Protestants complain when the Catholic Church declares events like the Assumption of Mary, of which there is no hard evidence, a dogma of the Christian faith. At the same time, Catholics can’t understand why Protestants cling so much to the Bible, when its canon was compiled by the Catholic Church and its divine inspiration was declared a dogma of the Christian faith by the same authority and in the same manner as was the Assumption.
The celebration of Mary’s assumption into heaven has a rich history going back to the early centuries of the Christian era. Together with the intellectual contributions by Doctors of the Church, it was declared a historical fact. As such, there is no reason not to explore the early apocryphal works pertaining to the Assumption since we know it to be a factuality. While the Church regards many apocryphal writings as legendary, others were held in high regard by the early Church. Of the latter includes The Account of St. John the Theologian of the Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God, and was attributed to the Apostle himself (though dated around 400 AD).
It begins with the summoning of the Apostles to Mary’s bedside in Bethlehem. Since they were spread throughout the Empire, and time was short, they would be transported by the Spirit. John describes his own experience:
“Just as I was going in to the holy altar in Ephesus to perform divine service, the Holy Spirit says to me, ‘The time of the departure of the mother of your Lord is at hand; go to Bethlehem to salute her’. And a cloud of light snatched me up, and set me down in the door where you are lying.”†
The author points out that this experience was similar to that of Phillip after baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch:
“When they came out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, but continued on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:39).
Together with Mary the Apostles burned incense and prayed. Miracles began to occur in the vicinity of the house:
“And I beheld also that many signs came to pass, the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the lame walking, lepers cleansed, and those possessed by unclean spirits cured; and every one who was under disease and sickness, touching the outside of the wall of the house where she was lying, cried out: ‘Holy Mary, who brought forth Christ our God, have mercy upon us’. And they were straightway cured.”
Jews from Jerusalem who were hostile to Jesus got word of this and marched on Bethlehem, but a mile away their feet were prevented from advancing. They then convinced the Roman Procurator to send troops to arrest the apostles as insurrectionists. As they approached Bethlehem the Holy Spirit instructed the Apostles to take Mary to Jerusalem:
“The apostles therefore rose up immediately, and went forth from the house, carrying the bed of the Lady the mother of God, and directed their course to Jerusalem; and immediately, as the Holy Spirit had said, being lifted up by a cloud, they were found in Jerusalem in the house of the Lady.”
As in Bethlehem, miracles occurred at Mary’s house in Jerusalem, and hostile Jews assembled with the intention of burning it down and killing the apostles:
“And when these things came to pass, the people of the Jews, with the priests also, being the more moved with hatred, took wood and fire, and came up, wishing to burn the house where the Lord’s mother was living with the apostles. And the procurator stood looking at the sight from afar off. And when the people of the Jews came to the door of the house, behold, suddenly a power of fire coming forth from within, by means of an angel, burnt up a great multitude of the Jews. And there was great fear throughout all the city; and they glorified God, who had been born of her. And when the procurator saw what had come to pass, he cried out to all the people, saying: ‘Truly he who was born of the virgin, whom you have thought of driving away, is the Son of God; for these signs are those of the true God.’ And there was a division among the Jews; and many believed in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, in consequence of the signs that had come to pass.”
It was then that the Blessed Virgin died. The Apostles, as pallbearers, carried her body to a tomb in the garden of Gethsemane while singing Psalms. But the Jews persisted:
“But as they were going in the middle of the road, behold, a certain Jew, Reuben by name, wishing to throw to the ground the holy bier with the body of the blessed Mary. But his hands dried up, even to the elbow. …And he began to ask the apostles that by their prayer he might be saved and made a Christian. Then the apostles, bending their knees, asked the Lord to let him loose. And he, being healed that same hour, giving thanks to God and kissing the feet of the queen of all the saints and apostles, was baptized in that same place, and began to preach the name of our God Jesus Christ.
The assumption of Mary’s body occurred shortly thereafter:
“Then the apostles with great honor laid the body in the tomb, weeping and singing through exceeding love and sweetness. And suddenly there shone round them a light from heaven, and they fell to the ground, and the holy body was taken up by angels into heaven.”
†Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0832.htm.