Sunday, August 15, 2010

Reflections on the Assumption of Our Lady

*Note:  This was something that I had written back in 2005 celebrating the Vigil of the Assumption.  In it, I provide some thoughts and reflections on the Assumption, and on the nature of Marian devotion in general.  Since I already had written this, I will "cheat" a little bit today with the liturgical commentary, and instead offer this.*

I am going to be doing something just a tad bit different in my reflections for today, "breaking from tradition" if you will. For this Sunday's liturgy there are two liturgies listed, one being the regular Sunday Mass, the 20th Sunday in Ordinary time, but there is also the Vigil of the Assumption. I believe it is quite fitting and proper to cover the vigil for today. This column will be a bit longer and meatier than most, but then again, days such as these are not normal days, but some of the most special in the Church.

First and foremost, why a vigil for this feast? It is a vigil because the celebration of this great mystery is so great, that simply one day is not enough. For we must also prepare ourselves for this glorious celebration, to bring us into the right and proper mood of celebrating the Assumption. It is a time of great rejoicing as we celebrate this moment in the life of our glorious Mother of God. For starters, what is the assumption?

Pope Pius XII of happy memory defined the following in his decree Munificentissimus Deus. While I may or may not give a commentary on the actual feast this Monday, I will be sending the work in it's entirety then for reflection. Here is what this Holy Pontiff had to say, certain parts being bolded for emphasis:

44. For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma:

that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.

45. Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith.

46. In order that this, our definition of the bodily Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven may be brought to the attention of the universal Church, we desire that this, our Apostolic Letter, should stand for perpetual remembrance, commanding that written copies of it, or even printed copies, signed by the hand of any public notary and bearing the seal of a person constituted in ecclesiastical dignity, should be accorded by all men the same reception they would give to this present letter, were it tendered or shown.

47. It is forbidden to any man to change this, our declaration, pronouncement, and definition or, by rash attempt, to oppose and counter it. If any man should presume to make such an attempt, let him know that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul.

In short, this is not a belief which is optional for faithful Catholics. While one may dispute the frequency in which papal infallibility is exercised, it is without a doubt that it is rare for a dogma to be defined as forcefully and eloquently as this wise Pontiff did. So that the faithful can better understand these beliefs, the sacred liturgy contains much teaching in both the vigil and the actual feast, of which we shall cover in this reflection the former.

All honor to you, Mary! Today you were raised above the choirs of angels to lasting glory with Christ. (Introit)

To start this liturgy, we shout praise and honor to the Blessed Virgin for her Assumption. While there are numerous reasons for the Assumption which shall be covered here, one reason that cannot be overlooked is the Assumption's relation to us faithful Catholics. All throughout her life here on Earth, Mary was the perfect model for the faithful child of God. As the Church is composed of faithful children of God, Mary is its perfect model. As the Second Vatican Council stated in Lumen Gentium:

But while in the most holy Virgin the Church has already reached that perfection whereby she is without spot or wrinkle, the followers of Christ still strive to increase in holiness by conquering sin. And so they turn their eyes to Mary who shines forth to the whole community of the elect as the model of virtues. Piously meditating on her and contemplating her in the light of the Word made man, the Church with reverence enters more intimately into the great mystery of the Incarnation and becomes more and more like her Spouse. For Mary, who since her entry into salvation history unites in herself and re-echoes the greatest teachings of the faith as she is proclaimed and venerated, calls the faithful to her Son and His sacrifice and to the love of the Father. Seeking after the glory of Christ, the Church becomes more like her exalted Type, and continually progresses in faith, hope and charity, seeking and doing the will of God in all things. Hence the Church, in her apostolic work also, justly looks to her, who, conceived of the Holy Spirit, brought forth Christ, who was born of the Virgin that through the Church He may be born and may increase in the hearts of the faithful also. The Virgin in her own life lived an example of that maternal love, by which it behooves that all should be animated who cooperate in the apostolic mission of the Church for the regeneration of men.

Almighty God, you gave a humble virgin the privilege of being the mother of your Son, and crowned her with the glory of heaven. May the prayers of the Virgin Mary bring us to the salvation of Christ and raise us up to eternal life. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect)

If The Blessed Virgin is the Model of the Church, then what happens to the Blessed Virgin will likewise happen to us one day. For as she lived her life without any sin in serving the Father, so to will we one day serve the Father in heaven without sin. As she was taken into Heaven rewarding her glorious service to Christ, so to will we be rewarded. By a special grace from God, and it must be affirmed this grace is special and unique because of Mary's special and unique role in salvation history, these rewards were bestowed upon her first, but as a sign of the eventual reward all faithful children of God receive. When we meditate upon the life of the Blessed Virgin, we must always keep that goal in mind. As we reflect on the events of her life, and seek to emulate them, we do so in the hope of like her being taken to heaven at the end of our lives. The only difference being that while our bodies will be resurrected at the end, because of her absolute purity her body could not possibly have tasted the corruption of death we taste because of our sin.

Now for another "break with tradition" in my normal reflections. For the readings, I will follow most of the omissions the Revised Lectionary has for today, because in this sense, all they omitted was repetition, having little significance towards this feast day. The entire passage in question is 1 Chronicles 15:3-16:2.

Then David assembled all Israel in Jerusalem to bring the ark of the LORD to the place which he had prepared for it.

David also called together the sons of Aaron and the Levites. The Levites bore the ark of God on their shoulders with poles, as Moses had ordained according to the word of the LORD. David commanded the chiefs of the Levites to appoint their brethren as chanters, to play on musical instruments, harps, lyres, and cymbals, to make a loud sound of rejoicing. Thus David, the elders of Israel, and the commanders of thousands went to bring up the ark of the covenant of the LORD with joy from the house of Obed-edom. While the Levites, with God's help, were bearing the ark of the covenant of the LORD, seven bulls and seven rams were sacrificed. David was clothed in a robe of fine linen, as were all the Levites who carried the ark, the singers, and Chenaniah, the leader of the chant; David was also wearing a linen ephod. Thus all Israel brought back the ark of the covenant of the LORD with joyful shouting, to the sound of horns, trumpets, and cymbals, and the music of harps and lyres. They brought in the ark of God and set it within the tent which David had pitched for it. Then they offered up holocausts and peace offerings to God. When David had finished offering up the holocausts and peace offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD,

It is here we get a peek at the liturgical life of our fathers in faith in Israel during the Old Covenant. As one can see, there is a great festival and celebration. As the Ark of the Covenant was coming to it's place the Lord had commanded, there is this great celebration, captured with immense detail by the Sacred Writer. We see sacrifices of peace and praise being offered, instruments of all kinds being played as the ark is carried in procession. What makes this ark so special? The ark was special for what it contained within, and what it represented.

First contained in the ark was the rod of Aaron the High Priest, signifying the power of the High Priest to offer sacrifice for the people of the Covenant to God. Also contained were the 10 commandments, the written word of God on stone to His people for how they were to live. Also contained in the ark was a fragment of manna, the heavenly bread which God gave to the Jews so they could be fed. The most important aspects of the Old Covenant were contained within this ark. Also, the ark was overshadowed by God's glory.

What importance does this have to the Blessed Virgin? One of the many titles attributed to our Lady is that of the Ark of the New Covenant. For as the original ark contained the rod of Aaron signifying the power of the High Priest, within the womb of our Lady was the eternal High priest Jesus Christ, who offered the sacrifice of Himself for the salvation of the people of the covenant. While the old contained the tablets of law written on stone, the Blessed Virgin had in her womb the Word of God incarnate, her Son Jesus Christ! As the old contained the bread of life which is manna, the womb of Mary contained the true bread of life, that of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. It is this food that never perishes, and never ceases to be effective in feeding and nourishing the people of God. Likewise, in the Incarnation, the Blessed Virgin as well was overshadowed by the Glory of God.

The Holy Fathers of the Church when envisioning Mary's Entrance into her final place in heaven likewise imagined a surreal celebration. As David danced before the ark, so did the angels dance on this day of celebration. The Father of all faithful believers Abraham was overjoyed when his daughter in faith received this special privilege. If the celebration for the original ark was so sublime, how much more could the celebration of the true ark that which contained our Lord and Savior be? To even attempt to describe such an event with words probably does it an injustice, for one cannot imagine the scene of rejoicing.

And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about: "Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (Second Reading, 1st Corinthians 15:54-58)

A popular Protestant objection to Catholicism's honor and devotion to the Blessed Mother is we make it out as if she needed no savior, hence Christ saved all faithful Christians with the exception of His Mother, whom because of being without sin needed no salvation. Let this be stated without reservation.  We in no sense deny that Mary needed a savior.  If anyone claims she did not, they are anathema.  Due to the extraordinary nature of the Incarnation, and the fact that the presence of God incarnate could not dwell within that which is corruptible, the merits of Christ's passion were applied to Mary in a singular and unique way in the Immaculate Conception. This in part fulfills the prophesy of Genesis 3:15, where enmity, complete and total opposition is placed between Satan and the mother of the Messiah. Therefore death and sin had no effect upon the Blessed Virgin. In her was the fruits of complete and total victory over sin. If we emulate her role of obedience to Christ, we can likewise have these same results. Inspired by this confidence, we should take Mary as our model. For Mary never rested in the work of the Lord, from caring for The Redeemer with perfect love as a child to the perfect love with which she united herself to her Son on the Cross. Let us follow Mary's example at the wedding feast, commanding all to "do whatever He tells you." As the Blessed Mother's work was not in vain, neither is ours.

While Jesus was speaking, a woman from the crowd called out and said to him, "Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed." He replied, "Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it." (Gospel, Luke 11:27-28)

Another common objection particular to our separated brethren in rejecting our honor of Mary is this verse. So why are Catholics using it in our Gospel? As is so often, while some may think this verse speaks against the Virgin Mary, in reality it once again speaks highly of her. While our Lady is certainly special for being the Mother of God, it is in how she fulfilled that ministry that makes her especially blessed. While tradition tells us that Mary's parents, Sts. Anne and Joachim gave their daughter many riches, treating her as a Queen, Mary preferred simplicity and humility, referring to herself as the "handmaiden of the Lord." As Christ in humbling Himself became exalted, likewise His mother, as a model for Christians, she humbles herself. Here she is, higher than any mere mortal or angel, a life of glory, and rather than relish in that glory, she views herself a lowly servant of God's work. Likewise, our Lady is special as the Mother of God, for as a caring Mother, she completely followed the precepts of God in raising Christ in her duties. As the mother she always pointed people towards her beloved Son, who was their salvation. She is the handmaiden par excellence of the Lord, and while we honor her for many reasons, it is for this reason she deserves very special honor. As it is said Divine Grace, far from destroying life, transforms it to something higher, so did the grace the blessed virgin receive transform this lowly handmaiden into the illustrious Queen of Heaven.

Lord, receive this sacrifice of praise and peace in honor of the assumption of the Mother of God. May our offering bring us pardon and make our lives a thanksgiving to you. We ask this in the name of Jesus the Lord. Amen. (Secret/Prayer Over the Gifts)

While every time the Sacrifice of the Mass occurs the primary honor given is to God our Father, on these special days the saints and holy people whose feasts we commemorate are also honored. In honoring them, we honor the great work that God has caused and produced throughout their lives by His grace. Therefore, in honoring them, we give even more honor to God. Much more so when we honor the one He predestined from the beginning of time to be the Mother of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, God incarnate. As Mary lived her life always in thanksgiving to God, symbolized by her lovely prayer which we know as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), likewise we should do the same. Any honor given to the Blessed Virgin serves three purposes. One, it ultimately honors God the Father for the work He carried out in her, it ultimately protects the dignity and sanctity of Christ, and finally, it calls us to emulate those actions of hers, so we may likewise find heaven and eternal life. On this vigil let us always remember these things. While devotion to Mary may vary greatly in the Catholic Church (whether it be the Rosary, Angelus, Magnificat, litanies, or various other prayers and devotions), the faithful Christian should always keep in mind every time they honor their Mother, they partake in the fulfillment of her prophesy "All Nations Shall Call Me Blessed." I apologize to my readers for this length, yet in all honesty, one cannot write enough about such sublime events of our Faith. Let us close with the Magnificat, taking the words of our Mother to heart and emulating what they teach.

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 shall call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm:
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich He has sent empty away.
He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy;
As He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to His posterity forever.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this entry.
    I also found an interesting article about the Dormition/Assumption providing a broad perspective on the feast’s history and the various ways it is observed. Worth checking out:


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