Updated: Sep 16, 2021
Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven. I know that might seem like a loaded phrase which may require a bit of an explanation.
When we hear that word, solemnity, in reference to Church celebrations, it refers to the highest rank of celebrations. In order of importance the ranks are as follows: there are ferial days (or weekdays in Ordinary Time); if you go to Mass this Monday that would be an example of a ferial day. Then comes seasonal weekdays; the seasons we’re talking about are the Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter seasons. After those weekdays come memorials, when we honor certain saints and martyrs. Feasts come next, like feasts of the different apostles and certain feasts of our Lord, like the Feast of the Transfiguration. Finally, we have solemnities which are the highest rank of liturgical celebrations, like Christmas and Easter.
Today is a solemnity—that’s how significant today’s celebration is. In Italy, it’s even a national holiday called, Ferragosto. In most dioceses in the United States, today is a holy day of obligation when August 15th falls on a day other than Sunday. On this day, we reaffirm our belief that after the course of Mary’s earthly life was over, she was taken body and soul into heaven.
Now, this is very different from Christ’s ascension into heaven. After the resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven, body and soul, by his own power. Mary was assumed into heaven by God’s power.
And so, the Church is certain that there are at least two human beings who are in heaven right now in soul and in body: Jesus and Mary; human beings, not human persons (Jesus a divine Person; Mary is a human person). Now, Jesus is 100% God, but he’s also 100% human. And so, there are two human beings in heaven in the flesh.
Why would this honor be afforded to Mary, and why do we believe it? First, the Church has always believed this of Mary, from the very beginning of Christianity. It was declared dogmatically in the twentieth century, but the content of this mystery was never doubted by the Church. We believe it was God’s plan to assume Mary into heaven. And we can see the rightness of that plan.
You see, in God’s plan we discover a balance between the creation and redemption; between the beginning and the fullness of time. There’s a parallel between those two moments.
As an example, in the beginning, there was a tree of life and a tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the fullness of time, the Cross is both. The Cross is the tree of life, and we eat the fruit of that tree to gain eternal life (the Eucharist). The Cross is also the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, insofar as the crucifix is the image of God's total and unconditional love poured out for us--the sum of all goodness. The Cross also reveals the height of wickedness in the world as a sign of mankind's rejection of God, and mankind's sinful desire to kill God.
In the beginning, there was Adam and Eve. In the fullness of time, Jesus is the new Adam, and Mary the new Eve. In the beginning, Eve came forth from the side of Adam; in the fullness of time the new Adam, Jesus, came forth from the body of the new Eve, Mary.
Just as a woman participated in the fall of mankind in the beginning through the influence of an angel (the fallen angel—Lucifer); in the fullness of time, God desired that a woman also participate in mankind’s salvation, again with the influence of an angel (the archangel, Gabriel).
And as the new Adam entered into heaven in the flesh, so also God desired that the new Eve would also be in heaven in the flesh. That’s the content of today's Solemnity; that last poetic act that brings everything back full circle: the casting out of Adam and Eve from Eden, reversed in the majestic entry of Jesus and Mary into heaven.
Our solemnity reminds us of the goodness of the body in God’s plan. Although our flesh was corrupted through original sin, original sin could never invalidate the goodness of God’s plan for the human body. And even death can’t rewrite God’s plan for the body.
When we die, our souls become separated from our bodies, but only for a time. It's a temporary state of being. In the resurrection of the dead on the last day, we’ll all receive our bodies back again; bodies that are perfect and no longer subject to death or decay. We don’t become angels when we die. We become disembodied souls awaiting the resurrection of the body.
As a brief aside, I’ve witnessed on at least one occasion how a friend of a couple who may have lost a child say something along the lines of: “now you have an angel in heaven waiting for you.” I know that the intent is one of consolation for those who are grieving, but the truth is that we don’t become angels when we die. God’s intent is that human beings have bodies.
Our solemnity today reminds us of that destiny. Jesus and Mary are in heaven in the flesh. Though a unique existence at this moment, Jesus and Mary are simply the first to experience what we all shall enjoy in the life to come. On the last day, all of us will be reunited with our bodies without exception. The wicked will enter into the eternal fire in the flesh. But the righteous will shine like the stars in heaven. The redeemed will have perfect bodies filled with purified souls. And we’ll all see one another again and everyone who has ever existed and lived in Christ, and enjoy the goodness of the new creation in the flesh. That is the eternity awaiting those who live in the love of Christ, but that eternity has already begun. It began at our baptism, and we continue to prepare for that day by receiving spiritual and physical nourishment in the Eucharist.
"The Immaculate Conception of El Escorial" Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (Image credit: Public Domain)