By Brian Garcia-Luense
The Texas Catholic Herald
The date of publication of this issue coincides with the celebration of the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
It seems appropriate to reflect on the underlying teaching of the Church on which this liturgical celebration rests and to ponder its implications for us in our day-to-day lives as Catholic Christians.
First we need to be clear about what is meant by the teaching itself.
Blessed Pope Pius XII, in his apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus, puts it this way, “Christ overcame sin and death by his own death, and one who through Baptism has been born again in a supernatural way has conquered sin and death through the same Christ. Yet, according to the general rule, God does not will to grant to the just the full effect of the victory over death until the end of time has come. And so it is that the bodies of even the just are corrupted after death, and only on the last day will they be joined, each to its own glorious soul. Now God has willed that the Blessed Virgin Mary should be exempted from this general rule. She, by an entirely unique privilege, completely overcame sin by her Immaculate Conception, and as a result she was not subject to the law of remaining in the corruption of the grave, and she did not have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of her body” (no.4-5).
That is to say, despite sharing in Christ’s victory over death by means of our Baptism, we all still die and our bodies undergo the corruption of the grave. We await the resurrection of our bodies on the last day. For Mary, things were different.
By a singular grace of God, because of her Immaculate Conception, her body did not undergo the corruption of the grave. Rather, she, in her now glorified body, as a union of body and soul, was assumed into heaven.
It was Pius XII, in Munificentissimus Deus, issued on Nov. 1, 1950, who gave the Church the formal dogmatic definition, “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” (no. 44).
As a consequence of this dogmatic definition, Pius XII states further, “Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith” (no. 45).
Despite the fact that this dogmatic definition was declared in the 20th century, it should not be thought that it was the result of some new idea dreamed up by the Pope. Rather, the numerous paragraphs preceding the definition are largely a catalogue of the many great thinkers in the history of the Church who, grounded in considerations beginning in Sacred Scripture, reached this conclusion.
Liturgical celebrations of this teaching date back at least to the fourth century. Pius himself relates that he issued this definitive definition in part as a result of the many petitions he and his predecessors had received to do so and only after consulting with the world-wide order of bishops on the appropriateness and helpfulness of issuing such a definition.
Thus this 20th century definition is to be understood as a reflection of the constant teaching tradition of the Church.
Understanding clearly what the Church teaches is only preliminary to understanding the significance of it in our lives today. One can rightly ask, “Who cares, or why does it matter, that Mary was, at the end of her earthly life, assumed body and soul into heaven?” I submit that it matters to us precisely because of what it teaches us about us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way, “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is … an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians” (no. 966).
The Church’s Liturgy, in the preface to the Eucharistic Prayer on this feast, prays, “For today the Virgin Mother of God was assumed into heaven as the beginning and image of your Church’s coming to perfection and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people.” What God has uniquely done for Mary now is what God promises for all of the baptized.
We, who know that we will die, find both comfort and hope in the sure and certain knowledge that death is not the end. We need look no further than the Mother of God to see our true destiny.
Death is not the victor. It is not even enough to believe that our souls survive death, as though we are destined to become like angels. No, God in Christ will do for us what He has already done for Mary. We, in our existence as an essential unity of both body and soul, are destined for eternal life
We are pilgrims, journeying to a destination at which she has already arrived. Seeing her there helps us to continue on our way.
The celebration of the Assumption of Mary is a celebration that articulates in clear and certain terms our belief in the Resurrection of the Body. And this belief is the basis for our hope. This hope matters. Now-emeritus Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi, writes, “Faith draws the future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a ‘not yet’.
The fact that this future exists changes the present; the present is touched by the future reality, and thus the things of the future spill over into those of the present and those of the present into those of the future” (no. 7). We live, or at least are called to live, differently now because of our hope.