Solemnity of the Assumption – 2015
They brought in the ark of God and set it within the tent… I Chr. 16
One of the favorite subjects of medieval and renaissance art was the Virgin Mary standing beneath the Cross of her Son. This theme was surely so popular because of the deep emotional content of the scene, when we see Mary suffering the horrific torment of a mother who must witness the excruciating suffering of her son, the fruit of her womb. In addition, this image of Mary beneath the Cross suggests to us quite powerfully the truth that Mary was most intimately associated with the destiny of her son from the first moment of His conception to the last moment of His life on earth, and even beyond time and space into Eternity itself.
Mary’s Assumption is absolutely integral to her association with her Son and His destiny. It is an ancient belief, even though it was only formally defined as a doctrine of the faith in 1950. Indeed, from the early days of the Church we have evidence of a belief among the learned and the simple faithful alike that Mary was assumed body and soul into Heaven. It was inconceivable that God would allow her body, from which the body of the Son of God was generated, to undergo any corruption. St. John Damascene a Greek Father of the 8th Century, writes beautifully of this doctrine, and his writing is based upon ancient traditions of both the eastern and western Churches.
However, today’s great festival cannot be properly understood, nor can we fully enter into the joy of the Church today, without focusing on the intimate connection that forever exists between the Savior of the World and His Mother, who was also made our Mother as she stood there beneath the Cross on Calvary. It is our faith that Mary is the New Eve, just as her Son is the New Adam, the progenitors of a new human race which, as John says, is not generated from the flesh (of human stock) or by the will of man, but is reborn from above, in the Spirit, as a new spiritual humanity that dares to call God our Father.
So Mary is the new Eve, the mother of many peoples, and she is the immaculate and unspotted Ark of the New Covenant. Just as the original 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 is the Ark of the New Covenant, who actually carried the Holy of Holies in her womb for nine months. Moreover, we know by faith that Mary was preserved from all stain of sin, precisely because she would be this glorious Ark that carried God’s Son, and nursed him and cared for him, and then accompanied him from a distance as he began His saving mission, until at last she drew near again as he suffered and died for mankind’s salvation.
When the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed the first time in 587BC, the Ark completely disappeared, 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, perfectly preserved, uncorrupted, just as her soul was never touched by the stain of sin.
St. John Damascene, writing of the assumption not many centuries later, speaks of a constant tradition in the Church that Mary was assumed into Heaven, for the Lord, he insisted, would not allow her virginal body, from which His own body had been taken, to suffer the corruption which is due to sin, something His mother never knew in her entire earthly existence.
Indirectly confirming this ancient tradition of her assumption is the otherwise almost inexplicable fact that in Christian history we have absolutely no evidence of a burial shrine for Mary. Who could imagine that early Christians would not have honored Mary’s body if it were on this earth, when archeologists have now discovered burial monuments at St. Peter’s tomb which go back to the earliest days of the Church in Rome.
Just so, Mary’s destiny was so closely tied to her Son’s that like His body which was not allowed to know corruption and was raised from the dead to glory so also it was most fitting that the body of Mary was also to be raised in glory without suffering any corruption. Christ is the first fruits, but following in proper order, as St. Paul puts it, came the Mother who had given birth to Him and had suffered with him at the Cross in such a way as to merit the glory that follows the Cross in the mystery of salvation.
In November of 1950, Pope Pius XII infallibly defined this ancient belief of the Christian People to be a doctrine of our faith. Why the Holy Spirit waited for 20 centuries to make this a defined article of faith is ultimately known only to God. But surely it may well have something to do with helping the Catholic faithful today to resist the most incredibly powerful ideologies of our own time which disparage the dignity of the body, reducing it to a mere instrument to be used by man for whatever purposes man 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 material or biological, and not as something truly sacred. Our age may speak eloquently of freedom and man’s intellectual achievements, but the body itself no longer commands the respect of being something truly sacred and is no longer seen as the temple of the Holy Spirit, the dwelling place of God for Eternity.
Today we hear more and more people dismiss the sins of the flesh as trivial matters, not even sins, while St. Paul saw such impurities as despoiling the temple of God. Today the human body is often considered mainly as a means of physical gratifications and biological functions, or even a disposable matter, as in the recent Planned Parenthood scandals. It is seen by fewer and fewer people to be in any way the living expression of the spiritual side of man’s nature, inseparably ordained to the soul in the unity of a human person.
Believing Christians, on the other hand, since the Incarnation of God, have recognized the inherent dignity and sacredness of the human body, since God himself assumed and sanctified it forever in His own flesh. So too, the Assumption of Mary reminds us that the body itself is destined to be part of the final temple of God’s presence, and that is why Mary’s perfect fulfillment required the glorification and assumption of her body into Heaven.
Mary has always been the guardian of orthodoxy in the Church, and her Assumption serves to guarantee the truth that man, the whole 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 that are our bodies, and it helps us to hope for the day when these temples will be raised from corruption to share the glory of God forever in Heaven. Since we, unlike Mary, have known sin, we will suffer sin’s consequence of death, and our bodies, unlike hers, will undergo the corruption of the grave. But we also profess our faith today that these same bodies, like Mary’s, will be raised incorruptible to share the glory she was privileged to share without her body ever having been touched by the consequences of sin.
So today, in a special way, we keep our eyes fixed on Heaven, and on the glorious triumph over sin and death that our Mother Mary experiences, beginning from the day when she was assumed into Heaven. We know that her victory is the prelude to and promise of 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 our Beacon of Hope, and to her we pray: Mother 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.