The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Reflections for the Feastday
Christopher O’Donnell, O.Carm. 2003
In the Church before Vatican II (1962-1965) it was very difficult to have a chalice blessed. It required a bishop who consecrated the chalice and the paten by use of the most sacred of the holy oils, chrism – the same oil that is used in confirmation. Nowadays people think much more of the use to which the chalice and paten are put: they contain the Body and Blood of the Lord. Once they have been used for Mass, they are sacred vessels. The body and blood of the Lord consecrates far more profoundly than chrism, even with a bishop.
If the sacred vessels are thus made irrevocably holy by their sacred use, what can be the holiness of the body of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who bore the Second Person of the Trinity for nine months? She is surely as perfectly holy as a creature can be through being Mother of God.
It is this thought of the holiness of Mary that helps us to grasp something of the mystery of the Assumption. This doctrine has been held by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches of the East and West for some 1500 years. Even earlier we find traces of the dogma in various legends about Mary’s Passing, called in the East her Dormition (“Falling Asleep”).
As always we should seek the meaning of a feast of season in the preface of the Mass. Here we read:
You would not allow decay to touch her body
For she had given birth to your Son
The Lord of all life in the glory of the Incarnation.
A reason for the Assumption is then that it was inappropriate for one who was mother of the Lord to suffer the corruption of death. But there is another reason:
Today the Virgin Mother of God was taken up into heaven
To be the beginning and pattern of the Church in its perfection
And a sign of hope and comfort for your people on their pilgrim way.
The centuries old faith in the Assumption of Mary was proclaimed a dogma of faith in 1950 by Pius XII. He did not add to the faith of the Church; he merely expressed with utter clarity and certainty what was this faith all along. The Pope’s proclamation says that “when her earthly life was over” Mary was “assumed body and soul to heaven.” Most Catholics believe that Mary died. If her Son died, why not the Mother also? But there has been an idea around for centuries that Mary did not die. It is very much a minority view, but Pius XII did not want to condemn it, so he used the phrase “when her earthly life was over.” The other phrase of the Pope is “body and soul” which is a rather dated way of speaking. A theologian speaking today might more likely use a phrase such as “Mary fully as a person was glorified.” This would include all that was meant by “body and soul.” The glorification is mysterious. We can say that whatever final glorification means, Mary already posses this gift.
Meaning of the celebration
Mary’s feasts are moments of celebration and beauty. Life is hard for many people. All the followers of Jesus at one time or another meet the Cross. We can at times find obedience to Christ’s law and teaching very difficult. The feasts of Mary are a holiday, when we can lift up our hearts; they are a time of repose when we can contemplate her beauty; they are a time of consolation when we look to the reward that Mary enjoys and that we hope for ourselves. Hence we can celebrate the feast and feel restored.
In our time there is some urgency about the two feasts of the Transfiguration of Jesus (6 August) and the Assumption of Mary (15 August). Both of these celebrations are about glory that overflows on to the body. In all times in Christian history there have been two false ideas about the human body. Firstly, there have been heretical sects that despise the body. They misinterpret passages of scripture such as Romans chapter seven, to conclude that the body is evil and the source of sin. In reply we can point to the triumphant statement in Genesis 1:27 that we are made in the image and likeness of God (and that includes our bodies). Again there are people who have a poor self-image, who think that their bodies are ugly and deformed. We may not all look like fashion models, but there is a profound beauty even in the most broken, diseased or damaged body. So these two feasts are to encourage us to have a healthy self-image also about our bodies.
There are also problems about the body from an opposite pole. Some people almost worship their bodies and excessively indulge themselves in food, clothes, ornaments and beauty aids. Of course it is right that we should aim to look good and to use such gifts what makes us feel good and what is appropriate for our family and our life situation. But we should also recognise when legitimate care of our bodies has gone too far, so that self-absorption and egocentricity become a form of idolatry.
Finally, there is an exploitation of the human body in all sorts of sinful ways: violence, abuse, manipulation and other awful crimes. The Church teaches reverence for the body, our own and that of others. Indeed one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit given at confirmation leads to such reverence. The feast of the Assumption shows us a way of reverence at the wonder and mystery of human life. We are beautiful and holy because our whole persons are members of Christ’s Body and are temples of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Cor 6:16.19).
We could also think of the sanctification of chalices and patens. If they are holy through being used at Mass, what about us who receive the Body and Blood of the Lord? We should recall the Lord’s promise: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever…Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:51.54).
In the feast of the Transfiguration we look to Jesus, seeing his divine nature shining through his body. In the Assumption we look forward to sharing what Mary already possesses, the final glory marked out for her by God.
In the symbolism of the early and medieval Church, Christ has always been likened to the sun and Mary to the moon. The moon has no light of its own, only what it receives from the sun. Christ’s divinity was seen in the overpowering light of the Transfiguration. In the Assumption we contemplate the gentle light of the moon and look forward to the completion of glory in all others and ourselves.
Each evening the Church sings Mary’s Magnificat. Through reflecting on the Assumption we can more deeply penetrate Mary’s words, fulfilled in a way that has transcended all the expectations of the young woman of Nazareth: “He that is mighty has done great things fore me and holy is his name” (Luke 1:49).