By: Richard H. Bulzacchelli, S.T.L.
August 15 is the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when we celebrate the moment at which Mary was, “taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, when her earthly life was over, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things.” (Lumen Gentium 59) In 1950, with the promulgation of his Apostolic Constitution, Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII infallibly defined this doctrine to be bound-up with the basic claim of faith in Christ. He did not, however, invent it. The Assumption is, in fact, a truly ancient belief among Christians, represented, in one way or another, within some of the earliest iconography of the Church. Interestingly, the Latin Rite emphasizes the Feast of the Assumption less than do most rites in churches of Apostolic origin. Whether called the Assumption, or the Dormition, or the Glorification of Mary, in many rites it is celebrated as a liturgical season all its own, like Christmas or Easter. But why is this doctrine so important?
To begin with, the doctrine of the Assumption is an important part of the veneration of Mary; and the veneration of Mary is a Scriptural tradition. In Luke’s Gospel, the Angel Gabriel addresses Mary saying, “Hail, full-of-grace! The Lord is with you.” (1:28) This is important. The original language is clear in suggesting that Mary is enjoying in the present the showering of grace that she received in the past: “Hail, full-of-grace!” What is more, it carries the implication, not simply of a description, but of a title. Mary is the Full-of-grace-one.
There is much more to say about the role of Mary in Scripture than this, of course. We can talk about Mary’s fiat—her declaration “Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38b); we can talk about Elizabeth’s proclamation, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (Luke 1:42) We can discuss the image of Mary in the Book of Revelation, where she is depicted as the very face of the Church in the heavenly realm; or we can talk about how Jesus addresses her in the Miracle at Cana account, as (the context suggests) “Eve.” (John 2:4) We can even note how, there, she decides that now is the time for Jesus’ Messianic ministry to begin. Indeed, an understanding of John’s Gospel as a whole is essential for understanding the importance of the doctrine of the Assumption.
In the “Bread of Life Discourse” (John 6:22-71), Jesus repeatedly promises, that those who become one with him in his Flesh and Blood, on the last day, will be taken up with him in resurrection. But let us look back to the Prologue of the Gospel. There we read that, “The Word [Logos] became flesh, and [to translate literally] pitched his tent among us.” (1:14a) What does this mean? Why is it important that he “pitched his tent?” Our translations usually read, “made his dwelling,” or “dwelt;” but the real implication of the phrase is that the Word “set up his tabernacle” among us. Note that setting up his tabernacle is linked with his being made flesh, and his coming into the world. This happens through Mary. For the first nine months of the Incarnation, Mary is that tabernacle—the tent beneath which God’s unique presence is sheltered. Through the Eucharist, we can gain a share in that reality.
Mary’s relationship to Christ is far more than clinical; it is literally pregnant with symbolism. All Christians agree that Christ is the New Adam, in whom the human race finds a second chance at grace. That makes Mary the New Eve. The first time around, Eve—the mother of all the living—was “taken out of her man.” (Gen. 2:23b) This time, it is the other way around. The New Adam is taken out of Eve. She becomes, not only the mother of all the living, but the mother of the living God, and all who live through him as children, miraculously born through the regenerating power of the Eucharist—“not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.” (John 1:13)
We should note that Jesus has no human father. He receives his whole humanity from Mary. It is she who, taken up by the power of the Holy Spirit, brings forth, wholly from her own body, the Flesh and Blood of Redemption in Jesus Christ. Long before Jesus ever discoursed on the Bread of Life, or uttered the words of institution at the first Eucharist, or laid hands on the apostles and breathed on them—indeed, long before he ever spoke a single word as a human being—Mary was one with him in Flesh and Blood; for he was flesh of her flesh, bone of her bones, blood of her blood. At the last supper in John’s Gospel, Jesus explains to his apostles (15:1-17) that as “branches” of the “true vine,” they can share in bringing people to the promise of eternal life he had announced in his “Bread of Life Discourse.” By Jesus’ time, many had come to believe that certain people—like Enoch (Gen. 5:24; Heb. 11:5; Sirach 49:14), Elijah (2 Kings 2:11-12), and Moses (The Assumption of Moses)—had been taken up into heaven by God. That is the point of the Transfiguration narratives (Matt. 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36), where Moses and Elijah are represented as possessing glorified bodies. Through his Transfiguration in their presence, Jesus reveals that he is the source of resurrection, and that he can, indeed, deliver on his promise of it. Mary, therefore, is rightly venerated as our “life,” and our “hope,” as we pray in the Salve Regina; for she who shared from the first moments of the Incarnation what we acquire through the Eucharist—communion with Jesus in Flesh and Blood—has surely realized, even now, the promise of eternal life in its fullness.
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