Catholics have long held the belief that at the end of her earthly life the Blessed Virgin Mary was taken -- body and soul -- into heaven. Aug. 15 celebrates this dogma with the feast of the Assumption, a solemnity and holy day of obligation in the United States. This feast day is steeped in tradition and recalled as one of the oldest and most solemn feast days in honor of Mary. But where did this Church teaching about the Assumption begin?

Little is known regarding the day or year in which the corporeal assumption of Our Lady took place, yet apostolic tradition holds that her "falling asleep," or dormitio in Latin, occurred within a few years of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. (Some earlier Christians believed she had simply fallen asleep until she was reawakened in heaven.) The most credible sources believe her tomb was located in Ephesus, in modern-day Turkey, or, most likely, near the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem.

The belief in Mary's corporeal assumption gained credence from some of the earliest and most reliable sources, such as the sermons of St. Andrew of Crete and St. Modestus of Jerusalem among others, including St. John Damascene. He noted that at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Emperor Marcian and Empress Pulcheria requested possession of the Blessed Virgin's mortal remains, but St. Juvenal, the bishop of Jerusalem, informed them no remains existed. Mary, he explained, died in the presence of all the apostles, and upon opening her tomb they discovered it was empty. The apostles, along with a host of support from theologians in the ensuing years, concluded that her body had been taken up to heaven fully intact.

Making it official

For centuries, the belief that Mary's body did not undergo decomposition, but was instead assumed into heaven in its entirety, was widely accepted. However, this belief wasn't given doctrinal authority in the Church until the 1950s. In his 1946 encyclical, Deiparae Virginis Mariae, Pope Pius XII had requested input as to whether or not people wished to have the Assumption defined. The response? An overwhelming reply from cardinals, bishops, priests and laypersons worldwide who believed that the Assumption not only was definable, but should be defined by Church teaching at that time.

On Nov. 1, 1950, Pope Pius declared the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary as dogma in his apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus ("The Most Bountiful God"), writing: "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" (No. 44).

Later, the Second Vatican Council confirmed with the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) that "the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, when her earthly life was over, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things" (No. 59).

Ancient roots

But the tradition of honoring the Assumption traces its roots back much further than the Church's official declaration of the teaching. So, what are the origins of the feast day?

While much of the exact history is uncertain, according to the life of St. Theodosius, the feast day was observed in Palestine as early as the fifth century. It is believed that since Emperor Mauricius Flavius proclaimed the feast of the Dormition throughout the Byzantine Empire, Aug. 15 has been the day on which the feast is observed in Eastern liturgies.

In Rome, the oldest and only feast of Our Lady had been Jan. 1, the octave of Jesus' birth. When Rome began recognizing the feast to honor the Blessed Virgin's assumption into heaven in the seventh century, it was named the Assumption. The feast day was made equal to Christmas and Easter by Pope Nicholas I in 863.

Today, it remains a solemn feast day to honor Our Lady, who was the first to receive the fullness of the redemption that her son gained for humanity. It is a reminder to us all of the salvation promised by Christ.

Traditions around the world

Throughout the ages, the feast of the Assumption has been observed with various customs worldwide.

In Hungary, pageants, parades and celebration annually mark the feast day. Tradition holds that St. Stephen, the first Hungarian king, crowned Mary the patroness of the country.

In Poland, harvest wreaths called wieniec are shared with the President of Warsaw.

In Budapest, representatives from around Hungary offer crops from the fields as gifts.

In France, a play was traditionally performed in the church. A stage covered in flowers and angels was lowered to a tomb and then raised with a statue of the Virgin Mary while people sang Marian hymns.

In Austria, a priest led people through fields while asking for blessings on their harvest.

In Portugal, blessings were bestowed upon the ocean and the boats of fishermen. The ceremony continues today in a number of coastal towns in the United States.

Source: Compiled from the Encyclopedia of Catholic Devotions and Practices, by Ann Ball (Our Sunday Visitor, $39.95)

Doctrine of faith

The dogma of the Assumption, like the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, is a Church teaching that cannot be derived from explicit biblical passages. It is a doctrine for those with the gift of faith. Throughout the ages, prominent theologians have declared the reality of Mary's Assumption based on apostolic tradition and theological reasoning. In his apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII cited the reflections of many saints.

St. John Damascene: "It was fitting that she, who had kept her virginity intact in childbirth, should keep her own body free from all corruption even after death" (No. 21).

St. Alphonsus Liguori declared that Jesus would not have wanted the body of his mother to dissolve in death, "since it would have redounded to his own dishonor to have her virginal flesh, from which he himself has assumed flesh, reduced to dust" (No. 35).

St. Francis de Sales noted Jesus would have observed perfectly the commandment to honor his mother, asking: "What son would not bring his mother back to life and would not bring her into paradise after if he could?" (No. 35).

Stephanie Kornexl is OSV newsweekly's summer intern.