Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Lily among the Thorns: The Assumption of the Mother of God

Last Saturday, August 15, was the Christian feast celebrating the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is the day when, by tradition, the Mother of God is believed to have been raised up, body and soul, to heaven (or, in more fancy language, “corporeally assumed” into heaven). Opinions are divided on whether she died first, or whether she was lifted up into heaven without ever experiencing physical death, but the latter seems more compelling to me. The Assumption is celebrated by Catholics and some high-church Anglicans, and a similar feast is apparently celebrated by the Orthodox.

Some Christians find the teaching about the Assumption to be controversial because it “isn’t mentioned in scripture” or because it “overemphasizes Mary at the expense of Jesus”, and some secularists find it silly because they don’t believe dead people can be raised from the dead. Actually, there are strong reasons to believe that the Assumption of Mary really happened. Before I take a look at one of the early traditional accounts of the Assumption, I’d like to quickly explain why this teaching seems convincing to me.

The Christian Bible certainly contains some verses that can provide support for the Assumption of Mary. In the Wisdom of Solomon, it is said that “to be allied with Wisdom is immortality” (Wisdom 8:17). The Latin here for “allied” is actually “cognatio”, which connotes a blood relationship, and “Wisdom” has been traditionally interpreted as a prophetic figure of Christ, so taken together this suggests that the closest blood relative of Christ, i.e. Mary, would be “immortal”. The figure of Esther in the book of the same name has also been traditionally taken as a prophetic figure of Mary, and this line would seem to suggest that Mary would be spared from natural death: “Thou shalt not die: for this law is not made for thee, but for all others” (Esther 15:13). Christ himself promised to the Apostles (and presumably to Mary since she would have been present, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:3). Since we have traditional accounts of the deaths by martyrdom of the various Apostles, it seems unlikely that any of the Apostles were intended: on the contrary, the fulfillment of this promise would seem to be St. Mary. And make no mistake, inasmuch as this saying of Christ was intended to strengthen the Apostles’ faith as much as anything else, it would have had to be fulfilled in the lifetime of the Apostles in order for it to serve its intended purpose: and fulfilled it was.

Finally and most clearly, St. John’s vision of the woman clothed with the sun, who represents St. Mary, seems to describe in figurative language how God preserved her from death and from the powers of evil: “And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child. And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished…” (Revelation 12:13-14). The “eagle’s wings” imply that St. Mary was lifted up into heaven just as the Assumption describes. It’s important to remember here that St. John was the closest companion of the Blessed Virgin, as Christ had made him, as He hung on the Cross, her adopted son: “Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home” (John 19:26), and that he wrote Revelation towards the end of his life, exiled on Patmos. Therefore the Assumption had already happened, and he would have known about it, and Revelation 12 was a historical description of what had taken place as well as a mystical vision of the everlasting conflict of good and evil.

We also have strong arguments from church tradition to persuade us. In the eighth century, St. John of Damascus devotes several long and beautiful homilies to the meaning of the Assumption. The Feast of the Assumption was celebrated in France, Arabia, Egypt and Palestine during the fifth and sixth centuries, and was alluded to by St. Juvenal at the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century. St. Gregory of Tours mentioned it in the sixth century, and it was widely celebrated in the Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental churches from the 8th century onward.

Perhaps the strongest argument is the old ‘Habeas Corpus’ line of the lawyers. The early Christian church had a passion for relics and for noting the location of the deaths of early Christian apostles and martyrs. There are objects that were claimed, from very early on, to be the physical relics of each one of the Apostles, and there are traditions about the tombs of each one of them. Except that there have never been any purported ‘relics’ of Mary. Why not? Indeed, a contemporary narrative of the Council of Chalcedon claims that the Byzantine Emperor Flavian Marcian, who was attending the Council, requested the relics of Mary from the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and that he was denied on the grounds that such relics did not exist. It would have been easy to dig up the tomb and obtain the relics: the only good reason not to was that the Emperor found the arguments convincing, and so should we.

As for the argument that ‘venerating Mary detracts from the glory of God’, I completely disagree. The nature of the Trinitarian God is that He is a God who is characterized by community and sociality: in fact, the very existence of the Trinity tells us that God has always existed as a kind of divine community of three persons. God loves those that he has created with a perfect and total love, and when we love others we love God too. Likewise when we honor those who He has made worthy of being honor, we glorify God through giving glory to the order that he has established. God is most concerned, above all things, that all of His creatures receive what is good and right for them. In some cases, when he has chosen those creatures for special honor- whether they be the holy angels, the saints, or Mary- He is concerned that they receive that honor and glory due to them. The more we honor St. Mary the more we honor the God who chose her for that honor.

Why is the Assumption of St. Mary so important? What does it tell us? It tells us several things: about the nature of love, about the promise of redeemed humanity, and about how God overturns patriarchal and exploitive structures and exalts women. We know that love is the nature of God: “God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:16). The doctrine of the Assumption tells us that that love is not merely the disinterested beneficience (agape) but also filial affection (storge). Love in its highest form is not simply general but also particular. This is why loving God, and loving humanity in general, should not mean loving our family, our friends, and our romantic partners any less. St. Augustine, in his “City of God”, argued with those who said that particular love of particular individuals was bad, while disinterested love was good: he noted that Christ asked St. Peter three times after the resurrection, ‘Do you love me?” using once the word for “friendship” and once the word for “solicitude”. This shows that God esteems the love of a friend as much as He does the disinterested love of humanity as a whole. The image of the Bride of Christ in Revelation 21 shows the same about romantic love, and the Assumption of Mary shows that the same is true of “storge”, natural affection. In heaven we will not only have God but we will have our partners, our friends, our family. And on earth, our good lies in loving not only God but more fully loving our fellow men in general and those we are close to through ties of friendship, family, and romance. I know people who say that they don’t want to have children because it would take time away from their goal of better serving humanity. But I believe that’s a false tradeoff and the Assumption of Mary shows us why. Christ loves all of humanity, equally, with “agape”, but He also loved His Mother with natural affection, just as he had a particular friendship for St. John. The one does not detract from the other: He was perfect in charity and also perfect in affection, and so are we called to be.

The Assumption of Mary shows us, too, that God intended to overthrow the patriarchal oppression of women in the past, and raise all women through raising one in particular. He raised one particular woman, the child of Anna and Joachim, to be the Queen of Heaven, the only human being (besides Christ the God-Man) to be free from sin, with a crown of stars and the moon beneath her feet, higher than all the angels (Revelation 12:1). So many ancient cultures had considered women and childbirth to be ritually impure: God chose a particular woman to be the purest and highest of all humans (again, with the exception of her son). In the assumption of Mary we have a promise of what will one day be true of humanity in general: that we will be free from sin, death, and the power of evil.

Let me take a quick look at one of the extra-biblical accounts of the Assumption of Mary, attributed to St. John. It was most likely written sometime in the fifth century but probably has a core of genuine truth to it- whether remembered oral history or mystical vision. To me, at least, it has the ring of something compelling. The writer begins his narrative by poignantly discussing how St. Mary, after the death of Christ, went regularly to the tomb of Christ to pray for His return. She knew of who and what He was, and that He had ascended to heaven for good, but in her humanity and her love for him she longed for her son, and wept that he was gone from him, as any mother would: “As the all-holy glorious mother of God and ever-virgin Mary, as was her wont, was going to the holy tomb of our Lord to burn incense, and bending her holy knees, she was importunate that Christ our God who had been born of her should return to her.” The archangel Gabriel then appears from her and promises that while she cannot receive her wish she will receive something better: instead of Christ returning to be with her, He will call her to ascend to heaven and be with her Son forever. She asks that the rest of the apostles (by now dispersed across the world from Gaul to India) should return so that she can see them. By a miracle, the apostles are brought to Jerusalem from Ephesus, from Armenia, from Egypt, from India, from Rome: “And Mark likewise coming round, was present from Alexandria; he also with the rest, as has been said before, from each country. And Peter being lifted up by a cloud, stood between heaven and earth, the Holy Spirit keeping him steady. And at the same time, the rest of the apostles also, having been snatched up in clouds, were found along with Peter. And thus by the Holy Spirit, as has been said, they all came together.” The apostles, gathered together for this greatest of all reunions, pray and worship together, and they see miracles happening in the world outside: “And I beheld also that many signs came to pass, the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the lame walking, lepers cleansed, and those possessed by unclean spirits cured…” Mary asks that those who pray in her name be blessed by God, and Christ promises her that He will bless anyone who calls upon His mother: “every favour and every gift has been given to you from my Father in heaven, and from me, and from the Holy Spirit: every soul that calls upon your name shall not be ashamed, but shall find mercy, and comfort, and support, and confidence, both in the world that now is, and in that which is to come, in the presence of my Father in the heavens.” And in the sight of all the Apostles her soul is carried up to heaven, and her body laid in its tomb: and for several days the Apostles hear the voices of invisible angels singing the praises of Christ, and after three days “the voices were no longer heard; and from that time forth all knew that her spotless and precious body had been transferred to paradise”.

This narrative isn’t scripture and we aren’t asked to believe it as scripture, but the early church found it convincing and I must conclude it’s based on genuine truth. Whether the apostles were brought together on clouds or whether they experienced a mystical vision of the event isn’t really important: what is important is that for those few days they experienced a mystical reunion with each other and with the holy Mother of God. What an amazing few days that must have been. All of us know what reunions are like. We’ve all experienced coming together with family at Christmas, with school friends at the end of summer, with people we once knew in college or at a job. It’s like overcoming not just space but time: like you are brought back, for a moment, to the simpler times of the past when things seemed so much easier and less complex, and before you went your separate ways. We come back to a reunion with stories of what we have seen and done since then, and look forward to the opportunity to tantalize our friends with those stories. When I first got to Madagascar I imagined of all the stories I would tell people back home: about helping pull trucks out of ditches, about picking up snakes, about exploring the forest at night, about biking to the clinic to seek help for a sick neighbor, about everything. Our nature as social beings is that we love to tell stories, and we prize reunions for that. Imagine the kind of things the apostles had seen and done on that day in the mid-50s AD, and what kind of stories they would have had to tell: of visions, of miracles, or persecutions and adventures. Imagine St. Peter talking of the Roman persecutions, of St. Thomas describing a rhinoceros or a tiger, imagine St. Mark describing a hippopotamus.

In the medieval legends of the Grail, the twelve apostles are described as the forerunner of the Arthurian knights and as the greatest fellowship of friends that the world has ever seen. The mystical reunion of the apostles, whether in spirit or in the flesh, to share the vision of the Assumption was like the greatest and best high school reunion it’s possible to imagine, in which the apostles saw once again the presence of the One who had made them what they were and had lifted them out of their lives and given them a purpose. The story of the Assumption shows us not only the value of the love of family, but the love of friends too.

It shows us, too, how God always has something stored up for us, better than we can possibly imagine. The Greeks imagined a good life was the best thing you could have: a good life, and a quiet, pleasant death. The Old Testament Jews thought of the Messiah as a political savior who would overthrow tyranny. Neither was wrong but they saw only part of the truth: God had something better in store than either- or than any human being, in fact- could have imagined. Mary, likewise, wanted her son to return to her- she shared the common longing of any parent who has lost a child. God gave her not what she wanted, but something so much better: He granted her the special privilege of being corporeally assumed into heaven to be with her Son. Heaven will be something better than we can possibly imagine, and likewise God so often has plans for us that involve something higher and better than we could choose, or even dream of, on our own.

It shows us, finally, how God takes devotion to His followers and helpers as devotion due to Him. Mary knew that people would invoke her name, as she was a human being, and therefore could understand their plight, and she asked that God accept that honor as honor due to him. God, again, is a God of sociality and community, and He wants us to receive honor and glory to the extent that we are due. Love is, as St. Augustine says, unique in that it multiplies when it is divided: it is unlike earthly goods in that way. When we love St. Mary, we love the God who raised her to that place of honor, all the more, and when we honor her we make it possible for her to “inflame us with the desire of thy son”.

“How you have blossomed forth, how sweet you have become! You are the flower of the field, a lily among the thorns!” says St. John of Damascus in a homily, quoting the Song of Solomon in reference to St. Mary. It’s a great sermon and you should read it. Let me close by quoting it further: “But do thou graciously receive my desire, knowing that it exceeds my power. Watch over us, O Queen, the dwelling-place of our Lord. Lead and govern all our ways as thou wilt. Save us from our sins. Lead us into the calm harbour of the divine will. Make us worthy of future happiness through the sweet and face-to-face vision of the Word made flesh through thee. With Him, glory, praise, power, and majesty be to the Father and to the holy and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever.”


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