The Assumption of Mary
I have stood at the spot from which Mary was assumed into heaven. At least I think I have.
When I was chaplain in the British Embassy in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, I had many visitors, and one of the places I most enjoyed taking them was Ephesus, just down the coast from Izmir, the ancient Smyrna. The Apostle John was the first Bishop of Ephesus, and it was there he took the Blessed Virgin when Jesus spoke from the Cross, and entrusted Mary into his care. “Son, behold thy Mother”.
The ruins of Ephesus are spectacular, and so well excavated that you can walk down whole streets which still have the grooves in them made by the Roman chariots. The library of Celsus must have been one of the most beautiful buildings of the ancient Greek world, and the great open-air theatre is almost complete and so well constructed that from the topmost tier you can hear the voice of someone talking quietly on the stage.
Above Ephesus is a steep hill at the top of which is a small chapel called “Mary’s House”. This is where Our Lady is supposed to have lived. It seems very out of the way and remote, but it may be that this was necessary if the early Christians in Ephesus were under suspicion and persecution. To capture the Mother of the false Messiah would have been a great triumph for the Jews or the Romans; so maybe she was hidden away on the hillside.
The structure of the House of the Virgin (Meryemana in Turkish) has been dated by archeologists to the 6th or 7th century, but its foundations are much older and may well date to the first century A.D. It was a place of pilgrimage for centuries by the local Orthodox Christians till they were driven out by the Turks. It is now run by the Roman Catholic Church, but is a sacred place for both Christians and Muslims, who also believe in the Virgin Birth and honour Mary as the mother of the Prophet Jesus.
The modern history of the Virgin’s House is extraordinary. It was “rediscovered” in 1812 by a German nun, Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, who never travelled away from her home, where she was confined to bed as an invalid. One day she fell into a trance and received the stigmata and described a vision of the Virgin Mary and John travelling from Jerusalem to Ephesus. She described Mary’s house in detail, and this was recorded by a writer named Brentano.
The German nun went on to say that the Virgin Mary died at the age of 64 and was buried in a cave near her house. When her coffin was opened soon after, however, only an empty shroud was found in it. The house was then turned into a chapel.
Years after this nun’s visions, a French priest named Gouyet read Brentano’s account and travelled to Ephesus to look for the Virgin’s house. He found a house matching the nun’s description and in 1891 two Lazarist priests and two Catholic officials went to Ephesus and found a small chapel in ruins and a damaged statue of the Virgin. The chapel was restored in 1897 and is still in the care of the Lazarist Fathers who celebrate mass there daily.
The Feast of the Assumption is one of the great days of the year at Mary’s house. Each year, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim clergy conduct a service together at the shrine, one of the rare occasions that this happens anywhere.
Of course Ephesus is not the only place which claims to be the site of Mary’s death and Assumption. There is also a strong tradition that she died in Jerusalem surrounded by all the apostles. But there was no trace of this belief until the sixth century and it sounds too neat to me. I think it is much more likely that she stayed with John in Ephesus as commanded by her Son, and died there.
As far as her bodily assumption into heaven is concerned, to me the strongest argument for this as being believed from the earliest days is that there has never been a trace of a relic of the Blessed Virgin’s body, unlike the great quantity of the bones of the saints from the Apostles onwards. And theologically, the doctrine is both compelling and fitting for Catholic Christians. John himself in his Apocalypse saw ‘A great wonder in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon at her feet, and round her head a crown of twelve stars” – the very same woman he had seen baking bread in that little hidden house at Ephesus years before – now Queen of Heaven.