Today the Church marks the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when we recall a solemn article of our Catholic faith; namely, that Mary, “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” In some ancient western Christian traditions and in many eastern Christian traditions this event is referred to as the “Dormition” of Mary—literally, her “falling asleep.”
The term Dormition is useful in speaking of the end of Mary’s earthly life since it is ambiguous: it can figuratively refer to death, and it can serve more plainly to describe the act of falling asleep. In his declaration setting forth the dogmatic teaching on this subject—the 1950 Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus—Pope Pius XII did make references to Mary’s death but did not include belief in her death in the clearly worded binding section of that declaration; rather, he simply stated that Mary “completed the course of her earthly life.” In any case, the point is that by virtue of the unique place of Mary in the story of our salvation as the Mother of God, Mary’s body was preserved from the physical corruption of death as surely as her soul was preserved from the spiritual corruption of sin.
To guide us in celebrating this feast day the Church’s Liturgy of the Word begins with a famous passage from the Book of Revelation in which the travails of a female figure are described in dramatic terms. This woman has long been perceived by Catholic commentators as symbolizing both the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Church. This dual identification is helpful in reflecting on today’s readings since they speak both about Mary and about our own future glory—those believers who constitute the Church on earth in every generation.
The woman of Revelation can be understood to represent Mary in that “she gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod” (Rev 12:5)—whom we call the Christ child. The woman can also be interpreted as symbolic of the Church insofar as, like the nation of Israel itself, she gave rise to the messiah and anointed one (12:10) who would redeem all nations, and she and her offspring, “those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus,” then endure the persecution of evil forces (12:17), much as the Church has throughout its history.
Taking this a step further, in his First Letter to the Corinthians Saint Paul connects the mystery of Christ’s resurrection, which has already taken place, to the mystery of our future resurrection: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep….For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life” (1 Cor 15:20, 22). Although he makes no direct reference to Mary here, Paul’s words nonetheless anticipate (even if unknowingly) Mary’s Assumption into glory as part of Christ’s plan for the glorification of all humanity.
On the feast of the Assumption we celebrate the moment when Mary began to share fully in the risen presence of the Lord; today’s feast also reminds us of our hope that one day we all might experience the same heavenly glory that Mary knows, abiding forever in union with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. With gratitude in our hearts let us rejoice this day, saying to Mary with her kinswoman Elizabeth, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:45).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Image: Peter Paul Rubens, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1626