Visits with Mary Logo – Large
July 27, 2015

Every year at the first hint of the waning of summer, the Church celebrates the feast of Mary's assumption into heaven. I have heard cynics refer to it as "the blessed assumption" – a tenuous belief that Mary was taken bodily into heaven when there is no direct scriptural support for such a belief.

The Assumption, however, is one of the Church's oldest feasts, the celebration of which is attested to as far back as the fourth century. Moreover, while the city of Loreto, Italy, claims to have Mary's house in its possession, no place has made a claim to have Mary's relics or to be the site where she was and remains buried.

The feast might also provoke one to ask, "Where is heaven?" It was a question answered facetiously by the first Soviet cosmonauts who, upon entering outer space, said they could find no trace of heaven.

Heaven, however, said Pope Benedict XVI in a 2008 homily on the feast, is not a place. Heaven is God himself: "God is heaven. He is our destination, the destination and the eternal dwelling place from which we come and for which we are striving."

If that's the case then Mary is bodily with God.

The feast of the Assumption is, like all Marian feasts, a celebration of hope. If Mary could give herself totally to the Father's will, give birth to God in this world, and bring healing to the sick and solidarity with the poor (as at Lourdes and Guadalupe), so too can we. She is the mother of mercy; we too can bring God's mercy to those we meet.

The taking of Mary – body and soul – to heaven is depicted in a relief outside the cemetery at St. Peter and Paul Church in Mauren, Liechtenstein. The feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is celebrated Aug. 15.

CNS PHOTO | CROSIERS

The taking of Mary – body and soul – to heaven is depicted in a relief outside the cemetery at St. Peter and Paul Church in Mauren, Liechtenstein. The feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is celebrated Aug. 15.

Yet, the message of hope is even stronger at the Assumption than with other Marian feasts. Our groans and sufferings in this world, Pope Benedict said, drawing upon St. Paul, are "the birth pangs of the new humanity." Mary's assumption reveals the victory of love, the triumph of eternal life over this vale of tears.

Although one's daily life may be marked by suffering, "it flows like a river to the divine ocean, to the fullness of joy and peace," the pope emeritus said. Mary is, after Jesus, the first fruit of redemption; her son has carried her into the divine ocean.

Mary's life was marked by a total reliance on God's word. She obeyed God's word spoken by the angel, and she carried the Word Made Flesh within her body for nine months.

BODILY INTO HEAVEN

Small wonder then that she herself was brought bodily into heaven. It was only fitting that the one who enabled God's Son to become bodily present in this world was herself brought bodily into "the divine ocean."

What this might mean outstrips our understanding.

Paul, the wandering tentmaker, describes the earthly body as a tent. "In this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling" (2 Corinthians 5.2). In this body, we are away from the Lord; "we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord" (5.8).

Here, the apostle seems to be saying, not that our bodies will be transformed when our earthly lives are over, but that they will be "taken off" and yet we will not be naked. The earthly body, which can be seen, cannot co-exist with God; our inner nature, which cannot be seen, is eternal and can be present with the Almighty (4.16-18).

HEAVENLY BODY

The apostle says our earthly body will decay only to be replaced by a heavenly body which emerges out of our inner nature. The heavenly body, although invisible, will contain "an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure" (4.17).

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he leads the Sunday Angelus prayer in August 2011.

CNS PHOTO | TONY GENTILE, REUTERS

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he leads the Sunday Angelus prayer in August 2011.

Where is Mary in this? Is her assumption like the resurrection of Christ who appeared bodily to the disciples and ascended into heaven? Or, was her assumption the taking off of the earthly body and the putting on of the heavenly body with its eternal weight of glory?

Pope Benedict and the Church's tradition side clearly with the first option. Mary is the New Ark of the Covenant who carries the bodily Christ within her and whose earthly body is among the first fruits of the redemption. There is room in heaven for the human body.

Perhaps such questions should not preoccupy us. Instead, we might focus on Mary as our spiritual mother, the one who not only goes before us, but whose devout carrying of the Word shows how to swim into the divine ocean.

BEAUTY OF GOD

"It is precisely by looking at Mary's face that we can see more clearly than in any other way the beauty, goodness and mercy of God," Pope Benedict said in his 2006 homily on the Assumption. "In her face we can truly perceive the divine light."

The Assumption is one of my favourite feasts. It is a feast that bears witness to our hope of eternal life with God. It beautifully exemplifies that summer's waning into autumn and eventually into winter is no cause for despair. God's Son is always with us. He has opened the doors to God's kingdom and has set the table for an eternal banquet.