Layer upon layer of meaning for the Feast of the Assumption
The Feast of the Assumption of The Blessed Virgin Mary pre-empts the usual celebration of the Sundays of Ordinary Time when it falls on a Sunday as it does this year. It is a feast that has been celebrated by the Church for many centuries, but it was only officially promulgated as a feast in 1950. The Assumption refers to the belief that Mary’s body was taken into heaven at the time of her death. In the Eastern Church, the feast is called the Dormition and the belief is that she when she died, she simply went to sleep and was taken, body and soul, into heaven.
The readings begin with one from the Book of Revelations (Rev 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab). This book is an example of apocalyptic literature, in which there are many layers of meaning. It is not to be taken literally, because the characters and events described are symbols of other realities. Numbers, colors, objects – all carried deeper meanings than their face value. Revelations was written during a time of persecution of the Christian community. Those for whom it was written understood it as an encouragement in time of trouble. Through all the suffering and trials, Christ and the Church would prevail, because God was on their side.
In today’s reading, first a sign appears in the heavens – a woman laboring to give birth. Then comes a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, ready to devour the child. There were said to be seven diadems on its seven heads, each of which had ten horns. Seven and ten were numbers signifying completeness and power. Horns are symbols of power. The diadems also referenced power. Red symbolizes war, destruction, and bloodshed. This dragon symbolized the forces of evil, arrayed against the woman and her child. The woman herself relates to two layers of meaning. She represents both Israel, from whom the savior would be born, and Mary, the Israelite mother who would give birth to Jesus and the church. The child born and saved from the dragon was both Mary’s son, the Christ, and the community of believers who form his body today, the Church.
The triumph of the forces of good does not appear seamlessly in this story. There are many ups and downs, many triumphs and tribulations. However, the focus is on the ultimate victory of God, brought to fruition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the faithfulness of the Church. The inclusion of a woman in the mix, as the one giving birth, makes clear the importance of the feminine and of matter in the story of salvation. God is not one who despises matter or the feminine. God unites heaven and earth, male and female in the story of salvation.
The readings continue, with St. Paul reminding the people of Corinth that Christ was raised from the dead. Christ is the first of “those who have fallen asleep” and been raised to new life. (1 Cor 15:20-27) Death came through the first human, Adam. All humans die. Now, because Christ is the new Adam, all humans will rise as he did. This will happen at the end of time, when all enemies of life have been conquered, including death.
The role of women is again featured in the Gospel according to St. Luke (Lk1:39—56) In this story, a newly pregnant Mary leaves Nazareth shortly after her encounter with the angel Gabriel. Gabriel has informed her that her elderly cousin, Elizabeth, is having a baby and is now six months pregnant. This is a miracle because Elizabeth was past child-bearing age. Mary hurries to Elizabeth’s side to help her in the final months of the pregnancy.
When Mary approaches Elizabeth, her cousin cries out to her in the words we use in the Hail Mary: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The child in her womb had leapt with joy when Mary greeted Elizabeth. This child grew up to be the final prophet, John the Baptist, who pointed to Jesus as the one who was to come. Elizabeth praised Mary for believing the angel’s words and consenting to God’s request of her.
If you or I heard such a greeting, we might well focus on our good deed or we might be embarrassed and brush off the greeting as excessive. Mary responded differently. Her response takes the form of a Canticle, a song of praise to God. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” This song is sung by the Church every evening as part of Evening Prayer. She sings of God’s great love and mercy throughout history, of the way the Lord comes to lift up the lowly and cast down the mighty from their thrones. She rejoices that the Lord has always come to the aid of his servant Israel and remembers the promise made to Abraham and his children forever. We too are children of Abraham in faith. She sings our song.
On this, the feast of the Assumption, let us rejoice in the courage and faithfulness of Mary, a teenager who met an angel, believed the messenger of God, and accepted a role that would bring danger, hardship, and sorrow, but also joy as she shared the journey of Jesus’ life. She understands what it is to be a mother, a wife, a faithful woman. She is ready to help all who ask for aid.
See you at Mass.
P.S. Many years ago I wrote another blog post for the Feast of the Assumption. If you’re interested, you can find it at: http://blog.theologika.net/feast-of-the-assumption/
Image: Dormition of Mary – unknown artist – public domain