Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Assumption of Mary

Death of the Virgin (Byzantine Art c. 950)
   We Catholics pause in the middle of the summer to celebrate the Assumption of Mary.  For myself it is a special day because on August 15, 1963 I put on the Franciscan habit for the first time in Catskill, NY.  One year and one day later, on August 16, 1964 I professed my first vows as a friar.

   Besides the special meaning that the feast has for me it is good to ask why we celebrate this feast. What meaning does it have for us?  Unfortunately many folks think that both the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are some sort of special reward given to Mary that separates her from the rest of us.  Let's take another look though and ask, "How does it apply to us?" 

   On August 15, 1950 Pope Pius XII declared that belief in the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven was a truth to be believed by Catholics.  Did the pope just decide one August morning that he would make this an obligatory belief for Catholics?  No. Of course not.  he was affirming a truth that goes way back in Christian tradition, one known in the West as the Assumption and in the East as the Holy Dormition (sleeping) of Mary.   Pius XII chose that particular time in history to declare this doctrine as truth because the world was just coming out of the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II.  Millions had been killed, maimed and mutilated and Europe and Japan were in tatters.  It was a way of proclaiming that the salvation that Christ came to bring was not just a spiritual one, but a bodily one as well.  What is given to Mary immediately, a glorified soul and body, is the hope for every human being.  The Gospel text for the feast tells the story of the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth in which Luke places on Mary's lips the canticle known as the Magnificat in which she proclaims that "the hungry will be filled with good things and the rich will be sent away empty." (Lk 1:53).   This gives us a clue as to what this feast means for us and what its challenges are. In the creed we proclaim to believe in the resurrection of the dead.  This means that in some way we have the hope that we will live in eternity not just with a redeemed soul but with a glorified body as well.  In the meantime in this life we are challenged to strive to correct and heal with God's grace all the terrible things that degrade the human body and which degrade earthly human existence--from sexual abuse to sexual promiscuity, to violence in any form which destroys the human person, to helping the poor, especially those who live in the most abject poverty, to striving for peace and an end to war in the face of those who tell us that it is too idealistic, to healing the sick and making sure, as the Church teaches, that all have access to affordable health care.

   The news in recent weeks underlies the importance of this feast.  We are seeing people maimed and mutilated and tortured in Syria and elsewhere.  We see people killed in movie theaters and Sikh temples.  We debate about poverty and health care. We also have witnessed the tremendous feats of the Olympic athletes, not only of the medal winners, but all who worked hard to use their talents and give glory to God through their bodies.  When we get past metaphors which too often betray an understanding of modern science and plum the deeper meaning of this feast we are both affirmed and challenged and can say with St. Iranaeus whom I quoted in my last blog entry that "The glory of God is the human person (Man and woman, body and spirit) fully alive. Mary, assumed into heaven, pray for us!

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