By Corinne Winter
On Aug. 15, we celebrated the feast of Mary’s assumption into heaven. In doing so, we follow an ancient liturgical tradition and acknowledge a relatively recent definition of doctrine. Indeed, the process by which the dogmatic definition was reached is often cited as a prime example of the principle that the law of prayer established the law of believing. Likewise, the history of belief in Mary’s assumption provides evidence for the role of all members of the church in preserving and shaping the Tradition. On Aug. 15, we celebrated the feast of Mary’s assumption into heaven. In doing so, we follow an ancient liturgical tradition and acknowledge a relatively recent definition of doctrine. Indeed, the process by which the dogmatic definition was reached is often cited as a prime example of the principle that the law of prayer established the law of believing. Likewise, the history of belief in Mary’s assumption provides evidence for the role of all members of the church in preserving and shaping the Tradition. Thus, the feast of the Assumption calls us to reflect on the church as the community in which our faith is passed on, received and developed. The church is a pilgrim community, always seeking greater insight into the truth revealed by God. While truth itself is constant, our knowledge and our expression of it in human language must continue to grow. The church’s insight into the meaning of the doctrine of the Assumption continues to grow in a number of ways. Pope Pius XII, in defining the dogma, deliberately left some questions open for discussion. In what way did Mary and those around her experience her transition to the next life? Did she die? Was she buried? But these are not even the important questions.
The bishops at the Second Vatican Council called Catholics to pay attention to Mary as a sign of the Christian vocation and of the relationship of all creation to the Creator. During the decades just prior to the council, some Catholics were inclined to view the Assumption primarily as one of the privileges that made Mary different from the rest of us, and above us in holiness. Her status was attributed to her unique role as the Mother of Jesus, which gave her a closeness to God that far outstripped the relationship to which we more ordinary humans could aspire. By contrast, Mary is described in Lumen Gentium as “the image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected … (LG68). The union she shares with God is promised to all; it is the destiny for which God creates us and to which God is ever calling us. Thus, to be human is to be made for and by nature to be drawn toward communion with God in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Certainly, we honor Mary for her singular role in the life of Christ and for her faithfulness to God. At the same time, Mary’s privileges, rather than being unattainable, are signs of hope and challenge for our own lives. We, as individuals and as church, should, in fact, aspire to the same holiness we see in her. Contemporary Catholic theologian Sally Cuneen has referred to Mary as an “Icon of human possibility.”
Further, Mary’s bodily presence in heaven, along with that of Christ, reminds us that the call to share in divine life applies to us as whole persons, not only to an invisible “soul.” This positive anthropology is a treasured characteristic of the Catholic faith.Furthermore, by what it tells us about the destiny of the human body, the dogma of the Assumption calls us to recognize the goodness of all creation. Christians are sometimes inclined to view the material world mostly as the “stuff” we may need for living, or even as a source of suffering and temptation. But Scripture and our Catholic Tradition present all creation as the work of God’s love and goodness. Christ is described as the “first fruits of creation,” and St. Paul proposes that creation itself groans for the fulfillment promised in Christ (Romans 8). St. Augustine taught that sinfulness lies not in having or appreciating things but in having a distorted view of their place in our lives, in expecting of them a fulfillment they cannot provide. Artists have provided us with marvelous imaginative pictures of Mary’s Assumption — images that are present in many of our churches. As we celebrate the mystery recognized in those pictures and in the doctrine of our faith, may our reflections give rise to the hope they represent for our own destiny and that of all creation. (Corinne Winter is a professor-emeritus of St. Ambrose University, Davenport)