I am writing this on the morning after the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I attended Mass at Holy Family in Toronto last night. The church was packed. And those who were there are likely feeling the same glow I feel this morning.
Of course, the Mass was beautiful. The choir could have easily substituted for the choir of angels that will hopefully greet us one day when our time here is done. The billows of smoke, smell of incense, and the prayers for the feast day all added to the mystery of one of our most radical beliefs.
Yes, it is radical. Jesus’ ascension makes perfect sense when you believe he was God. But Mary was not divine. She did not heal the sick nor raise the dead nor forgive sins.
The Assumption is also difficult to picture – or at least I once found this so. That is why I have no problem with anyone who does not get it. The idea of a human body lifted off the ground by no visible means, let alone lifted into Heaven, gave me great pause at one time. I am glad it did. When I became a Catholic I wanted to leave no stone unturned. It was important to confront those things that I thought were implausible.
This is what I wondered and I freely admit my views were honest but also childish in retrospect: If Heaven is not a physical place filled with souls and angels, how does a physical body get around? How does Mary prevent herself from falling from Heaven? Do angels bear her sinless body? Does she talk and if so in what language?
Then it slowly dawned on me I have no idea what Heaven will be like. Nor do I know what it will be like in the New Jerusalem when we once again become bodies, as we declare every Sunday in the Nicene Creed: “and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” And I realized also that once again I doubted God’s ability to do the seemingly impossible.
C.S. Lewis once described Heaven as physical but more real than what we see around us in our current reality. That helped part of my concern.
Mary is God’s gift to the world. For those Christians who only bring her out at Christmas I do not judge you but I do feel sorry for you. It is like air brushing out mom from every family portrait.
The Assumption does the opposite. It shows us Mary, the first fruits of the promise of Christ’s salvific glory, and points to what we all should hope will be our final destination. It does not raise her to the level of the divine but raises her humanity to the level we all strive for, but fail at more often than we care to admit.
The Assumption, as we at Holy Family were reminded last night in a fiery and profound homily, is a way of honouring the human body. It is telling us that this too, our current existence, is important and that our bodies are not mere vessels for the soul.
Many Christians fear that our love of Mary is a form of pagan worship, superstition, and worse, elevating her to the level of God.
Thomas Merton, one of the greatest Catholic writers of the 20th Century, understood this confusion:
“They regard the Assumption of Mary into heaven as a kind of apotheosis placed in the Redemption would seem to be equal to that of her Son,” he wrote.
“But this is all completely contrary to the true mind of the Catholic Church. It forgets that Mary’s chief glory is in her nothingness, in the fact of being the “Handmaid of the Lord,” as one who in becoming the Mother of God acted simply in loving submission to His command, in the pure obedience of faith. She is blessed not because of some mythical pseudo-divine prerogative, but in all her human and womanly limitations as one who has believed.”
Mary, we believe was conceived immaculate, without sin. She is the only human being to be conceived with that special grace. So imagine how hard it is for the rest of us. But in her humanity Mary has not forgotten us. Read her “Magnificat” in Luke. Look how humble she is.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
As Merton writes:
“It is the faith and the fidelity of this humble handmaid, “full of grace” that enables her to be the perfect instrument of God, and nothing else but His instrument.”
Charles Lewis is a regular contributor to The Catholic Register and a board member of the Catholic Civil Rights League. He has been writing for 36 years. He was also the religion reporter for the National Post until January 2014.
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