Today we celebrate the Feast of the Assumption. Mary is assumed in her fullness, body and soul, to join the God of life among the heavenly throngs. There is a long tradition of celebrating what was called the dormition (or sleeping – perhaps sleeping in peace) of Mary, the Mother of God. And the Church has always believed that Mary, the Holy One, was united with her Son in the heavenly realm. Why then, many have asked, did it take until 1950 for the Church to proclaim the Assumption of Mary as definitive? Here is some thinking around this.
The first half of the twentieth century witnessed two World Wars. One hundred years later we are still hearing the stories and discovering the atrocities that those wars inflicted on humanity. The First World War left bodies strewn across Flanders Fields and the fields of France, just to name a couple. Concentration camps, gas chambers, atomic bombs left human beings physically and psychologically torn apart. Beaten. Battered. Shot. Assassinated. Never before had humanity witnessed such massive human destruction.
Part of the human response was that the United Nations declared the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, attempting to retrieve human dignity and ensure that such atrocities never happened again.
For its part, the Church declared the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Why? To teach and declare to the world that the Church believes that the destination of humanity is to be united with its creator. To declare that human beings and human bodies do matter. To declare that the dignity of the human person, which had been so degraded in the first half of the twentieth century, was destined to be lifted up, raised up, and glorified. For believers, this means that where Christ the head has gone, we the body shall follow. Mary as the first disciple leads the way. And as Christians we believe that what God does for the body of Christ he intends for the whole of humanity. To lift us up.
And the readings that the Church gives us today affirm this teaching. The Book of the Apocalypse reminds us that we are not born to be whisked away and eaten up by dragons – the destructive elements of life – but instead to be lifted up to the throne of God. St Paul reminds us that in Christ, death has been overcome, and our final destiny is to be raised with Christ, the first fruits of all who have fallen asleep. And the gospel recounts the story of Mary and Elizabeth rejoicing together, each with the new life formed in their womb and with Mary declaring that God has raised up the lowly and filled the starving with good things.
So the Feast of the Assumption is the feast of life and resurrection. It is the feast that reminds us that every human life, from the tiny, fragile, vulnerable beings taking shape in the womb to the decrepit bodies of our old age are sacred, dignified and called to follow in the footsteps of the God of life.
This message is needed in the twenty-first century as much as it was over seventy years ago when Pope Pius XII declared it as Church doctrine. As we live through a global pandemic, we once again are called to be vigilant to the lives of the vulnerable, to those who do not have access to vaccines, to those who will be buried in mass graves, no funerals, no mourners. To those who live in darkness and the shadow of death. As we live through the growing impacts of climate change we are called to be vigilant to the world and its people who suffer now, will suffer again through rising tides, scarcity of water and depleting global resources.
On this Feast of the Assumption, we might refocus our faith on the dignity and destiny of humanity. What might join our voices to Mary’s: “Lord continue to raise up the lowly, fill the starving with good things, come to our help and raise us up to the glory to which you made us. Lead us home to be with you where you live and reign for ever and ever.” Amen