Assumed vs. Ascended: What’s the Difference?
When I was a young adult, I attended daily Mass at one of the local parishes, which included the younger children from their school. Their pastor, during his homily, approached the children and asked, “What is the Immaculate Conception?” Eager hands rose high in the air, some waving furiously, but the priest called on the child in the front row who made eye contact with him. He nodded to indicate this child was chosen to speak. “It’s when the BMV (yes, he said BMV, not BVM) had Jesus in her belly!”
He was proud of his answer but, of course, wrong doctrinally. Many Catholics misunderstand the Immaculate Conception as when Jesus was conceived miraculously in Mary’s womb. In fact, it means Mary was conceived without sin when she was in St. Anne’s womb. Similarly, Catholics often misconstrue the Ascension of Jesus with the Assumption of Mary – equating them as one and the same.
In order to debunk this myth, I dug into the Catechism of the Catholic Church to find direct answers, so that we can better understand the major differences between the two. We know that Jesus ascended into Heaven bodily, his final presence in human form until his second coming. And we also know that Mary was assumed into Heaven at the hour of her death, which we see in images and icons of her floating on a cloud with her arms outstretched.
Based on these fuzzy and nondescript pieces of catechesis, it’s not difficult to see why we mix the two up or consider them in exactly the same context – rising into Heaven bodily. While this is partially true, it’s important to make some distinctions, which I will do shortly. At the most basic level, Jesus lifted Himself up into Heaven, which indicates that He used his own power to return to the Father, while Mary was assumed – a passive verb signifying that a power other than her own elevated her body and soul into Heaven at the hour of death. The Assumption is sometimes referred to as the “Dormition,” or falling asleep of the Blessed Mother.
The Catechism explains three distinct aspects of Jesus’s Ascension that point to His divinity revealed through His humanity: the direct fulfillment of the Incarnation, His priesthood, and His kingship or dominion over heaven and earth. The first passage, listed below, showcases Jesus’s Ascension fulfilled the Incarnation – it made everything about who He is come full circle. He came from the Father and returned to the Father:
CCC 661: Only the one who “came from the Father” can return to the Father: Christ Jesus. “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man.” Left to its own natural powers humanity does not have access to the “Father’s house,” to God’s life and happiness. Only Christ can open to man such access that we, his members, might have confidence that we too shall go where he, our Head and our Source, has preceded us.
The Ascension also points to Jesus’s priesthood, because in Heaven, He is able to constantly work on our behalf through prayers and devotions of the faithful. Jesus reflects the Father perfectly in heaven, where His work continues for the people He saved:
662: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” The lifting up of Jesus on the cross signifies and announces his lifting up by his Ascension into heaven, and indeed begins it. Jesus Christ, the one priest of the new and eternal Covenant, “entered, not into a sanctuary made by human hands…but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” There Christ permanently exercises his priesthood, for he “always lives to make intercession” for “those who draw near to God through him.” As “high priest of the good things to come” he is the center and principal actor of the liturgy that honors the Father in heaven.
Recall that the image of Jesus seated on the throne in Heaven is often referred to in the Book of Revelation. St. John (who was believed to be the author of the biblical book) describes Jesus’s kingship for the reader, so that s/he understands the words “He shall reign from sea to sea and His kingdom will have no end” (which is my loose translation of Psalm 72: 8) truly comes to fruition after He ascends into Heaven. As King of Heaven and Earth, Jesus is sovereign over all that happens to His creation, which gives us confidence that we worship the One True God.
664: Being seated at the Father’s right hand signifies the inauguration of the Messiah’s kingdom, the fulfillment of the prophet Daniel’s vision concerning the Son of man: “To him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” After this event the apostles became witnesses of the “kingdom [that] will have no end.”
Ultimately, the Ascension of Jesus is a foreshadowing of the hope we have, too – that we will one day receive a glorified body and live with Him in Heaven for eternity:
666: Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, precedes us into the Father’s glorious kingdom so that we, the members of his Body, may live in the hope of one day being with him forever.
The Blessed Mother, though created sinless, was still creature nonetheless. She needed a Savior. She needed her Son, Jesus. That is why she was assumed, not ascended: because God Himself took her up to be with Him in Heaven. This was not something in her own power to complete, but she relied on God to elevate her to the status of Queenship over Heaven and Earth.
If Jesus is King, then His Mother is Queen. And because she is the only perfect human to have existed, she received the gift of the Assumption for both her body and soul. Some Mariologists, such as St. Alphonsus Liguori, believe that Mary’s death was actually a falling asleep rather than typical organ failure. Most also conjecture that she was surrounded by the angels, accompanied by her Son, and that all of the Apostles were with her in that final moment of her earthly existence.
It is a beautiful gift that we have both Jesus and Mary, with their hearts and mission so intertwined, to accompany us on our own journey to our eternal home.
The Catechism explains that the Assumption gives us hope for our own resurrection, much like Jesus’s Ascension points to the day we will receive a glorified body:
CCC 966: The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians.
As Christians striving to navigate the messiness of our earthly pilgrimage, we can look to the Ascension of Jesus and Assumption of Mary as a sign of hope. If we meditate often on the sovereignty of God, we find consolation in knowing that His Providence guides us, protects us, and makes right what has been wronged. If Jesus is King and Mary Queen, then we need not fear any terror that could afflict us bodily, because our souls have been entrusted to them both.