The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 2017.
It is very strange that no relic of the Virgin Mary has ever been produced and no-one has ever claimed to know the site of her tomb. Not entirely true: secondary relics do exist – her girdle, her veil and such like (one that “purports to be one resides on our altar today): but no relic of her mortal remains exist.
There are many legends that have grown up over the centuries concerning her death. One asserts that she was buried, but when, for some reason her tomb was opened, they found only her shroud and strong-scented lilies. Another legend gives an account of the funeral procession when Our Lord appeared and spirited her away in a cloud. Another states that she was buried and remained in the tomb for three days and was then transported up into heaven. It lies with individual piety to decide which of these might be the more feasible account of Mary’s demise. The Bible tells us nothing, nor do other source documents of the time. This in itself is odd, as Mary was a central figure in the life of the early Church and someone, surely, would have noted the details of her life and death: treating her with the dignity that the mother of the Saviour would have merited. But tradition has asserted for many, many centuries that in overcoming the power of death, the Lord would not have wanted to see his holy mother fall prey to death and decay and placed in a grave – her body was too precious for that.
So what is this great Feast all about? Key to our understanding of it is that we have to put it in its right perspective. It is not so much about the taking of the body of Mary from this earth as about the taking of Mary into Heaven. In the absence of historical record we have to keep our minds open as to what happened when she died. But I perceive that we can be more definite about Mary being taken directly to her allotted place in the heavenly realm.
A Christian believes that death is not the end of everything. Christ died and rose again and in doing so conquered, for ever, the power of death to destroy Life. He made it possible for us to achieve that union with the Father which He desires for us. As Catholic Christians that is something for which we long. In short, the just will rise again. Our life here on earth is the preparation for making that possible through a life of prayer, forgiveness, worship, devotion and good works. As S. Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth – words which are often used at funeral services – “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive”. Or again, familiar words, “It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption: it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body”. This we believe for ourselves. We who have sinned will, one day, be raised to union with the Father. We shall pass from the Church Militant, through the Church Expectant and arrive at the Church Triumphant.
If there had been nothing special about the person of Mary, then she too would have followed this pattern of human existence. But our belief as Catholic Christians is that there was something special about Mary – something unique to the whole of humanity: she was chosen to be the Mother of the Saviour. She was found to be worthy and God worked in her the miracle of keeping her free from sin and kept her incorrupt – hence we can call her the Virgin Mary. Thus, from God’s perspective of her life her on earth, it is unthinkable He would desert her, even in the hour of her death. She was chosen and remains chosen. Having been kept free from sin, she takes her place immediately in the realm of Heaven – to be reunited with her divine Son, to receive her crown of righteousness and able to offer prayer and intercession to Him for those who call upon her. She has, surely, attained that perfect union with God that we all desire, but so often do not deserve.
This is what our belief in the Assumption proclaims. There is nothing more remarkable about believing that she has her resurrection body than believing that one day we shall attain ours. This falls naturally into place when we see it from the heavenly perspective and stop fretting about what might have happened here on earth at the time of her death. What did happen was well within the scope of God’s ability to draw all people to himself in the ways that He chooses.
This Feast has had a variety of names over the centuries and has been kept in the East and the West for over fifteen hundred years. It is often referred to as The Dormition – the “Falling Asleep” of the Blessed Virgin. It has also been called Our Lady’s birthday – but that only confuses it with her human birth – referring here, of course, to her heavenly birthday when she was reunited with her Son. Popular piety has for centuries accepted the Truth of this teaching – giving Mary that special and unique place in the life of the Church. It was only in 1950 that the Pope declared this to be a Dogma of the Faith – only really formalising what Christians have always believed.
It is a joyous Feast – a true “festa” – a mid-summer party time: which is how it is celebrated in many continental countries. We perhaps find that a little “over the top” here in England where we like our religion a little more “restrained” – well, some do! But it is a great Feast, one which has been believed in for almost the whole life of the Church. It is a Feast which teaches us so much about the power of God and his love for all his creatures. It is a Feast which prepares us for Heaven – giving us that glimpse – like the recent Feast of the Transfiguration – of the glory that awaits us all. It is a Feast about Light and joy – the light that is Christ and the joy of our homecoming to the place that has been prepared for us. So it is right and fitting that we honour Our Lady as one chosen by God – not only to be the vessel through whom our salvation was born into the world, but also chose her to be close to Him for ever – as Queen of Heaven and Mother of the Church. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you” for ever remains our chant.
Fr. Tim Bugby
Priest of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.