Sing of Mary, 5: The Assumption is the Crown
Yesterday was the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so it seemed fitting to spend part of the day adding to the reflections on the Mother of God which make up our Sing of Mary series. Since the Catholic dogma of the Assumption of Mary body and soul into heaven was not formally defined until 1950, it is good to recall that this definition was simply a Magisterial confirmation of what Catholics had understood to be an essential component of the Christian faith from the beginning.
There are innumerable ways to demonstrate the unique status of Mary, which is rooted in her Immaculate Conception, the special role she was given as the Mother of God, Our Lord’s gift of His mother to His disciples through St. John while he hung on the cross, and of course the corresponding certainty that she was “full of grace”. With no trace of sin, she could not be subject to the wages of sin, that is, the corruption of death (Rom 6:23). For this reason, the earliest non-Scriptural Christian writings (the apocrypha), while they tell varying stories about the end of Mary’s life, all agree on her special bodily elevation into heaven.
One common tradition is that Mary’s tomb was found, like Christ’s, to be empty after a “dormition” (a falling asleep) of three days. A feast of this “Dormition” was celebrated in both East and West by the Patristic age at least. In the West, the name gradually changed to “Passing” and finally to “Assumption”. By the eighth century, the doctrine of the Assumption was taught everywhere in the East, and the greatest doctors of the Church affirmed it as a certain part of the Christian Faith over the next few centuries. In The West, for example, as early as 693, St. Gregory of Tours was able to state with certainty that Mary had been taken up and borne on a cloud into Paradise.
Mary’s Immaculate Conception (her conception free from the stain of original sin in the womb of her mother, St. Anne) had been officially defined by the Church in 1854. Again, this was believed by ordinary Catholics down through the centuries, though different theological schools took opposite sides of the question in the thirteenth-century, and the Church had to put a moratorium on the discussion. In the nineteenth century, Pope Pius IX decided it was time officially to confirm the widespread Catholic belief through an ex cathedra statement. Readers are likely to remember that, in her apparitions at Lourdes in 1858, Our Lady confirmed her identity by telling Bernadette to tell the authorities that she was the “Immaculate Conception”, which a fourteen-year-old peasant girl would not have been well-educated enough to come up with on her own.
I mention the Immaculate Conception in particular here because its definition makes acceptance of the subsequent Assumption of Mary—or, more accurately, of some way for Mary to escape the corruption of death—a theological necessity. Theologians know that, under the guidance of the Magisterium, the certain doctrines of the Church fit together in a supremely logical pattern, with each piece complementing and strengthening the whole.
The New Adam…
Again, however, it is important to emphasize that these doctrines were not new when they were defined. It was rather a case of making explicit what was already implicit. The Magisterium of the Church issues definitions either to confirm what has been always and everywhere believed for the glory of God or, even more often, to clarify and strengthen Catholics in a point of faith which has become subject to debate or denial in a wayward culture. Like Mary herself, the Church treasures these things in her heart, growing in understanding of the deposit of Faith over time, so that she might clarify and confirm now one and now another aspect of Catholic teaching as each occasion demands.
As far as the Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven, this article of faith was implicit from the first in the very early Patristic emphasis on Christ as the “new Adam” and Mary as the “new Eve”. Adam and Eve were initially created in a condition we call Original Justice, without sin, such that they were not subject to death and decay but would (presumably) have passed seamlessly into the Beatific Vision at what otherwise would have been the end of their natural lives. They had from the first the gift of immortality. This state of Original Justice was lost through sin; the result was their subjection to death and decay.
But Christ is the new Adam. As St. Paul expressed it in Romans:
If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. [Rom 5:17-19]
…and the New Eve
Now, following this Revelation, the earliest Christian thinkers saw a logical connection between Christ as the new Adam and the sinless Mary as the new Eve. As early as St. Justin Martyr (d. 165 AD), these early writers drew a parallel between Eve, who sadly conceived the word spoken by the Serpent, and Mary, who gloriously conceived the Word spoken by God. Just a little later, St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 190s), who was a disciple of St. Polycarp, who was a disciple of St. John, offered a thorough development of this idea of Mary as the New Eve. In his Adversus Haereses and his Demonstratio apostoloicae praedicationis, this early Father of the Church compared Eve, who was instructed by the angel Satan unto disobedience, with Mary, who was instructed by the angel Gabriel unto obedience.
As we can well imagine, this idea of the New Eve was closely connected with reflections on Mary’s unique combination of virginity and maternity. All the great Fathers of the East and West developed these themes. For example, St. Athanasius (d. 373)—that great defender of the two natures of Christ in one Divine person against Arianism—also defended Mary’s perpetual virginity, her sinlessness, her motherhood of all the living, and her union with the Trinity at the Annunciation. The truths of these aspects of the Faith are now expressed by describing Mary as the daughter of the Father, the spouse of the Holy Spirit, and the mother of the Son.
In the seventh century, St. Andrew of Crete, a great preacher and writer of hymns, found references to Mary throughout Sacred Scripture and expressed the reality of Mary this way:
Of you [Mary] all interpreters of the Spirit sang…. Hail, Mediatrix of the law and of grace, seal of the Old and New testament, clear fulfillment of the whole of prophecy, of the truth of Scriptures inspired by God, the living and most pure book of God and the Word in which, without voice or writing, the writer himself, God and Word, is every day read.
It is not without good reason, then, that at the Second Vatican Council Pope St. Paul VI declared Mary to be the “mother of the Church”. And it could only be a source of joy to Catholics that Pope Francis established in 2018 a feast of Mary Mother of the Church to be celebrated each year on the day after the whole Church celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
Mary’s glorious Assumption was in effect the confirmation of all her unique privileges. For this reason, Catholics around the world associate it with her coronation as Queen of heaven and earth—a queenship which is also celebrated by the Church on August 22nd. As Pope Pius XII explained in his 1954 encyclical On Proclaiming the Queenship of Mary, in the Davidic tradition of Israel, the mother of the King was considered the Queen. Truly, Mary’s Assumption was the final jewel in her crown.
Previous in series: Sing of Mary, 4b: Everything you wanted to know about the Mother of God, Part 2
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