On August 15 every year, the universal Catholic Church gathers in prayer to celebrate the fact that “The most Blessed Virgin Mary when the course of her earthly life was completed, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven where she already shares in the glory of her son’s resurrection, anticipating the resurrection of all members of His body.” This is a scandal to many and a stumbling block to many non-Catholic Christians.
There could be no better place to seek an understanding of this doctrine than reverting to the papal document – Munificentissimus Deus(MD) issued by Pope Paul XII in 1950 defining the dogma of the Assumption.
The title of this document, (which following the tradition of papal document is always the first couple of words of the document) literally translated as “The Most bountiful God” explains the heart of this doctrine: God in His bountiful Goodness brings Mary, the mother of God, body and soul into heaven.
An important distinction worth making here is between the Ascension of Christ into heaven and the Assumption of Mary into heaven. In the creed we profess that Christ ascended into Heaven but with Mary we talk of the Assumption. The ascension is in basic English in the “active voice” while the assumption is “passive.” While Christ ascends into heaven, Mary is assumed into heaven. Without the Ascension of Christ, there is no Assumption. It would seem then that to question the assumption is to question the ascension.
In a certain sense, the Assumption is essentially liturgical. Like we read on the US Bishops’ website,“The Liturgy is the ‘the participation of the people of God’ in the work of God.’ It is ‘the exercise of the priestly office of Jesus in which God is worshipped and adored and people are made holy.’ God begins the work of sanctifying people in time and space and brings that work to completion.
In essence, the Solemnity of the Assumption is God’s work. It is first and foremost God’s work. Mary herself proclaims in the Magnificat: I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done unto me according to thy word. The Assumption then is a continuation of the fulfillment of the Fiat.
Pope Pius XII makes it abundantly clear that the Assumption is a privilege. His lavish usage of this term throughout the entire document is an important indicator of the contours of the teaching. The almost extravagant use of the term, “privilege” underlines the fact that it is not the Pope who sends Mary to heaven or Mary who brings herself to heaven. In this sense, the Assumption is not an invention but a discovery.
On what basis should we believe in the Assumption of the Virgin Mary?
Anyone scouring the bible for a direct reference to the Assumption will not find one. Does that ipso facto discredit the assumption? That would be an epic instantiation of the literalist reading of the bible. If one with an open mind scans through Scriptures, the doctrine of the Assumption will no longer be a strange doctrine.
The words of the angel Gabriel to Mary at the annunciation are quite significant: Hail, Full of grace… Blessed are thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. (Lk.1:28). One cannot fail to draw the inner connection between Mary’s blessedness and the blessedness of the fruit of her womb: Jesus. Notice here the angel uses the same term for both Jesus and Mary. I am not in any way insinuating that both are equal for Christ is God and Mary, human; yet we find in this text ingredients for the doctrine of the assumption.
In Jn. 12:32 Christ declares: And I when am lifted from the earth will draw all men to myself and further on in Jn. 14:3. He specifies: “And I will go and prepare a place for you and I will come back and take you with me so that where I am, there you too may be found.” Against this background, isn’t it within the realm of the rational to believe that Christ has begun fulfilling this by bringing Mary into heaven, body and soul?
Beyond this even, let us stay at the human plane. There is an abundance of evidence that within families most sons are more attached to their mothers while daughters are to their fathers. Not in any sense of nepotism, one would expect Christ to accord his mother a place in his Kingdom not just because Mary is his mother but beyond this because she is his first disciple. Christ brings Mary to heaven not just because she is his mother but above all because she is his first disciple. And like Christ himself specifies that whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, sister and mother. (Mtt.12:50)
In the document, we find Pope Pius XII adducing St Francis de Sales who asserts that “it is wrong to doubt that Jesus Christ has himself observed in the most perfect way, the divine commandment by which children are ordered to honor their parents.” He then adds, “What son would not bring his mother back to life and would not bring her into paradise after her death if he could?” (MD 35)
St Alphonsus of Ligouri also writes that “ Jesus did not wish to have the body of Mary corrupted after death since it would have redounded to his own dishonor to have her virginal flesh, from which he himself had assumed flesh reduced to death.”
As the pope referencing the Scholastics notes, “Out of filial love for his mother, Jesus Christ has willed that she be assumed into heaven. They base the strength of their proofs on the incomparable dignity of her divine motherhood and of all those prerogatives, which follow from it. These include her exalted holiness, entirely surpassing the sanctity of all men and of the angels, the intimate union of Mary with her Son, and the affection of preeminent love which the Son has for his most worthy mother. (MD 25)
The dogma of the Assumption builds on four doctrines of the Catholic Church namely the doctrine of Original sin, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the divine motherhood of Mary and lastly, the Resurrection.
The papal document provides three “benefits” (for want of a better term) of celebrating the solemnity of the Assumption:
- The celebration of the Assumption is an advantage to the human society. In one of the prefaces the priest prays: Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to your greatness yet our desire itself to thank you is itself your gift.” The solemnity of the assumption adds nothing to God and to Mary. It is for us. As the text specifies, “it is to be hoped that all the faithful will be stirred up to a stronger piety toward their heavenly Mother.”
- By meditating on the example of Mary, the hope is that Christians can become more and more convinced of the value of human life entirely devoted to carrying out the heavenly Father’s will and to bringing good to others. By the Assumption we are reminded that this life is not the end; there is a beyond, which must always be in the horizon.
- It is our hope that belief in Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven will make our belief in our own resurrection stronger and render it more effective.
To one and all then, Happy Big Day Maria!!!