Aug 15, 2014

Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

I don't know how to be simple about today's feast. It is a feast so profound and so moving that I must say too much rather than too little. Most of what follows is excerpted from a beautiful book written by Hugo Rahner, called Our Lady and the Church. If it's depths pass us by the first time, at least it is an introduction to the deeper mystery of Our Lady. What is the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary about? Is it merely a remembrance of some past event, however glorious, that happened to Mary? Why do we celebrate it? In the first place, it is about this glorious event that happened to Mary, the Mother of God. But liturgically and theologically it is more than just that. Liturgically, you will hear in the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer these words: “For today the Virgin Mother of God was assumed into heaven as the beginning and image of your Church's coming to perfection and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people...” Today? On this very calendar day? Yes! The prayers of the Church invite us to enter into the mysteries that we celebrate as if they were before our eyes, so that, we can draw from the contemplation of these mysteries the manifold graces that sustain and nurture our faith. They are not merely past events but the wonderful works of the Lord which sanctify us by contemplating them and dispose us to draw fruit from the Sacrament which we receive from the altar.

We heard in our Gospel the story of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth. When Mary greets Elizabeth, Elizabeth says that John leaped in her womb and “Whom am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?.” And Mary remained with her about three months. What is being set before our eyes of faith for us to contemplate? Mary is the New Ark of the Covenant. When David first thought to bring the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, David exclaimed, “How shall the ark of the Lord come to me?” In David's time the old ark of the covenant remained for three months in the house of Obededom before David brought it to Jerusalem, leaping before it with joy. The old Ark contained in it three things: the staff of Aaron the High Priest, mana from the Exodus, and the Ten Commandments or the Decalogue – the Ten Words. The New Ark, Mary, contains in her womb the True and Eternal High Priest, Jesus Christ, who is the True Bread come down from heaven, who is the Word of God made flesh. In every way the latter is superior to the former. And this helps us to understand our first reading from the Book of Revelation.

St. John the Evangelist says he saw a vision: “God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of the covenant could be seen in the temple.” Is he speaking about he old ark of the covenant? No. He continues in the next chapter to describe the ark of the covenant which he saw: “ A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth.” The ark, the great sign, is Mary. But it is also the Church. Our Lady is the woman who in herself includes all the mysteries of the Church. This is the reality that explains the tensions of the text, for this mystery of the glory of Mary's body is the beginning of the glory of the Church. The woman is clothed with the sun in her heavenly glory. This refers to Mary as well as to the Church-to-be when it comes into perfection. And yet the woman is in the pains of childbirth. This refers to Mary at the foot of the Cross, for we are baptized into the Death of Christ, and so she becomes our Mother in that place, a title confirmed by the words of our Savior to the beloved disciple: “Behold your Mother.” And it refers to the Church, for by the entrance into her baptismal font, as if into her womb, we are born into new life. The woman has already entered into heaven. This refers to the assumption of Mary's body and to the Church Triumphant, the saints in heaven. And yet the woman is still on the painful journey here fleeing into the desert. This refers to Mary in her motherly concern for her children, for a mother's heart is always with her children wherever they may be and it refers to the Church Militant, to us, still on the pilgrimage of faith. Mary is at once the gracious Queen and the sorrowful Mother. St. Pius X teaches in his encyclical Ad diem illum: “Everyone knows that the great woman of Revelation represents the Virgin Mary, who without blemish gave birth to our Head. But the Apostle continues: 'Being with child, she cried travailing in birth and was in pain to be delivered.' John therefore saw the holy Mother of God, who indeed already possessed eternal beatitude, nevertheless in pain at a mysterious birth. What birth was this? It was indeed our own birth, for we are still in exile and in a state of being born for the perfect love of God and for everlasting happiness. And the woman's pain also symbolizes the Virgin's love, because of which she labors with unceasing prayer from her place in heaven, to fill up the number of the elect.” Just as Christ is the New Adam and Head of his Mystical Body, the Church, so Mary is the New Eve and the most illustrious member of his Mystical Body. She signifies the whole Church in a mysterious way. The blending of images of Mary and Holy Church in this one great sign is understood by countless mystics and the Church Fathers when they comment upon these passages.

St. Ephrem the Syrian writes these lines about the great mystery of Mary: “Mary is saying to Jesus: 'Shall I call Thee my son? Or my brother, my spouse or my Lord? For Thou hast given birth to Thy mother: rebirth through water. But truly I am Thy sister: from the seed of David like Thee. And truly I am Thy mother, for I conceived Thee in my womb. Thy bride I am, for Thou has paid the price with Thy death, Thy daughter in rebirth through Thy baptism. The son of the Most High came and rested with me, and I became His mother. Born of me, He in turn has given me rebirth, for He has clothed His mother with a new garment: He has absorbed His own flesh into Himself, and her He has clothed with the sunshine of Himself.” Can we not say the same thing with her? Is Jesus my Savior, my Lord and God? Yes. As a son of Adam he is also my brother according to our shared humanity. As the New Adam, I can also call him my father for I am reborn in Him. Is he not also my spouse, the beloved of my soul?

Psalm 131:8 of the Septuagint and Vulgate versions says: “Arise, O Lord, into thy resting place: thou and the ark, which thou hast sanctified.” St. Thomas Aquinas interprets this verse of our Lady's Assumption. And the Greek Byzantine Liturgy sings on this Feast: “Come hither, all who love this festival, come let us dance and sing, come let us weave to the Church a garland of song: for today the ark of God's presence has come to rest!” Russian Orthodox theology preserves this insight: “High in heavenly glory stands the Virgin Mother of the human race: she has sanctified the whole world of nature, and in her and through her all things shall be gloriously transformed.” And an ancient Armenian hymn for the Feast of the Assumption says, “Today the choirs of fiery spirits look upon our own nature, made of clay, and tremble.”

The mystery we celebrate today is the mystery of Christ redemptive love and the power and glory of His Cross and Resurrection made perfect in the Blessed Virgin Mary. And it is also our own mystery being brought to perfection in us. It is a sign of sure hope and comfort, a sealing of the promise given to us in Christ. His Paschal Mystery is not just a wonder to our eyes as only a deed that shows the glory of God. It is not just an undertaking done for us, but there is also something done to us, to our nature. The Assumption of Mary body and soul into heaven is a mysterious sign that God can communicate to us, to our nature, His very own life, holiness and glory - not only in the joining of our nature to his divinity in the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity but even to us mere creatures. So we celebrate the Solemnity of the event that took place so long ago and we celebrate the sign of God's intention for us to partake in his eternal blessedness body and soul.

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