Mary's Death

Likewise, there are two main traditions related to Mary's death. One of the great unsettled debates within Christianity surrounds the question of where Mary lived out her final years. According to many people, most notably the second-century writer Saint Irenaeus of Lyon, Mary died in Ephesus. Irenaeus based his belief on the immediate disciples of the apostle John. Because this traditional teaching is based on the passage from John in which Jesus commits Mary to John's care from the cross, and because it is widely believed that John moved to Ephesus to preach after the Crucifixion, a strong case can be made for this position.

Another tradition holds that Mary died in Jerusalem. This tradition is reported in the medieval text the Legenda Aurea (or the Golden Legend). This text was compiled in the thirteenth century, by the Dominican Archbishop of Genoa, Jacobus de Voragine. According to this account, Mary lived in a house on Mount Zion for many years after the death of her son.

According to this account, one day, as the Virgin Mary was again pondering her son's death, an angel appeared to her and announced her death. But Mary protested, because she wanted to see the apostles one more time. In response to Mary's request, Saint John was brought on a white cloud from Ephesus, and all of the other apostles came as well. Just as Mary was believed to have given birth to Jesus without suffering, according to the Golden Legend, Mary also died without suffering, as her soul flew directly into the arms of her son.

An account called the Transistus, or Passing, offers an additional detail about Mary's death. In this account, Saint Thomas also arrived just after Mary's death on a cloud from India. Because the apostles knew that Thomas was a doubter and needed to be reassured with evidence, they took him to Mary's empty tomb. But Thomas explained that he didn't need to see the empty tomb, because he had already spotted Mary ascending when he was passing by on his cloud.

These accounts of Mary's death are all attempts to fill the gaps about an event that we know very little about. Some of the traditions are more reliable than others, and much of the mystery remains. No relics of Mary's body have ever been found. While some have suggested that they could have been lost, this is unlikely, considering how much care and attention have been given to relics throughout Christian history.

The search for Mary's relics began more than 1,500 years ago when Constantine's mother Helen began her excavations in Palestine in the fourth century to try to find relics from the life of Christ. Drawing from the collective memory of local Christians, Helen was able to successfully locate the cross on which Christ died, but she never found the Virgin Mary's body.


Several icons show a large Jesus holding his mother wrapped in her burial shroud as if she is a tiny baby. This image is an exact reversal of the Nativity icon, which shows a tiny Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes. Most icons of the Virgin Mary and child show a small Jesus held in his mother's arms.

In 1950, the Roman Catholic Church officially proclaimed that the Virgin Mary was taken up into heaven after she completed the course of her earthly life. Although the Eastern Orthodox believe that Mary was assumed into heaven, they teach that she “fell asleep” first (and thus celebrate the feast of the Dormition instead of the Assumption). Roman Catholics are divided on whether Mary died or not before being assumed. The Eastern Orthodox celebrate Mary's Dormition, or falling asleep, on August 15.

Although it was widely believed among the early Christians that Mary was taken directly up to heaven without suffering the separation of body and soul that is customary at death, there is little certainty surrounding Mary's death. The earliest written mention of her ascension is found in a text that dates from the fourth or fifth century. It is difficult to know for sure how strongly this teaching was affirmed in the oral traditions before that time.

According to the fourth-century writer Ephiphanius, no one knows exactly what happened to Mary at the end of her life. As we can see, this debate continued well into the Middle Ages and continues even now, particularly between Protestants and Catholics. In 1950, Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption to be a formal dogma of the Catholic Church. The lingering questions that surround the Virgin Mary's death remain part of the larger body of mysteries that continue to surround her life.

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