21st AUGUST 2016
Tony van Vuuren
The feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary has traditionally been celebrated on the 15th August, a holy day of obligation, but now this, the patronal feast of South Africa is celebrated on the Sunday following (not the nearest Sunday); thus giving more Catholics the opportunity to celebrate this important feast when attending weekend mass.
Today’s feast expresses our belief that when Jesus’ mother reached the end of her life on earth she was taken into God’s company, body and soul, without the delay or the period of purification that we have to expect in our own case. Mary’s total co-operation with God’s grace was unique in the whole history of salvation, and so her entry into eternity was also unique. The doctrine of the Assumption expresses a very ancient Christian belief about Mary’s unique destiny as the woman who agreed to become the mother of Jesus.
The feast is an opportunity to celebrate Mary and her inspiring faithfulness. We recall that event, years before she was taken body and soul into heaven, when she said “yes” to the angel’s invitation to become the mother of God.
We celebrate that simple, humble yes, which God used to set events in motion that changed our relationship with him, our relationship with each other, and literally the whole of history. But as we recall and celebrate Mary’s yes to God, let’s not forget that today’s feast is really about God’s yes to Mary.
It’s really about the way God rewarded Mary for her surrender to him and his plan. It’s about the way he honored her for saying “yes” every day of her life—even when it meant letting a sword of sorrow and grief pierce her soul as she stood at the foot of the Cross (Luke 2:35). It’s about God lifting Mary up at the end of her life and crowning her with his glory, all in response to her humble, loving faithfulness to him.
It’s very possible that the image of Mary’s Assumption into heaven that most of us have in our heads is drawn from certain pictures, which are the products of popular devotion – pictures of Mary rising up through the clouds surrounded by flocks of angels.
And it’s possible that these are images, which aren’t all that helpful, in the sense that they give too literal an impression of what we mean when we talk about our belief in the Assumption of Our Lady.
God isn’t literally above the earth – that’s only a figurative way of speaking. So Mary didn’t physically fly upwards to join him. That’s also only a figurative way of seeing Mary’s translation into God’s eternal presence.
The actual belief or the doctrine associated with today’s feast is that Our Lady, at the end of her life, was taken into God’s company, body and soul. In our case, when we die, there’s going to be a gap between our entering God’s presence and the final resurrection of our bodies that we profess in the Creed.
With Our Lady there was no gap. She’s already in that state of glory, as we call it, which Christ himself is, and which we hopefully will be at the end of time.
It’s perfectly true that there’s no record of this event in the Bible, and that’s decisive for many of the Protestant churches, whose members don’t agree with this doctrine about Mary. But the belief does go back to the very early years of the Church’s existence, and for us, the presence of a belief among the Christian community from that very early stage is enough to make it part of the tradition of faith.
And in that sense, there are two things that this ancient belief in Mary’s Assumption tells us about God and God’s plan of salvation.
One is about the very special role that Mary had. The gospel passage today commemorates the fact that Mary was asked to be the mother of the Messiah, and said ‘yes’. She goes to see Elizabeth her cousin to share her news and her happiness, and Elizabeth herself, it turns out, is also somebody who has been invited by God to play a very special role.
In fact, we all have a place in the history of salvation. Most of us have a small and relatively unimportant role. Others have a more significant part to play, like Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist.
But Mary’s role wasn’t just significant, it was unique – bringing the saviour to birth, being the mother of the Messiah who was both the Son of Man and God’s Son. It’s in this sense that Mary came to be known as the Mother of the Church – the mother of the whole community of Christ’s brothers and sisters.
The second thing about the Assumption is what it teaches us about ourselves, because Mary – as an ordinary human being – represents all of us. Mary represents every human being who stands before God and says ‘yes’ to his summons.
Today’s feast reminds us that God rejoices every time we say “yes” to him. It reminds us that he honors every single time we decide to follow him. It reminds us that no act of faith, no act of trust, and no act of obedience is too small to escape his notice.
By committing ourselves, by saying yes to God in our day-to-day dealings, whether big or small will help us to stay faithful when the real challenges come along. Mary said yes to whatever God put before her. Every day, she chose to hold on to her commitment, and so can we. We can find strength in these daily challenges as we pray for the heavenly glory that we can share with Mary as a result of our faithfulness.
It reminds us that where Mary has gone, we too can hope to follow! In a very real sense, the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary celebrates the destiny that all the faithful will experience; that is, an existence of risen glory. Mary shared in the destiny of our risen Lord, just as we will. But by virtue of her special role in the history of salvation, Mary experienced the fullness of the risen life immediately upon the conclusion of her earthly existence.