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Early Christians

Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin Mary

Mary's final years on earth—from Pentecost to the Assumption—are wrapped in obscurity. Scripture says nothing, and Tradition contains only faint and uncertain echoes. Her days would have been spent quietly and busily—like the unseen spring that gives the garden its fragrance, the orchard its fruitfulness. The Church's liturgy, making use of words from Scripture, describes Mary as the enclosed garden and sealed fountain (Song 4:12), the well of living waters that flow down from Lebanon (ibid, 15). Just as when Jesus was still on earth, she passed unnoticed, keeping watch over the Church's first steps.

The Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven

“‘Mary has been taken up to heaven by God in body and soul, and the angels rejoice.’ Joy overtakes both angels and men. Why is it that we feel today this intimate delight, with our heart brimming over, with our soul full of peace? Because we are celebrating the glorification of our mother, and it is only natural that we her children rejoice in a special way upon seeing how the most Blessed Trinity honours her (…) Daughter of God the Father, Mother of God the Son, Spouse of God the Holy Spirit. Greater than she, no-one but God.” (Saint Josemaria Escriva, Christ is Passing By, no. 171)

Faith in this consoling truth leads us to proclaim that “Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 966)

This is the kernel of the Church’s teaching on the final mysteries of our Lady’s life on earth. Sharing in Christ’s victory, she too has conquered death and now triumphs in the glory of heaven with her whole being, body and soul. The liturgy presents this truth for our contemplation every year on the solemnity of the Assumption of our Lady, August 15; and the memorial of the Queenship of Mary celebrated on August 22 recalls that from the moment she was taken up into heaven, she began to rule over all creation together with her divine Son Jesus, as Queen and Mother.

We know very few details our Lady’s last years on earth. Between the Ascension and Pentecost, Sacred Scripture tells us that she was in the Upper Room or Cenacle (cf. Acts 1: 13-14). Afterwards, she would probably have stayed with St John, to whose filial care she had been entrusted. Scripture does not tell us when or where her Assumption took place. Some very ancient sources say it was in Jerusalem; others, more recent, in Ephesus.

Among the traditions of the Holy City, Jerusalem, are some apocryphal writings generically known as Transitus Virginis (“the passing of the Virgin”) or Dormitio Mariae (“the falling-asleep of Mary”). The latter title represents the notion that the end of our Lady’s life was like a sweet dream. These writings tell that, when the Virgin Mary left this world, the Apostles gathered around her bed and our Lord himself came down from heaven, amidst myriad angels, and took his Mother’s soul; then the disciples placed her body in a tomb and three days later our Lord returned and took her body to reunite it with her soul in paradise. The authors of such writings speak of two different places: the house where her soul left her body, and the tomb from which her body was assumed into heaven. 

We find echoes of these testimonies in the teachings of several of the Fathers of the Church. St John Damascene, who died in Jerusalem halfway through the eighth century, gives an account of the Assumption of our Lady into heaven that follows the apocryphal writings, and situates the events in the Upper Room and the Garden of Olives. The Virgin’s body, he says, “was prepared for burial and carried out of Mount Zion, set on the glorious shoulders of the Apostles, and borne, together with her casket, to the heavenly temple. But before this it was led through the city like a beautiful bride, adorned with the matchless splendor of the Spirit; and thus it was taken in procession to the holy Garden of Gethsemane, with angels before it and behind it and covering it with their wings, together with the whole of the Church” (St John Damascene, Homilia II in Dormitionem Beatae Mariae Virginis, 12).

In the Holy City of Jerusalem two churches preserve the memory of these mysteries today: the Basilica of the Dormition of Mary on Mount Zion, a few meters from the Church of the Cenacle; and the Basilica of the Tomb of Mary, in Gethsemane, near the olive-grove where Jesus prayed on the night of Holy Thursday.

The Basilica of the Dormition

In the Mount Zion , the early Church was born; and there, in the second half of the fourth century, a basilica was built which was called Holy Zion and was considered to be the mother of all churches. As well as the Cenacle, the basilica included the place of the “transit of our Lady”, which tradition said took place in a house within the zone. The basilica underwent several destructions and restorations in the following centuries, until only the Cenacle itself remained standing. However, the link between this place and the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary was never forgotten, and in 1910 the German Emperor Wilhelm II obtained land on Mount Zion, and a Benedictine abbey was built there, with a basilica next to it dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin.

The basilica is constructed, in German Romanic style with Byzantine features, on two levels. The upper floor holds the main church, which is round in shape and crowned by a great dome adorned with mosaics. Around this are set six side-chapels and, on the eastern side, a vaulted apse for the sanctuary, with a half-dome which is also set with a great mosaic. On the lower floor, one’s eyes are drawn to the centre of the crypt, where there is a figure of the Blessed Virgin, lying as though asleep, surmounted by a little cupola supported by pillars. The shrine is surrounded by several chapels, the gifts of different countries or associations. 

The Basilica of the Tomb of Mary

The Basilica of the Tomb of Mary stands in the channel cut by the Cedron Brook in Gethsemane, a few dozen meters to the north of the Basilica of the Agony in the Garden. It is also called the Church of the Assumption by the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox, who share the property, and by the Assyrians, Copts and Ethiopians, who hold certain rights over it.

Two flights of stairs lead down to the venerable tomb: the first, from the street to a lower-level courtyard which serves as the entrance to the church and also leads to the site of the Lord’s Arrest; and the second, within the building, from the doorway of the church to the nave. The reason for the church lying at such a low level is that the Cedron riverbed has risen over the course of the centuries, and also, the building which survives today is the equivalent of the crypt of the early basilica, which may have been built in the fourth or fifth century.

A flood in 1972 necessitated radical restoration work, and while this was in progress archeological excavations were also carried out. These excavations, together with historical sources, suggest that the tomb where, according to tradition, our Lady’s body was laid, was part of a first-century burial site. It had been carved out of the rock and included three different zones. When it was decided to build a basilica to enclose the tomb of the Blessed Virgin, the Byzantine architects adopted a method similar to that employed for the Holy Sepulcher: they cut away all the surrounding rock, removing the other two zones, replaced the roof by a strong supporting dome, and built the church over it.

As happened with other Christian sites in the Holy Land, the invasions which occurred during the first millennium meant that by the time the Crusaders arrived in the eleventh century, this basilica was in a poor state. A community of Benedictine monks from Cluny was established there in 1101, and restoration work began on the basilica. The entrance to the crypt was opened and the stairway extended; two chapels were built on either side of the stairway; the tomb of the Virgin was embellished with a marble cupola and pillars; the upper part of the church was rebuilt, and a monastery was built alongside it, with accommodation for pilgrims and a hospital. A few decades later, after Jerusalem was re-taken by Saladdin, the church was again destroyed, and all that was left was the crypt, the front wall and the stairway between them, with its two chapels: that is what makes up the present church.

Body and soul

“The mystery of Mary’s Assumption body and soul is fully inscribed in the resurrection of Christ. The Mother’s humanity is ‘attracted’ by the Son in his own passage from death to life. Once and for all, Jesus entered into eternal life with all the humanity he had drawn from Mary; and she, the Mother, who followed him faithfully throughout her life, followed him with her heart, and entered with him into eternal life which we also call heaven, paradise, the Father’s house” (Pope Francis, homily, 15 August 2013). At the same time, “the Assumption is a reality that touches us too, for it points us in a luminous way toward our destiny, that of humanity and of history. In Mary, indeed, we contemplate that reality of glory to which each one of us and the entire Church is called” (Benedict XVI, Angelus, 15 August 2012).

“Our Lady, a full participant in the work of our salvation, follows in the footsteps of her Son: the poverty of Bethlehem, the everyday work of a hidden life in Nazareth, the manifestation of his divinity in Cana of Galilee, the tortures of his passion, the divine sacrifice on the Cross, the eternal blessedness of paradise.

All of this affects us directly, because this supernatural itinerary is the way we are to follow. Mary shows us that we can walk this path with confidence. She has preceded us on the way of imitating Christ, and her glorification is the firm hope of our own salvation. For these reasons we call her ‘our hope, cause of our joy’.

J. Gil in


What does the “Gospel according to Mary (Magdalene)” say?

What is known as the “Gospel according to Mary (Magdalene)” is a Gnostic document, originally written in Greek, found in Oxyrhynchus ( in northern Egypt) as two fragmented texts:

– a papyrus from the 3rd century (P.Ryl. III 463 y P.Oxy. L 3525),

– and another fragment translated to Coptic from the 5th century (Papyrus Berolinensis 8502). Both were published between the years 1938 and 1983; 

– but the original text was very likely written in the 2nd century. 

Mary, probably Mary Magdalene – although she is always referred to only as Mary – is seen as a source of “secret revelation”, since she seems to maintain a close relationship with the Lord. 

In the fragmented text available to date, there are details on an encounter in which the disciples ask the risen Christ questions and he responds.

Christ then sends them to preach the Good News to the gentiles, and he leaves. The disciples are left sad, without confidence to fulfil their mission. Mary encourages them to carry on with what they have been asked to do. 

Peter asks Mary to communicate to the disciples the words they have not heard from Jesus, since they knew that Jesus “loved her more than the rest of the women”. Mary talks about one of her visions, full of Gnostic connotations. In the context of a world which is disintegrating, Mary explains the difficulties the soul has to overcome to reveal its true spiritual nature in ascending to its eternal resting place. 

When she finishes relating her vision, Andrew and Peter do not believe her. Peter doubts the Lord preferred her to the other disciples, and Mary starts crying. Levi defends her (“You, Peter, always been hot tempered”) and blames Peter for attacking Mary. 

Then Levi encourages the disciples to accept that the Lord preferred Mary to themselves, and invites them to go and preach the Gospel. So they finally do.

This is all the testimony left on the fragmented texts of this gospel. Not much, certainly. Some authors wanted to see in the Apostles’ opposition to Mary (in some way also present in the gospels according to Thomas, Pistis Sophia and in the Greek gospel according to the Egyptians) a reflection of the existing confrontations within the Church in the 2nd century. That would indicate that the official Church would be opposed to the esoteric revelations and leadership by a woman.

Considering the Gnostic nature of these texts, it is more plausible to believe that these “gospels” do not represent the true circumstances in the Church, but do reflect particular conflicts and antagonisms towards the Church. We could reason that an idea proposed from a sectarian group should not be extrapolated in an attempt to understand more general circumstances of a larger reality. Just as we understand that an exception should never become the rule.

Juan Chapa

What was the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene?

It is clear from the Gospels that Mary Magdalene had a great love for Jesus. She had been freed by him from possession by seven devils, had followed him as a disciple, ministering to him from her means (Luke 8:2-3), and had been with Mary, the Mother of Jesus and the other women when Jesus was crucified (Mark 15:40-41). She was, according to the Gospels, the first person to whom Jesus appeared after the resurrection, after searching for him tearfully (John 20:11-18). Hence the veneration which the Church has had for her as a witness to the risen Christ. (See: “Who was Mary Magdalene?”). From these Gospel passages one cannot conclude that she was a sinner, and much less that she was the wife of Jesus.

Those who claim that she was the wife of Jesus rely on some apocryphal gospels. All of them, with the possible exception of part of the Gospel of Thomas, were written after the canonical Gospels and are not historical in character, but were written to transmit Gnostic teachings. According to these works, which are not properly speaking Gospels but rather writings that contain what are said to be secret revelations of Jesus to his disciples after the resurrection, Mariam (or Marianne or Mariham – the name Magdalene does not appear except in a few books) was the one who best understood those revelations. That is why she is Jesus’ favourite disciple and receives from him a special revelation.

The opposition which she faces from the apostles because she is a woman (according to some of these writings: The Gospel of Thomas, Dialogues of the Saviour, Pistis Sophia, The Gospel of Mary) reflects the negative attitude of some of the gnostics to the feminine and to Mary as an important disciple. Nevertheless, some people like to see this opposition as a reflection of the attitude of the official Church at the time, against the spiritual leadership of women as proposed by those groups. None of this is demonstrable. 

This opposition is more likely to have been a conflict of doctrines: Peter and the other apostles confronting the ideas that these gnostic groups were putting forward in the name of Mariam. In any case, having recourse to Mary was a way of justifying their gnostic ideas.

In other apocryphal gospels, especially the Gospel of Philip, Marian (this time she is also cited with her name of origin, Magalene) is a model of gnosticism, precisely because of her femininity. She is the spiritual symbol of discipleship of Christ and of perfect union with him. In this context they speak of a kiss between Jesus and Mary (if the text is really to be understood in that way), symbolising that union, since through that kiss, which was a kind of sacrament superior to baptism and to the eucharist, the gnostic engendered himself as a gnostic. The whole tone of these writings is quite foreign to any kind of sexual implications. 

If, according to the gospel of Judas, Jesus himself orders the apostle to betray him, it is because, by dying, the divine spirit which was in him would finally be able to liberate itself from involvement of the flesh and re-ascend to heaven. Marriage oriented to births is to be avoided; woman will be saved only if the "feminine principle" (thelus) personified by her, is transformed into the masculine principle, that is, if she ceases to be woman.

No serious scholar takes these Gnostic texts as historical evidence of a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. It is very sad that that accusation, which has no historical foundation – not even the Christians of that time found themselves having to defend themselves against it – should resurface every now and again as though it were a great novelty.

The huge misunderstanding is the fact that these writings are used to make them say exactly the opposite of what they intended. The Gnostic vision – a mixture of Platonic dualism and Eastern doctrines, cloaked in biblical ideas – holds that the material world is an illusion, the work of the God of the Old Testament, who is an evil god, or at least inferior; Christ did not die on the cross, because he never assumed, except in appearance, a human body, the latter being unworthy of God (Docetism). The strange thing is that today there are those who believe they see in these writings the exaltation of the feminine principle, of sexuality, of the full and uninhibited enjoyment of this material world!

Juan Chapa

Who was Mary Magdalene?

The Gospels do not tell us very much about Mary Magdalene. She was one of a group of women who followed Jesus and who provided for him out of their means (Luke 8:2).

She was a woman called Mary who came from Migdal Nunaya, Tariquaea in Greek, a small town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, some 3 miles north of Tiberias.

Jesus had expelled seven demons from her (Luke 8:2; Mark 16:9), which is the same as saying “all the demons”. This could mean possession by the devil, but it could also mean a bodily or spiritual sickness.

The synoptic Gospels mention her as being the first of a group of women who observed the crucifixion of Jesus from a distance (Mark 15:40-41) and who were sitting opposite the tomb (Matt 27:61) when they were burying Jesus (Mark 15:47). They tell us that very early in the morning on the day after the sabbath Mary Magdalene and other women returned to the tomb to anoint the body with spices which they had bought (Mark 16:1-7). Then an angel informs them that Jesus has risen, and instructs them to go and tell the disciples.

Saint John gives us the same information with slight variations. Mary Magdalene is beside the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross (John 19:25). Early on the day after the sabbath, while it was still dark, she comes to the tomb, sees that the stone has been taken away and goes to tell Peter, thinking that someone has stolen the body of Jesus (John 20:1-2). She returns to the tomb and is weeping there when she meets Jesus who tells her to announce to his disciples that he is to ascend to his Father (John 20:11-18). That is her glory.

That is why the tradition of the Church in the East has called her “isapostolos” (equal to or equivalent to an apostle), and the Church in the West “apostola apostolorum” (apostle of apostles). There is a tradition in the East that she was buried in Ephesus and that her relics were taken to Constantinople in the 9th century.

Mary Magdalene has often been identified with other women in the Gospels.

From the 6th and 7th centuries in the Latin Church they tended to identify Mary Magdalene as the sinful woman who, in the house of Simon the Pharisee, bathed the feet of Jesus with her tears (Luke 7:36-50).

Some Fathers of the Church and ecclesiastical writers, harmonising the Gospels, had already identified that sinful woman as Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who, in Bethany anoints the head of Jesus with perfume (John 12:1-11). Matthew and Mark do not mention the name of Mary, but just say that it was a woman, and that the anointing took place in the house of Simon the leper (Mt 26, 6-13).

As a result, due largely to Saint Gregory the Great, in the West the idea spread that the three women were all the same person. However, nothing in the Gospels indicates that Mary Magdalene is the same person as the Mary who anoints Jesus in Bethany, because it seems that the latter is the sister of Lazarus (John 12:2-3). Nor can one conclude that she is the sinner who according to Saint Luke bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears. In this case, however, the identification is understandable since Saint Luke, immediately after the account of Jesus forgiving this woman, says that Jesus was helped by some women, among whom was Mary Magdalene from whom he had expelled seven demons (Luke 8:2).

Furthermore, Jesus praises the love of the sinful woman: “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much” (Luke 7:47), and we also discern great love in the encounter which Mary has with Jesus after the resurrection (John 20:14-18). In any case, even if it were the same woman, her sinful past is not a dishonour. Peter was unfaithful to Jesus, and Paul was a persecutor of Christians. Her greatness lies not in her being impeccable, but in her love.

Because of her prominent role in the Gospel she received special attention from some fringe groups of the primitive Church. These were basically Gnostic sects whose writings gathered together secret revelations of Jesus after the resurrection and made use of the figure of Mary for transmitting his ideas. They are stories that have no historical foundation. 

Fathers of the Church, ecclesiastical writers and other works highlight the role of Mary as a disciple of the Lord and proclaimer of the Gospel. From the 10th century onwards some fictitious stories appeared which exalted her and which spread mainly in France. It is there that the legend grew up, which has no historical foundation, that Mary Magdalene, Lazarus and some others, when the persecution of the Christians began, went from Jerusalem to Marseille and evangelised Provence. According to this legend Mary died in Aix-en-Provence or Saint Maximin and her relics were taken to Vezelay.

Juan Chapa

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