request of St. Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to Heaven.”
These stories, however, must not take precedence over the theological grounding for our belief in the Assumption of our Blessed Mother. Rather, we must remember that the Patristic Fathers defended the Assumption on two counts: Since Mary was sinless and a perpetual virgin, she could not suffer bodily deterioration, the result of original sin, after her death. Also, if Mary bore Christ and played an intimate role as His mother in the redemption of man, then she must likewise share body and soul in His resurrection and glorification.
Consequently, the pious stories popularized the term Dormition, reflecting that Mary at the end of her life “went to sleep” and then was taken into glory in Heaven. The Byzantine Emperor Mauritius (582-602) established the Feast of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary on August 15 for the Eastern Church, which celebrated our Lady’s death and assumption. (Some historians speculate that the celebration was already widespread before the Council of Ephesus in 431.) By the end of the sixth century, the West likewise celebrated the feast under the title of “the Assumption.”
Whether we use “dormition” or “assumption,” the fundamental belief remains the same. The Catechism, quoting the Byzantine Liturgy, states, “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians: ‘In giving birth you kept your virginity; in your Dormition you did not leave the world, O Mother of God, but were joined to the source of Life. You conceived the living God and, by your prayers, will deliver our souls from death'” (#966).
The Solemnity of the Assumption gives each of us great hope as we contemplate this one facet of the beautiful woman of faith, our Blessed Mother. Mary moves us by example and prayer to grow in God’s grace, to be receptive to His will, to convert our lives through sacrifice and penance, and seek that everlasting union in the heavenly Kingdom. In 1973, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in their letter Behold Your Mother stated, “Christ has risen from the dead; we need no further assurance of our faith. Mary assumed into Heaven serves rather as a gracious reminder to the Church that our Lord wishes all whom the Father has given Him to be raised with Him. In Mary taken to glory, to union with Christ, the Church sees herself answering the invitation of the heavenly Bridegroom.”