August 15th is the Feast of the Assumption. Around this feast cluster so many associations that a wide variety of images can prompt meditation. From the Orthodox Church comes another name for the Assumption: the Dormition of Mary.
The word dormition means sleep; icons portray Mary as falling asleep in the Lord. With roles reversed, Christ holds her wrapped in a burial sheet as if she were a newborn child. Christians remember how she held him, wrapped in swaddling clothes, newly born into this life. “Your grave and death,” they sing on August 15, “could not keep the Mother of Life.
In St Luke’s Gospel on this Solemnity of the Assumption, the Evangelist records the words of Our Lady as she prays: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”. Before reciting the Angelus, Pope Francis reflected on the two verbs in that prayer: to rejoice and to magnify.
“We rejoice when something so beautiful happens that it is not enough to rejoice inside, in the soul, but we want to express happiness with the whole body”, said the Pope. “Mary rejoices because of God… she teaches us to rejoice in God, because He does “great things”.
“To magnify means to exalt a reality for its greatness, for its beauty”, continued Pope Francis. “Mary proclaims the greatness of the Lord… she shows us that if we want our life to be happy, God must be placed first, because He alone is great”. The Pope warned of getting lost in the pettiness of life, chasing after things of little importance: “prejudices, grudges, rivalries, envy, and superfluous material goods”. Mary, on the other hand, invites us to “look upward at the ‘great things’ the Lord has accomplished in her”.
The Gate to Heaven
“Mary, who is a human creature, one of us, reaches eternity in body and soul”, said Pope Francis. This is why we invoke her as the “Gate of Heaven”. “There she awaits us, just as a mother waits for her children to come home”. We are like pilgrims on our way home to Heaven. Seeing that “in paradise, together with Christ, the New Adam, there is also her, Mary, the new Eve, gives us comfort and hope in our pilgrimage down here”.
Heaven is open
For those who are afflicted with doubts and sadness, “and live with their eyes turned downwards”, the Feast of the Assumption is a call to “look upwards” and see that “Heaven is open”. It is no longer distant, and we need no longer be afraid: “because on the threshold of Heaven there is a Mother waiting for us”. Mary constantly reminds us that we are precious in the eyes of God, and that we are made for the great joys of Heaven. “Every time we take the Rosary in our hands and pray to her”, he said, “we take a step forward towards our life’s great goal”.
The greatness of Heaven
“Let us be attracted by true beauty”, “let us not be drawn in by the petty things in life, but let us choose the greatness of Heaven”. Pope Francis concluded by praying that the Blessed Virgin Mary, Gate of Heaven, may help us daily to fix our gaze with confidence and joy “on the place where our true home lies”.
The Assumption signals the end of Mary’s earthly life and marks her return to heaven to be reunited with Jesus. While the bodies of both Jesus and Mary are now in heaven, there is a difference between the Assumption and the Resurrection.
Where Jesus arose from the tomb and ascended into heaven by his own power, Mary’s body was taken up to heaven by the power of her Son.
For this reason we use different words to describe each event. One is the Ascension of Christ and the other, the Assumption of Mary.
The Assumption of Mary Feast Day dates back to earliest Christian times.The first believed to have asked what had happened to Mary’s body was St Epiphanius, a 4th Century bishop who devoted himself to the study of Mary’s death and believed Our Lady did not die but instead was recalled to heaven.
The feast day of this holy and momentous event stems from the middle of the 5th Century when the Commemoration of the Mother of Jesus was celebrated each year on 15 August in a shrine located near Jerusalem.
More than 100 years later, the feast also commemorated the end of Mary’s sojourn on earth and was known as the “Dormition of Our Lady.”
“Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory,” Pope Pius told the masses.
For many, the most telling verification of the Assumption can be found not only in learned theological studies or definitive doctrinal statements, but in the medium of Mary’s many apparitions which the Church has declared worthy of belief. Where these apparitions have appeared have become beloved Holy shrines visited by millions each year.
- The Assumption and the World
The definition of the Immaculate Conception was made when the Modern World was born. Within five years of that date, and within six months of the apparition of Lourdes where Mary said, “I am the Immaculate Conception,” Charles Darwin wrote his Origin of Species, Karl Marx completed his Introduction to the Critique of the Philosophy of Hegel (“Religion is the Opium of the people”), and John Stuart Mill published his Essay on Liberty. At the moment the spirit of the world was drawing up a philosophy that would issue in two World Wars in twenty-one years, and the threat of a third, the Church came forward to challenge the falsity of the new philosophy. Darwin took man’s mind off his Divine Origin and fastened it on an unlimited future when he would become a kind of God.
Marx was so impressed with this idea of inevitable progress that he asked Darwin if he would accept a dedication of one of his books. Then, following Feuerbach, Marx affirmed not a bourgeois atheism of the intellect, but an atheism of the will, in which man hates God because man is God. Mill reduced the freedom of the new man to license and the right to do whatever he pleases, thus preparing a chaos of conflicting egotisms, which the world would solve by Totalitarianism.
If these philosophers were right, and if man is naturally good and capable of deification through his own efforts, then it follows that everyone is immaculately conceived. The Believer arose in protest and affirmed that only one human person in all the world is immaculately conceived, that man is prone to sin, and that freedom is best preserved when, like Mary, a creature answers Fiat to the Divine Will.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception wilted and killed the false optimism of the inevitable and necessary progress of man without God. Humbled in his Darwinian-Marxian-Millian pride, modern man saw his doctrine of progress evaporate. The interval between the Napoleonic and Franco-Prussian Wars was fifty-five years; the interval between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I was forty-three years; the interval between World Wars I and II, twenty-one years. Fifty-five, forty-three, twenty-one, and a Korean War five years after World War II is hardly progress. Man finally saw that he was not naturally good. Once having boasted that he came from the beast, he now found himself to be acting as a beast.
Then came the reaction. The Optimistic Man who boasted of his immaculate conception now became the Pessimistic Man who could see within himself nothing but a bundle of libidinous, dark, cavernous drives. As in the definition of the Immaculate Conception, the Believer had to remind the world that perfection is not biologically inevitable, so now in the definition of the Assumption, it has to give hope to the creature of despair.
Modern despair is the effect of a disappointed hedonism and centers principally around Sex and Death. To these two ideas, which preoccupy the modern mind, the Assumption is indirectly related.
The primacy of Sex is to a great extent due to Sigmund Freud, whose basic principle in his own words is: “Human actions and customs derive from sexual impulses, and fundamentally, human wishes are unsatisfied sexual desires. … Consciously or unconsciously, we all wish to unite with our mothers and kill our fathers, as Oedipus did unless we are female, in which case we wish to unite with our fathers and murder our mothers.” The other major concern of modern thought is Death. The beautiful philosophy of being is reduced to Dasein, which is only in-der-Weltsein. There is no freedom, no spirit, and no personality. Freedom is for death. Liberty is contingency threatened with complete destruction. The future is nothing but a projection of death.
The aim of existence is to look death in the eye. Jean-Paul Sartre passes from a phenomenology of sexuality to that which he calls “nausea,” or a brazen confrontation of nothingness, toward which existence tends. Nothing precedes man; nothing follows man. Whatever is opposite him is a negation of his ego, and therefore nothingness. God created the world out of nothingness; Sartre creates nothingness out of the world and the despairing human heart. “Man is a useless passion.”
Agnosticism and Pride were the twin errors the Believer had to meet in the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. When the Agnostics of the last century came in contact with the world and its three libidos, they became libertines. But when pleasure diminished and made hungry where most it satisfied, the agnostics, who had become libertines by attaching themselves to the world, now began in disgust to withdraw themselves from the world and became philosophers of Existentialism. Philosophers like Sartre, and Heidegger, and others are born of a detachment from the world, not as the Christian ascetic, because he loves God, but because they are disgusted with the world. They become contemplatives, not to enjoy God, but to wallow in their despair, to make a philosophy out of it, to be brazen about their boredom, and to make death the center of their destiny.
The new contemplatives are in the monasteries of the jaded, which are built not along the waters of Siloe, but along the dark banks of the Styx.
These two basic ideas of modem thought, Sex and Death, are not unrelated. Freud himself hinted at the union of Eros and Thanatos. Sex brings death, first of all because in sex the other person is possessed, or annihilated, or ignored for the sake of pleasure. But this subjection implies a compression and a destruction of life for the sake of the Eros. Secondly, death is a shadow which is cast over sex. Sex seeks pleasure, but since it assumes that this life is all, every pleasure is seasoned not only with a diminishing return, but also with the thought that death will end pleasure forever. Eros is Thanatos. Sex is Death.
From a philosophical point of view, the Doctrine of the Assumption meets the Eros-Thanatos philosophy head on, by lifting humanity from the darkness of Sex and Death to the light of Love and Life. These are the two philosophical pillars on which rests the belief in the Assumption.
1-Love. The Assumption affirms not Sex but Love. St. Thomas in his inquiry into the effects of love mentions ecstasy as one of them. In ecstasy one is “lifted out of his body,” an experience which poets and authors and orators have felt in a mild form when in common parlance, “they were carried away by their subject.” On a higher level, the spiritual phenomenon of levitation is due to such an intense love of God that saints are literally lifted off the earth. Love, like fire, burns upward, since it is basically desire. It seeks to become more and more united with the object that is loved. Our sensate experiences are familiar with the earthly law of gravitation which draws material bodies to the earth. But in addition to terrestrial gravitation, there is a law of spiritual gravitation, which increases as we get closer to God. This “pull” on our hearts by the Spirit of God is always present, and it is only our refusing wills and the weakness of our bodies as a result of sin which keep us earth-bound. Some souls become impatient with the restraining body; St. Paul asks to be delivered from its prison house.
If God exerts a gravitational pull on all souls, given the intense love of Our Lord for His Blessed Mother which descended, and the intense love of Mary for Her Lord which ascended, there is created a suspicion that love at this stage would be so great as “to pull the body with it.” Given further an immunity from Original Sin, there would not be in the Body of Our Lady the dichotomy, tension, and opposition that exists in us between body and soul. If the distant moon moves all the surging tides of earth, then the love of Mary for Jesus and the love of Jesus for Mary should result in such an ecstasy as “to lift her out of this world.”
Love in its nature is an Ascension in Christ and an Assumption in Mary. So closely are Love and the Assumption related that a few years ago the writer, when instructing a Chinese lady, found that the one truth in Christianity which was easiest for her to believe was the Assumption. She personally knew a saintly soul who lived on a mat in the woods, whom thousands of people visited to receive her blessing. One day, according to the belief of all who knew the saint, she was “assumed” into heaven. The explanation the convert from Confucianism gave was: “Her love was so great that her body followed her soul.” One thing is certain: the Assumption is easy to understand if one loves God deeply, but it is hard to understand if one loves not.
Plato in his Symposium, reflecting the Grecian view of the elevation of love, says that love of the flesh should lead to love of the spirit. The true meaning of love is that it leads to God. Once the earthly love has fulfilled its task, it disappears, as the symbol gives way to reality. The Assumption is not the killing of the Eros, but its transfiguration through Agape. It does not say that love in a body is wrong, but it does hold that it can be so right, when it is Godward, that the beauty of the body itself is enhanced.
Our Age of Carnality which loves the Body Beautiful is lifted out of its despair, born of the Electra and Oedipus incests, to a Body that is Beautiful because it is a Temple of God, a Gate through which the Word of Heaven passed to earth, a Tower of Ivory up which climbed Divine Love to kiss upon the lips of His Mother a Mystic Rose. With one stroke of an infallible dogmatic pen, the Church lifts the sacredness of love out of sex without denying the role of the body in love. Here is one body that reflects in its uncounted hues the creative love of God. To a world that worships the body, the Believer now says: “There are two bodies in Heaven, one the glorified human nature of Jesus, the other the assumed human nature of Mary. Love is the secret of the Ascension of one and of the Assumption of the other, for Love craves unity with its Beloved. The Son returns to the Father in the unity of Divine Nature; and Mary returns to Jesus in the unity of human nature. Her nuptial flight is the event to which our whole generation moves.”
2-Life. Life is the second philosophical pillar on which the Assumption rests. Life is unitive; death is divisive. Goodness is the food of life, as evil is the food of death. Errant sex impulses are the symbol of the body’s division from God as a result of original sin. Death is the last stroke of that division. Wherever there is sin, there is multiplicity: the Devil says, “My name is Legion; there are many of us.” (Mark 5:9.) But life is immanent activity. The higher the life, the more immanent is the activity, says St. Thomas. The plant drops its fruit from a tree, the animal drops its kind for a separate existence, but the spiritual mind of man begets the fruit of a thought which remains united to the mind, although distinct from it. Hence intelligence and life are intimately related. Da mihi intellectum et vivam. God is perfect life because of perfect inner intellectual activity. There is no extrinsicism, no dependence, no necessary outgoing on the part of God.
Since the imperfection of life comes from remoteness to the source of life and because of sin, it follows that the creature who is preserved from Original Sin is immune from that psychological division which sin begets. The Immaculate Conception guarantees a highly integrated and unified life. The purity of such a life is threefold: a physical purity which is integrity of body; a mental purity without any desire for a division of love, which love of creatures apart from God would imply; and finally, a psychological purity which is immunity from the uprising of concupiscence, the sign and symbol of our weakness and diversity. This triple purity is the essence of the most highly unified creature whom this world has ever seen.
Added to this intense life in Mary, which is free from the division caused by sin, there is still a higher degree of life because of her Divine Motherhood. Through her portals Eternity became young and appeared as a Child; through her, as to another Moses, not the tables of the Law, but the Logos was given and written on her own heart; through her, not a manna which men eat and die, but the Eucharist descends, which if a man eats, he will never die.
But if those who commune with the Bread of Life never die, then what shall we say of her who was the first living Ciborium of that Eucharist, and who on Christmas day opened it at the communion rail of Bethlehem to say to Wise Men and Shepherds: “Behold the Lamb of God Who taketh away the sins of the world”?
Here there is not just a life free from the division which brings death, but a life united with Eternal Life. Shall she, as the garden in which grew the lily of Divine sinlessness and the red rose of the passion of redemption, be delivered over to the weeds and be forgotten by the Heavenly Gardener? Would not one communion preserved in grace through life ensure a heavenly immortality? Then shall not she, in whose womb was celebrated the nuptials of eternity and time, be more of eternity than time? As she carried Him for nine months, there was fulfilled in another way the law of life: “And they shall be two in one flesh.”
No grown men and women would like to see the home in which they were reared subjected to the violent destruction of a bomb, even though they no longer lived in it. Neither would Omnipotence, Who tabernacled Himself within Mary, consent to see His fleshy home subjected to the dissolution of the tomb. If grown men love to go back to their homes when they reach the fullness of life, and become more conscious of the debt they owe their mothers, then shall not Divine Life go back in search of His living cradle and take that “flesh-girt paradise” to Heaven with Him, there to be “gardenered by the Adam new”?
In this Doctrine of the Assumption, the Believer meets the despair of the world in a second way. It affirms the beauty of life as against death. When wars, sex, and sin multiply the discords of men, and death threatens on every side, the Believer bids us to lift up our hearts to the life that has the immortality of the Life which nourished it. Feuerbach said that a man is what he eats. He was more right than he knew. Eat the food of earth, and one dies; eat the Eucharist, and one lives eternally. She, who is the mother of the Eucharist, escapes the decomposition of death.
The Assumption challenges the nothingness of the Mortician philosophers in a new way. The greatest task of the spiritual leaders today is to save mankind from despair, into which Sex and Fear of Death have cast it. The world that used to say, “Why worry about the next world, when we live in this one?” has finally learned the hard way that, by not thinking about the next life, one cannot even enjoy this life.
When optimism completely breaks down and becomes pessimism, the believer holds forth the promise of hope. Threatened as we are by war on all sides, with death about to be rained from the sky by Promethean fires, the believer defines a Truth that has Life at its center. Like a kindly mother whose sons are going off to war, she strokes our heads and says: “You will come back alive, as Mary came back again after walking down the valley of Death.” As the world fears defeat by death, the believer sings the defeat of death. Is not this the harbinger of a better world, as the refrain of life rings out amidst the clamors of the philosophers of death?
As Communism or Capitalism teaches that man has only a body, but not a soul, so the believer answers: “Then let us begin with a Body.” As the mystical body of the anti-Christ gathers around the tabernacle doors of the cadaver of Lenin, periodically filled with wax to give the illusion of immortality to those who deny immortality, the Mystical Body of Christ bids the despairing to gaze on the two most serious wounds earth ever received: the empty tomb of Christ and the empty tomb of Mary.
In 1854 the Church spoke of the Soul in the Immaculate Conception. In 1950 its language was about the Body: the Mystical Body, the Eucharist, and the Assumption. With deft dogmatic strokes the believer is repeating Paul’s truth to another pagan age: “Your bodies are meant for the Lord.” There is nothing in a body to beget despair.
Man is related to Nothingness, as the philosophers of Decadentism teach, but only in his origin, not in his destiny. They put Nothingness as the end; the Church puts it at the beginning, for man was created ex nihilo. The modern man gets back to nothingness through despair; the Christian knows nothingness only through self-negation, which is humility. The more that the pagan “nothings” himself, the closer he gets to the hell of despair and suicide.
The more the Christian “nothings” himself, the closer he gets to God. Mary went so deep down into Nothingness that she became exalted. Respexit humilitatem ancillae suae. He looked humble servant And her exaltation was also her Assumption.
Coming back to the beginning … to Eros and Thanatos: Sex and Death, said Freud, are related. They are related in this sense: Eros as egotistic love leads to the death of the soul. But the world need not live under that curse. The Assumption gives Eros a new meaning. Love does lead to death. Where there is love, there is self-forgetfulness, and the maximum in self-forgetfulness is the surrender of life. “Greater love than this no man hath, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13.) Our Lord’s love led to His death. Mary’s love led to her transfixion with seven swords. Greater love than this no woman hath, that she stand beneath the Cross of her Son to share, in her own way, in the Redemption of the world.
Within three decades the definition of the Assumption will cure the pessimism and despair of the modern world. Freud, who did so much to develop this pessimism, took as his motto: “If I cannot move the Gods on high, I shall set all hell in an uproar.” That uproar which he created will now be stilled by a Lady as powerful as an “army drawn up in battle array.” The age of the “body beautiful” will now become the age of the Assumption.
In Mary there is a triple transition. In the Annunciation we pass from the holiness of the Old Testament to the holiness of Christ. At Pentecost we pass from the holiness, of the Historical Christ to the holiness of the Mystical Christ or His Body. Mary here receives the Spirit for a second time. The first overshadowing was to give birth to the Head of the believer; this second overshadowing is to give birth to His Body as she is in the midst of the Apostles abiding in prayer. The third transition is the Assumption, as she becomes the first human person to realize the historical destiny of the faithful as members of Christ’s Mystical Body, beyond time, beyond death, and beyond judgment.
Mary is always in the vanguard of humanity. She is compared to Wisdom, presiding at Creation; she is announced as the Woman who will conquer Satan, as the Virgin who will conceive. She becomes the first person since the Fall to have a unique and unrepeatable kind of union with God; she mothers the infant Christ in Bethlehem; she mothers the Mystical Christ at Jerusalem; and now, by her Assumption, she goes ahead like her Son to prepare a place for us. She participates in the glory of Her Son, reigns with Him, presides at His Side over the destinies of the Church in time, and intercedes for us, to Him, as He, in His turn, intercedes to the Heavenly Father.
Adam came before Eve chronologically. The new Adam, Christ, comes after the new Eve, Mary, chronologically, although existentially He preceded her as the Creator a creature.
By stressing for the moment only the time element, Mary always seems to be the Advent of what is in store for man. She anticipates Christ for nine months, as she bears Heaven within her; she anticipates His Passion at Cana, and His Church at Pentecost. Now, in the last great Doctrine of the Assumption, she anticipates heavenly glory, and the definition comes at a time when men think of it least.
One wonders if this could not be the last of the great Truths of Mary to be defined by the Church. Anything else might seem to be an anticlimax after she is declared to be in Heaven, body and soul. But actually there is one other truth left to be defined, and that is that she is the Mediatrix, under Her Son, of all graces. As St. Paul speaks of the Ascension of Our Lord as the prelude to His intercession for us, so we, fittingly, should speak of the Assumption of Our Lady as a prelude to her intercession for us. First, the place, Heaven; then, the function, intercession. The nature of her role is not to call Her Son’s attention to some need, in an emergency unnoticed by Him, nor is it to “win” a difficult consent. Rather it is to unite herself to His compassionate Mercy and give a human voice to His Infinite Love. The main ministry of Mary is to incline men’s hearts to obedience to the Will of Her Divine Son. Her last recorded words at Cana are still her words in the Assumption: “Whatsoever He shall say to you, that do ye.”
- look also:
Assumption, Dormition of Mary and Sufism