The Solemnity of the Assumption. Fr Peter Harries speaks of the consolation offered to us by our belief in the presence of Our Lady in heaven.
Hope. A central theme, I suggest, on this feast of the Assumption. Mary is in heaven, through the passion, resurrection and ascension of her only son, Jesus our Lord and our God. From the early generations of the Church, God’s holy people have been confident that Mary the all-holy is in heaven, interceding for us who are sinners. For centuries this has been a given part of Christian revelation. Mary the sinless virgin, the all-pure Mother of God, hope of the faithful, lives for us in heaven.
However, the formal declaration of the doctrine of the Assumption was made as late as 1950 by Pope Pius XII. This was five years after the Second World War with its terrible destruction of human life, property and virtue, disasters accompanied with individual acts of heroic charity. In 1950 the malevolent grip of soviet-style communism was tightening over various lands with a false human-orientated messianic hope, also very destructive of virtue. Against this background of violence, oppression and dehumanisation, all justified by various false philosophies, Pope Pius XII assisted by the world’s bishops asserted our Christian hope. Mary our Mother is in heaven.
The Pope was careful to encompass a certain diversity within Catholic tradition. In the apse of an Italian cathedral, not far from Rome, I recall seeing a massive early Renaissance fresco depicting the funeral procession of Our Lady. Mary’s body is being carried out of the city by the apostles on a funeral bier. Especially in the Christian east, icons show the apostles surrounding Mary’s death bed while Jesus carries her off into heaven. This emphasis is often termed the Dormition (or falling asleep) of Mary. There are plenty of massive baroque altar paintings of Mary assumed into heaven, often prefiguring the coronation of Mary as Queen amid the glory of the saints. All these artistic representations are perfectly orthodox, capturing diverse parts of the mystery. I do admit to being slightly surprised in an Italian Franciscan sanctuary to discover a recumbent wooden statue of Mary lying, eyes closed, on her deathbed. Pope Pius XII was careful; the formal declaration declares carefully that Mary at the end of life was assumed into heaven, neither denying nor asserting that Mary died a natural death. Eastern Christian devotion to the Dormition of the Virgin presenting a complimentary orthodox way of the mystery.
The theologians may insist that the greatest of Marian feasts is the Annunciation, when Mary said yes to God, through his messenger the angel Gabriel. We should indeed be like Mary and always be open to saying yes to God, whether in our youth as Mary was, or in our grey-haired years. However, in popular devotion it is often today’s feast of the Assumption that speaks to our hearts with hope for God’s people. Mary has been assumed into heaven, there she prays for us, we can dare to have hope.
Mary’s assumption into heaven is a bodily assumption, not the salvation of only her spirit or essence. Our hope involves our whole beings, bodies, spirit, soul. We have bodies made in the image and likeness of God. We are not disembodied spirits. Neither are we simply bodies subject only to our emotions and desires. We have minds and are beings capable of thinking, reasoning and hoping. It is through our bodies, by speech, by listening, by seeing that we know each other and learn love. Through what we learn with our bodies we open ourselves to God’s grace and growth in virtue.
War, violence, famine, and sickness have constantly ravaged the bodies of God’s people. In 1950 these effects were all too present and the memories raw for so many people. The church affirmed then, and now, the importance of human bodies. Caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless were a big part of life then. These corporal acts of mercy should distinguish us now as Christian people just as in past ages. We have recently kept the feast of St Lawrence who offered the treasures of church to the persecuting pagan Roman authorities in the mid third century; not the money and silver the authorities were lusting for, but rather Christ’s diseased and malnourished poor, the orphans, cripples, and widows, those socially excluded by the powerful hierarchies of the time.
We are coming through this covid epidemic. Many have died prematurely, others been left poor by the economic consequences. Some of the sick have had much needed treatment delayed. So many children have missed out of part of their education. There has been great heroism by many hospital staff amongst others. There has been much kindness by erstwhile strangers to quarantined neighbours. Hope has been lived. May we as Christian people flourish in hope, caring for the bodies of others. We trust in the intercession for us and our loved ones by Mary, the bodily assumed Mother of God in heaven. Hope radiates hope, so let our virtue give hope to those around us trapped in despair or hatred or falsity.