Friday, August 15, 2014

The Assumption

St. Mary's Cathedral in Cheyenne, WY
"...After we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory" (Munificentissimus Deus 44).

With this solemn proclamation from the apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus on November 1st, 1950 Pope Pius XII declared the fact of Mary's Assumption into heaven to be a part of our faith. So we need to understand what this feast is all about, largely for our own good and partially so we can explain to our Protestant friends just why we are coming to church on August 15th. So I want to look briefly at the term "Assumption," the history of if the feast, and what it means for us today.

The term "Assumption" refers to Mary being taken body and soul into heaven at end of her life. We say Jesus "ascended" into heaven, which indicates that he went to heaven by his own divine power, whereas we say Mary was "assumed" into heaven, meaning she was taken into heaven by the power of God. One important note: Pope Pius XII said that "having completed her earthly life," Mary was assumed into heaven. We don't know if Mary was assumed before or after the moment of her death, so the Pope intentionally left it unclear. In the East they call this feast the Dormition of Mary, which refers to her "falling asleep."

His Holiness, Pope Pius XII
Although the dogma was only declared into 1950, practically just yesterday in Church time, the way the Pope phrased this proclamation was meant to indicate that it was something that the Church already implicitly believed from the beginning, and now he was inviting everyone to believe in it explicitly. So how do we determine what the Church believed from the beginning? Well, we can read dusty manuscripts from long ago of theologians arguing back and forth about Mary, or we can look at the liturgy. There is an old principal that says that what we pray as a Church is what we believe. Lex orandi, lex credendi. The law of prayer is the law of belief. The liturgy isn't something we created out of nowhere to try to find the right combination of excitement and boredom. The liturgy is where we discover our deepest beliefs. So if we do in fact look into those dusty manuscripts from the past, we find that even though Pius XII only declared this belief in the Assumption to be dogma in 1950, there have been liturgical celebrations of it dating back to the mid 500s.

But even if the history doesn't interest you, it's still important to consider what Mary and her Assumption mean to us today. The Assumption is the result of a sinless life lived in perfect union with God. She was the ark that carried God himself, she was the blessed one who heard the word of God and observed it. By her sinless life and her perfect obedience, she enjoys already that perfect union of body and soul that we will all enjoy after our resurrection. This is important: what Mary has now, we will all have also when Christ destroys death once and for all. It's only logical that Mary, the one who never sinned, the one who didn't suffer the corrupting effects of original sin, wouldn't have to wait for the resurrection at the end of time for her body and soul to be united. We honor her for this because it reminds us of what we hope to enjoy one day.

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