Liturgical Catechesis: Assumptions about the Assumption

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"I work at the church of the Assumption," a friend tells me, "which is itself an assumption."

This summer one of our holydays falls on a Sunday.  Attendance will be up.  Oops! I guess that's an assumption too.

Lots of assumptions come into play here.  (By the way, the word comes from the Latin "sumo," which has nothing to do with wrestling but means "I take up, or assume.")


Yes, it is.  It frustrates us that the Bible just doesn't include the story of how Mary's life ended.  The only Marian feast with a liturgical vigil offers six scripture readings and two psalms for our reflection.  They all cast light on the central theme but never quite get around to naming it.

Still, the texts reveal a lot about our faith:

a)  Mary's character references:  In Luke 11:27-28 and Luke 1:39-56 we learn that Mary hears and keeps the word of God, mothers Jesus, trusts God's word, proclaims God's greatness, and is widely regarded as “blessed” by members of her own family.  (No small achievement.)

b)  The promise of Resurrection:  1 Corinthians 14:54-57 and 20-26 proclaim the victory of Christ over death and the promise of resurrection for each one of us.  Mary becomes the first to experience the benefits of resurrection.  The feast tells as much about Easter as it does about Mary.

c)  Foreshadowings about Mary and the church:  The vigil's curious reading from 1 Chronicles 15 and Psalm 132 that follows it recount the glory of the ark of the covenant.  David brings the ark into its own tent, and the psalm invokes, "Lord, go up to the place of your rest, you and the ark of your holiness."  The ark foreshadows Mary: It houses the presence of God; it is made of incorruptible wood and goes up to the temple of the Lord.  Mary, who housed God in her womb, enjoyed a body unstained by sin and preserved from death's decay, goes up to God's temple to enjoy eternity at her assumption.

Psalm 45 sees her as a queen bedecked in gold.  Revelation 11 and 12 show us the woman clothed with the sun, who, having given birth to a child, is protected by God from evil. Many commentators saw the woman as a symbol not only for Mary, but also for the church, which receives the promise of eternal glory and protection from evil.

These themes come out in the prayers for the day, too: "She who bore the Christ in her womb was raised in glory to be with him in heaven."  "May we see heaven as our final goal and come to share her glory."  "May the prayers of this woman clothed with the sun bring Jesus to the waiting world."  "Today the virgin Mother was taken up into heaven to be the beginning and the pattern of the Church in its perfection."

So, yes, it's hard to preach when there is no central text about the Assumption itself.  That's why my friend says the Assumption is an assumption.  (Not until Pius XII's apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus in 1950 do we have a straightforward official text about the subject.)  But there's plenty to explore about Mary as the Christian model, the promise of redemption, the poetic images of Mary and the church, and even the way the church needs to speak up once in a while to clarify some matters that the Bible left unclear.

Not really.  Dusting it off reveals some meaty secondary themes.

a)  The Incarnation:  The doctrine that gives this feast is initial thrust is that Mary bore the Son of God in her womb.  From a purely physiological point of view, that means that Mary spent nine months in complete union with the Word made Flesh.  Her body being one with Christ's means another theme comes up:

b)  The Immaculate Conception:  In order to prepare a worthy home for the Word mad Flesh, God preserved Mary from sin throughout her life.

c)  The Assumption:  How would God "finish the job"?  This dogma proclaims that God preserved Mary not only from sin, but also from death and decay.  So her body and soul were assumed into heaven.  What else can you do with perfection?

d)  Resurrection:  This whole Assumption was possible only because Jesus opened the gates of death and revealed resurrection, not just for himself, but for us too.

Just another Marian feast?  Hardly.

Well, maybe.  I mean few people come because they thing Munificentissimus Deus deserves a party.  But church-going folks are looking for hope, for depth in human life, for clearer vision.  And since they keep coming back, they must be getting it.  There's a lot of hope to offer people in this feast.

Incidentally, the theme of the assumption provides inspiration for many popular works of art.  You'll sometimes see this feast represented as the "dormition" of Mary, or her "falling asleep."  The apostles will be gathered round, and you'll see the risen Christ standing behind, holding a child in his arms.  That child represents the soul of Mary gone to heaven, which reverses the roles represented in that famous scene from earlier in Mary's life, where she holds the child Jesus in her arms.  That's got popular appeal.

That's up to how we celebrate it.  Will our celebration proclaim the joy of life after death?  Will it hold out hope for those who struggle with daily life's moral decisions?  Will it give people a reason to fight their sins and weaknesses?  Will it proclaim the love of God who prepared one human being to receive another into her home?  Or the love of God who creates a home for each of us and anxiously awaits to hold us with gentle arms?  Will our celebration help us see that God has a plan of salvation and that the haphazard events of our lives need not cause us to fear meaninglessness?

If we celebrate the Assumption well, it can connect with real life.

At least, I assume so.

This article first appeared in Modern Liturgy 20/4 (May, 1993):24-25.

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