Our life, our sweetness, and our hope.
On November 1, 1950, the feast of All Saints Pope Pius XII defined the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary: “we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory”.
I suppose most Anglicans and many other Christians as well would say that this definition has nothing to do with them, except maybe as yet another example of ‘the tyranny of the bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities, from which the Litany of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer prays that we may be delivered.
So, if you do not like that, what else was going on in the world?
It was just five years after the end of World War II, the deadliest military conflict in history. Over 60 million people were killed, which was over 2.5% of the world population. Holocaust deaths range between 4.9 to 6.0 million Jews.
An atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, followed by a plutonium bomb on the city of Nagasaki on August 9. Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects killed 90,000–166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000–80,000 in Nagasaki; roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred on the first day. Ground zero in Nagasaki was the largest Roman Catholic cathedral in Japan and Nagasaki itself had the largest Catholic population in Japan, Hiroshima was historically the center of Christian missions in Japan.
The number of deaths due to Soviet repression is estimated at 2,183,000 1939–1940 and 5,458,000 1941–1945. The year before the Soviets had successfully detonated an atomic bomb. On June 25 1950 the Korean War had begun, when North Korean Communist forces invaded South Korea.
It would obviously be foolish in the extreme to consider the dogma of the Assumption merely from a sociological or psychological perspective. But the Pope himself drew attention to the immediate historical context in the Apostolic Constitution:
“The most bountiful God, who is almighty, the plan of whose providence rests upon wisdom and love, tempers, in the secret purpose of his own mind, the sorrows of peoples and of individual men by means of joys that he interposes in their lives from time to time, in such a way that, under different conditions and in different ways, all things may work together unto good for those who love him” .
And he adds:
“Now, just like the present age, our pontificate is weighed down by ever so many cares, anxieties, and troubles, by reason of very severe calamities that have taken place” .
The Apostolic Constitution, like the mystery it proclaims, defies the culture of death, which has only expanded under the benign rule of liberal democracy. In Munificentissimus Deus Pope Pius XII promulgated a teaching about the value of an individual human life to the rest of humanity. In this he anticipated the ‘personalist theology of his successor Pope John Paul II: “the person is the kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end;: the person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love”
Mary, the human being who most reflected the splendor of her Son’s humanity and his obedient response to the Father’s will did not undergo separation from him. She who was at his side on the Way of the Cross and who accepted the role of Mother of the Church at the foot of the cross was called to his side in heavenly glory.
But an assumption is not an ascension. The only one to have ascended into heaven is Jesus. His ascension was an active movement; Mary’s assumption is passive and in the nature of a gift. She was taken up to be where Christ is. In her the Lord fulfills his promise to the Church ‘where I am you may be also.’ (Jn.14.3)
Mary’s assumption is dependent upon the ascension of Jesus. In him our human nature is glorified and taken up into the communion of the Holy Trinity. We stand between the already and the not yet, between the two worlds of time and eternity We have been redeemed but have not yet fully appropriated the fruits of that redemption won for us by Christ. We are still viatores, pilgrims on the way in the valle of tears but bound for glory. The process of transformation and transfiguration which is promised to us and which even now is continuing in the Church is achieved in the Mother of God. She is no longer on the way, a pilgrim no longer.
Pope Pius XII also anticipated the teaching of Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate: “As a spiritual being, the human creature is defined through interpersonal relations. The more authentically he lives these relations, the more his own personal identity matures. It is not by isolation that man establishes his worth, but by placing himself in relation with others and with God.”
The key to the celebration of this feast is relationship. The old Gospel for the Feast of the Assumption was strangely enough the visit of Jesus to Mary and Martha of Bethany. The newer Gospel is the Visitation but what both Gospels stress is the relational, the welcome of those closely related. St. Bernard in a remarkable sermon on the Assumption says
“When he came into the village we call the world, she it was who welcomed him, And now he welcomed her as she entered the holy city. . . . There was no higher place on earth than Mary’s virginal womb, the temple where she received the Word of God. There is no higher place in heaven than the royal throne on which her Son set today. Fruitful the reception each gave the other”.
Mary is related to her Son not just through nature but through the grace of obedience and purity. Her heavenly glory is not a place but an intensified relationship. He grew in her womb; they shared a common life. They were of ‘one flesh’ not simply in virtue of his being the Second Adam but in virtue of her maternity. It is this flesh, the total bodily reality of the Incarnate Word which ascends to heavenly glory. At the end of her earthly life it is this body in which the redeemer of the world was welcomed and nurtured which is re-united with the glorified Christ.
The resurrection of Christ is not simply an isolated event in the chain of events of his biography it is the achievement and disclosure in him of the Father’s purpose. The gift he has won for us, eternal life, is precisely for all of us, for the whole of humankind. In Mary, the most perfect representative of those who hear the Word of God and in it we see our own destiny revealed.
Our life, our sweetness, and our hope.
I had already wondered about the context of Munificentissimus Deus and the Personalism of St. John Paul II. But much of the rest of this homily is pilfered from Fr. Allan White OP, whose homilies have I always found useful, insightful and thought-provoking. As Fr. Rogers used to say, "If I say anything original, ignore it."