Monday, August 19, 2013

Mary's Assumption revisited

A short preface: As we continue to observe this Marian month (and we're only one week away from the start of school here at Ole Miss!), let's take a quick and quasi-scholarly look at the Catholic belief that lies at the core of last Thursday's Holy Day of Obligation: the Assumption of Mary. Why? Because, let's face it: you've got questions. 

In case you need a quick refresher, remember that just last week we Catholics celebrated the principle feast of Our Lady on the Church's calendar: the Solemnity of the Assumption. On that day and each year on August 15th, we commemorated Mary's bodily assumption into heaven at the end of her earthly life, remembering her passing into eternal life. It's a teaching that is so important to us Catholics that the Church asks us to keep the day as a Holy Day of Obligation (so I hope you good Catholics made it to Mass!). 

I should also point out here that I was planning to write a timely post about this subject last week, but my laptop was actually stolen out of my car midweek. And that's no fun. But I'm back now, and so you get this Marian mega-post a few days late. So, it's a few days late and I'm a computer short... but hopefully it was worth the wait... lo siento.

Mary, Mary, Mary -- it's always Mary with you Catholics!

If you'd have asked me years ago as a (at the time) lifelong Evangelical Christian, what I disagreed with about the Catholic faith, the Church's teachings on Mary would definitely have made the top of my list. I didn't even fully know or understand exactly what Catholics believed about Mary, I just thought that whatever it was, it translated as a devotion to Christ's mother that didn't make sense to me, seemed over-the-top, and, possibly, border lined on the the idolatrous.

Well, assuming that we've got at least a few non-Catholic (and even Catholic) visitors who may be in the same boat, let's take a brief look at one of the most important Catholic beliefs concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary: the Assumption.

The Assumption: Umm, what is it? 

The doctrine of the Assumption teaches that Mary, at the end of her natural life on earth, was assumed, body and soul, into heaven. It is not a teaching that Mary "ascended" into heaven under her own power like Christ her Son. Instead, she was "assumed" or "taken up" into heaven by God at the end of her life. Whether she died a natural death before this or was assumed alive is not known but the strong tradition in the Eastern Churches (i.e. the Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, who, along with the Roman Catholic Church, share the Apostolic deposit of faith) is that Mary did, indeed, die. In fact, the Eastern Churches call this day the "Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God." Dormition means "falling asleep."

Scriptural proof, part 1: Where's that in the Bible?

Spoiler alert: it's not (at least not explicitly). But before anyone jumps up with a triumphant "Aha!," I should remind you that the fundamental Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura is not in the Bible either. Soo, there's that.

But the possibility of someone being bodily assumed by God from this earth is definitely there. First of all, there're the Old Testament examples of Enoch (Genesis 5:24, Hebrews 11:5) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11). Scripture is not completely clear on what exactly happened to these two men of God, but, at the very least, the possibility is left open that they were assumed by God into heaven.

Then there's the New Testament where Matthew's Gospel suggests, again, the possibility of a bodily assumption before Christ's Second Coming: "[T]he tombs also were opened, and many of the bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many." (Mt 27:52-53) Now perhaps the "saints" that Matthew mentions eventually died again and had to be re-buried sometime later, but there's no record of that in the Bible.

So, while Scripture does not explicitly state that Mary was bodily assumed into heaven at the end of her life, it is certainly safe to say that Scripture leaves open that possibility with these precedents. At the very least, we have to admit that Scripture is simply silent on the matter.

Scriptural proof, part 2: So the Bible is silent on Mary's Assumption... or is it?

The Book of Revelation, a written account of a spectacular vision from God, includes a glimpse at the heavenly reality. Scholars agree that this, the final book of the Bible, was written around 100 AD, a time that was almost certainly after Mary's earthly life was over, so it merits a quick look if we are trying to find a biblical hint about what eventually happened to Mary.

And in his vision of heaven, the author of the Book of Revelation saw God's temple in heaven opened to reveal nothing less than the long-lost Ark of the Covenant. And, seemingly, a description of the Ark immediately follows: "And a great portent appeared in heaven, 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. .... [S]he brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron." (Revelation 12:1-2, 5)

So it seems that the author of Revelation reports that the Ark of the Covenant resides in heaven in the form of "a woman clothed with the sun" whose Child is the Messiah. Who bore the Messiah? Mary, of course - the Ark of the New Covenant.

We know that the original Ark of the Covenant was eventually lost, but, as the Book of Revelation makes clear, Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant. Consider the parallels: The original Ark of the Covenant contained the law of God inscribed in stone (see Deuteronomy 10:3-5); in Mary's womb was the Word of God in flesh. In the original ark was the manna, the "bread from heaven" that kept the Israelites fed during their journey to the Promised Land (see Hebrews 9:4); in Mary was the living bread come down from heaven (see John 6:48-51). In the original ark was the rod of Aaron, sign of the old covenant priesthood (see Hebrews 9:4); in Mary was the Eternal High Priest (see Hebrews 5:5-6).

Mary, then, as the one who bore the Son of God (Jesus, the embodiment of the law, the bread from heaven, and the eternal high priest)  is rightly called the Ark of the New Covenant. And, as Revelation makes clear, there is, in fact, a firm Scriptural basis for our belief that Mary can now be found, body and soul, in heavenly glory.

Archaeological proof of Mary's Assumption

This last "proof" is a tough one because, really, it is negative proof. In other words, the physical proof that something miraculous happened to Mary at the end of her life lies with the fact that there is not, and never has been, any relic of her earthly body venerated by Christians. Ever.

And lest you skim past without really thinking and truly considering the ramifications of this fact, consider this: Mary has always been the most-venerated of all of the saints. Great efforts were made by the early Christians to mark and to honor the final resting places of the apostles (think St. Peter's and St. Paul's basilicas in Rome) and to venerate their remains. But there is absolutely no record, in all of Christian history, of any person or place claiming to posses relics of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Maybe, just maybe, this is because there never have been any relics to claim; no bodily remains to venerate. Because Mary was, as the earliest traditions have always attested, was indeed assumed into heaven, body and soul.

Worth considering

The Assumption of Mary inspires hope in us, as followers of Christ, that we, too, will be resurrected by God and assumed into heaven. This is, after all, the reason for our faith: life eternal with God. Mary was the first believer in Christ and the first believer to experience the everlasting joys of body and soul, united in heaven with her Son. We, too, should pray for the grace to follow her life of faith on this earth and, eventually, to follow her to God's heavenly kingdom.