Solemnity of the Assumption
God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant
could be seen in the temple. [Rev. 11:19A]
One of the favorite subjects of medieval and renaissance art was the Virgin Mary standing beneath the Cross of her Son. This theme was popular not simply because of the deep emotional content of the scene, where the mother of all mothers is suffering the greatest torment of a mother who must witness the excruciating suffering of the fruit of her womb. It is also important because it suggests quite powerfully the truth that Mary was most intimately associated with the destiny of her son from the first moment of his conception in her womb, to the last moment of his life on earth, and even beyond time and space into Eternity itself. And finally, through her Son, she is most intimately associated with us as her adopted children.
Today’s great festival cannot be properly understood, nor can we fully enter into the unending joy of the Church in Heaven and into the true but limited joy of the Church on earth today, unless we focus our attention on this close connection that exists forever between the Savior of the World and His Mother, she who has been made our Mother when she stood there beneath the Cross on Calvary. Holy Mary is the New Eve, just as her son is the New Adam. They are the progenitors of a new human race, as John says, not generated from the flesh, of human stock, or by the will of man, but reborn from above, in the Spirit, a new spiritual humanity that dares to call Almighty God our Father.
Mary, then, is indeed the new Eve, the mother of many nations and peoples, the immaculate and unspotted Ark of the New Covenant. Just as the ancient ark carried the 10 Commandments, the Law of Israel, and was placed in the holy of holies in the temple at Jerusalem, as the special dwelling place of God, so Mary became the Ark of the New Covenant, who actually carried the Holy of Holies in her womb for nine months. We know that Mary was totally preserved from all stain of sin, precisely because she would become the Ark that carried God’s Son, the Mother who nursed Him and cared for Him, and eventually accompanied him from a distance as he began his saving mission, until at last she drew near Him again as he suffered and died for mankind’s salvation.
When the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed the first time in 587BC, the Ark of the Covenant disappeared forever, almost certainly hidden by the Jews to escape desecration at the hands of the pagans. So too has the body of Mary been taken up from this world and preserved eternally uncorrupted, just as her soul was never touched by the stain of sin here on earth. St. Paul says that our lives are now “hidden” in Christ, and so too Mary is now “hidden” in her Son until He returns to judge the world. Then she will no longer hidden but there ar his right hand reserved for her by the Father from all eternity.
St. John Damascene, writing on the assumption not many centuries later, speaks of a constant tradition in the Church that Mary was assumed into Heaven, for, he argued, the Lord would never allow her virginal body, from which his own had been assumed, to suffer the corruption which is only due to sin, something His mother never knew in her whole existence. Indirectly confirming this ancient tradition of her assumption is the otherwise almost inexplicable fact that we have no evidence of a burial shrine for Mary in Christian history. Who could imagine that Christians would not have honored Mary’s body if it were still somewhere on this earth, when we still today have the successive monuments at Peter’s tomb which go back to the earliest days of the Church in Rome.
No, Mary’s destiny, her predestination, was so closely tied to her Son’s, that just as his body was not allowed to know any corruption but was raised from the dead and glorified, so the body of Mary would also be raised to Heaven and glorified. Christ is the first fruits, but surely following in the order of the resurrection, as St. Paul refers to it, would come the Mother who had given birth to Him, who had suffered her own crucifixion with him at the Cross, and who had thus merited the glory that follows the Cross in the mystery of salvation.
In November of 1950, Pope Pius XII made this ancient belief of the Christian People a formally defined doctrine of our creed. Why the Holy Spirit waited for 20 centuries to make this belief a formal article of faith is ultimately known only to God. But perhaps it has something to do with helping the Catholic faithful in our age to overcome the powerful contemporary ideologies that tend to disparage the dignity of the body, reducing it to a mere instrument to be used by man for whatever purposes he chooses. There has always been a powerful temptation to divide man in two, and to identify the truly human with the mind or soul, while the body is seen as merely something purely temporary, material and biological, and not as something truly sacred and meant for eternity. Our age may speak of freedom or intellect in terms of the sacred, but the body no longer commands the respect of being considered sacred, and is no longer seen as the temple of the Holy Spirit, the dwelling place of God for the rest of Eternity.
Today we hear people dismiss the sins of the flesh as trivial, while St. Paul saw them as despoiling the temple of God. Today the body is often considered simply as a means of physical gratifications and biological functions, but not as the living expression of the spiritual side of man’s nature, inseparably ordered to the soul in the unity of one person. Ever since the Incarnation of God, believing Christians have recognized the sacredness of the human body which God himself assumed and sanctified forever in his own flesh. So too, the Assumption of Mary reminds us that the body is part of that final temple of God’s presence, and that Mary’s final fulfillment required the glorification and assumption of her body into Heaven. She then is our hope, for where she has gone, we can now hopr to follow.
Mary has always been the guardian of orthodoxy in the Church, and her Assumption guarantees this great truth that man is made for God, to be the final dwelling place of God, in both body and soul. Her assumption helps us to recognize the sacredness of these temples we possess in our bodies, and her Assumption helps us to hope for and long for the day when these temples will be raised from earthly corruption to share the glory of God forever in Heaven. Since we, unlike Mary, have known sin, we will suffer its consequences in death, and our bodies, unlike hers will know the corruption of the grave. But like Mary, we profess our faith that these same bodies will be raised incorruptible to share the glory she is privileged to share without her body ever having been touched by the consequences of sin.
Today, we keep our eyes fixed on Heaven, and on the glorious triumph over sin and death that our Mother Mary has experienced from the day when she was assumed into Heaven. We know that her victory is the prelude to our own victory, made possible by her son’s death for us, just as for her, though in a more marvelous fashion for her. She is truly our Beacon of Hope, and to her we pray, Mary be ever mindful of your children on earth as we are mindful of you, our Mother in Heaven. Help us by your Son’s death, to conquer death, and by His resurrection to rise to heaven, where with you, the uncorrupted Ark of His presence we shall live and rejoice forever and ever. Amen.