Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Mary Assumed….

Gherarducci: The Assumption of the Virgin
Every religious culture has its own jargon. Some expressions have pulled loose from their religious moorings and entered our common lexicon. I think of “mecca,” “nirvana,” and “kosher.” Catholicism is no exception. You don’t have to be a believer to call someone “Mother Teresa” or to know that a “Hail Mary pass” is one of the riskiest throws in football.

Other terms, though, form part of the language of faith and can be daunting for the uninitiated. Try on “transubstantiation” for size, or “Incarnation.” My most recent favorite crossed my path last Dec. 8 on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (there’s one for you): “prevenient grace.” The poor elderly priest who was offering Mass was as startled by that revision in the Roman Missal as we were, and from what I read on Facebook, he wasn’t the only celebrant to slip and slide all over it.

Today’s solemnity of Mary’s Assumption into heaven is yet another. We think of assumptions as “givens” in a person’s thought processes or structures. The word actually comes from the Latin, “to take to or into.” So the mystery we recall today is the day that Mary was taken into heaven, body and soul.

No, you’re right, it’s not in Scripture. So what possessed the Pope to declare it a dogma of faith nearly 2,000 years after the event? The Church’s call from many quarters to see it proclaimed as such—the sensus fidelium, or sense of the faithful that held it to be true regardless of dogma—ebbed and flowed over the centuries. It wasn’t that Pope Pius XII woke up one morning in 1950 and decided to add it to his to-do list. Some mainline Protestants include it in their traditions and liturgies; certainly all the Churches of the East do, in the feast of the Dormition, or falling asleep, of the Mother of God.

Cretan School: The Dormition of the Mother of God
In 1998 while I was in Toronto, a woman almost singlehandedly finagled to get a Vatican art exhibit, “Angels From the Vatican: The Invisible Made Visible,” to come to town. It had toured five U.S. cities, and for several weeks was held at the Art Gallery of Ontario. While Sr. Julia Mary and I meandered through the exhibition, people here and there, seeing our habits, asked us to explain what they and we were looking at. Long story short, I ended up volunteering on five Sunday afternoons as an official “Ask Me” person, helping visitors, without proselytizing, to make spiritual and religious sense of what was on display.

What impressed me about my stint there was that two themes in particular evoked the most bewilderment in visitors: Christ’s Descent into Hell and Mary’s Dormition or Assumption. I had the opportunity in my broken Italian to tell the two Vatican coordinators of the exhibit afterward how people approached the pieces with questions of one kind and left with clearer understanding, respect, and questions of the deeper kind. They were elated. One, a curator at the Vatican Museums, exclaimed, “This is exactly what John Paul had in mind—evangelization through an intersection of faith and culture!”

The details are immaterial: where and how the Assumption took place, whether Mary died first or not, and so on. What does take center stage is its meaning, its historical basis, and a movement in theology that had been growing and that found a catalyst in the proclamation of the dogma: the rebirth of eschatology, the study of the final destiny of humankind and the world, centered as it is in the Resurrection and Second Coming of Christ.

Mary’s Assumption was possible only because Jesus rose from death and ascended to the right hand of the Father, and so, through the power of the Holy Spirit, was made the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1Cor. 15:20). Mary was taken into heaven body and soul, because it was “right” as St. John Damascene put it, that she who had surrendered to the Spirit and had given birth to Life would never succumb to the ravages of death. In other words, if Mary hadn’t been the mother of Christ, there’s a really good chance she would have died and gone the way of us all until the final coming of Jesus in glory. We can celebrate this day and this mystery only because of her Son.

There’s a beautiful medieval hymn that we sang this morning, which highlights this. We don’t ever sing “Mary the Dawn” as professionally in community as we do right here on our CD, Stella Maris (“Star of the sea”), but if you listen, maybe you’ll love it for what it says, just as I do.

Mary the dawn, Christ the perfect Day;
Mary the gate, Christ the heav’nly Way!
Mary the root, Christ the mystic Vine;
Mary the grape, Christ the sacred Wine!
Mary the wheat-sheaf, Christ the living Bread;
Mary the rose-tree, Christ the Rose blood-red!
Mary the font, Christ the cleansing Flood;
Mary the chalice, Christ the saving Blood!
Mary the temple, Christ the temple’s Lord;
Mary the shrine, Christ the God adored!
Mary the beacon, Christ the Haven’s Rest;
Mary the mirror, Christ the Vision blest!
Mary the mother, Christ the mother’s Son.
Both ever blest while endless ages run.
The legendary Cardinal Leon Joseph Suenens, a prominent figure at Vatican II, pointed out in his book, A New Pentecost?,* that some non-Catholic Christians and some Orthodox Christians take issue with Roman Catholic Christians over how we seem to attribute to Mary not what belongs to Jesus, but “what, in their eyes, is proper to the Holy Spirit….
“They point out as particularly shocking such expressions as:
—To Jesus through Mary.
—Mary forms Christ in us….
     “Our Protestant brethren object that it is precisely the Holy Spirit who is to bring us to Jesus, to form Christ in us, to unite us to him and to cooperate in a unique way in the work of redemption….”
Suenens hastens to reiterate this truth of the Spirit’s role in our redemption and sanctification. At the same time he reminds us that Mary now participates in the Spirit’s work because she was uniquely open to his action in her life: It was through her “yes” that the Spirit could effect the Incarnation and begin to inaugurate the final age of salvation history.

The best part is that the two of them don’t keep that collaboration to themselves, but share it with us—along with the promise that comes with it. In her humanness, Mary then becomes not only intercessor, but a sign of our future, individually and as a human family, if we say “yes” as she did—the meaning of today’s solemnity of the Assumption. Fr. Joseph Benson, who wrote for Pauline Faithways last year, wrote several years ago that
“Mary made a momentous decision when she said “yes.” Her life became intricately bound to the destiny of her Son from that moment onwards, and as a result, intimately bound to our destiny.
     “Our Good News is not that Mary was somehow especially blessed by God in ways that we cannot be blessed because she became the Mother of the Redeemer. That would be to miss the focus of God’s work. In her “yes,” she becomes the Mother of God precisely to enable us to be blessed in God.
     “The deepest aspect of the woman Mary was her constant preparedness to trust, even in the uncertainty of events; to trust that her God would not fail her, would not play with her life haphazardly or use her in any way disrespectfully just to achieve his own ends. She held fast to his Word and discovered in so doing the immensity of his love, that she was indeed the mother of his Word-made-flesh. This was more than what she could have dreamed of or imagined. The end of her trust was a transformation greater than what she could ever have possibly been aware of.
     “We too are specially chosen, we too are specifically graced. We are destined to become co-heirs with Christ.”
But it’s not over till it’s over. The Pauline Family reveres Mary especially as Queen of Apostles. She assumed this role “especially after her Assumption into heaven,” writes our founder, Blessed James Alberione. “It was then that she began a new phase of her apostolic mission. From then on, she raised up every kind of apostle: apostles of action and of word, of example and of the pen, of charity and of truth. All times and all needs, physical and spiritual, had to have their apostles. Mary….wants all those who dedicate themselves to the apostolate close to her in heaven.”

At the “intersection” of faith and our own particular world, that “assumption” can easily involve you and me.
* pp. 184ff.

1 comment:

  1. Sr. Margaret,
    Wonderful blog today (as usual). Thanks for bringing my Assumption to a fitting & reflective ending.
    Fr Joe Mozer


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