The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin: A Central Feast

Today, the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is a very important date in the liturgical calendar, as it draws together some central truths, which, though concentrated around the person of Our Blessed Mother, point to deeply significant aspects of the Faith entire. The feast itself is the earliest of the Marian festivals, being celebrated as early as the fifth century, and confirmed as an official feast of the Church by Pope Leo IV in the early ninth century. It remained an essential part of Christian faith and devotion until the Protestant Reformation, when the various denominations splitting from the universal Church rejected Marian doctrine and piety almost wholesale, but continued and continues to be an important and beloved feast in the historic churches.

Furthermore, whilst there is little definitive historical evidence outside this for Our Lady’s Assumption, it is noteworthy that, in the early centuries of Church history, where the devotion to saints was common, and accompanied by an intense desire to collect their relics for veneration, there is no mention of any relics associated with the Blessed Virgin. It is very hard to explain this away as an oversight in a context where relics were so highly valued, and seen as a sacramental connection to the holy departed – as Mary was (and is) the most highly revered amongst all the saints, the absence of any relics associated with her provides strong support for the belief in her bodily assumption into Heaven.

It is this continuous current of devotion to the feast of the Assumption, as well as the strong historical roots for its observance, which finally led to Venerable Pope Pius XII pronouncing Mary’s Assumption to be a dogma of the Faith – i.e.; to be held by all the faithful. However, in making this dogmatic definition, Pius was not just honouring the place that this doctrine has in the hearts of the faithful, and the place that the observance of the feast has in Sacred Tradition, but also drawing attention to its theological significance – in the dogma of the Assumption, several key concepts are brought together.

The first of these is Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception, which is itself tied very closely to the dogma of the Incarnation – some of the infinite merits gained by Christ for us on the Cross were applied to Our Lady before time, that she might be completely free from sin, her will completely ordered towards God (which is essentially what ‘full of grace’ means) and be a perfect vessel for Him. In this dogma, we see the mystery of the Atonement, the Incarnation, and God’s transcendence of our temporal existences, all wrapped into one. Moreover we see from Scripture that Mary is seen as the Ark of the New Covenant (c.f.; Luke 1:35; Exodus 40:34-35; Luke 1:39-41; 2 Samuel 6:9,14-16; Revelation 11:19 – 12:2)

That Mary, as the New Ark, chosen and prepared to be the vessel that would hold the Word of God, and the true Bread of Heaven, was conceived and remained without sin, meant that upon her death, there was no further purification required of her, and also that, as the foremost amongst creatures, she would and could be honoured by being taken bodily up into heaven, to stand with Our Lord – her Assumption is a foretaste and sign to us of what will eventually happen to all who are resurrected to glory on the last day. She received this early, because of her sinlessness and her unique place in salvation history, but what happened to her is simply a pre-eminent example of what will happen to us all in the end.

This connects to another central aspect of the Faith that the Assumption speaks to us about – the General Resurrection; that we will all be saved not only in soul, but bodily raised as well. In 1 Corinthians 15, Saint Paul writes that:

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. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and every power. For he must reign until he has put all things under his feet.

 vv.21-25.

            Plainly we are all still in the category of those at ‘the end’ when Christ delivers the kingdom to His Father. Christ is the first fruits, resurrected from the dead on the third day, and seen as sovereign over all creation. We will, when the time comes, be raised bodily to glory with Him, and the Assumption shows us one of those ‘who belong to Christ’ being given that privilege early on, so that we may know how it will be for us. Another thing this passage draws our attention to though, is Christ’s Kingship, and role as the New Adam, Lord over a New Creation – this is an element of our Faith that the dogma of the Assumption also highlights, for as it always is with Our Blessed Mother, what we learn about her always helps us know Him better.

In Revelation 12, cited earlier in connection with Mary as the New Ark, we read that the ‘woman clothed with the sun’ wears on her head a ‘crown of twelve stars’ – royal imagery, but also imagery that associates Our Lady with Israel (the twelve stars symbolising the twelve tribes), and so also the Church (c.f.; Revelation 7:4-8; 21:12-14). It was natural for the Church to make this last connection, as it already saw Mary as its Mother (c.f.; John 19:25-27), and later in Revelation 12 we read that the ‘woman’ has more offspring, and that they are those who ‘keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus’ (v.17).

The imagery used in Revelation 12 – the woman, and a dragon, who Saint John describes as ‘that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan’ (v.9) closely parallels the events prophesied in Genesis 3:15, where God says of the serpent that ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and his seed’. Mary is thus seen not only as Mother of the Church, but as a New Eve to stand beside the New Adam, and as a Queen Mother to stand beside Him as King over all – the role of the Queen Mother as seen in the Old Testament, was a very important one, and again, given Mary’s exalted place in salvation history, it is natural to see her in these terms.

So, the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and its celebration in today’s Solemnity, is not only testimony to the assured and continuous faith of the Church, but a central tenet in the whole scheme of Marian and Christological teachings (which, as I’ve argued before, are inseparable from one another). It provides us with an example of our final goal and consummation as members of the glorious community of Heaven; it brings together Christ’s Incarnation with the Atonement, via the dogma of the Immaculate Conception; and it gives us a sense of the connection between the Old and New covenants, in terms of Mary’s sharing a symbolic role with the People of God, Eve, and the Ark of the Covenant.

Most of all, I think it shows us how deeply corporate the Catholic identity is – we are all bound to one another, in Christ, and Mary, the Mother of God, is therefore our Mother too. She shares our destiny, and as a creature like us, goes before us and helps point the way to her Son. She stands as Queen Mother to the King of a holy and royal dynasty which transcends time and place, and which we are all part of by virtue of our baptism. Our Lady, as always, points to Christ, and to the difference He makes – she brings together our identity as royal subjects and as children of God, and shows us from where these great privileges come.

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