Although the Assumption (Latin: assumptio, "a taking") was only relatively recently defined as infallible dogma by the Catholic Church, and in spite of a statement by Saint Epiphanius of Salamis in AD 377 that no one knew whether Mary had died or not, apocryphal accounts of the assumption of Mary into heaven have circulated since at least the 4th century. The Catholic Church itself interprets chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation as referring to it. The earliest known narrative is the so-called Liber Requiei Mariae (The Book of Mary's Repose), which survives intact only in an Ethiopic translation. Probably composed by the 4th century, this Christian apocryphal narrative may be as early as the 3rd century. Also quite early are the very different traditions of the "Six Books" Dormition narratives. The earliest versions of this apocryphon are preserved by several Syriac manuscripts of the 5th and 6th centuries, although the text itself probably belongs to the 4th century.
Later apocrypha based on these earlier texts include the De Obitu S. Dominae, attributed to St. John, a work probably from around the turn of the 6th century that is a summary of the "Six Books" narrative. The story also appears in De Transitu Virginis, a late 5th century work ascribed to St. Melito of Sardis that presents a theologically redacted summary of the traditions in the Liber Requiei Mariae. The Transitus Mariae tells the story of the apostles being transported by white clouds to the deathbed of Mary, each from the town where he was preaching at the hour. The Decretum Gelasianum in the 490s declared some transitus Mariae literature apocryphal.
An Armenian letter attributed to Dionysus the Areopagite also mentioned the supposed event, although this was written sometime after the 6th century. John of Damascus, from this period, is the first church authority to advocate the doctrine under his own name. His contemporaries, Gregory of Tours and Modestus of Jerusalem, helped promote the concept to the wider church.
In some versions of the story, the event is said to have taken place in Ephesus, in the House of the Virgin Mary, although this is a much more recent and localized tradition. The earliest traditions locate the end of Mary's life in Jerusalem (see "Mary's Tomb"). By the 7th century a variation emerged, according to which one of the apostles, often identified as St Thomas, was not present at the death of Mary but his late arrival precipitates a reopening of Mary's tomb, which is found to be empty except for her grave clothes. In a later tradition, Mary drops her girdle down to the apostle from heaven as testament to the event. This incident is depicted in many later paintings of the Assumption.
Teaching of the Assumption of Mary became widespread across the Christian world, having been celebrated as early as the 5th century and having been established in the East by Emperor Maurice around AD 600. It was celebrated in the West under Pope Sergius I in the 8th century and Pope Leo IV then confirmed the feast as official. Theological debate about the Assumption continued, following the Reformation, climaxing in 1950 when Pope Pius XII defined it as dogma for the Catholic Church. Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott stated, "The idea of the bodily assumption of Mary is first expressed in certain transitus-narratives of the fifth and sixth centuries.... The first Church author to speak of the bodily assumption of Mary, in association with an apocryphal transitus B.M.V., is St. Gregory of Tours." The Catholic writer Eamon Duffy states that "there is, clearly, no historical evidence whatever for it." However, the Catholic Church has never asserted nor denied that its teaching is based on the apocryphal accounts. The Church documents are silent on this matter and instead rely upon other sources and arguments as the basis for the doctrine.
On 1 November 1950, in the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption of Mary as a dogma:
By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: 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.
Pope Pius XII deliberately left open the question of whether Mary died before her Assumption.
Before the dogmatic definition, in Deiparae Virginis Mariae Pope Pius XII sought the opinion of Catholic Bishops. A large number of them pointed to the Book of Genesis (3:15) as scriptural support for the dogma. In Munificentissimus Deus (item 39) Pius XII referred to the "struggle against the infernal foe" as in Genesis 3:15 and to "complete victory over the sin and death" as in the Letters of Paul as a scriptural basis for the dogmatic definition, Mary being assumed to heaven as in 1 Corinthians 15:54: "then shall come to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory".
In Pius XII's dogmatic statement, the phrase "having completed the course of her earthly life," leaves open the question of whether the Virgin Mary died before her assumption or not. Mary's assumption is said to have been a divine gift to her as the 'Mother of God'. Ludwig Ott's view is that, as Mary completed her life as a shining example to the human race, the perspective of the gift of assumption is offered to the whole human race.
In Ludwig Ott's Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma he writes that "the fact of her death is almost generally accepted by the Fathers and Theologians, and is expressly affirmed in the Liturgy of the Church", to which he adds a number of helpful citations, and concludes with a statement that: "for Mary, death, in consequence of her freedom from original sin and from personal sin, was not a consequence of punishment of sin. However, it seems fitting that Mary's body, which was by nature mortal, should be, in conformity with that of her Divine Son, subject to the general law of death".
The point of her bodily death has not been infallibly defined, and many Catholics believe that she did not die at all, but was assumed directly into Heaven. The dogmatic definition within the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus which, according to Roman Catholic dogma, infallibly proclaims the doctrine of the Assumption leaves open the question whether, in connection with her departure, Mary underwent bodily death; that is, it does not dogmatically define the point one way or the other, as shown by the words "having completed the course of her earthly life".
In Munificentissimus Deus, near the end of the review of the doctrine's history, Pope Pius XII stated : "All these proofs and considerations of the holy Fathers and the theologians are based upon the Sacred Writings as their ultimate foundation." Precedent to this, he cited many passages that have been offered in support of this teaching.
The pope cited 1st Corinthians 15. In this passage Paul alludes to Genesis 3:15 (in addition to the primary reference of Psalms 8:6), where it is prophesied that the seed of the woman will crush Satan with his feet. Since, then, Jesus arose to Heaven to fulfill this prophecy, it follows that the woman would have a similar end, since she shared this enmity with Satan.
The pope also mentioned (in paragraph 26) Psalm 132, a psalm commemorating the return of the Ark of God to Jerusalem and lamenting its subsequent loss. The second half of the psalm says that the loss will be recompensed in the New Covenant, and so it is hopefully prayed, "Arise, O Lord, into thy resting place: thou and the ark, which thou hast sanctified" (v. 8). Since the Church sees this New Covenant ark in Mary, it understands that she was taken into Heaven in the same manner as the Lord – that is, body and soul.
Finally, he mentioned in the next paragraph "that woman clothed with the sun [Revelation 12:1–2] whom John the Apostle contemplated on the Island of Patmos" as support for the creating this dogmatic doctrine for Catholics.
The Latin Catholic Feast of the Assumption is celebrated on 15 August, and the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos (the falling asleep of the Mother of God) on the same date, preceded by a 14-day fast period. Eastern Christians believe that Mary died a natural death, that her soul was received by Christ upon death, and that her body was resurrected on the third day after her death and that she was taken up into heaven bodily in anticipation of the general resurrection. Her tomb was found empty on the third day.
"... Orthodox tradition is clear and unwavering in regard to the central point [of the Dormition]: the Holy Virgin underwent, as did her Son, a physical death, but her body – like His – was afterwards raised from the dead and she was taken up into heaven, in her body as well as in her soul. She has passed beyond death and judgement, and lives wholly in the Age to Come. The Resurrection of the Body ... has in her case been anticipated and is already an accomplished fact. That does not mean, however, that she is dissociated from the rest of humanity and placed in a wholly different category: for we all hope to share one day in that same glory of the Resurrection of the Body which she enjoys even now."
Many Catholics also believe that Mary first died before being assumed, but they believe that she was miraculously resurrected before being assumed. Others believe she was assumed bodily into Heaven without first dying. As mentioned earlier, this aspect of the Assumption is not authoritatively described in Catholic theology, and either understanding may be legitimately held by Catholics, with Eastern Catholics observing the Feast as the Dormition.
Many theologians note by way of comparison that in the Catholic Church, the Assumption is dogmatically defined, while in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the Dormition is less dogmatically than liturgically and mystically defined. Such differences spring from a larger pattern in the two traditions, wherein Catholic teachings are often dogmatically and authoritatively defined – in part because of the more centralized structure of the Catholic Church – while in Eastern Orthodoxy, many doctrines are less authoritative.
Within Anglican doctrine, the Assumption of Mary is regarded as adiaphora ("a thing indifferent") rather than dogma as it is not directly mentioned in the canon of Sacred Scripture or the first five Ecumenical Councils. Even so, 15 August is observed by some within the Anglican Communion as a holy day in honour of Mary. The official name of the Festival varies in the different provinces of the Anglican Communion. In the Church of England, the day is a festival and is called the Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as with the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Book of Common Prayer in the versions of the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada mark the date as a commemoration of "The Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary", and in the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, it is observed as the holy day of "Saint Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ".
In some churches of the Anglican Communion and the Continuing Anglican movement, many Anglicans of Anglo-Catholics churchmanship observe the feast day as the Assumption.
The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission agreed statement on the Virgin Mary assigns a place for both the Dormition and the Assumption in Anglican devotion.
The Protestant Reformer Heinrich Bullinger believed in the assumption of Mary. His 1539 polemical treatise against idolatry expressed his belief that Mary's sacrosanctum corpus ("sacrosanct body") had been assumed into heaven by angels:
Hac causa credimus ut Deiparae virginis Mariae purissimum thalamum et spiritus sancti templum, hoc est, sacrosanctum corpus ejus deportatum esse ab angelis in coelum.
For this reason, we believe that the Virgin Mary, Begetter of God, the most pure bed and temple of the Holy Spirit, that is, her most holy body, was carried to heaven by angels.
Most modern Protestants neither teach nor believe in the Assumption of Mary, as they see no biblical basis or extra-biblical basis for it. Although many churches within Lutheranism do not teach the Assumption of Mary, 15 August remains a Lesser Feast in celebration of "Mary, Mother of Our Lord", according to the Calendar of Saints.
The Assumption is important to many Catholic and Orthodox Christians as the Virgin Mary's heavenly birthday (the day that Mary was received into Heaven). Belief about her acceptance into the glory of Heaven is seen by some Christians as the symbol of the promise made by Jesus to all enduring Christians that they too will be received into paradise. The Assumption of Mary is symbolised in the Fleur-de-lys Madonna.
The present Italian name of the holiday, "Ferragosto", may derive from the Latin name, Feriae Augusti ("Holidays of the Emperor Augustus"), since the month of August took its name from the emperor. The Solemnity of the Assumption on 15 August was celebrated in the eastern Church from the 6th Century. The Catholic Church adopted this date as a Holy Day of Obligation to commemorate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a reference to the belief in a real, physical elevation of her sinless soul and incorrupt body into Heaven.
Assumption Day on 15 August is a nationwide public holiday in Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chile, Republic of Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Croatia, Colombia, Cyprus, East Timor, France, Gabon, Greece, Georgia (Eurasia) Republic of Guinea, Haiti, Italy, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Republic of Macedonia, Madagascar, Malta, Mauritius, Republic of Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro (Albanian Catholics), Paraguay, Poland (Polish Army Day), Portugal, Romania, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, Slovenia, Spain, Syria, Tahiti, Togo, and Vanuatu.
It is also a public holiday in parts of Germany (Bavaria and Saarland) and Switzerland (in 14 of the 26 cantons). In Guatemala, it is observed in Guatemala City and in the town of Santa Maria Nebaj, both of which claim her as their patron saint. Also, this day is combined with Mother's Day in Costa Rica and parts of Belgium.
Prominent Catholic and Orthodox countries in which Assumption Day is an important festival but is not recognized by the state as a public holiday include Brazil, Czech Republic, Ireland, Mexico, the Philippines and Russia.
In many places, religious parades and popular festivals are held to celebrate this day. In Canada, Assumption Day is the Fête Nationale of the Acadians, of whom she is the patron saint. Some businesses close on that day in heavily francophone parts of New Brunswick, Canada. The Virgin Assumed in Heaven is also patroness of the Maltese Islands and her feast, celebrated on 15 August, apart from being a public holiday in Malta is also celebrated with great solemnity in the local churches especially in the seven localities known as the Seba' Santa Marijiet.
In Anglicanism and Lutheranism, the feast is kept, but without official use of the word "Assumption". In the Armenian tradition, a cultural custom of blessing of the grapes is annually observed each 12 August in religious commemoration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. In Eastern Orthodox churches following the Julian Calendar, the feast day of Assumption of Mary falls on 28 August.