As I approach my 80th year, I am much aware of death. Many friends and colleagues have died recently, and I can feel “the sting of death” in my body’s decline. I do hope to live longer and to prosper. Yet most of my friends live with a growing awareness of death. St. Paul claims that, with Jesus’ resurrection, death has lost it’s sting. Wonder if he still thought that as he first felt the bite of the executioner’s axe.
At any rate today is the celebration of Mary’s “dormition” as the Orthodox put it. It concerns death and transformation, body and soul, into a new form of life — “in heaven” we typically say. I am again copying here (with minor edits) a reflection on this feastday which I first published in “Hark,” The Denver Post‘s then still extant religion blog .
On August 15, Catholics around the world celebrate “The Assumption of Mary” into heaven. More typically referred to simply as “The Assumption,” to distinguish it from Jesus’ resurrection and “ascension” into heaven, the holy day celebrates Catholic teaching that Jesus’s mother, after the course of her natural life, was taken body and soul into heavenly glory. There is no formal Catholic teaching about whether Mary, like her son Jesus, actually died. Though I assume that she, like all humanity, really did die.
This belief about Mary’s assumption is a stumbling block for most Protestant Christians. My wife, for instance, is a good Presbyterian. We met in a small and entirely Catholic town in Bavaria while studying the German language. The course ran through Aug. 15, a town holiday because it was a Catholic holy day, Maria Himmelfahrt. For my wife, and probably for most of our fellow students, it was simply a day off from school and occasion for a bit of a joke about the word “himmelfahrt.” We knew it meant “journey to heaven,” but the English resonance of the sound “fahrt” was unavoidable. Beyond that, it has remained for her a matter of indifference in our otherwise ecumenically active marriage.
So for her and many others, I offer (again) the following comments and reflections.
The Scripture readings for the feast begin with the description of the pregnant women in the heavens “clothed with the Sun,” from Revelations 12. They then move to Paul’s discussion of Christ “conquering death” by his resurrection and so becoming “the firstborn of many” (1 Corinthians 15). And finally to the Gospel narrative traditionally referred to as “the Visitation” (Luke 1:39) — the young and pregnant Mary’s visit to her older, about-to-give-birth cousin Elizabeth.
Elizabeth greets Mary as “full of grace” and then hears in Mary’s response the poetic canticle still widely referred to as “The Magnificat” (from the first word of the older Latin text). Mary proclaims that her soul glorifies God (“magnificat anima mea Dominum”), who has thrown down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the poor and lowly, has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
As liturgical readings — as poetry and proclamation for the feast of the Assumption — these texts are rich in suggestion about the meaning of Catholic belief. I am struck above all by how physical, bodily and worldly is their content. Yes, they celebrate a move beyond the present world, beyond death; yet, they do so in remarkably earthly terms. A heavenly woman gives birth in pain, yet stands as sign of “a new heaven and a new earth.” Jesus really dies, but by his resurrection is proclaimed firstborn of a new creation (a “new world ‘a comin”). Above all, two pregnant women proclaim God’s presence and grace, active then and there, and His work of overturning the rich and powerful of this world and exalting the poor and hungry.
Mary’s story is not about escaping this world, however much Christian teaching and Marian devotion may have been understood in such “spiritualist” terms. Rather it’s about the transformation of the world. And if Jesus by his resurrection is “the firstborn” in this new world, then Mary’s bodily assumption makes her the second-born.
Mary’s Assumption is, in other words, one part of the larger Christian belief about a kingdom that will and does transform this real physical world — where women get pregnant, suffer childbirth, and are so often terribly treated; where the poor are still with us, suffering and oppressed; where the rich and powerful glory in their excess and use terrible brutality to defend their kingdom.
The Assumption is part of that larger, though too easily dismissed, Christian teaching about “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Now about belief in a new creation, a new kingdom coming, I must admit that I’m among the first to doubt — to find such ideas hard to accept, even at times fantastical.
As I write I have a friend who is dying. [True again in 2021, though a different friend.] Most of us know death, often close up, and know its terrible finality. Just as we daily witness power and wealth increasing their death grip on our national dreams of equality and justice, to say nothing of the dreams of the vast majority of our world’s population. So I’m often not sure what to make of talk about defeating death and some new world ‘a comin’ — perhaps it is just opium.
What I do know, however, and am called to celebrate, is that Catholic teaching about Mary and Jesus — regardless of what some preachers and even some bishops and popes have made of it — is not about fantastical dreams of someplace else. It’s essentially incarnational — bodily, physical, worldly, human, political. It’s about this world and about the hope for its transformation, in God’s good time (which is both now and to come).
Perhaps hard to believe, but that’s what it’s about. And it challenges many, many of our assumptions.
So let me end with Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk and writer. He tells of a moment when, on a street corner in Louisville, where he’d gone for a doctor visit, he had this experience of seeing all the people on the street “shining like the sun.” He says that he wanted to shout to them, call to them to see how they really were “clothed with the sun.” Instead he gave his life to writing about how all of us, in our deeper and more real selves, are indeed “full of grace” and “clothed with the sun,” even in the midst of our daily busy-ness, our greeds and lusts and angers, our wars and crimes.
Pay attention to those moments, glimpses, when we notice ourselves or others “clothed with the sun.” Maybe if we did it more, paid greater attention to such deeper presence, we too would occasionally see a new world ‘a comin’ even now. It might even change some of our assumptions.