Assumption of our Lady into Heaven: August 15, 2017

2017-08-12 Vatican Radio

Rv 11:19a, 12:1-6a, 10ab; I Cor 15:20-27a; Lk 1:39-56

Anecdote: Taj Mahal: The Taj Mahal has been described as a “love song in marble.” Completed in 1645, the magnificent marble mausoleum was built by Shah Jahan, India’s Mogul emperor, in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal (="the chosen one of the palace"). Her maiden name was   Princess Arjumand. Shah Jahan loved her deeply, calling her his "Taj Mahal," meaning "The Pearl of the Palace.” But Princess Mumtaz Mahal died giving birth to their fourteenth child, and the emperor was inconsolable. So, he summoned a great architect from Persia to build the Taj Mahal, telling him that it must be "the one perfect memorial in the world." Seventeen years were needed to build this enchanting edifice of gleaming white marble embroidered with flashing jewels. It is an enduring monument to love that still inspires tourists, artists and writers from all over the world. This beautiful love story gives us some idea of how much God must have loved Mary, the mother of Jesus. Today’s feast of her Assumption into Heaven is proof of this. By raising her from the dead and taking her into Heaven – body and soul – God demonstrated His undying love for Mary. Like Shah Jahan, God could not bear the death of His beloved. However, God could do what no Indian emperor could do – raise His beloved from the dead and restore her to life even more beautiful than before. Moreover, God didn’t have to build a Taj Mahal to memorialize Mary. Her glorified body is itself a magnificent temple of the Holy Spirit.  (Albert Cylwicki in His Word Resounds)

Introduction:  The Feast of the Assumption is one of the most important feasts of our Lady.  Catholics believe in the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven. We believe that when her earthly life was finished, Mary was taken up, body and soul, into Heavenly glory, where the Lord exalted her as Queen of Heaven. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 966).  The Assumption is the feast of Mary’s total liberation from death and decay, the consequences of original sin.  It is also the remembrance of the day on which the Church gave official recognition to the centuries-old belief of Christians about the Assumption of their Heavenly mother.  The feast was celebrated under various names (Commemoration, Dormition, Passing, Assumption) from at least the fifth or sixth century. In the Orthodox Church, the koimesis, or dormitio ("falling asleep"), of the Virgin began to be commemorated on August 15 in the 6th century.  The observance gradually spread to the West, where it became known as the feast of the Assumption.  By the 13th century, the belief had been accepted by most Catholic theologians, and the Assumption of Mary was a popular subject with Renaissance and Baroque painters.  It was on November 1, 1950, that, through the Apostolic Constitution Munificentimus Deus, Pope Pius XII officially declared the Assumption as a Dogma of Catholic Faith.  On this important feast day, we try to answer two questions:  1) What is meant by "Assumption?"  2) Why do we believe in Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, despite the fact that there is no reference to it in the Bible?  “Assumption” means that after her death, Mary was taken into Heaven, both body and soul, as a reward for her sacrificial cooperation in the Divine plan of Salvation.  “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” (Pope Benedict XVI).

Tradition on Mary’s Assumption: The first trace of belief in the Virgin’s Assumption can be found in the apocryphal accounts entitled Transitus Mariae [Latin; “The Crossing Over of Mary”], whose origin dates to the second and third centuries. These are popular and sometimes romanticized depictions, which in this case, however, pick up an intuition of Faith on the part of God’s People. (Pope St. John Paul II). The fact of Mary’s death is generally accepted by the Church Fathers and theologians and is expressly affirmed in the liturgy of the Church.  Origen (died AD 253), St. Jerome (died AD 419) and St. Augustine (died AD 430), among others, argue that Mary’s death was not a punishment for sin, but only the result of her being a descendant of Adam and Eve. In May 1946, with the Encyclical Deiparae Virginis Mariae, Pius XII called for a broad consultation, inquiring among the Bishops and, through them, among the clergy and the People of God as to the possibility and opportuneness of defining the bodily Assumption of Mary as a dogma of Faith. The result was extremely positive: only six answers out of 1,181 showed any reservations about the revealed character of this truth. (Pope St. John Paul II). When Pope Pius XII made the proclamation on November 1, 1950, he put into words  a belief already held by the faithful for over 1500 years. In AD 325, the Council of Nicaea spoke of the Assumption of Mary. Writing in AD 457, the Bishop of Jerusalem said that when Mary’s tomb was opened, it was "found empty. The apostles judged her body had been taken into Heaven.”

Exegesis: Scripture on Mary’s death and Assumption.   Although there is no direct reference to Mary’s death and Assumption in the New Testament, two cases of assumption are mentioned in the Old Testament, namely, those of Enoch (Gn 5:24) and the prophet Elijah (2 Kgs 2:1).  These references support the possibility of Mary’s Assumption.  The possibility of bodily assumption is also indirectly suggested by Matthew 27:52-53 and I Cor 15:23-24.  In his official declaration of the dogma, Pope Pius XII also cites the Scriptural verses Ps 131:8, Sg 3:6, Rv 12, Is 61:13 and Sg 8:5. “Although the New Testament does not explicitly affirm Mary’s Assumption, it offers a basis for it because it strongly emphasized the Blessed Virgin’s perfect union with Jesus’ destiny. This union, which is manifested, from the time of the Savior’s miraculous conception, in the Mother’s participation in her Son’s mission and especially in her association with his redemptive sacrifice, cannot fail to require a continuation after death. Perfectly united with the life and saving work of Jesus, Mary shares his Heavenly destiny in body and soul. There are, thus, passages in Scripture that resonate with the Assumption, even though they do not spell it out” (Pope St. John II).

Pope Pius XII based his declaration of the Assumption on both tradition and theology.  The uninterrupted tradition in the Eastern Churches starting from the first century, the apocryphal first century book, Transitus Mariae, and the writings of the early Fathers of the Church, such as St. Gregory and St. John Damascene, supported and promoted the popular belief in the Assumption of Mary.  There is a tomb at the foot of the Mt. of Olives where ancient tradition says that Mary was laid.  But there is nothing inside.  There are no relics, as there are with the other saints. This is acceptable negative evidence of Mary’s Assumption.  In addition, credible apparitions of Mary, though not recorded in the New Testament, have been recorded from the 3rd century till today.

In his decree on the Dogma of the Assumption, Pope Pius XII gives four theological reasons to support this traditional belief.

 #1: The degeneration or decay of the body after death is the result of original sin.  However, since, through a special intervention of God, Mary was born without original sin, it is not proper that God would permit her body to degenerate in the tomb. In other words, at the first moment of her life, by a very special privilege of God, Mary was preserved free from the stain of sin. At the last moment, by another very special privilege she was preserved free from the corruption of the grave.

 #2: Since Mary was given the fullness of grace, Heaven is the proper place for this sinless mother of Jesus. Hence, unlike other saints, Our Lady is in Heaven not only with her soul but also with her glorified body.

 #3: Mary was our co-redeemer, or fellow-redeemer, with Christ in a unique sense.  Hence, her rightful place is with Christ our Redeemer in Heavenly glory. (The term co-redeemer or co-redemptrix means "cooperator with the Redeemer.” This is what St. Paul meant when he said, "We are God's co-workers" I Cor 3:9.). Hence, it is “fitting” that she should be given the full effects of the Redemption, the glorification of the soul and the body.

#4: In the Old Testament, we read that the prophet Elijah was taken into Heaven in a fiery chariot.  Thus, it appears natural and possible that the mother of Jesus would also be taken into Heaven. The Mother of God was conceived without original sin. Consequently, she did not have to wait, like the rest of us, for the resurrection on the last day.

Scripture readings of the day: The first and third readings are about women and God’s creative, redemptive and salvific action through them.  The Book of Revelation, written in symbolic language familiar to the early Christians, was meant to encourage them and bolster their Faith during times of persecution.  In the first reading, the author of Revelation probably did not have Mary of Nazareth in mind when he described the “woman” in this narrative.  He uses the “woman” as a symbol for the nation and people, Israel.  She is pictured as giving birth, as Israel brought forth the Messiah through its pains. The woman is also symbolic of the Church, and the woman’s offspring represents the way the Church brings Christ into the world.  The dragon represents the world's resistance to Christ and the truths that the Church proclaims.  As Mary is the mother of Christ and of the Church, the passage has indirect reference to Mary. (Navarre Bible Commentary: The description of the woman indicates her heavenly glory, and the twelve stars of her victorious crown symbolize the people of God—the twelve patriarchs (cf. Gen 37:9) and the twelve apostles. And so, independently of the chronological aspects of the text, the Church sees in this heavenly woman the Blessed Virgin, "taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, when her earthly life was over, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords (cf. Rv 19:16) and conqueror of sin and death” (Lumen Gentium 59).

The second reading, taken from I Corinthians, is Paul’s defense of the resurrection of the dead, an apt selection on the feast of our Heavenly Mother’s Assumption into Heaven.  In 1 Cor 15:20 Paul speaks of Christ’s resurrection as the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. Since Mary is closely associated with all the mysteries of Jesus’ life, it is not surprising that the Holy Spirit has led the Church to believe in Mary’s share in his glorification. In the Magnificat, or song of Mary, given in today’s Gospel, Mary declares, “the Almighty has done great things for me; Holy is His Name.” Besides honoring her as Jesus’ mother, God has blessed Mary with the gift of bodily Assumption.  God, who has "lifted up" His "lowly servant," Mary, lifts up all the lowly, not only because they are faithful, but also because God is faithful to the promise of Divine mercy.  Thus, the feast of the Assumption celebrates the mercy of God or the victory of God’s mercy as expressed in Mary’s Magnificat.

Life messages: #1: Mary’s Assumption gives us the assurance and hope of our own resurrection and assumption into Heaven on the day of our Last Judgment. It is a sign to us that someday, through God’s grace and our good life, we, too, will join the Blessed Mother in giving glory to God. It points the way for all followers of Christ who imitate Mary’s fidelity and obedience to God’s will.       

#2: Since Mary’s Assumption was a reward for her saintly life, this feast reminds us that we, too, must be pure and holy in body and soul, since our bodies will be glorified on the day of our resurrection.  St. Paul tells us that our bodies are the temples of God because the Holy Spirit dwells within us.  He also reminds us that our bodies are members (parts) of the Body of Christ.

#3: This feast also gives us the message of total liberation.  Jesus tells us (Jn 8:34) that everyone who sins is a slave of sin, and St. Paul reminds us (Gal 5:1), that, since Christ has set us free, we should be slaves of sin no more.  Thus, the Assumption encourages us to work with God to be liberated from the bondage of evil: from impure, unjust and uncharitable thoughts and habits, and from the bonds of jealousy, envy and hatred.

#4: Finally, it is always an inspiring thought in our moments of temptation and despair to remember that we have a powerful Heavenly Mother, constantly interceding for us before her Son, Jesus, in Heaven. The feast of Mary’s Assumption challenges us to imitate her self-sacrificing love, her indestructible Faith and her perfect obedience.

Therefore, on this feast day of our Heavenly Mother, let us offer ourselves on the altar and pray for her special care and loving protection in helping us lead a purer and holier life. (Fr. Antony Kadavil) 

(from Vatican Radio)