The Assumption of Our Lady
(Revelation 11:19; 12:1-6, 10; 1 Corinthians 15:20-27; Luke 1: 39-56)
Let us hear first of all the official, dogmatic, teaching of Mother Church about Our Lady’s Assumption which we joyfully celebrate today. The dogma proclaimed by Pope Pius XII in 1950 is quoted in our modern Catholic Catechism and reads as follows:
The Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death.
The Catechism goes on to explain:
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians.
That means that Mary’s Assumption was not achieved of her own power neither was it due to her own merits: it was a gift, a unique share in the power of Jesus’ Resurrection, given her thanks to the merits of Jesus Who -- though human in body and soul -- was divine in His Person, the very Son of God made flesh, Who alone could win the victory over sin and death for the whole of mankind. Having won that victory in the flesh and blood He received from Mary, the Assumption is the expression of Mary’s unique participation in her Son’s triumph and her unique sharing in the Redemption He won for all mankind.
The Assumption is supremely significant because Mary, though the Mother of God, totally unique in her persoanl relationship with Jesus and in her participation in His redeeming work, nevertheless, remained one with us, one of us, totally human in her body, soul, and personality: Mary of Nazareth our glory indeed, but also our sister. And consequently, being thus our full sister, her Assumption is a sign of hope for all of us, a sign that we too might aspire, in the Spirit, to share with her in Jesus’ redemptive Resurrection.
Jesus wanted very much to underline the oneness between us and Mary, His Mother, as we can learn from His somewhat startling response to her on a very public occasion:
His brothers and His mother came, and standing outside they sent to Him, calling Him. And a multitude was sitting around Him; and they said to Him, "Look, Your mother and Your brothers are outside seeking You." But He answered them, saying, "Who is My mother, or My brothers?" And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, "Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother." (Mark 3:31-35)
Evidently, He willed to make it clear for subsequent generations that Mary was no goddess, nor was she ever to be thought of as being other than one of us. And yet, as St. John tells us, Jesus -- with what were almost His very last words as He hung, dying, on the Cross -- chose to give supreme emphasis to the reverence and love that all who would be His disciples should have for her:
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, "Woman, behold your son!" Then He said to the disciple, "Behold your mother!" (John 19:25-27)
Therefore, when Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory, it was not simply for Mary herself; for she is our sister whom we might hope to follow, and much more, she is, indeed, our very mother, whom – being given to us by Jesus as His ultimate bequest from the Cross -- we can be sure will be a most constant advocate and ever-watchful help to us who have been handed over to her spiritual solicitude and maternal care. In that way we are most surely encouraged to have sure confidence and firm hope that if we prove to be faithful disciples of Jesus to the end, we can and will eventually follow Our Lord heavenward and share in His glory, just as she, our dear sister and revered mother, has already done.
The dogma of the Assumption was, as I said, promulgated in 1950 by Pope Pius XII. It was nothing new; it had been loved, meditated and celebrated in the Church from the earliest times. It was at the beginning of the 5thC. that what had been traditionally celebrated as her Dormition or sleeping in earthly death, became rather the celebration of her “birthday”: her birth into heavenly life, that is, her Assumption. There are apocryphal stories written early in the history of the Church telling of the death of Mary, how her body was buried under the tree of life, and how she was translated into heaven. Some scholars think these stories arose after the feast started to be celebrated; others, however, think the first of the apocryphal tales go back to the earliest times, and that there was probably an immemorial veneration of the tomb of Mary in Jerusalem by early Jewish converts to Christianity.
Such stories however, although picturesque, sometimes moving, or even instructive, are not the basis of our present faith which rests securely on the ancient devotion and approved worship of the Church, in accordance with the teaching of the Scriptures and under the perennial guidance of the Spirit.
Whenever the body of a disciple of Jesus and child of the Church is brought into church the night before burial we read the Gospel passage which goes:
Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. (John 14:1-2)
There, at the Last Supper, Jesus was speaking to His sorrowing disciples in order to comfort them in their distress at the thought of His imminent Passion and Death. Think how Jesus must have willed above all to comfort His Mother in her distress: surely, first and foremost, He would want and will to prepare a place for her!
And where would that place be? The disciples were distressed that Jesus was going to be taken from them, and so Jesus promised:
If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:3)
Who more than Mary longed to be where Jesus was? Who had cherished Him so dearly, nurtured Him so carefully, supported Him so selflessly; who had followed Him so faithfully and with such sympathy throughout His whole public ministry; who like Mary had shared the opprobrium heaped upon Him by so many, and who like Mary had experienced and appreciated His loneliness and abandonment standing below and beside Him as he died on the Cross?
Again, Jesus prayed most solemnly at the Last Supper:
Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:24)
Now who, conceivably, could long to see the glory of her Son more than His Mother; and, indeed, who deserve more fittingly than her, to share it?
However, all such considerations are included in, and embraced by, these other words of Jesus:
If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honour. (John 12:26)
Mary’s whole life with her Son was, indeed, a life of total and whole-hearted love and service, given directly and personally to Jesus from the moment of His conception. And yet, even that, is not the sum total of Mary’s commitment to and sharing with Jesus throughout her life on earth, for, just as St. Peter, writing (1 Peter 4:14) to the early Christians threatened with persecution by the Roman State, said:
If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you;
so too, we are told of Mary that she was blessed with the Spirit of glory and of God resting on her from the beginning of her motherhood, that is, she was blessed with the ability, and called to embrace the opportunity, to share with her Son in all His endeavours and sufferings.
This was made clear to her in the Temple at Jerusalem, when, together with St. Joseph -- and with her heart surely filled with ecstatic joy and gratitude to God – she was presenting her Son to the Lord, a Temple priest, Simeon by name, approached them, and, we are told :
Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, "Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed." (Luke 2:34-35)
Yes, Mary would follow her Son unswervingly to the end, until He died, before her very eyes on the Cross; and even then, her sufferings for Him were not over, since she was further called to participate most intimately in the early trials and turmoil of His nascent Church.
The fact is that Jesus, in all that He did, carried with Him and worked in and through, the flesh and blood that Mary had uniquely given Him. She was so intimately one with Him in all that He did, in and through His sacred humanity; and that is why she alone has been so uniquely honoured by the Father that she is now where Jesus is, in heaven!. Jesus, bearing Mary’s flesh, died, was buried, and rose again; therefore, Mary too, in her flesh died, was buried, and then -- thanks to her Son’s Personal holiness and Divine majesty -- knowing no corruption just as she had known no sin, was raised to share with Him His heavenly glory.
People of God, let us, therefore, rejoice on the occasion of this solemn feast, and repeat with heartfelt joy the words of Mary herself:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour; for He has looked with favour on His lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. (Luke 1:46-49)
Having praised God in the first outpouring of her soul, Mary then spoke words of ultimate comfort of her children, words which afford us both confidence and courage as we strive to serve and follow Jesus our Lord and Saviour:
He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation.
The Assumption of Mary is still for us, in this the third millennium, a source of inspiration and of hope; for the arm of the Lord is not shortened, His mercy and love are eternal. What was given to Mary was given her uniquely indeed, but not exclusively, for it was intended also for us, ‘those who fear Him from generation to generation’. Let us, therefore, as her children, treasure and take to heart the words Elizabeth used to characterize our mother:
Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfilment of those things which were told her from the Lord.