Today the Church the world over rejoices on the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, reverently commemorating the moment when “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” (Munificentissimus Deus 44). What these words of Pope Pius XII indicate is that Mary shared in the triumph of her Son Jesus Christ over sin and death, and she did so in a unique way among all human beings.
Mary’s freedom from original sin and its effects is celebrated each year on December 8th, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. On that day we recall that by virtue of a singular grace of God Mary was conceived without the burdens of original sin, and never committed any sin—though she suffered the effects of others’ sins—throughout her entire life. This grace was hers as the result of God’s choosing her to be the mother of his Son. Mary’s victory over the corruption of death is similarly tied to her status as the mother of Christ; just as he rose from the dead in his resurrected body, so too Mary was assumed into heaven bodily and abides forever in the presence of the Trinity, interceding for us that we might follow her to glory.
The scripture readings today, (I chose to reflect on the readings for the vigil mass of the Assumption), each help to illustrate the Church’s beliefs about Mary and her Assumption. In the first reading from the First Book of Chronicles we hear of the Ark of the Covenant—the elaborate chest in which the tablets of the Law and other sacred objects were carried. “Ark of the Covenant” is a title attributed to Mary in the beautiful litany often called the Litany of Loreto. It evokes her role as the living “Ark” who bore within her not the tablets of the Mosaic Law but the Son of God who is the source and fulfillment of all law.
The second reading is drawn from the First Letter to the Corinthians, where Paul says of the resurrection: “When that which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word…shall come about: Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54). The doctrine of the Assumption reminds us that by God’s will Mary in a sense is the key to the resurrection, since it was in her womb that the Word took on mortality, so that we could “clothe ourselves” with his immortality.
In the gospel, when Jesus is greeting by a woman who praises Mary with the reverent words “Blessed is the womb that carried you, and the breasts at which you nursed,” he responds strikingly: “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it” (Luke 11:27-28). This is a truly radical teaching of Christ, which shakes our own present day sensibilities as much as it shook the people of Jesus’ time.
What he is saying is that those who—like Mary—hear the word of God and observe it are blessed for that fact, not for having been the mother or daughter, or father or son, of any other person. In speaking these words Jesus does not dishonor Mary by any means, which one might infer from the way he sharply corrects the woman who spoke in praise of her; rather, he sets the record straight as to why Mary was “blessed.”
Following in her footsteps on this feast of the Assumption, may we faithfully hear the word of God and keep it, so that through Mary’s intercession we too might rejoice in the glory of Christ’s victory over death and abide with him in eternity.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Image: Assumption by Renaissance artist Titian, painted in 1515–18 on the high altar of the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari or Frari church in Venice.