Promoted to Glory
The Solemnity of the Assumption. Fr Samuel Burke preaches on the unique role of Our Lady in salvation.
I’ve always been struck at how members of the Salvation Army describe the fact of death. When one of their number dies, they say that they’ve been ‘Promoted to Glory’. Now, on the one hand, we Catholics may worry about a certain presumption in such a formulation. And what about purgatory, I hear you cry! Yet, on the other hand, it’s a remarkable statement of confidence that the dead are not gone but elevated, not merely six feet under but destined to a promotion to a celestial dwelling – what St. Thomas Aquinas called the ‘Beatific Vision’ of God himself.
‘Promoted to Glory’ is certainly not presumptuous in the case of the Blessed Virgin Mary. No good Catholic would baulk at describing her Assumption in those terms. Actually, it’s a pretty good short-hand for the belief that Mary was assumed into heaven, body and soul at the end of her earthly life. Perhaps that may serve to alarm certain quarters of the Sally Ann?
For this teaching, like her Immaculate Conception, is not mentioned in the Bible – at least not explicitly. And yet who other than Mary could the Book of Revelation be referring to when, as we read in our First Reading, it speaks of a woman clothed with the sun, the moon under feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head?
And if the resurrection of the body sounds a little fanciful, the Second Reading puts pay to that notion. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul clearly attests to the certainty of bodily resurrection for those who have faith in Christ.
It’s true that Catholics, unlike the Salvation Army, have a second source of authority after scripture: Tradition. While the teaching was infallibly proclaimed by Pope Pius XII in 1950 after consultation with his brother Bishops, it would be quite wrong to regard the Assumption simply as 20th century initiative. Belief in Mary’s Assumption dates back as far as the first centuries of the Church. The object and content of this belief gradually became clearer and more explicit over time — according to a process once characterised by St. John Henry Newman as ‘development’. The teaching developed organically from elements of the primitive faith of the Church, and affirmed subsequently and repeatedly by bishops and saints for many centuries, only to be confirmed solemnly later. To use a legal analogy from my former life as a barrister, the progression is a little bit like when common law is codified in statue. In the context of law as in the development of religious doctrine, a subsequent iteration does not deny prior existence but rather serves as a vehicle to confirm, clarify and communicate it.
What does this teaching mean for us? The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: ‘The Assumption of Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians.’ In other words, Mary is unique in that she was without sin and so did not suffer bodily corruption after death — unlike the rest of us. But she is also a precursor for the rest of us, a trailblazer if you will, after her Son, Jesus. This eschatological dimension means that Mary’s heavenly life serves as a pledge and foreshadowing of the end of every Christian believer. Her unique promotion to glory provides a glimpse to that for which each of us hope and pray.
All of this leaves me wondering whether members of the Salvation Army would credit Mary as being ‘Promoted to Glory’ — and, if not, why not? What would they make of the fact that there has never been a creature on the face of the earth who had collaborated with the Lord in such a magnificent way as Mary. A woman proclaimed in St. Luke’s Gospel by the Archangel Gabriel as ‘full of grace’. How might they reflect upon the Holy Temple in whom God pitched his pent among us? What do they make of the special place Mary had during our Lord’s birth, life and death and the implications for her destiny?
And it leaves me wondering whether we Catholics might do better to consider how, by God’s grace, our own promotion to glory might be coming along? This task is, after all, the important project in our lives. Nothing else matters. And for inspiration and intercession, we can do no better than turn to Our Blessed Mother, assumed into heaven, and definitively ‘Promoted to Glory’.
Image: from a stained glass window at the church of St Aloysius, Somers Town, London, photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew OP