Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Parish, Hyannis
Solemnity of the Assumption 2004
August 15, 2004
Rev 11:19,12:1-6,10; 1Cor15:20-27; Lk 1:39-56
1) With the whole Church, today we celebrate the great solemnity of the Assumption of Our Lady, body and soul, into heaven. “The Lord has done great things for me,” Mary exclaims in today’s Gospel, and our first reaction is to praise God for all of the blessings he gave her over the course of her life. We see these “great things” of the Lord in her being preserved from all stain of original sin from the first moment of her conception, in her singular privilege of becoming the Mother of God, and, today, in the fact that at the end of her life the Lord did not allow her body to see corruption, but took her up into heaven body and soul. Thus our first response is to join with Mary in having our whole being “magnify the Lord” and “rejoice in God our Savior” for all of these blessings he has given to her, and through her, to the human race.
2) Our second reaction is to venerate Mary herself for her continual holy response to these divine graces. Mary stated that because of God’s grace, “All generations will call me blessed,” and today we unite with generations before us and after us in so extolling her. With St. Elizabeth we say, “Blessed are you who believed that the Lord’s words would be fulfilled!” Mary trusted in God always and constantly said “let it be done to me according to Your word,” from the time of the visit of the Angel Gabriel throughout her earthly and now heavenly life.
3) But the main purpose of this feast — the reason faithful Catholics mark it each year no matter what day of the week on which it falls — is to help us apply the lessons of Mary’s life and bodily assumption to our own. Her presence in heaven, body and soul, is a sign and foretaste of the destiny which Christ died to share with us as well. Christ’s will has been fully accomplished in her in a way that exceeds that of the rest of the saints, whose souls are with God but whose bodies remain in the grave. Christ’s will is that we spend eternity, body and soul, with him in heaven. We profess this each Sunday when we proclaim, “We believe in the resurrection of the body!,” which refers not to Christ’s resurrection (we state our belief there when we say, “on the third day he rose again”) but to the rest of us. We are saying that at the end of time our bodies, too, will be raised and purified so that we might each and every one of us say to God eternally, “This is my body, given for you.” Mary’s body has been assumed into heaven at the end of her earthly life because she already has given it purely and wholly to God, in giving it to her Son at His incarnation. And since her Assumption, Mary has become like a hiker who has climbed Mount Everest and returns to show others the way. With God’s help, she has reached the celestial apex and now returns to help guide us on our pilgrimage to that eternal home. The readings the Church gives us on this feast day are like a map for us to follow, so that we might imitate her and come with her to that summit.
4) In the Gospel for the Vigil Mass, we encounter the passage when an anonymous woman from the crowd shouts to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you.” Jesus, however, wants to praise his mother not for her inimitable privilege — her physical, blood, relationship with him — but for her imitable example: “Blessed, rather, are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” In so doing, Jesus was far exceeding the anonymous woman’s praise and pointing out the chief source of his Mother’s beatitude. He does not allow his mother to be objectified as a mere possessor of womb and breasts, however privileged they may be. Rather he points to her as the paradigm of all blessed people, for she more than any other had heard the Word of God and kept it. She heard the Word of God announced by the prophets and kept it (we’ll see just how much she did this later). She heard the word of God announced by the Archangel Gabriel and kept it, and kept it so well that that word took her flesh and dwelled among us. She kept the Word within her womb for nine months and in her heart forevermore. While we could never imitate her physical relationship with the Lord — bearing Christ within our wombs or nursing him at our breasts — we can and are called to imitate her in her spiritual relationship with the Word of God her Son, listening to him and acting on his word, so that his word may be incarnate in us.
5) In the readings for the Mass of the Day, this theme of her hearing and keeping the Word of God is intensified. In fact, they portray her as the FULFILLMENT of so many Old Testament prophecies and types (historical figures whose very lives point to another figure coming later). She is shown as the model and sum of the entire people of Israel, and then, as the model and sum of the entire Church founded by Christ. To see this aspect of Mary’s identity in God’s plan, and how we’re called to imitate her, let’s “unpack” a little of the background and the symbolism of the readings.
6) In the Gospel for the Mass of the Day, Elizabeth greets Mary by saying, “Blessed are you among women!” These words, which we say every time we pray the Hail Mary, were not originally said by St. Elizabeth. They were actually said twice in the Old Testament, to refer to two prophetesses. They were first said about Jael, who was called “Most blessed among all women” (Judges 5:24). For what? For DRIVING A NAIL into the head of the evil general Sisara. They were likewise used to praise Judith (Jud 13:18), who was called by Uzziah “Blessed by the Most High God above all women on earth.” Why? For she had CUT OFF THE HEAD of the evil Assyrian king Holofernes, who was attacking the Israelite people. Thus when Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, referred to Mary as “blessed among all women,” she was referring to her implicitly as one of those HEROIC WOMEN who had overcome the great enemies of God and the Israelites; in this case, Satan himself, whose head she would strike with her feet (cf. Gen 3:15-16) through the redemption wrought by her Son. She, like Jael and Judith, was a simple, young woman — not powerful in a physical or worldly sense — whom God raised up to thwart his mighty enemies.
7) Next St. Elizabeth says, “And who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” This phrase also basically comes straight from the Old Testament. It was said by King David on the solemn occasion of the bringing of the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. David said, “Who am I that the Ark of the Covenant has come into my care?” (2Sam6:9). That ark rested three months in a house in Judea, just as Mary rested three months in Zechariah’s house. The ark was met with great rejoicing, dancing and songs, just as Mary, the Ark of the new Covenant (Christ himself), was greeted with great joy and by the dancing and leaping of John the Baptist — who represented the people of the Old Testament awaiting the Messiah — within Elizabeth’s womb. Mary herself became that Ark of the Covenant in which was held the greatest treasure the world has ever known.
8 ) When we turn to Mary’s own response in her famous Magnificat, when her soul bursts forth with joy in praise of God her Savior, we see that her words are a great summary of all of the aspirations of the Israelites in the Old Testament. She makes her own the praise of Hannah, the mother of the great Old Testament prophet Samuel, upon his conception in her womb. Listen to how closely Mary’s Magnificat identifies with Hannah’s prayer in the first book of Samuel “Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. … There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you …Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth… The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. … The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. … He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. … He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness. … The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed” (1 Sam 2:1ff). Mary also borrows verses taken from several psalms and various other prophecies in the Old Testament, making her own all of the hopes of the people awaiting their Messiah. She became herself “Daughter Zion,” the one who represented her whole Jewish race, who, on behalf of everyone, said “yes” to God’s plans of salvation and then praised God on behalf of all of us for such a great work done. Like Judith and Jael, this humble Virgin was used by God to thwart not only the powerful of the world but the Devil Himself, and she became the Ark of the New Covenant sealed in the body and blood of Christ which she had given to her Son..
9) In the passage from the Book of Revelation (first reading), the Holy Spirit inspired the sacred author to go even further. Mary was presented not just as the sum of so many Old Testament prophecies from the past, but as the exemplar and prophecy for the Church in the future. “God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple… a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” There are two elements in God’s heavenly temple: the ark of the covenant and the woman clothed with the son. The two images are meant to be connected — the “ark of the covenant” is that radiant “woman.” That woman refers to Mary, but not just Mary, as Scripture scholars and saints over the centuries have long pointed out. She likewise refers to the Church, symbolized and epitomized by Mary, the perfect disciple. This double identification of the Woman with MARY and with THE CHURCH is meant to indicate symbolically that each of us in the Church is called to live (recapitulate) Mary’s mystery in Christ. To see this more clearly, let’s explore more deeply the symbolism:
a) The woman “arrayed with the Sun” points to God’s glory and grace (the Sun) which shines all about Mary and the Church.
b) The “moon under her feet” basically represents the definitive conquering of paganism, for the pagans worshipped the moon and the stars, and the Church, imitating Mary’s fiat and following of Christ, has defeated such worship of the forces of nature once and for all. The “twelve stars” refer not just to the 12 tribes of Israel all of which looked forward to the Messiah whom Mary would conceive, but also the 12 apostles, who would reflect Christ’s throughout the globe.
c) Mary and the Church were both “pregnant,” Mary as we see in Nazareth, in today’s Gospel and in Bethlehem, the Church during Christ’s passion and death. That latter birth is described in the reading as one of “agony” in which the woman cries out with birth pangs. This happened on Calvary, when Christ, after the agony of the garden and the trials, suffered so much on the Cross to give a new birth to all those who would enter his paschal mystery. As his side was pierced, as if it were a placenta, out flowed blood and water, the font of sacramental life in the Church.
d) The red dragon with the seven heads and ten horns with seven diadems refers, in sum, first to all of the Evil that would cause so much sorrow for Mary during her earthly life as well as to all the evil authorities that were persecuting the Church after her birth, like the Sanhedrin, like the Roman empire, like various governors and kings. The tail of the dragon sweeping a third of the stars from the sky refers to the Evil One’s sweeping a third of the disciples away from the kingdom of God through apostasy and abandoning of the faith while under persecution. The dragon stood before the woman about to give birth so that he might devour the child as soon as it was born. This refers both to Herod’s trying to kill the neonatal Jesus as well as to all of the forces of evil that tried to destroy the Church that was Jesus’ body in the decades succeeding Christ’s resurrection.
e) The woman gave birth to a son, who would rule over all nations with an iron rod. That Son refers first to Christ Jesus alone, who continues to rule with that staff that can never be bent. It also refers to all those “sons in the Son,” reborn in Christ through baptism, through whom Christ continues his salvific mission.
f) The child who was snatched away and taken to God and his throne refers, first, to the Ascension of the Lord and secondarily to the eternal life of all the martyrs.
g) The Woman’s flight into the desert to a place prepared for her by God refers to the rest of her earthly life (which was hidden) and well as to her Assumption. Likewise it points to the path of so many saints, whose lives are “hidden in God” (Col 3:3) and who are one day caught up into the place God has prepared for them in heaven.
h) Finally the powerful voice that cries out “Now have salvation and power come, the reign of our God and the authority of his anointed one!” points to the final destiny, when that woman and that Child are united in God, after the definite defeat of the Evil One.
10) In these images, Mary and the Church are identified — both are mother and both suffer in carrying out their divine vocation — and Christ and the sons and daughters of the Church are identified. Just as Mary’s mystery is caught up in the life and mission of her Son, so the whole mystery of the Church is caught up in Christ and in all those children reborn in him through Mater Ecclesia (Mother Church). Because Mary is not only a symbol of Mother Church, but the first and most exemplary member of the Church, she is a model for each of us to follow in living out our own vocation. God wants to use us, as he used her, as he used Jael and Judith, to thwart the designs of the worldly powerful when they do evil. We, like her, become the ark of the Covenant, when we receive within us the same Lord she conceived and bear him within to others, just as she brought her Son to John, Zechariah and Elizabeth. We, like her, are called to have our whole beings magnify the Lord, who has done so many great things for her and who continues to do great things for us through her. More than anything on this solemnity of her Assumption, her example teaches us that our whole lives are meant to lead us to heaven by following the way she trod, listening to God, letting his word take flesh in us, saying yes to him, and bearing fruit in acts of love. This feast of the Assumption is a feast of heaven, is a feast of holiness. One of us has made it! One of us now reigns body and soul in heaven, “to be the beginning and the pattern of the Church in its perfection, and a sign of hope and comfort to [God’s] people on their pilgrim way” (preface). From heaven she continues to pray for us, to intercede for us and to inspire us to follow her all the way home.