Mary’s Assumption & the Dignity and Destiny of the Human Body, August 15, 1999

Fr. Roger J. Landry
SS. Peter & Paul Parish, Fall River, MA
Assumption of Our Lady
August 14-15, 1999
Vigil: 1 Chron 15:3-4,15-16; 16:1-2; 1 Cor 15:54-57; Lk 11:27-28
Day: Rev 11:19; 12:1-6,10; Ps 44; 1 Cor 15:20-27; Lk 1:39-56

“Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death.”

These were the words with which Pope Pius XII proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption 49 years ago, confirming the tradition of Christians throughout the centuries. The Blessed Mother was taken up body and soul into heaven by God. Hence, this is a unique feast in the Church’s calendar. We celebrate lots of saints throughout the year, who, through the presence of miracles God grants through their intercession and the heroic virtue of their lives on earth, are declared to be in heaven — but only their souls are in heaven, awaiting reunion with their bodies at the resurrection on the last day. With Mary we celebrate that fact for sure, but we celebrate the fact that not only her soul is in God’s presence in heaven, but also her body. Both her soul and her body are experiencing eternal beatitude.

“Blessed is the Womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you,” the woman in the crowd shouted to Jesus in today’s Gospel. Jesus responded, “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and Keep it!” Now many people, upon hearing this, might be led to believe that Jesus was somehow denigrating his physical relationship with his mother. But Jesus’s response was not to deny that the immaculate womb that housed the only-begotten son of God and the breasts that nursed him as an infant were not blessed — they were indeed very blessed! Jesus, however, was stating that even though Mary’s body was blessed by being preserved free from sin, even greater was her having heard the word of God and kept it. She heard God’s plan announced by the Angel Gabriel, said yes to it, and then the Word of God literally took her flesh and became man in her womb. She kept and treasured that Word. So Jesus was saying in response to the woman in the crowd, that Mary’s greatness goes beyond her physical relationship with the Son of God; it is that she also is the model of all disciples, she’s one who hears the Word of God and treasures it within her.

At the end of Mary’s days on earth, she was assumed by the power of God into heaven, blessed body and blessed soul together. Now in heaven, there are two bodies, Jesus’ and Mary’s. And hence that fact makes this feast more than just a celebration in honor of the blessed Mother. It is a celebration of heaven, a celebration of the fact that one day those who die in the Lord as she did, will spend eternity body and soul in heaven, alongside her, alongside her son, with all the angels and saints who have gone before us. As Pope Pius XII said in 1950, “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians.”

Heaven is our ultimate vocation. We are called there by God. But just like any vocation, we can accept it or we can reject it. It requires a choice and a choice that orders all our others. If we choose eternal life with God in heaven, our choices now must be ordered to it. We should choose God in daily life: choose God on Sunday mornings, coming to Mass; choose God during the day and pray; choose God in our moral life, choosing him instead of sin, and when we sin, choose to come to him and ask him for his forgiveness; choose him more and more each day. Those who do this, those who choose God, are called saints, literally holy ones. Everyone who is in heaven is a saint — not just those who have been declared saints — but all those who have chosen God during their earthly lives and whom God has rewarded by granting them their choice eternally: to spend eternity with God in heaven. Many of these people were great sinners, but, responding to God’s grace (which is always there), they ended up converting to God and choosing Him the rest of the way. The good thief chose God on the Cross and that day was with God in paradise. On the other hand, those who freely choose against God in this life, who choose against him in their daily choices in place of selfish self-interests, who choose against him on Sunday mornings, who choose against him in the moral life, God also gives them eternally what they want: to selfishly choose themselves rather than God. We call this place Hell, which, as the Holy Father mentioned last month in a catechesis in St. Peter’s Square, is not so much a physical place as a spiritual state, a state where souls have excluded God eternally.

Mary, the Blessed Mother, chose God. She chose God’s will when she said “yes” to the Father’s invitation to become the mother of His Son, even though a sword would pierce her heart, as Simeon prophesied. She chose him with her whole being, a being, which “magnified the Lord and rejoiced in God her Savior.” And God brought all of her, body and soul, into heaven, where it is to this day.

This feast of Mary’s Assumption teaches us that our bodies are ultimately destined for heaven — not just our souls. Our bodies will rise again to be reunited with our souls eternally. Hence this is the reason why the Church has always had great reverence for the human body, shown in a particular way by how she has cared for the bodies of deceased Christians by reverently burying them in anticipation of the resurrection on the last day. In the midst of a pagan culture that didn’t believe in the resurrection of the body — a culture that thought the Catholic claim that Jesus rose from the dead was absolutely absurd — and cremated their loved ones, the Christians buried their dead full-body style in anticipation of the resurrection of the body. They would mark their gravesites with Christian inscriptions like RIP, requiescat in pace, “the body is resting her in peace,” resting until the resurrection, or depositus in pace, “this body is placed here in peace.” We get our English word “deposit” from this Latin word depositare, and in both languages it signified a temporary placing of something somewhere. Just as when we make a deposit in the bank, we don’t intend to leave the body there forever, but only for a certain length of time until we make a withdrawal and use it for something. So the first Christians used this expression to communicate that this body was being placed in the ground only for a certain length of time — until when? — until Jesus himself came with the withdrawal slip for the universal resurrection.

Today we live in a neo-pagan culture that, as with their pagan ancestors, is beginning to cremate their loved ones more and more. This is a culture that no longer, practically-speaking, believes in the resurrection of the body, and very often, even takes Jesus’ resurrection for granted. So many liberal Protestant Bible Commentators, and shamefully even some Catholic ones, are now saying and teaching that if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, our faith wouldn’t change all that much. And people are believing them! As St. Paul says, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” In other words, if Christ didn’t rise from the dead, and if there is no resurrection from the dead, then let’s all head to the parking lot right now, and the last one in his car would be the biggest fool!

The devout Jewish women, who believed in the resurrection of the body, anointed Jesus’ in preparation for resurrection. If Jesus had been handled by pagan women, or if the Roman pagan soldiers had gotten hold of him, he would most likely have been cremated. Imagine that! When Jesus would have been resurrected, everybody would have thought he were simply a ghost, and there would have been no way to prove otherwise, because there would have been no empty tomb and the urn in which he might have been cremated, might just have been emptied in some other way. The Catholic Church, in imitation of Christ who was buried full-body style, in evangelical witness to the truth that all bodies will rise again on the last day and, for those who have chosen God, spend eternity in heaven, earnestly asks all her children to bury their loved ones full body style. In extreme circumstances, the Church permits cremation, as long as it is not an explicit denial of the resurrection of the body, but in extreme circumstances. Since the Church began to permit this “in extreme circumstances,” more or more Catholics have begun to cremate their loved ones in non-extreme circumstances, simply because the person preferred to be cremated, or simply to save some money — money that, strictly-speaking, most of the time they really don’t need, to put food on the table for example, but money they’d just rather hold onto, because, basically, they don’t see full-body burial as a the real Christian value it is. When a person has asked in a will to be cremated, the Church is not generally going to increase the pain and suffering of the family by refusing a funeral and Christian burial. Thus, as an astute parishioner noted to me a couple of weeks ago, “then the time to talk to people about cremation is before they die and ask to be cremated.” That’s why I’m doing this now, on this feast of the assumption of Mary into heaven, body and soul. My brothers and sisters in Christ, particularly those among our seniors who might think about these issues more than the parish teens would: if you’re thinking about being cremated for anything other than extreme circumstances, please reconsider. Show by your choice here that you choose the truth that your body will be raised from the dead by the Lord, that you choose to die in the Lord and be buried in the Lord following his lead of being buried full-body style — and show to a world that accepts these truths less and less today that you are a Christian in life and in death.

We are all called to heaven. Heaven is our vocation. Every choice we make is either ordered to God, ordered to this eternal life and love with Him in heaven, or to other gods (small-g), including us. If that is the case, if, after the resurrection on the last day, our bodies will be risen from the dead to spend eternity, let us treat them with the respect with which the women on Calvary treated Jesus’ body. If we need any help to make this choice, there’s no better place to start than here at this Mass, where we receive the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, our Lord. We receive here literally Jesus’ risen body! Not a symbol of Jesus’ body, but his real body and blood, risen from the dead. This is a real foretaste of heaven. Those who eat this body and drink this blood live in Him and he in them. This is the same flesh he took from the Blessed Mother, whose body now also reigns in heaven. Let us receive it today with great devotion, so that, taking the Lord’s sacred body and blood within us, we may become more and more like him, until that day when we too, with the Blessed Mother and with all the saints in heaven, may, too, rejoice eternally, body and soul, in heaven.

God bless you!