This feast, which celebrates the truth that, at the end of her earthly life, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was taken body and soul into heaven, evolved from a liturgical celebration of the “Day of Mary, Mother of God,” in Jerusalem in the fifth century. Although it was originally a more general celebration of Mary, it soon became a commemoration of the Natale (“birthday” [into Heaven]) of Mary. The feast made its way into the Byzantine Empire in the late sixth century and was being celebrated in Rome by the middle of the seventh century. Under Pope Sergius I (d. 701), this day in honor of Mary came to be celebrated as a memorial of Mary’s passing from this life and included a midnight procession (during the night of August 14) from Rome’s church of St. Adrian to the Basilica of St. Mary Major. By the end of the century, it had come to be known as the “Assumption of Holy Mary.”
|A contemporary icon of |
Mary, Our Lady of Hope
When we talk about the mysteries of the Faith, it is important to pay attention to when and how many of our liturgical celebrations developed. As with other great Feasts (including Christmas [December 25], the Transfiguration of the Lord [August 6], the Presentation in the Temple [February 2], the Triumph of the Cross [September 14], and the Immaculate Conception [December 8]), we can see what our ancestors believed by seeing how they prayed. Or, to say it another way, the fact that there was a celebration of Mary’s entrance into Heaven tells us that early Christians believed that there was something special about the death of Mary (called her Dormition (“falling asleep”) in Latin) and that they saw particular meaning in this mystery.
Among the earliest set of prayers we have for this Feast (from the eighth century Gregorian Sacramentary), is a prayer which reads: “God, turning your gaze to the humility of the Virgin, you raised her to the sublime dignity of the Mother of your Son and crowned her with incomparable glory.” This theologically ripe sentence tells us what is at the heart of the celebration of Mary’s Assumption: Because of Mary’s humble and unique cooperation in the mysteries of salvation, she enjoys a privileged place in Heaven. In his Genesee Diary, Henri Nouwen expresses this truth in this way:
Mary is the most pure contemplative. Luke describes her as contemplating the mysteries of the redemption. After telling about the visit of the shepherds to the Child, he writes, “As for Mary, she treasured all these things in her heart” (2:19), and after describing how she found Jesus in the temple among the doctors of the Law, he adds: “His mother stored up all these things in her heart…”
The doctrine of the Assumption affirms the fulfillment of this contemplative life in heaven. There the most redeemed human being, the woman in whom God touched us in the most intimate way, the mother of Jesus and all who believe in him—there she stands in the presence of God, enjoying forever the beatific vision that is the hope of all monks and all Christians.
The glory and grace that Mary enjoys now in Heaven is also promised to each of us. We are reminded of this in the Second Reading for the Mass for the Assumption: “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” (Colossians 15:20-23).
The special grace that preserved Mary from the decay of death (cf. Genesis 3:19; Romans 6:23) contains a promise of restored life for each of us. But, in order to really appreciate the gift and promise of the Assumption, we have to recognize that grace and call which God extended to Mary were received, by her, with an open heart. She did not allow those gifts to remain idle within her heart and soul. This is Mary as the woman of faith and this is Mary as a model for all of us who follow her Son. Mary’s active and living faith inspired her to place her trust in God’s promises and to give herself completely to the will of the Father: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Even Jesus himself praised his mother’s faith. When a woman called out to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you,” he replied, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it” (Luke 11:27-28). Mary was called blessed not simply because she happened to be the mother of Jesus. Mary is blessed because of faith and obedience.
Inspired by the beauty and grandeur of this mystery, Saint John Damascene (d. ca. 749) wrote:
This day the Eden of the New Adam [Heaven] welcomes its living Paradise, in whom our sentence has been repealed… Eve heeded the message of the serpent… and together with Adam was condemned to death and assigned to the world of darkness.
But how could death swallow this truly blessed soul, who humbly heeded the word of God?... How could corruption dare to touch the body that contained Life itself? The very thought is abhorrent, repugnant, in regard to the body and soul of the Mother of God.
So, on this Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, let us take a moment to offer a two-fold prayer of thanks: for the gift we have received because of Mary’s obedience and faith which are at the heart of this celebration and for the promise of new and eternal life that God has made to each of us, in Christ, when we faithfully and lovingly respond to the movements of the Holy Spirit, as did Mary.
Midday. I See the Open Church by Paul Claudel +Midday. I see the open church.
It draws me within.
I did not come, Mother of Jesus Christ,
I have nothing to offer you.
Nor to ask of you.
I only come, O my Mother,
to gaze at you,
to see you, to cry simply out of joy.
Because I know that I am your child,
and that you are there.
(This poem describes a decisive moment in Claudel’s life when he was recovering an awareness of God and of Mary’s role in the Christian life.)