Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
Solemnity of the Assumption
August 15, 2000
Rev 11:19,12:1-6,10; 1Cor15:20-27; Lk 1:39-56
1. Today we celebrate the great solemnity of the Assumption of Our Lady, body and soul, into heaven. We praise God for all of the great blessings he gave her over the course of her life, from her being conceived without stain of original sin from the first moment of her conception, to the singular grace of her becoming the Mother of God, to 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 where she now reigns in heaven. We also praise her, for her continual response to the will of God, for her fiat — her yes! — to His plan for her not just at the moment of the visit of the Angel Gabriel, but throughout her earthly and now heavenly life.
2. But this feast is not just about praising Mary. It also has an enormous relevance to each one of us, for at least two very good reasons. First her presence in heaven, body and soul, is a foretaste and sign of the destiny which Christ died to share with us as well. A human being is now experiencing the fullness of eternity with the Father, the Son — her Son — and the Holy Spirit. The saints’ souls are in heaven, but their bodies still await Christ’s second coming at the end of the time when their bodies and souls will be reunited. Mary, however, has been assumed body and soul into heaven. So her body, from which Christ received His Own Body, is now in heaven in glory along side the Body of Her Son. We can rejoice in that Christ’s will has been fulfilled at least in her, as we hope it one day will be fulfilled in us as well. The second reason this feast is so relevant to us is that her whole life shows us the WAY to achieve that eternal beatitude she now experiences body and soul. She is the one that the Church throughout the year, but particularly on this day, gives to us as the model of how a human being should respond to the graces of the Lord and so come to that state of glory in heaven. And so today we can stop and consider how she is that way so that we might imitate her in this life and share in the glory she now experiences for ever.
3. In the Gospel for the vigil last night, we encountered the passage when an anonymous woman from the crowd shouted to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you.” But Jesus wanted to praise his mother not just for her physical, blood, relationship with him, but for the real reason of her greatness: “Blessed, rather, are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” Jesus singled out his mother for the fact that she always listened attentively to the Lord, kept that word by putting it into practice, and even treasuring that word as the Most precious pearl she could ever be given. She treasured that word so much that the Word of God literally became flesh within her. Hence the Church, by presenting that reading, was encouraging us to listen to the Word of God at all times, put it into practice, and respond to the grace to treasure it as the great gift it really is, no matter how demanding it might seem at times. While we could never imitate her physical relationship with the Lord — bearing Christ within our wombs or nursing him on 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 as a great gift.
4. In today’s readings, the Church goes beyond merely positing Mary as the model of every disciple in responding to the graces of the Lord. They posit Mary 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. Mary is in a certain sense identified with both all of the prophets and prophetesses in the Old Testament in the Gospel and with the Church itself in the first reading from the book of revelation. But in order to see how profound all of this is, and how relevant it is for us, we have to “unpack” in a certain sense these two readings.
5. In today’s Gospel, 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 Elizabeth. They were actually said twice in the Old Testament, to refer to two prophetesses, first Jael, who was called “Most blessed among all women” for driving a nail into the head of the evil general Sisara, (Judges 5:24) and then Judith (Jud 13:18), who was called by Uzziah “Blessed by the Most High God above all women on earth,” for she had cut off the head of the evil Assyrian king Holofernes, who was attacking the Israelite people. So when Elizabeth 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 through the redemption wrought by her Son. She, like Jael and Judith, was a simple, young woman — we can even say, in the mentality of the time, weak — whom God raised up to thwart the powerful.
6. Next Elizabeth says, “And who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” This phrase is also basically the Old Testament. It was said by 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.
7. Then we turn to Mary’s own response in her famous Magnificat, when her soul burst with joy in praise of God her Savior. Her words, however, were 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 Hannah and see if this sounds like what you heard in the Gospel: “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. 5 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; for not by might does one prevail. … The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.” Mary also borrows verses taken from several other psalms in the Old Testament, making her own all of the hopes of the people awaiting their Messiah. She became herself the Daughter Zion, the one who represented her whole race, the whole human race, first in saying yes for all of us to God’s plans of salvation and then praising 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 he had taken from her.
8. In the passage from the Book of Revelation which was the first reading, the Holy Spirit inspired the sacred author to go even further. Mary was presented as a model for the entire Church. We first see that the Ark of the Covenant was revealed in heaven with flashes of lighting, earthquakes, and hail. then a woman clothed with the Sun appears with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. Scripture scholars over the centuries of Christianity have been divided over whether this Woman refers to Mary or refers to the Church. The answer is that they’re both right. It refers, in fact, both to Mary and the Church. It refers to Mary as well as the model of the Church, and identifies the Church and the Church’s life with Mary and Mary’s life. The Church’s life span is identified with that of Mary. We can see this if we unpack some of the elements of the passage.
9. The woman is arrayed with the Sun — the Sun is the glory of God which shines all about Mary and the Church. The moon under her feet basically represents the definitive conquering of paganism, for the pagans worshipped the moon and the stars, and the Church, following Mary’s fiat and following of Christ, has defeated such worship of the forces of nature once and for all. Mary and the Church were both pregnant, Mary as we see in Nazareth, in today’s Gospel and in Bethlehem, the Church when participated in the rebirth of Christ after the Resurrection. 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 in the agony of the Garden, then the Upper Room when he gave us his body and blood, then on Calvary cried out and gave birth to his spirit and from his pierced side the water and blood that became the Sacramental life of the Church. The next portent appearing in heaven was the red dragon with the seven heads and ten horns with seven diadems each. These refer both to all of those sorrows for Mary during her earthly life as well as the sum of all 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 trying to kill 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 death. The woman gave birth to a son, who would rule over all nations with an iron rod. That Son is the same for both, Jesus Christ, who continues to rule with that stuff that can never be bent. That child, we read, was snatched away and taken to God and his throne. This refers to the Ascension of the Lord. And the Woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God. This happened both by the flight into Egypt as well as by the dispersion of the early Church throughout the known world as a result of the early persecution. Finally we read that the powerful voice cries out “Now have salvation and power come, the reign of our God and the authority of his anointed one!” That happened both by the appearance of the Angels to the Shepherds singing the great news of the coming of the Savior, but also continues by the angelic choirs in the eternal liturgy of heaven.
10. Mary is portrayed as the model and image of the entire Church, and hence as the model for each of us. 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 work injustice against God’s people. We, like her, have all 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 meant to give birth to the Lord in deeds of love, to be the Lord’s body in the midst of the world, to be his hands, feet, lips, eyes. He has no hands on earth but ours to bring his loving touch to others. No lips but ours to announce his Gospel. No feet on earth but ours to visit the sick and imprisoned and those in need. The Blessed Mother has shown us that all of this is possible and the Church earnestly asks us to reflect on this deeply at this Mass. Just as the Lord has done such great things for her, so he has done great things for us, and holy is his name. Sanctity is as possible for us as it was for her, provided that we respond to the Lord’s graces with the same complete YES that she did. This is a feast of holiness, that a human being, in responding fully to God’s grace, has achieved the purpose of all human life. One of our own now reigns in heaven, praying, interceding and inspiring us on our own path. Sanctity is possible! And she shows us the way! Hail Mary, Assumed into Heaven, Full of Grace, pray for us! Amen!