Saturday, August 14, 2010

Our Lady of Mid-August

La Madonna di Mezz' Agosto was how my late Grandmother used to refer to the Assumption. "Our Lady of Mid-August" may lack the theological precision of the feast's full and proper title, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven. Yet, given that the Assumption falls at the height of the summer vacation travel season, it sort of situates the feast psychologically! I recall how in the summer of 1970, when as an undergraduate I was studying German for the summer in Salzburg, Austria, stores closed and secular activity stopped on August 15 to observe Marienhimmelfahrt ("Mary's Flight to Heaven"). Certainly this season so preoccupied with short-term flight from daily work and cares can be a good moment to pause and consider our long-term flight from the same to the eternal joy of the resurrected life!

In the Sacramentarium Gregorianum, which Pope Adrian I sent to Emperor Charlemagne, are found these wonderful words: "Venerable to us, O Lord, is the festivity of this day on which the holy Mother of God suffered temporal death, but still could not be kept down by the bonds of death, [she] who has begotten your Son our Lord incarnate from herself."

Just two weeks after his reception into the Church in August 1844, Servant of God Isaac Hecker wrote this in his Diary: "To day is the holyday of the Assumption of the dear blessed Mary mother of our Lord and Saviour Jesus. Oh may I be found worthy of her regard and love."

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is generally believed to be the oldest liturgical festival in honor of Mary. It certainly ranks as one of the greatest - along with the celebration of her Motherhood on January 1 (the oldest Roman feast of Mary) and her Immaculate Conception on December 8 (the patronal feast of our country and of my new parish).

The Assumption celebrates the traditional belief of the Church, as solemnly defined by Pope Pius XII: "that the Immacualate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory." Pius XII's Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, which defined the dogma, represents a summary of patristic and scholastic teaching related to Mary's assumption and illustrates how liturgy and preaching have traditionally accomodated scriptural references to iluminate doctrine. Thus, for example, the Pope cited St. Anthony of Padua's use of the psalm verse. Arise, O Lord, into your resting place: you and the ark which you have sanctified [Psalm 132:8].

As tonight's Assumption Vigil Mass reminds us, in the Old Testament [see 1 Chronicles 15:3-16:2], the Ark of the Covenant was where God dwelt directly with his people. Both Mary and the Church are arks of God's new covenant. Mary, the first ark, is already with God and can be seen there with the eyes of faith by the second ark, the Church, which fervently hopes to follow her even as it strives to imitate her here and now.

Tonight's Gospel [Luke 11:27-28] meanwhile reminds us that, even more than being Jesus' physical mother (great honor though that certainly was), Mary was first and foremost her Son's disciple, who (from her initial encounter with the angel at the annunciation) heard the word of God and observed it. In her life, Mary totally united herself with the whole history of God's activity on our behalf and so serves as a model for us in identifying ourselves totally with God's plan for the world.

An essential part of that plan is our hope to share in Christ's risen life. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Saint Paul powerfully asserts in tonight's second reading [1 Corinthians 15:54-57], God gives us the victory over sin and death. The resurrection of Christ points ahead to the final resurrection of all those who belong to Christ. In Mary's assumption, we have been given a vision of what God, having already accomplished in Christ, plans yet to accomplish in us.

Thus, when defining this dogma in 1950, Pius XII expressed his "hope that those who meditate upon the glorious example Mary offers us may be more and more convinced of the value of a human life entirely devoted to carrying out the heavenly Father's will and to bringing good to others. Thus ... in this magnificent way all may see clearly to what a lofty goal our bodies and souls are destined. Finally it is our hope that belief in Mary's bodily Assumption into heaven will make our belief in our own resurrection stronger and render it more effective."

Where Mary is now, there someday we all hope to be!

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