Aug 15, 2020: Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (ABC)

Introduction

In the Western Church, this feast celebrates the assumption of Mary into heaven; in the East, it commemorates her dormition, or falling asleep.  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 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 participation in the resurrection of bodies at the end of time.  Because Mary was “full of grace” (Luke 1:28) and did not suffer from original sin, it is fitting that she, like her son, would not experience bodily corruption.

There are two Old Testament examples of others being assumed into heaven: 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).

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 readings for today invite us to reflect on the role Mary plays in the mystery of our redemption.  Regardless of how we do so, all the ways in which we honor in Mary in some way point to her Son.

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.

The Book of Revelation is an example of apocalyptic literature. This kind of literature is addressed to people who are suffering persecution; they are personally battling the power of evil. Through his writing, the author is sending the persecuted people a message of hope: God will save you; good will prevail over evil. The message is always delivered in code, in symbols the persecuted people will understand.

In this passage, the author uses archetypal images, mythic symbols, to explore the battle between good and evil.

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, the ark 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.

This coincides nicely with our gospel reading, in which Elizabeth will allude to the story of the ark of the covenant being brought to Jerusalem.

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 symbol for good appears: a pregnant woman depicted as an astral deity, superior even to the moon. We will see later, based on the identity of her child, that this woman is Mary. Her crown of twelve stars symbolizes her regal office as queen mother, who reigns over the church, which was born of the twelve tribes of Israel and founded on the twelve apostles.

Mythic images are often fluid; that is, they can have more than one meaning. The woman adorned with the sun, moon, and stars (all images taken from Genesis 37:10) also symbolizes God’s people in the Old and New Testaments. The Israel of old gave birth to the Messiah and then became the new Israel, the Church. This is not, however, the earthly church with all its faults and failings, but the ideal, the heavenly 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.

And now the symbol of evil. The seven-headed dragon is the epitome of all the forces opposed to God. It is a composite of an Old Testament monster (Psalm 74:13-14, 89:9-10; Isaiah 27:1) and the evil empire drawn from the vision of Daniel (Daniel 7:7).

Contemporary readers of the Book of Revelation would have interpreted the evil empire to be the Roman Empire, whose emperors persecuted Christians terribly. In this interpretation, the woman also becomes a symbol of the persecuted church.

Popular tradition of the time held that God had defeated this monster at the moment of creation, but its final repudiation was deferred to the end of time. 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. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth. 

While the dragon awaits the birth of the child, it engages in cosmic battle and is relatively successful.

She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. 

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 which may have been taken directly from the messianic Psalm 2: Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron (Psalm 2:8-9).  

Having been portrayed with this messianic imagery, the child would be seen as the long-awaited Messiah-King.

Her child was caught up to God and his throne.

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.

Given that the messianic child is Jesus, the identity of this woman is clearly Mary.

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 (“anointed one” in Greek = Christos) 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 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.

In the context of this feast, this reading places before us our final hope: to share in Mary’s glorification.

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.

On today’s feast, we call to mind that since Mary is most blessed, and since Mary is the preeminent disciple, we think of Mary as having preceded the rest of the human race in the promise of the resurrection: as Paul says, “each one in proper order.” It is this belief that we celebrate today.

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.

Our gospel reading on the feast of the Assumption is Luke’s beautiful story of the visitation, that is, of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth after each has conceived a child and Mary’s famous prayer of praise known as the Magnificat.

The infancy narratives that appear in the gospels are stories that developed late in the gospel tradition. Their purpose is to teach Christology, meaning they teach the true identity of Jesus Christ. However, in the course of teaching about Christ, Luke gives us a very clear picture of Mary.

Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, 

At the annunciation (Luke 1:26-38, immediately preceding this passage), Mary learned that her kinswoman Elizabeth is miraculously expecting a child in her old age, “for with God nothing will be impossible.“ Now Mary fervently desires to share in Elizabeth’s joy and serve her during the last part of the pregnancy: she goes “in haste” to visit her.

The only geographic detail provided is “the hill country of Judah.”  The setting itself is insignificant; the focus of the passage is on Elizabeth’s faith-filled avowal.

where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

The Greek verb used for “greeted” (aspázomai) indicates that Mary’s greeting was a customary salutation, paying that deference to an older woman which is becoming to a girl. Its effect was profound.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb,

The infant in Elizabeth’s womb is, of course, John the Baptist. The verb used here, skirtáō, indicates that the infant’s leap was a leap for joy, a detail that Elizabeth will confirm later in the passage.

Recall that in Genesis 25:22, Esau and Jacob wrestled in Rebekah’s womb, a foreshadowing of their future relationship. A similar foreshadowing of John’s relationship to Jesus as his precursor is likely intended here. John’s role as a witness to Jesus is an important element in all four gospels, even the two (Mark and John) that do not have birth narratives.

and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit,

Being filled with the Holy Spirit means that Elizabeth has been given prophetic insight. We will see that, in addition to knowing Mary is pregnant, Elizabeth also knows she is carrying not any ordinary child but the holy Son of God.

cried out in a loud voice

The particular word Luke uses for “exclaimed” is used almost every time in the Greek Old Testament to portray the Levites exclaiming and praising God before the ark of the covenant. It seems that Luke is going out of his way to point out parallels and present Mary as a new ark of the covenant.

and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

Moved thusly 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.

These immortal words are very familiar to us as part of the prayer we call the “Hail Mary.”

And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?

This blessedness Elizabeth has just alluded to is derived from the dignity of the child Mary carries, seen by her reference to him as her Lord (kýrios).  (Note: This is the first time in the gospels that anyone has referred to Jesus as Lord.)

There can be no doubt what Elizabeth intended by using the word Lord, for her words allude to another “coming of the Lord.” When the ark of the Lord was brought to Jerusalem, King David said, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Samuel 6:9).

Further, “mother of my Lord” is a term that is charged with royal significance.  In the royal court language of the ancient Near East, the title “mother of my Lord” would have been used to address the queen-mother, for “my lord” was a title of honor for the king himself (2 Samuel 24:21). In using this title for Mary, Elizabeth acknowledges her as the mother of the king, the queen-mother.

For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.

Even the baby John the Baptist recognizes his Lord; his joy is the appropriate response to God’s fulfillment of promise in Jesus. Luke’s readers would have easily made the connection to King 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).

Elizabeth’s words and her infant’s leaping both give witness to the incarnation: God has become a human being. Mary is the new ark.

“[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. Mary is holy, or blessed, because she is a model disciple who believes the words spoken to her by God.

The reason for Mary’s holiness becomes a theme in Luke. At the annunciation, Mary responded with complete obedience to God’s word. Now Elizabeth calls her blessed for her faith. Jesus will later assert that openness to God’s word lies at the root of holiness when he responds to the woman who calls out, “ ‘Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed.’ Jesus replied, ‘Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it’ ” (Luke 11:27-28). We love and honor Mary not only because she is Jesus’ mother but because she heard the word of God and observed it. That is why she is most blessed.

And Mary said:

After receiving this extraordinary greeting from Elizabeth, Mary prays the hymn-like prayer of praise that we often refer to as the Magnificat (named for the prayer’s first word in Latin).

During her long journey to Elizabeth’s village, Mary had plenty of time to reflect on her profound vocation to serve as the mother of the world’s Savior.  She probably pondered over and over again the words Gabriel spoke to her. The Magnificat gives us insight into the emotional and spiritual journey Mary has been making.

“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’s hymn of praise bears 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. 

Mary humbly stands in awe before the fact that God has chosen her for such a high calling, to serve as the mother of the Messiah. The more magnificent the accomplishments in her life, the clearer will God’s power and might be seen, for only God could bring about such wonders.

His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him.

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.

While the first part of her prayer describes the great things God did for Mary, these last verses connect his actions in her life with what God wants to accomplish in the lives of all his people. She views herself as the first recipient of the blessings God wishes to bring to all the faithful.

We must remember just how revolutionary Christianity was in its time (and still is today):

  • Moral revolution: dispersing the arrogant of mind and heart
  • Social revolution: throwing down rulers and lifting up the lowly
  • Economic revolution: filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich 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.”

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 remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

The two women remain together for three months. Note that Elizabeth readily accepts help from Mary while submitting to the fact that her child will be of lesser stature. There is only love between them.

Because of her complete obedience to God’s word, and her belief that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled, Mary is the preeminent disciple. Jesus’ disciples follow Jesus through death to life; today we celebrate our belief that Mary has already experienced the gift that Jesus offers all who have faith in him: the resurrection of the body.

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, a tradition that has been applied to Mary because of the cosmic significance of Jesus. Reading this passage on a Marian feast suggests a Marian interpretation, giving new meaning to mythological themes from other traditions. 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.

Mary’s Assumption. Mary is the first of those who belong to Jesus; it’s because of this that she is assumed, body and soul, into heaven — a passing over of her whole person into the glory of the Lord. It’s an image that speaks to us of the final success of tenderness, of gentleness, and of mutual loving. Mary is a special example of the efficacy of God’s grace when combined with a person’s cooperation. She shows the paradox of Christianity that’s revealed in all the saints: a tremulous joy at her great privilege and, at the same time, a sword which pierces her heart.