“And a great sign appeared in the Heavens, a Woman clothed with the sun”
Each year on 15th August, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Assumption of Our Blessed Lady into Heaven. In fact, the Church declared the Assumption to be a Dogma of the Catholic Church only fairly recently, with the proclamation of the Apostolic Constitution ‘Munificentissimus Deus’ by Pope Pius XII on 1st November of the Great Jubilee Year of 1950.
But what is the meaning of this feast and what does it say to us?
The preparatory work before the proclamation of the Dogma included a letter, ‘Deiparae Virginis Mariae’, sent by the Pope to all the Bishops of the world in 1946. He sought their opinion on whether or not this event was truly worthy of being proclaimed dogmatically and whether it was indeed contained in the Deposit of Faith. He noted the calls from the Fathers of the First Vatican Council, and of many others in the years since then, and commented on the “almost unanimous affirmative response” from the Bishops – and the faithful – that the Dogma should be proclaimed. And so he wrote –
“Thus, from the universal agreement of the Church’s ordinary teaching authority we have a certain and firm proof, demonstrating that the Blessed Virgin Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven – which surely no faculty of the human mind could know by its own natural powers, as far as the heavenly glorification of the virginal body of the loving Mother of God is concerned – is a truth that has been revealed by God and consequently something that must be firmly and faithfully believed by all children of the Church.”
Pope Pius wrote his Apostolic Constitution just five years after the end of the Second World War, referring to this period as one “weighed down by ever so many cares, anxieties, and troubles, by reason of very severe calamities that have taken place and by reason of the fact that many have strayed away from truth and virtue”; and yet despite this, he notes that the Faith was strong and devotion to the Blessed Virgin was flourishing.
He referred to the proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854 – just four years before the Blessed Virgin would appear at Lourdes and declare Herself to be ‘the Immaculate Conception’. In this way, Pope Pius XII linked the one to the other, speaking about how “all the privileges and prerogatives (God) had granted to Her in His sovereign generosity were to shine forth in Her in a kind of perfect harmony”. And so, in the mind of the Church, there is indeed a clear link between the two events – the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. As Pius writes – “these two privileges are most closely bound to one another”. He speaks about the ‘general rule’ that in death, our bodies suffer the corruption of the tomb, but with the expectation of the resurrection of the body at the end of time. However –
“God has willed that the Blessed Virgin Mary should be exempted from this general rule. She, by an entirely unique privilege, completely overcame sin by Her Immaculate Conception, and as a result She was not subject to the law of remaining in the corruption of the grave, and She did not have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of Her body.”
Later in his document, the Holy Father quoted the words of Saint John Damascene on why it was fitting that such a privilege should be accorded to the Blessed Virgin –
“It was fitting that She, who had kept Her virginity intact in childbirth, should keep Her own body free from all corruption even after death. It was fitting that She, who had carried the Creator as a child at Her breast, should dwell in the divine tabernacles. It was fitting that the Spouse, whom the Father had taken to Himself, should live in the divine mansions. It was fitting that She, who had seen Her Son upon the Cross and who had thereby received into Her Heart the sword of sorrow which She had escaped in the act of giving birth to Him, should look upon Him as He sits with the Father. It was fitting that God’s Mother should possess what belongs to Her Son, and that She should be honored by every creature as the Mother and as the handmaid of God.”
He also added that –
“the scholastic Doctors have recognized the Assumption of the Virgin Mother of God as something signified, not only in various figures of the Old Testament, but also in that Woman clothed with the sun whom John the Apostle contemplated on the Island of Patmos.”
Adding the thoughts and arguments of many great and illustrious Saints and Doctors of the Church across the centuries (among them, St Anthony of Padua, St Bernadine of Sienna, St Peter Canisius and St Francis de Sales) the Holy Father wrote –
“Hence the revered Mother of God, from all eternity joined in a hidden way with Jesus Christ in one and the same decree of predestination,(47) immaculate in her conception, a most perfect virgin in her divine motherhood, the noble associate of the divine Redeemer who has won a complete triumph over sin and its consequences, finally obtained, as the supreme culmination of her privileges, that she should be preserved free from the corruption of the tomb and that, like her own Son, having overcome death, she might be taken up body and soul to the glory of heaven where, as Queen, she sits in splendor at the right hand of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages.”
Pope Pius concluded with his solemn proclamation –
“After we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished His special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of Her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of Our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that 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. Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith.”
As Catholics, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary body and soul into Heaven represents one thing further – it is a sign of hope for the Church generally and for each member individually.
Mary is often referred to as the ‘typus’ or ‘model’ of the Church, so that as the pre-eminent member of this Church, what is accorded to Her own person is reflected in some way in what is accorded to the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, in the future if not at the present moment. And so if Mary enjoys the glory of Heaven in both body and soul, then one day, at the end of time, so shall the Church live fully and completely in the Presence of God. And so shall we, as the members of that Church; for in the Creed, we profess our belief that we “look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”. In other words, what the Blessed Virgin Mary enjoys presently, we hope to enjoy also, one day.
And so, in summary, this great feast of the Assumption tells us three things –
Firstly, that this is a unique privilege accorded to the Blessed Virgin by Almighty God; it is closely linked to – and flows from – Her Immaculate Conception and so can be thought of as the last fruit of that divine privilege.
Secondly, it is a truth acclaimed not only by the Pope and the Bishops, but also by the faithful of the Church – this unity is itself a testament to the workings of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth.
And thirdly, it is a sign of hope for each of us – that one day we, too, will enjoy the beatific vision and that at the end of time, God will reunite our souls and bodies and we will live in His Presence forever.
Our Lady, Queen assumed into Heaven, pray for us.