By FATHER DONALD DILGER
First Reading: Revelation 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab; Response: Psalm 45:10, 11, 12, 16, 17; Second Reading: 1 Corinth. 15:20-27; Gospel: Luke 1:39-56
On November 1, 1950, Venerable Pope Pius XII defined the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary in these words, “The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory.” By this solemn declaration, the Assumption of Mary became official teaching of the Catholic Church. This definition was not a sudden whim of the pope. It was the final expression of a centuries-long dialogue between the Holy Spirit, the Catholic faithful, scholarship of theologians, the will of popes, bishops and clergy to give due honor to Mary. In the Nicene Creed, which we profess at Sunday Masses, we proclaim, “I believe in the resurrection of the dead.” On the Solemnity of the Assumption we celebrate that the resurrection of Mary has already happened rather than being deferred until the final resurrection. Does this mean that Mary’s body arose from her deathbed or tomb and floated off into the sky? Depictions displaying such are no more than artists’
imagination attempting with human limitation to express the inexpressible, beyond-death realities knowable only through written and/or oral tradition.
There are two considerations. What is the nature of a resurrected body? What is heaven? To the first question. The second reading of this day is an excerpt from 1 Corinthians 15. Paul devotes that whole chapter to a discussion of the resurrection of the body. This was a rather new belief at the time. The first explicit Old Testament teaching of the resurrection is found in Daniel 12, dated about 165 B.C. The group of pious Jews behind the Book of Daniel evolved into the Pharisee faction of Judaism. It was through the Pharisee Saul (St. Paul) that this belief was widely mediated into Christianity. Here is what Paul wrote about the resurrected body. “Someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’” Then a typical Pauline answer, “You fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. What you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare grain . . ., but God gives it a body as he has chosen to do, and to each kind of seed its own body . . . . So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable . . . . It is sown in weakness. It is raised in power.” Then to the heart of the matter.
The words of Paul that help us most to cope with the teaching of the resurrection of Jesus, the Assumption of Mary, and our own future resurrection are these, “It is sown a physical body. It is raised a spiritual body.” The term “spiritual body” seems to be a contradiction in terms. That may be because of the limitations of our human understanding and our limited language to express realities beyond our experience. God is not bound by our thinking. See Isaiah 55:8-9. Paul, too, was limited to his human
experience and language. He explains that the flesh in the grave decays. In our day the flesh is often blown to bits or cremated. Whether God forms a new body of our DNA is not impossible, but in such matters the best guide may be what Paul wrote concerning another matter in 1 Corinthians 4:6, “. . . Learn by us not to go beyond what is written.” It remains for us to make a simple act of faith, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” To that, one might add from Mark 9:24, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” Most appropriate is Hebrews 11:1-2, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen, for by it our ancestors received divine approval.” More simply said in a Gospel Pop song of 1971, “Put your hands in the hands of the man who calmed the sea.”
We come to the second consideration noted above, which can be expressed in two questions, “What is heaven? Where is it?” We should note that Pope Pius XII did not say that Mary “was taken body and soul to heaven,” but rather, “taken body and soul to heavenly glory.” This leaves room for the teaching of St. John Paul II that heaven is not to be thought of as a locality, like being in this place or that place, but rather as a kind of existence with God. Our human limitations are again a problem. Benedict XVI went a step further, “Heaven is simply God.” Heaven is not up there, nor is hell down there. These are human expressions of positive and negative. They do not express reality but imagination. They are based on ancient concepts of how the universe exists. The earth was the center. Heaven was above the earth. Hell was under the earth. The earth was even thought to be set on pillars to hold it in place. Despite common sense and science, one can still find people who adhere to such ideas because “The Bible says so.” Unable to open their minds to figurative language, they consider the Bible a science textbook or a textbook for anything else, since “every word in the Bible has to be true.” That is correct but not always in the way they may think it is. To be in heaven, to ascend to heaven, to be assumed into heaven is but a human way of saying that someone is with God in heavenly glory.
On a practical or spiritual level, what can Mary’s Assumption mean to us? This belief tells us that at the center, next to Jesus, and because of Jesus, there is a woman praised by the Scriptures as “full of grace” and “Blessed are you among women because you have believed there will be fulfillment of what was spoken to you by the Lord.” More than that, the Scriptures call her “Mother of my Lord,” meaning simply “Mother of God.” Honoring the presence of Mary’s body and soul in heavenly glory proclaims that a female body — so often humiliated, insulted, ridiculed, disgraced, abused, exploited, scorned, considered defiled — has been elevated to a dignity greater than that of any human being except the human nature of the Son of God. The Assumption of Mary signifies our destiny — the return of the creature to the Creator. It is, so to speak, a return to the stars of the stardust that constitutes our bodies as it constituted the bodies of Mary and Jesus. The body of Jesus entered heavenly glory first, Mary was second, and we are destined to follow. Only one woman can in a unique way say of the Son of God, “This is my body! This is my blood!”