In the Western Church, this feast celebrates the assumption of Mary into heaven; in the East, it commemorates her dormition, or falling asleep. Regardless, the readings for today invite us to reflect on the role Mary plays in the mystery of our redemption. No matter how we do so, all the ways in which we honor in Mary in some way point to her Son.
The term assumption refers to Mary being taken up to heaven, body and soul, upon her death. This prevented her body, the new ark of the covenant, from earthly decay and foreshadows our own bodily resurrection at the end of time. Because this feast commemorates the Blessed Virgin’s passing into eternal life, it is the most important of all Marian feasts and a Holy Day of Obligation.
The Feast of the Assumption is a very old feast of the Church, celebrated universally by the sixth century. The earliest printed reference to the belief that Mary’s body was assumed into Heaven dates from the fourth century, in a document entitled “The Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God.” The document is written in the voice of the Apostle John, to whom Christ on the Cross had entrusted the care of his mother, and recounts the death, laying in the tomb, and assumption of the Blessed Virgin. Tradition variously places Mary’s death at Jerusalem or at Ephesus, where John was living.
There are two Old Testament examples of assumption: Enoch in Genesis 5:24 and
Elijah in 2 Kings 2:11. Hebrew tradition also holds that Moses was assumed into God’s presence (Deuteronomy 34:5-6).
1st Reading – Revelation 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab
God’s temple in heaven was opened,
and the ark of his covenant could be seen in the temple.
A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun,
with the moon under her feet,
and on her head a crown of twelve stars.
She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth.
Then another sign appeared in the sky;
it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns,
and on its heads were seven diadems.
Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky
and hurled them down to the earth.
Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth,
to devour her child when she gave birth.
She gave birth to a son, a male child,
destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod.
Her child was caught up to God and his throne.
The woman herself fled into the desert
where she had a place prepared by God.
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:
“Now have salvation and power come,
and the Kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Anointed One.”
Today’s first reading is an apocalyptic and eschatological vision, deeply steeped in theological meaning.
God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant could be seen in the temple.
The Temple was constructed to house the ark of the covenant. Once construction was complete and the ark was installed inside, it was approached only by the high priest, and only on the Day of Atonement.
In this vision, the heavenly ark is revealed to all. The Israelites believed this revelation would take place only at the time of eschatological fulfillment; therefore, the wording here implies that the messianic era has come to an end and God’s work of salvation has been completed.
A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth.
The first of two signs appears: a pregnant woman depicted as an astral deity, superior even to the moon. The twelve stars symbolize the signs of the zodiac.
The woman adorned with the sun, moon, and stars (all images taken from Genesis 37:10) symbolizes God’s people in the Old and New Testament. The Israel of old gave birth to the Messiah and then became the new Israel, the Church.
Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems.
The seven-headed dragon is a composite of an Old Testament cosmic monster (Psalm 74:13-14, 89:9-10; Isaiah 27:1) and the evil empire drawn from the vision of Daniel (Daniel 7:7). The diadems on its head represent its blasphemous claims to sovereignty.
Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth.
While the dragon awaits the birth of the child, it engages in cosmic battle and is relatively successful.
Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth. She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne.
The child is described in royal terms. He is destined to universally shepherd (poimaínō) all of the nations with a rod of iron, an image of harsh punishment. Upon his birth he is caught up into the throne of God and rescued from the threat of the dragon.
This corresponds to a widespread myth throughout the ancient world that a goddess pregnant with a savior was pursued by a horrible monster. By miraculous intervention, she bore a son who then killed the monster.
The complex interweaving of detail from various myths, along with the fact that this is an apocalyptic vision, should caution us not to force an allegorical interpretation upon this passage.
The woman herself fled into the desert where she had a place prepared by God.
God protects the woman, a symbol for the persecuted church, in the desert, the traditional Old Testament place of refuge for the afflicted.
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have salvation and power come, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Anointed One.”
The reading ends with a great exclamation of praise. The accomplishments of God’s anointed one are described in four phases: he has brought salvation, he has manifested his power, he established the kingdom of God, and his own authority has been revealed.
It is unclear whether this acclamation is referring to the ultimate fulfillment in the future, or to the fulfillment this anointed one has inaugurated, which is unfolding in the present.
2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 15:20-27a
Brothers and sisters:
Christ has been raised from the dead,
the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
For since death came through man,
the resurrection of the dead came also through man.
For just as in Adam all die,
so too in Christ shall all be brought to life,
but each one in proper order:
Christ the firstfruits;
then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ;
then comes the end,
when he hands over the Kingdom to his God and Father,
when he has destroyed every sovereignty
and every authority and power.
For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
The last enemy to be destroyed is death,
for “he subjected everything under his feet.”
This reading from Paul’s Corinthian correspondence brings together several of his most treasured theological themes: the efficacy of Christ’s resurrection; human solidarity in Adam and in Christ; the sequence of eschatological events; and the victory of Christ. The passage carries us first back through time to the primordial period of beginnings, and then forward to the end of time and the eschatological age of fulfillment.
Brothers and sisters: Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
This speaks to the end-time in double fashion: “fallen asleep” is a euphemism for death, and “firstfruits” refers to harvest.
The firstfruits of a crop were believed to contain the most forceful expression of the life of the plant, and they stood as a promise of more yield to come. It is also a Jewish cultic term. The offering of the first fruits to God was symbolic of the dedication of the entire harvest.
As the firstfruits of the dead, the risen Christ is the most forceful expression of life after death, and his resurrection contains the promise of resurrection for all who are joined to him.
“Paul says this in order to get at the false prophets who claimed that Christ was never born and thus cannot have died. The resurrection from the dead proves that Christ was a man and therefore able to merit by His righteousness the resurrection of the dead.” The Ambrosiaster (A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles]
For since death came through man, the resurrection of the dead came also through man. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life,
Parallelism and contrast between Adam and Christ is a favorite theme of Paul’s
(Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:45-49).
While Adam was the first human, he also stands for the entire race. The Hebrew word itself (ādām) yields both a singular and collective meaning.
Here Paul is referring to human solidarity in Adam when he declares that one man sinned and brought death into the world, and in that one man is all of humankind. In an analogous fashion, Christ is the person Jesus, and joined in faith, all believers participate in the resurrected life of Christ. This is clearly meant by the phrase “death came through a human being (ánthrōpos)”; “the resurrection of the dead came also through a human being (ánthrōpos).” In both instances the deed is accomplished by one ánthrōpos who stands for all.
but each one in proper order: Christ the firstfruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ; then comes the end,
The eschatological events Paul is describing will transcend time, with every aspect grounded in the resurrection of Christ. First he is raised, then at his final coming (parousía) those who are joined to Christ are raised. Only when this has taken place will the end (télos) come.
when he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father, when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power.
Paul seems to suggest there is an interval between the parousía and the final end, when Christ, having completed his redemptive mission and brought all the elect to the glory of his resurrection, hands everything over to the Father. During this time all of Christ’s enemies will be vanquished.
“What rule and power will Christ destroy? That of the angels? Of course not! That of the faithful? No. What rule is it then? That of the devils, about which He says that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the principalities, the powers and the forces of darkness in this present age.” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 392), Homilies on the First Epistle to the Corinthians 39,6]
For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death, for “he subjected everything under his feet.”
Quoting Psalm 110:1b, Paul sketches a picture of the risen Christ with his foot on the neck of death, his vanquished enemy. This picture of victory was common in the ancient Near Eastern world. The enemy could either be dead or merely quelled, but in any case, conquered.
“Hence the first step in the mystery is that all things have been made subject to Him, and then He Himself becomes subject to the One who subjects all things to Himself. Just as we subject ourselves to the glory of His reigning body, the Lord Himself in the same mystery subjects Himself in the glory of His body to the One who subjects all things to Himself. We are made subject to the glory of His body in order that we may possess the glory with which He reigns in the body, because we shall be conformable to His body.” [Saint Hilary of Poiters (A.D. 356-359), The Trinity 11,36]
Gospel – Luke 1:39-56
Mary set out
and traveled to the hill country in haste
to a town of Judah,
where she entered the house of Zechariah
and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting,
the infant leaped in her womb,
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit,
cried out in a loud voice and said,
“Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,
the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.”
And Mary said:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
and has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children forever.”
Mary remained with her about three months
and then returned to her home.
Today’s gospel reading includes the account of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and Mary’s famous prayer of praise known as the Magnificat.
Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
The only geographic detail provided is “the hill country of Judah.” This is because the setting is insignificant; the focus of the passage is on Elizabeth’s faith-filled avowal.
The Greek verb used for “greeted” (aspázomai) indicates that Mary’s greeting was a customary salutation, but its effect was profound.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb,
The verb used here, skirtáō, indicates that the infant’s leap was a leap for joy — reminiscent of David leaping with joy before the ark of the covenant, the symbol of God’s presence in the midst of his people (2 Samuel 6:14-15).
Recall that in Genesis 25:22, Esau and Jacob wrestled in Rebekah’s womb, a foreshadowing of their future relationship. A similar foreshadowing of the John’s relationship to Jesus as his precursor is likely intended here. By leaping, John recognizes Jesus as his Lord; in a sense, he is leaping before the ark of the New Covenant. Mary is the ark and the child within her is the glory of God.
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
Moved by the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth first exalts Mary and then her child. She recognizes the blessedness they possess and she praises it. The word translated as “blessed” is eulogéō, which means to extol or to speak well of, which indicates that Elizabeth is not pronouncing a blessing over them, but instead recognizing the blessedness they already possess. This blessedness is derived from dignity of the child, seen by her reference to him as her Lord (kýrios).
And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
Just as David wondered how the ark of God could come to him (2 Samuel 6:9), so Elizabeth wonders how the mother of her Lord should come to her.
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
John’s joy is the appropriate response to God’s fulfillment of promise in Jesus.
“[John the Baptist] was sanctified by the Holy Spirit while yet he was carried in his mother’s womb. … John alone, while carried in the womb, leaped for joy; and though he saw not with the eyes of the flesh, he recognized the Master by the Spirit.” [Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (A.D. 350), Catechetical Lectures 3,6]
Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”
Elizabeth concludes with a macarism, or beatitude. Mary is called blessed (makários) for having believed what had been spoken to her by the Lord, a reference to the annunciation. In this case, it is faith, not some work of righteousness, that is extolled. She believed she would conceive and bear a son, and it has come to pass.
And Mary said: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
Mary responds with a hymn of praise bearing strong parallels with the victory hymns of Miriam (Exodus 15:1-18), Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10), and Judith (Judith 16:1-17).
The lowliness of Mary is contrasted with the might of God, for whom nothing is impossible.
The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him.
She does not deny the greatness of the things that will be accomplished through her. On the contrary, the more magnificent the things accomplished, the clearer will God’s power and might be seen, for only God could bring about such wonders.
This is the way God has acted from age to age, offering mercy to those who are open to it, to those who stand in awe of God’s greatness.
He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
While the first section of her prayer describes the great things God did to Mary, these last verses list some of the past blessings enjoyed by Israel. She praises God for having singled out the lowly and having reversed their fortunes. The reference to the promise made to Abraham places all God’s blessings within the context of the covenant associated with this prominent ancestor (Genesis 15:1-21; 17:1-14).
Mary’s hymn of praise suggests that the marvels accomplished in her are a final example of God’s mercy. The salvation of the people has finally come.
Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
The two women remain together for three months. Note that Elizabeth, although older and bearing the child for which she had prayed a very long time, shows no animosity toward Mary and her child; she readily submits to the fact that her child will be of lesser stature than Mary’s.
Connections and Themes
The Celestial Woman. Over the centuries, devotion to Mary has been expressed in forms taken from the culture out of which it developed. Sometimes she is pictured as a humble peasant girl. At other times she is depicted as a queen, robed in gold, who rules from heaven. Probably the most familiar pose is that of a mother with her child. Just as Christian theologians have reached into various religious traditions to explain some dimension of christology, so have they appropriated various images in their development of Mariology. Perhaps the most dramatic of these themes is that of the celestial woman from the vision found in the book of Revelation. It is because of the cosmic significance of Jesus that this tradition has been applied to Mary.
Reading this passage on a Marian feast suggests a Marian interpretation. The woman, now interpreted as Mary, brings forth her child, who is destined to rule all the nations. Mythological themes from other traditions take on new meaning here. For example, the mythical enmity between the dragon and the child recalls a similar enmity between the serpent in the garden of Eden and the offspring of the primordial woman. This cosmic vision places Mary in the heavens at the outset of God’s plan of redemption. This feast declares that upon the completion of her role in this plan, Mary returns to heaven triumphant.
A prophetic voice. The gospel reading for this feast characterizes Mary in a very different way. Here she is a simple peasant woman intent on offering service to another. However, the words placed in her mouth belie this unassuming picture. They are words of prophetic challenge. She announces the great reversals of God’s good news. The structures of privilege and discrimination will be overturned. The dispossessed and the needy will experience the goodness of God. Mary did not presume that she would accomplish such great feats. Rather they would be accomplished by the child she is carrying. Once again, we see that the greatness of Mary is a reflection of the greatness of the Son of God, whom she bore. He was the firstfruits of salvation. He was the victor who won the kingdom. Her part in this victory was to bring him to birth and into maturity.