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Catholic Culture News

Her Assumption Befits the Mother of God

by Valentine Long, O.F.M.


Chapter 8 of Fr. Long's book on the Blessed Mother.

Larger Work

The Mother of God



Publisher & Date

Franciscan Herald Press, 1976

Dr. Geoffrey Fisher, then the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, reacted none too gently to the newly proclaimed dogma of Mary's assumption into heaven. He vented his misgivings to the news media, pronouncing it "a doctrine completely foreign to the Bible and ancient universal beliefs." He spoke from conviction, it is only fair to assume. But it would be unfair to the primitive faith of his own countrymen not to present the evidence the dignitary somehow overlooked. The very first Bishop of Canterbury, to begin there, taught the Assumption as a doctrine to the natives he converted to Christ. This apostle to the English would not have so taught them and decreed August the 15th a holy day in the land, if he had disbelieved in the Assumption. Nor would he have introduced the feast into the country unless the universal Church had been observing it, under whatever title, the Assumption, the Dormition, the Memorial of Mary. The liturgy does not create but accepts doctrine.

Later than St. Augustine, yet a good five centuries before the Reformation, Archbishop Lafranc issued the famous Canterbury Calendar which marks off the 15th of August a festival of high rank. His immediate successor in the see needed no such reminder to keep the date sacred; his writings were themselves an eloquent reminder: they cherish the term Queen of Angels. And by it St. Anselm meant no disembodied spirit but the whole woman. A fourth Archbishop of Canterbury, the Franciscan John Peckham who did the first Life of St. Anthony of Padua, lauds the all-round champion of Mary for being a special witness to her assumption. And don't forget this: King Alfred the Great, not content with a mere day in honor of the Assumption, ordered his confederation of Anglo-Saxon tribes to prepare for the feast by a week-long vigil of holidays, free days, days of leisure devoted to its anticipation.

So many memorials remain of England's early devotion to the doctrine that any visitor with eyes not blind could discover them. The historic cathedral of York would hardly include among its artistic treasures a portrayal of Mary in a circle of angels mounting heavenward, if the builders had considered the idea a superstition. A newcomer to Eton, who already in his teens had an alert appreciation of just such reminders of the traditional, fell in love with the school at first sight. As Evelyn Waugh says, "The illustrious associations of the school counted for much, but he saw the arcadia of Gray and the battle-school of Wellington transfigured by the medieval past. Our Lady's lilies were blazoned on the arms; her Assumption was exalted in the roof." Nor did Ronald Knox outlive that first impression which a dearer alma mater than Oxford had made on his adolescent mind.

Years later he collaborated with Shane Leslie to produce their book. The Miracles of King Henry VI, in the hope of seeing the royal founder of Eton canonized. It was not an extravagant hope. The process of canonization had in truth once got under way, and promisingly, what with 175 miracles to report, when the Reformation discouraged it. A sudden lack of national support killed the effort. But Monsignor Knox admired and cherished to his dying day the saintly monarch who had founded Eton, as the original charter reads, "in honor of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin."

Queen Margaret testified to her husband's fitness for canonization, in her Shakespearean lines:

But all his mind is bent to holiness.
To number Ave-Maries on his beads:
His champions are the prophets and apostles,
His weapons holy saws of sacred writ.

One so accumstomed to saying his beads would naturally cherish the Assumption. A decade of the rosary is devoted to the doctrine.

The outburst of sarcasm from Newman, in defense of the Immaculate Conception, could as readily apply to the Assumption. A likely convert, claiming to have been frightened away from the Church by "so terrible a doctrine," provoked the retort: "Now, my dear man, why? Do not go off in such a wonderful agitation, like a horse shying at he does not know what. Consider what I have said. Is it, after all, certainly irrational? is it certainly idolatrous? I cannot help smiling as I put the questions. Rather, may not something be said for it from reason, from piety, from antiquity, from the inspired text?" Something, to be sure, and in abundance. The Cardinal turned out enough material in favor of the Immaculate Conception, along with the Assumption, to fill a tome. He worked from a basic principle: "The special prerogatives of St. Mary are intimately involved in the doctrine of the Incarnation."

Once we realize whose mother Mary is and all that has come to be recognized as her other prerogatives can be seen, in the light of so comprehensive a dignity, to have been there all along. Her privileges are proper to the mother of a grateful God. And so, proceeding on this principle, the Church has educed from certain scriptural texts the implied truth about the Assumption no less than the Immaculate Conception. The same texts support both dogmas. The same line of argument which justifies one justifies the other.

It is an interesting fact, though not an accident, that Murillo's paintings on the Immaculate Conception have been mistaken for the Assumption. Either title would fit them mutually well. They are all fundamentally the same portrayal, with but slight variations. The graceful form of Mary transcends the earth in triumph, a look of unblemished innocence on her face, her whole being a symphony of perfection in a thicket of admiring cherubs, all of which bespeaks her Immaculate Conception: yet this same figure also transcends the moon above the earth, with the stars paled to a near invisibility by her great radiance; the folds of her garment astir in the breeze in her motion upward, her destination so obviously heaven, with the attendant angels to emphasize the idea. The artist labelled his pieces the Purissima. which some of his critics have ignored. They are satisfied that he must have meant the Assumption.

As the New Eve—her name from the Fathers—Mary would triumph over Satan. Her antitype, succumbing to his wiles, in turn induced Adam to subject them both and their posterity, all their entirely human posterity but one, to the malice of hell. This exception, the predicted mother, who would share her Son's invincible enmity with Satan, would never undergo corruption in the tomb. Immune to the hereditary guilt, she would not incur its punishment. Heaven would see to that, and did, arranging her assumption. So does the Church educe, so did Pope Pius XII proclaim, the inherent meaning of Scripture's oldest prophecy.

The angel Gabriel provides a second text. His greeting to Mary presupposes her absolute immunity from evil, from sin of any kind. What else can "full of grace" mean? And if she did not incur the guilt of original sin, then she did not fall under its curse of death. At worst, a temporary dormition which could not corrupt would overtake her. She needed no mortician to treat her sacred body which awaited an angelic delivery to heaven. Thus, like a refrain, runs the familiar deduction.

Solomon had long ago set down the premise. His statement, "God created man for incorruption . . . but through the devil's envy death entered the world," easily leads to the inference that she who had never come under the devil's power would evade his empire of death to enjoy an incorruptibility of the flesh (Wis. 2:23-24). St. Paul takes over from there, saying in one text and repeating in another that, whereas Adam brought death, Christ restored life ((I Cor. 15:22; Rom. 5:12-15). From which, the Fathers got their idea to name Christ the New Adam as they were to call his mother the New Eve because with him she was allied against Satan and with him victorious over Satan. They were disposed by St. John to see her in an aura of splendor, defiant of the tomb, "a woman clothed with the sun" (Rev. 12:1).

St. Modestus, Patriarch of Jerusalem, wrote his Encomium about this resplendent figure of a queen. He speaks of her assumption with not a trace of hesitancy, with rather the aplomb of an expositor who is dealing with an indisputable truth. Pope Pius XII wisely cited him as a traditional witness to the doctrine. The most quotable sentence from the treatise would alone justify the citation. Give it a look and see for yourself: "Christ, God, who took . . . flesh from her who was ever virgin, summoned her and clothed her in the incorruption of his own body, and glorified her with incomparable glory, so as to make her his heir, who was his all-holy mother, in harmony with the Psalmist's song, 'At your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir'" (Ps. 45 (44): 9).

The century before Modestus, St. Gregory of Tours was writing unequivocally of the Assumption. There followed him a worthy succession of theologians altogether confident of the event: John Damascene, Bernard of Clairvaux, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Anthony of Padua, and the only one of them not canonized, Duns Scotus.

It is a fallacy to suppose that the primitive Christians had no sufficient reason to believe in the Assumption. What is there so clearly incompatible about it? Its miraculousness, which bothers the modernist, did not bother them. They had heard of a miracle of the kind not too long before, some of them having been witnesses to it, which their apostle Matthew would eventually record. An earthquake had split open the tombs, he would recall of the day Christ died, "and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised." They did not go unnoticed. "Coming out of the tombs after the resurrection," the text continues, "they went into the holy city and appeared to many" (Mt. 27:52-53). It could have remained no secret to the populace, such a public sensation. As for the Christians, it prepared them to expect of their almighty Lord and God, who had seen fit to raise from the dead many of his saints before the last day. to do as much for the greatest of them, his own mother. Mary herself, for all we know, may have been one of the witnesses. She was definitely in Jerusalem at the time, as was St. John: they may have received a visit in their home from whomever had risen. Who the reanimated might be, what were their names or the names of their witnesses, the evangelist docs not disclose. But then Scripture has never pretended to tell all. Tradition under the guidance of the Holy Spirit supplies the missing necessaries. Christ established a" institutional Church to preach his doctrines, and those of them which her inspired writers only implicitly reveal the Church must in the name of her Founder explain. And she does. The Assumption affords a notable instance that she does.

Whether any human bodies but those of Mary and her divine Son are already in heaven, does not fall within the confines of doctrine. There may be others. But the faithful are not obliged to believe there are. The Church allows the possibility without enforcing it.

There are those, among the biblical scholars, who consider the possibility a distinct probability. They first point out an Old Testament passage which tells of Enoch suddenly disappearing from view because "God took him." and then another which specifies that "he was taken up from the earth" (Gen. 5:24; Sir. 48:9). They next quote from the New Testament this confirmative text: "Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had taken him" (Heb. 11:5). Nor does the inquiry end with Enoch. A second prophet, who at the Transfiguration would reappear with Moses on Mount Tabor, on the hills of Moab was whisked away into the skies while his companion stood by in amazement. "Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven is as plain words can say it, and the witness "saw him no more" (2 (4) Kings 2:11-12).

That Elijah departed alive in such a flurry, and momentarily reappeared at the Transfiguration, and according to a prophecy would return again to minister to his people, all reinforces the mystery of his present whereabouts. Where has he gone? Where has Enoch gone? Neither of them died. But since the heaven of heavens was closed to humanity before its Savior's death, the question arises: were they detained until then in Limbo and afterwards graduated to the beatitude of the angels? Limbo (known in the Old Testament as "Abraham's bosom") had certainly been the place of detention for departed souls fit for heaven as soon as their Savior would open it to them, but in the case of Enoch and Elijah we are dealing with animated bodies. Where now are these? Is it out of the question to suppose that the two may have been taken, body and soul, into heaven? The Church does not say.

Nor has her magisterium chosen to speak with finality on what happened to those many risen bodies of Good Friday. Did they die again? Or were they taken to heaven? Is St. Joseph there now, body as well as soul? A select group of theologians, an even larger group of mystics, and sometimes theologians who were mystics, think so. They think the Holy Family are all together again. They think that the body that labored so faithfully and lovingly to provide a livelihood for Jesus and Mary is with them in glory. Suarez does. But why go into the long enumeration? St. Francis de Sales in lauding the foster father to and beyond the skies was singing no solo but contributing to a chorus.

Those who take scandal from the dogma of Mary's assumption, because they deem the very idea foreign to Scripture and Tradition, cannot have studied either in depth. They owe it to themselves, and to a human need, to curb their dismay. For their protest, could it have its way, would deprive humanity of its greatest incentive to self-respect before the grim reality of death. That Christ ascended into glory, who was God, is one thing. But that the animated form of Mary was taken to heaven, who was just as much creature as we are, flatters our humanity. Her bodily glorification more strikingly anticipates our own. For which reason, with an urgency in his voice, the defining Pontiff invited all mankind to see in the dogma a reminder of "the exalted destiny of both our soul and body."

Death comes to man as a dread experience. It splits his duality. Even the saint who welcomes it must realize from the simple law of subtraction that the parting soul is no more the total person than the vacated corpse, and that their disunion is meant by God and felt by the victim to be a curse. The saint doesn't get rid of the natural fear of death but rather finds it absorbed in his greater desire for the Beatific Vision, knowing all the while that the separated soul does not have to wait for a reunion with the body to see God and that on the last day their reunion itself is assured. Francis of Assisi could afford to reach out to Sister Death with a brother's plea to take him home.

To prepare the soul through acts of self-denial for their separation at death docs no injustice to the body. On the contrary, what aids the soul toward salvation is helping to get the body into heaven with the soul on judgment day. Their destiny together, after death's temporary interruption, is assured. Take it from the Creed, no human body will stay dead. Reciting their unified belief "in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting," a churchful of worshippers might well be thinking that of our kind at least a Mother and her Son are already making good that boast of faith.

The disciples stood watching from Mount Olivet as their Lord and God ascended into the heavens, out of sight. As for his mother, none of them saw her taken. The angels, intent on their mission, were not looking for publicity. They came for her, as Gabriel had once come to her, when nobody around was watching. Scripture refers to not a few burials. It honorably mentions the tomb of this or that notable. Not a word does it say of Mary's. What would be the use? Even if there was one, nothing of her remains there.

We have therefore no marked grave to place flowers on to her memory. We carry the flowers instead to her shrines to do the most blessed of women honor. We do it, and other acts like it, because we are proud of our humanity in her and we love her and she loves us. Can anyone think of three better reasons?

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