Friday, August 15, 2014

The Assumption - what it is and what it ain't

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. 

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."

Ok... so what is it not?

The Assumption is not a teaching that in any way deifies Mary. It's also not a belief 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. 

Mary's bodily assumption into heaven was also not a singular instance in salvation history. As believers, we await the second coming of our Lord when we, too, will be bodily assumed into heaven. But, even before Mary, God has already done this for some of our forefathers in faith.

First of all, there're the Old Testament examples of Enoch (Genesis 5:24, Hebrews 11:5) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11) who both seem to have been "taken up" to heaven by God. 

Then, in Matthew's Gospel, a bodily assumption is also suggested where it reads: "[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 here did eventually die again and had to be re-buried sometime later, to await the Second Coming. But the Gospel record is silent on their fate, leaving open the possibility that these saints, too, might have been assumed into heaven when their courses were run.

So although the assumption of Mary is not explicitly found in Scripture, the Bible certainly leaves open that possibility with the precedents mentioned above. At the very least, we can say that Scripture is silent on the matter.

But... is the Bible really silent on Mary's Assumption?

Maybe not. The Book of Revelation records a glimpse at the heavenly reality granted to the book's author. 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, and, interestingly, it contains a vivid biblical hint about what eventually happened to Mary.

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. 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 the author of Revelation records the fact that the Ark of the Covenant now resides in heaven in the form of "a woman clothed with the sun" whose Child is the Messiah. 

The original Ark of the Covenant from the Temple in Jerusalem had been missing for decades when this passage was penned. But the author of the Book of Revelation makes a claim that is as startling as it is clear: Mary, the mother of the Messiah, is the Ark of the New Covenant.  

Consider these fascinating 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 of the temple 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 dwelt 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 chosen from by God from the beginning to bear 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 the bones 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.