Sunday 17 August 2014

An Everyday Assumption

                                                Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Angelico

He hath given us most great and precious promises: that by these you may be made partakers of the divine nature
2 Peter 1:4

Draw us onward with the sweetness of your voice, that one day, after our exile, you may show us Jesus, the blessed Fruit of your womb, O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.
Pope Venerable Pius XII

One reason why the Church celebrates certain feasts, such as Easter and Christmas, with particular solemnity is that they have a universal applicability. That is to say, after we have put away our festal party frock and resumed our workaday dress the content of the feast which is celebrated on one day continues to have vital relevance on all the other 364 days of the year. [NB. the frock and the dress can be either literal or metaphorical as the case may be.] Recently some of my non-Catholic friends on social media, they know who they are, expressed some bemusement about my rejoicing on the occasion of the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary so it struck me that it might be useful to say something about what this feast is all about and why its importance overflows into the daily life of the Christian.

Quite simply the Church celebrates this fact-
The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory 
Munificentissimus Deus
This was proclaimed a dogma of the Church in November 1950 by Pope Pius XII of blessed memory although it has been celebrated and believed in by Christians since ancient times as he outlines in the Apostolic Constitution which I have just quoted. Among Eastern Christians it is celebrated under the perfectly splendid title of the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God. The word dormition has the same root as dormouse and refers to the falling asleep of the Virgin which preceded her Assumption into heaven.

In the whole course of the 20th century the Catholic Church only once exercised, via the Pope ex cathedra, her infallible teaching office in order to affirm as certainly true what had only been received as probably true before. At the halfway point of this most troubled of centuries and only 5 years after the end of the most destructive war in human history she proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption. Christians of the Reformation traditions (often called Protestants) might argue that what the world most needed was to have Jesus proclaimed, not Mary. Non-Believers might argue that instead of indulging in such magical realism the Church would be better employed in feeding the hungry, tending the sick and housing the homeless. In part of course the critics are right so far as their instincts go but err in their judgement. In proclaiming Mary Assumed by Jesus, because of her love for Jesus and His for her, the Church precisely proclaims Jesus to the world and show the effects of His involvement as Emmanuel, God with us. And amongst those Catholics who do in fact commit themselves to feeding the hungry and so on there are few whose commitment is not enriched and strengthened by their devotion to Mary and there are none whose work is not made more effective through her prayers and the graces which flow through her hands as Mediatrix of all Grace.

It is obvious why we might be glad for our Lady that she has been reunited with her Son in much the same way as we might be glad when a friend passes an exam or marries their beau ideal but what practical effect does it have on our daily life? If you have read my blog about Mary-Mirror of Perfection you might recall the Jubilee Prayer which includes these words-
because you are the star of the morning, the gate of Heaven,
and the first resurrected creature

The words 'first resurrected creature' contain in very few words an idea I am about to use many words to explain. In this kind of context 'creature' is a technical term it follows from the role of God as Creator, those living things which He creates are referred to generically as creatures. 'Resurrection' refers to rising from the dead never to die again. So, in Scripture Jesus is the only Resurrection recorded but He cannot strictly speaking be referred to as a creature since He is fully God as well as being fully Man. Scripture records other people, such as Lazarus (John 11:38-44,) rising from the dead but in time they would again die so the term resurrection cannot be applied to them. Similarly Scripture arguably records two people, Enoch (Genesis 5:24) and Elijah (4 Kings 2:11), who were translated into heaven but they did not first die so again resurrection does not apply to them.

Being first has a double significance to it. It means that no one was before Mary, her Son accorded her a unique privilege, and it also means that others will follow her. She is not the first and the last she is the first of many. So for us Mary is a pioneer. Her faith in the Father, her co-operation with the Spirit and her love for the Son were of such a superlative order that she has precedence over all other Christians yet all who share in that faith, co-operation and love for God have a share too in the gifts that flow from it. In the vision of Mary Assumed the Catholic can fill their own lives with hope and raise up their hearts at all times. 'Pie in the sky when you die' the atheist will say. If that was the sum total of the gift to us from the Assumption then they would have a good point but as usual with God's gifts it overflows with abundance and cannot be limited to just one thing. If our Lady is now seated with honour in the heart of heaven it is because heaven was first seated with honour in her own heart. Entering heaven is not about endless time it is about a continuously present eternity and we can enter eternity now and experience it now by opening our hearts to the eternal God and giving Him a dwelling place. A necessary prelude to the Assumption was the indwelling of the Spirit in the Theotokos and a prelude to our own eventual resurrection is a similar if lesser indwelling and this transforms our lives here, it transforms our lives now and if we remain faithful it transforms them forever.

It is important to notice also that this is among other things a physical event. From the very get-go Christianity has been vigorously challenged about the whole notion of the Incarnated God and the physically resurrected Christ as forerunner to a general and universal resurrection. It was about this very point that the Sadducees challenged our Lord (Mark 12:18) and the Athenians ridiculed St Paul (Acts 17:32.) Gnostics, Cathars, Buddhists, Baha'is and theologically liberal Protestants can all unite around the idea that life from eternity and into eternity is purely a spiritual thing in which the body has no part. If life continues beyond death and attains a happier state than now it is because the body which is an encumberance and a stumbling block is 'left behind' (to coin a phrase). Indeed matter itself in any form is a potent source of evil and the spirit alone is or can be the only source of good and happiness. 'Not so' says the Church, by uniting Himself essentially and forever to a body of flesh Jesus, the Divine Logos, has divinised matter, He has become Man by nature that Man the whole of Man can become God by participation. Our Lord who desired the most supreme possible blessedness for His mother did not permit her body to be subject to corruption and decay, the Assumption is a triumphal affirmation that perfect happiness for humans is an exaltation of all that it means to be human, not spirit alone, not soul alone but spirit, soul and body. And it reminds us day by day that we must give our bodies what is due to them, if they make bad masters opening to us the gates of damnation they also make excellent servants sharing in the joys of eternal beatitude if only we use them wisely.

Protestants may say that this is all very well but where in Scripture can we find a reference to the Assumption? In Munificentissimus Deus Pope Venerable Pius XII refers to a number of figures or types of the Assumption which contain the mystery under a veiled form but essentially these are secondary sources. The belief has been held in the Church since ancient times, it has been celebrated in the West and in the East, it is fitting that God should have acted in this way and it is not contrary to Scripture. As the First Vatican Council put itall those things are to be believed by divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the written Word of God or in Tradition, and which are proposed by the Church, either in solemn judgment or in its ordinary and universal teaching office, as divinely revealed truths which must be believed. There is nothing in Scripture which says that Scripture Alone should be our rule of faith and neither Catholic nor Orthodox Christians feel constrained to ignore what has been handed down from antiquity simply because it has no express warrant in the Bible. Scripture is a sure guarantee against error if we do nothing which contradicts it but it is an unsure source of doctrine when read without reference to the continuous beliefs of the People of God as the ever growing multiplicity of Protestant sects all too sadly confirms.

Another powerful help to our daily Christian journey comes from the knowledge that the Son, who through love of His mother raised her to heaven, cannot fail to respond positively to her prayers. In Mary we have a highly effective intercessor. As the Marian prayer Memorare puts it Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that any one who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided.  Protestants argue against this that since we can pray to Jesus ourselves why should we need intercession? To which we can  reply that we have an explicit injunction in Scripture itself to seek intercession from others-
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful.           James 5:16
That Mary is righteous beyond all others we can know from the fact of her Assumption therefore we can have every confidence in her intercession. It is also worth considering this point You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly (James 4:3.) The Saints and the Blesseds have greater success with their prayers than you or I because they know how to ask aright. That is to say their prayers are not infused with their own egos and passions nor do they act as conduits for the egos and passions of others but their prayers proceed from pure love to Him who is pure Love itself. And since Mary is filled beyond all others with love for her Son Jesus who can doubt that her prayers are asked with perfect rightness and are heard with gladness by our Lord? All that is impure and awkward in our petitions is transmuted by flowing through her hands so that they come to Christ in forms which are perfectly suited to our real needs.

But how can Mary hear all these prayers offered up day and night by millions around the globe the objector asks? How can I hear your objection? I hear it because God has made it possible for you to communicate and for me to understand your communication. Is it more difficult for God to make it possible for Mary to hear many communications than it is for Him to enable me to hear one? If Mary were in time she might be overwhelmed but she is not in time she is in eternity. Those Christians who believe it possible for God to enable the dead to rise with their bodies after thousands of years in the grave, and who can empower an Elisha or a St Paul to raise the dead themselves but impossible for Him to allow Saints to hear prayers have a very limited notion of omnipotence.

There is so much more that could be said but I will consider just one final thing. One of the Marian titles is Our Lady of Sorrows.

As Simeon prophesied (Luke 2:35) our Lady had her soul pierced by a sword not just once but many times. Her life, like the lives of so many of us, was marked by loss, anxiety and pain. Above all that unnatural loss that every mother fears, a child who dies while its parent still lives, was enacted in brutal and horrific reality in front of her eyes. Yet that soul did not break because it was linked with that of her Son in a love stronger than death. Through sorrow she was sustained by Him and that love which was and is mutual was not conquered by the end of her own earthly life it triumphed to raise her up to where she always longed to be. And we in our own sorrows to the extent that we possess that love of Jesus and recall to our minds the dogma of the Assumption can be assured that sorrows will have an end but the love of God for us is without end and without measure. There is no despair so bleak that it can overwhelm a firm faith in the Assumption as a guarantor of how the friends of God are cherished by God. It is important to recall, of course, that our ability to hold this faith can be gravely impaired by mental illness or some other factor which incapacitates our judgement and which is known to God alone to whom we can safely entrust the souls of all those who have died under the influence of such unblameable despair.

St Paul famously outlined the three theological virtues as being faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13.) We can see each of these three as being powerfully present in the Assumption. Through them and by them Mary was raised to heaven. Through meditating upon the Assumption, or at least frequently recalling it, we as Christians can grow in each of these virtues and above all in love which is, as it were, the fuel that powered the flight of Mary from the grip of the tomb into the arms of her beloved Son. May the prayers of Mary, Mother of God and Queen of Heaven, help us to find our way to the same destination.

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  1. Just to be wildly practical, what sorts of things does church tradition say about the subsequent life of Mary? Do it say when she died, or if the time in the church calendar correlates with the time of year of her actual death? And if you're in a big posh place like Exeter Cathedral (say) is it all just down to the words and music, or are there props, as you'd see at Easter or Harvest Festival?

    1. There is no definitive account about the end our Lady's life. Some believe that it ended in Jerusalem and some that it ended in Ephesus as in this account
      Also some, like Pope St John Paul II, believe that she died and some that she did not. The most enjoyable legend is the one that suggests that all the Apostles gathered to say farewell except St Thomas who arrived too late to witness it all AGAIN.
      I haven't personally encountered any special 'props' but in a worldwide Church there will be some local variations such as are listed on this traddie site

  2. Your account has brought to mind my late father, a Wesleyan Methodist, who used practically to froth at the mouth at any mention of the Assumption. I think his objection stemmed from the 1950 ex cathedra pronouncement. "All of a sudden, Catholics are told by the Pope that they HAVE to believe in this," was his complaint.

    1. I think it would be hard to argue that the proclamation of the dogma did anything more than express the sensus fidelium. It had been the widespread and almost universal belief of the Church for centuries. Any Catholic who already believed all the other elements of the Catholic faith would be hard put to find any objections to raise to the doctrine being defined. Theological liberals would wince but then they would have difficulties with many other doctrines too.
      If your father was objecting to the arbitrary and despotic use of papal power he may not have fully understood the limits within which it is constrained. It is no more or less authoritarian than an Ecumenical Council 'all of a sudden' telling Christians to believe in the Trinity. A Pope cannot contradict anything which has already been defined and received into the Magisterium of the Church. Nor can he introduce anything which cannot be shown to be part of the deposit of faith received from the Apostles. Since Christianity is a revealed religion not a philosophy it rests entirely upon what God has let be known about Himself and the age of public revelation which is universally binding on believers ended when the Apostle St John died. So what Pius XII of blessed memory did was simply to summarise what was already believed and confirm that this belief did indeed form part of the deposit of faith.