Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
May 14, 2001
Mary is taken bodily into heaven
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
It took the Catholic Church until 1854 to declare Mary's Immaculate Conception as a doctrine of faith. This was a relatively late date for affirming a teaching that is fairly well rooted in Scripture. Mary, for example, was addressed as "full of grace" by the angel and told by her cousin Elizabeth, "Blessed are you among women."
One major reason for the delay was St. Augustine's contention that original sin was transmitted through sexual intercourse. Since Mary, unlike Jesus, had been conceived in the normal means, she would, the argument goes, have to have received original sin at least for a moment. Medieval theologians generally did not challenge Augustine on this point - he was a giant among theologians and the consecrated life of celibacy was viewed as superior to that of marriage.
So when the Immaculate Conception was made an official teaching of the Church, something different was also being implied about human sexuality. Intercourse, it was implied, did not transmit original sin. Marital sex was not, at best, a mixed good that created new human beings (good) but left them tarnished with original sin (bad).
The Church now has a more exalted view of sexuality. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "The union of man and woman in marriage is a way of imitating in the flesh the Creator's generosity and fecundity" (n. 2335).
The doctrine of Mary's Assumption, declared in 1951, affirms the goodness of the human body. Pope Pius XII taught that this doctrine means "the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory."
For theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar the Assumption followed logically from Mary's unconditional acceptance of God's invitation to become the Mother of God. "Mary's total submission was such that, along with her whole soul, she also offered up her whole body and this was precisely what God needed in order to realize his plan of salvation," von Balthasar wrote. "Her word of assent will draw her back up into heaven in her totality."
Likewise, Melkite-rite Archbishop Joseph Raya points out that "The liturgy insisted on the glorification of 'the august and holy body of Mary,' the one that contained God and by which we were divinized."
The doctrine of the Assumption displays a profound hope and trust in God's mercy. Even our own flesh, which so often draws us to sin, will be saved in glory. The body is not trash that we leave behind; it is good and it will be brought fully into God's kingdom.
This doctrine is badly needed in our current era where sins against the body are rampant. I refer not only to sexual sins, but also to gluttony, over-consumption of the earth's resources, environmental pollution, abuse of alcohol and drugs, and the hyper-competitiveness of sports that treats the body as a machine. There are also the sins against procreation - birth control, in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, cloning and abortion.
All of these sins treat the body as an object to be manipulated rather than as integral to a person who has a God-given dignity that ought to be respected. This attitude is rooted in the 17th-century Enlightenment notion that there is a split between mind and body. This split plays itself out today in the common belief that the body is extraneous to the real self.
The Catholic teaching, expressed by the Second Vatican Council, is a challenge to the modern manipulation of the body: "Man, though made up of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator.
"For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honour since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day."
Mary has gone before us, body and soul, into heaven. In that, she is our hope and a challenge to those who would treat material creation as a mere tool to be manipulated by the human mind.
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