Revelation 11:19a; 12:1-6a; 10ab; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26; Luke 1:39-56
On November 1, 1950, Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary to be a dogma of faith: “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 to heavenly glory.” The Pope proclaimed this dogma only after a broad consultation of bishops, theologians and laity. What the Pope solemnly declared was already a common belief in the Catholic Church. For hundreds of years, Catholics observed the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on August 15, celebrating Mary’s being taken bodily to Heaven after her death. We have no real knowledge of the day, year, and manner of Our Lady’s death. The dates which have been assigned to her death vary between three and fifteen years after Christ’s Ascension. Mary’s tomb was presumably found in Jerusalem. It is believed that Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles, but that after her burial, her tomb, when opened, was found empty. Therefore, they concluded that her body had been taken up (assumed) into heaven. Saint Gregory of Tour provided a rationale for the tradition: since Mary has been preserved from original sin, it is inconceivable to think her sinless body, should decay in the grave.
The Assumption is the oldest celebrated feast day of Our Lady, but its origin is lost in those days when Jerusalem was restored as a sacred city, at the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine. What was clear from the beginning was that there were no relics of Mary to be venerated. In the church all the feast days of Mary mark the great mysteries of her life and her part in the work of redemption. The central mystery of her life and person is her divine motherhood, celebrated both at Christmas and a week later. The Immaculate Conception marks the preparation for that motherhood. The Assumption completes God’s work in her since it was not fitting that the flesh that had given life to God himself should ever undergo corruption. The Assumption is God’s crowning of His work as Mary ends her earthly life and enters eternity. The feast turns our eyes in that direction, where we will follow when our earthly life is over. The feast days look to the present and to the future and give us an insight into our own relationship with God. The Assumption looks to eternity and gives us hope that we, too, will follow Our Lady when our life is ended.
There is an important difference, of course, between the ascension of Jesus into Heaven after His Resurrection, and the assumption of Mary. To ascend is to rise up under one’s own power; while to be assumed means something that is done to one. Jesus, being the Second Person of the Trinity, had no need of assistance; whereas Mary did not have this power. We see that Mary was, so to speak, “at home” with God’s word, she lived on God’s word, and she was penetrated by God’s word. To the extent that she spoke with God’s words, she thought with God’s words, her thoughts were God’s thoughts, her words, and God’s words. She was penetrated by divine light and this is why she was so resplendent, so good, and so radiant with love and goodness. Mary lived on the Word of God; she was imbued with the Word of God. And the fact that she was immersed in the Word of God and was totally familiar with the Word also endowed her later with the inner enlightenment of wisdom.
Today’s first reading from the Book of Revelation begins with the encouraging words to the listeners to remain loyal to God. Here we hear of a woman, clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. These words are symbolic, meaning that Jesus gloriously resurrected and He now rules at the right hand of the Heavenly Father. Then again there is the symbol of the great dragon with seven heads and ten horns, signifying the evil and is always eager to destroy the good and perpetuate the evil. The woman is symbolized in Mary and there is the promise of salvation in the world and the full authority of Christ. The reading also tells us of her struggle. The child is swept up into heaven symbolizing the resurrection and going up to heaven. Dragon symbolizes the struggle that still goes on for the faithful.
The second reading taken from the letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us that by his glorious resurrection Christ became the first fruit of those who have fallen asleep. Mary is the first to benefit completely by her assumption. Paul again tells us that all the enemies have been destroyed and God has put them under his feet. The last of the enemy to be destroyed is death and hence it is the victory for the pure and innocent life lived and this is justified in Mary the Immaculate one. When Adam disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, he lost his inheritance to eternal life. His soul, spirit and body, and those of his descendants, were called to experience physical and spiritual death. It is only through the Church and the Sacrament of Baptism that we receive our new creation, our new heart and spirit of the godly seed, as our assurance of eternal life in the Kingdom of God. Adam brought death into the world through his sin and Jesus brought life through his sinless life and Mary is the first person to reap this reward by overcoming death.
The Gospel of today gives us the story of Mary’s visitation to her cousin, Elizabeth, when both were expecting their first child. The entire encounter is filled with urgency and joy. The story contains most of the elements which contribute to the status we give to Mary in our Church. We have Mary who soon after the Annunciation goes to see Elizabeth who is in need for support. It is highly significant that it is Mary and Jesus who go to visit Elizabeth and John. Already in the womb, Jesus is showing that urge to serve rather than be served. In Mary we see her true nature to serve and she shows her concern towards Elizabeth. As soon as Mary greets Elizabeth two things happen: First, at the presence of Jesus and his mother, the child in Elizabeth’s womb jumps for joy. Second, Elizabeth, in turn, recognizes the special position of Mary and her Son: filled with the Holy Spirit, she called Mary the “Mother of my Lord.” She is aware of what has taken place in Mary. She also says, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Elizabeth is deeply moved that it is Jesus and his Mother have come to her and says “how is it that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Further she praises Mary for she had unconditionally accepted to submit to God’s plan.
Mary’s response is the Magnificat, the song of thanksgiving. Mary praises and thanks God for allowing her to be a privileges servant of God. Mary also praises God for the saving activity that has gone on in the past and will continue in the future. It will involve in the reversal of fortunes in Israel, namely the powerful brought down and the lowly raised up. The hymn speaks of three of the revolutions of God: First he scatters the proud in the plans of their hearts. That is a moral revolution. Second he casts down the mighty and exalts the humble. That is a social revolution. Third he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away. That is the economic revolution.
Mary is not equal to Christ, of course. Jesus, though possessing a complete human nature, is the Eternal Word made flesh. Mary is only a creature. But she is a unique creature, the highest of all creatures. This is not just because she was born without the handicap of original sin. Eve and Adam were born free of sin as well, but it did not stop them from sinning as soon as they had the opportunity. Mary instead chose, with the help of God’s grace, to preserve her God-given purity throughout her life. The bodily corruption of death was not God’s original plan. It came into the world through sin, as St. Paul says in the first letter to the Corinthians: “the sting of death is sin”. So it is fitting that she who knew no sin should know no decay and no delay in enjoying the full fruits of her son’s work. It is fitting that she who stood by Christ under the cross should stand by him bodily at the right hand of the Father.
The Feast of the Assumption has always been loved dearly by the faithful who are children of Mary. It is a sign to us that someday, through God’s grace and our efforts, we too may join the Blessed Mother in giving glory to God. There is nothing in the scripture that speaks of the assumption of Mary. But Luke tells us that nothing is impossible for God and the Assumption is that sign. The Assumption is a source of great hope for us, too, for it points the way for all followers of Christ who imitate her fidelity and obedience to God’s will. Where she now is, we are meant eventually to be, and may hope to be through Divine grace. Mary is being taken to heaven after her life on earth was ended is the logical outcome of her immaculate nature, uniquely protected by God’s grace from personal sin. We seek to imitate her self-sacrificing love, her indestructible faith and her perfect obedience.
Through her body, Mary said “Yes!” to God; through her body, Mary showed faith in the Angel who spoke in the name of God: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord!” Through her body, Mary was elevated to a place so high that no creature would ever be able to displace her: she thus became the Mother of God and the Mother of Christ, the incarnate Word. But above all, Mary then became the part of the Holy Spirit, becoming one with him in Christ. Lastly, Mary became the favoured daughter of the Father, who had seen her in himself, in his Son, and in his Spirit for all eternity! Long before time began, the Father had loved Mary and had given her the Glory which she now possesses forever, in her body and her soul! “And Mary said in response, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.”
Pope Benedict XVI tells us that the feast of the Assumption is a day of joy. It is a day of Joy because God has won, Love has won, and it has won life. Love has shown that it is stronger than death, that God possesses the true strength and that his strength is goodness and love. Mary was taken up body and soul into heaven: There is even room in God for the body. Heaven is no longer a very remote sphere unknown to us. We have a Mother in heaven. And the Mother of God, the Mother of the Son of God, is our Mother. He himself has said so. He made her our Mother when he said to the disciple and to all of us: “Behold, your Mother!” We have a Mother in heaven. However, she is also still among us, singing the praises of God with us. Mary is still with us, because we are the Body of Christ, but a Mystical Body, a Body of Glory. Mary is taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven, and with God and in God she is Queen of heaven and earth. Precisely because she is with God and in God, she is very close to each one of us. She always listens to us, she is always close to us, and being Mother of the Son, participates in the power of the Son and in his goodness. On this feast day, let us thank the Lord for the gift of the Mother, and let us pray to Mary to help us find the right path every day. Amen.
Fr Eugene Lobo SJ Rome