It is not often that the Feast of the Assumption of Mary falls on a Sunday, displacing the regular readings as it does today. This ancient feast of the Christian Church is both a consolation and a challenge. For today we celebrate not only the resurrection of the mother of Jesus and her triumph over sin and death by the special grace of God, but we anticipate our own resurrection and entrance into glory. The shadow of death hovers over our joy, but as we, too, face the sad, certain fate of all humanity, our faith tells us we shall rise again and, by the grace of God, enter the joy of heaven. The challenge to faith comes from biblical fundamentalism that refuses to celebrate because the death and resurrection of Mary as the first of faithful believers and the Mother of the Lord, is not described in the New Testament.
Catholic Christians have believed otherwise, and from the earliest times. But the testimony of scripture here, as
in many respects, is couched in poetry and symbol. Fluff, say the skeptics. But the fact remains that God’s revelation takes the forms God gives it in human words, and the most sublime of those take the form of poetic symbol.
Mary was not the first to be resurrected by Jesus. According to Matthew 27:51, when Jesus died “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” In later Christian belief, these saints ascended with Jesus into heaven. In Ephesians 4:8, we read “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to human beings.”
Those early Christians had no problem applying the Epistle to the Corinthians to Jesus’ mother, as we have seen in today’s second reading, “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” [1 Cor. 15:20-23].
Whatever Matthew may have meant, Paul, and the early Christians believed or did not believe, one thing is clear: Catholic Christians have believed from at least the fourth century that Mary was raised from death by the power of God and assumed into heaven. For whatever else it’s worth, no one has ever claimed to have found Mary’s body or to have possessed a bodily relic — even in the heyday of relics.
In today’s readings, especially the gospel of Luke, Mary is compared to the Ark of the Covenant. Luke conveys the imagery in his account of the Annunciation [Luke 1:35]. Christians did not miss his point, as we hear in the ancient Litany of Loretto, where Mary is given the title, “Ark of the Covenant.” It is important to recall that the Ark did not contain God: according to tradition it contained the tablets of the Mosaic Law, the rod of Moses, and some of the manna. But the Divine Presence became manifest over the ark between two cherubim. For Luke to use the imagery of the ark for Mary, then, means that the Spirit of God overshadowed her, as he says in the gospel, that the presence of God became manifest through her.
Had Mary not heard the word of God and kept it faithfully in her heart, as Luke also tells us, not only would the world have never heard of her, but the plan of God for the salvation of the human race would have taken a very different course. But, as Einstein said, God does not play dice with the universe. Mary was free and her freedom corresponded exactly with God’s saving wisdom.
One of the oldest feasts, the Assumption of Mary has been celebrated in the Christian church from at least the fourth century. What it means for us and what it does not mean are equally important. Like the Ark, and like Jesus himself, Mary disappears from the world of human vision. She died. But death held no power over her. Her resurrection and assumption into heaven, into the unveiled presence of God, was not merely her reward for good behavior. Mary embodies the Church, she is the New Eve, the New Israel, she is the faithful hearer of the word, the true witness. She follows Jesus in his ministry, and after his death, prays with the disciples and receives the Holy Spirit, who once again hovers over the maiden mother. She follows Jesus into the mystery of death, showing us the way, and God raises her to new life in Christ, body and soul, a sign and pledge of our own transformation.
What the feast we celebrate does not mean, despite all the baroque paintings, is that Mary was taken “up” into heaven. Heaven is not physically “up” to begin with. Heaven is the unveiled presence of God, it is not a location like the place the Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin looked for and couldn’t find when he went into space for the first time. Where God is, Mary is, in Christ, the Lord of the Cosmos. What the Assumption also does not mean is that somehow Mary is different from all of us. It is just the contrary. Mary was totally and completely human, sharing everything with us except sinfulness. But, like Jesus, she, too, suffered the consequences of human sinfulness, the greatest of which was watching her son unjustly tortured and executed.
Mary is one of us, mother and elder sister of the new humanity called into being by God through the resurrection and glorification of Christ. The Assumption of Mary is an aspect of the mystery of the Ascension of Jesus, a pledge and actual inauguration of the transformation of humanity into its divinized future. When we celebrate the Assumption, we celebrate our solidarity with Mary and all human beings as the new people of God, called to glory everlasting.
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” [Luke 1:46-48].