ASSUMPTION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
Happy Feast to all.
Mary is last remembered in the New Testament at the beginning of the book of the Acts of the Apostles. We find her in prayer, in the upper room, probably where her son has celebrated the last supper along with his disciples. Then, this woman who we last see in prayer, leaves the scene, quietly and discreetly as she had entered. We do not know anything about her anymore. The canonical texts do not say where she spent the last years of her life before leaving this world.
It is from the sixth century that we find among Christians numerous versions of a single theme: the 'Dormition of Mary'. Why is it called 'dormition' and not death? In the past, many theologians argued that Mary had not really died, but had fallen in a deep sleep and then had been taken to heaven.
The reason was that death was the consequence of original sin, and since Mary had been preserved, from her conception, from every form of sin, therefore, she should not die. I believe that no one today holds this interpretation of Mary's assumption.
His son died, and also Mary died. We do not know when or where but, in all probability, we have authentic news about this text of Mary's dormition. These writings are from the sixth century, but refer to traditions that go back to the beginning of the second century, therefore, very close to the facts.
These texts narrate the last years of Mary in this world and mention that she spent them in Jerusalem where her days were ended. What exactly do these texts say?
After Easter, Mary lived on Mount Zion, perhaps in the same house where her son celebrated the last supper, the house that probably belonged to the family of the evangelist Mark.
Right at the moment of leaving this world—and here begins the legendary aspect of these apocryphal stories-the archangel Gabriel appeared to her and told her, 'Mary, you came to this world, you fulfilled your mission, you spent the last years of your life in recollection and prayer, but now the time has come to the end of your life.' Mary responds: 'I am happy to be in this world, everyone loves me, I want to live, not die'. But the archangel Gabriel says to her, 'Mary, you will find your son and you will remain with him for all eternity'. And Mary says, 'Yes, I want to meet my son, but I ask you for a favor: Call all his apostles to my bedside because I want to be told all they know about Jesus, because during his public life I stayed in Nazareth. They have followed the Master and I would like to listen to everything they tell me about what my son has done and said'.
And here follows the legendary aspect of this story: All the apostles were summoned which came upon the clouds of heaven, including Paul. One of the apostles was missing because James, the son of Zebedee, had already been martyred. The apostles arrived and gathered by Mary's deathbed, they told her everything she wanted to hear and then, at a certain moment, Jesus arrived with a legion of angels who came to pick up the soul of Mary, leaving on that bed her body, or rather, her corpse, because 'body' in biblical language is not the corpse. The 'body' is the whole person. Those who distinguished the 'soul' from the 'body' were the Greeks. They claimed that the 'soul' was a prison of the material body and wants to get rid of this material reality to arrive later to immortality, to where by its nature was destined. None of this is biblical discourse; it is Greek philosophy.
In the Bible a person is a unit. In this world, we are 'body'. The body is what people can see, touch, caress. A person is a unit. When the person leaves this world, he or she leaves it in its totality, soul and body, that is, the person with all his or her history. When these stories say that Jesus took the soul of Mary and left there her body is a Greek conception.
Later we will understand what has happened to Mary. I want to complete the account of these apocrypha in order to understand what has been transmitted by our brothers of the faith of the first centuries. They have mourned this body of Mary and then accompanied it in procession to the brook Kidron. This is an authentic fact. It goes back to the tradition of the beginning of the second century. We know that in Kidron the sepulcher where the corpse of Mary was placed is revered. They placed her body in this rock and, what happened next?
After three days of her burial—and here I retake the legendary account— Jesus appears again to carry her body to take it to paradise; and with all the apostles on the clouds of heaven, led Mary to the East, to paradise, in the kingdom of light among the songs of angels, delicious perfumes of paradise and put the body of Mary next to the tree of life.
These are the novelistic details without any historical value. But through images and symbols they witness the beginning of the devotion of the Christian people to the mother of the Lord.
Before continuing, I want to make a brief reading of the 'Κο?μησις Θεοτ?κου' icon, As they call it in the East, that is, the icon of the ‘Dormition of the Mother of God,’ because the Oriental icon helps us to understand the message of today’s feast.
Notice how 'two worlds' appear in the icon. In the foreground is the reality of our material world. In the bed are the remains of Mary. Not Mary; Mary is not there: she has left this world and there are her remains.
At the head we see the apostles. It is the scene narrated in the Apocrypha. Notice that the apostles' gaze is toward the bed, towards the corpse of the mother of Jesus. None of them looks and sees what is behind them—the scene that we will soon comment on, the world of God.
They cannot see this scene; they can only see what the eyes of the body allow them to verify. They cannot see beyond this corpse. And he who believes that there is only the verifiable, tangible, controllable by the senses cannot but conclude that death is the end of everything. Only the atoms that will be returned to the earth are left. This is what the material gaze sees.
And also the apostles, who have these eyes, see a corpse. But what is the reality? Is this all there is to one person ... all his or her story, all he or she has done, the love he or she has given...? What is it that remains? The physical eyes can only see what; what remains.
In the background we have a scene that cannot be verified by our senses. It is the reality of God's world. Look at the center where Jesus is. The physical gaze cannot perceive it. Only the look of the believer can contemplate the truth of a person's story who has led a life of love in this world.
Jesus pronounced a beatitude about the eyes that can see beyond the material world: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." They will see the invisible. This is the possibility for those who have a pure heart. To see the invisible it is necessary to have a heart linked only to God and separated from the idols of this world. He who has a heart attached to material goods thinks of nothing else and abandons himself to licentiousness, to moral corruption. They will never be able to 'see' beyond the physical reality. They will not have this second look which belongs only to the believer who has a pure heart, who can see the world of God.
What do we see in that painting that represents the invisible world? It is Jesus who holds his mother in his arms who has just been born, as a little girl. It is the beginning of the second part of her life: the definitive one. This is the destiny of the human being: to be born twice. And the second time is the last, the definitive, because it enters the world of heaven, of eternity. It is not about this life lasting forever. It is a completely new life after the gestation that takes place in this world. This is what has happened to Mary and we can contemplate it in this icon.
Now we can stop and reflect in these two births. In the first image we see Jesus who, when he arrived in this world, was received in the arms of Mary. Then, at Easter, has preceded his mother in the glory of heaven. And in the other icon we see the birth of Mary, received in heaven in the arms of her son.
Let's go back to the theme of our feast. The reflection of the believers on the fate of Mary after her death has developed over the centuries and has led to the faith of her assumption, that was defined by Pius XII on November 1, 1950.
Let us listen to the words of the definition of this dogma:
"The immaculate Mother of God, always virgin, at the end of the earthly life, was assumed to the heavenly glory in soul and body."
Regarding the definition we have just heard, it is important to note two things.
The first: this definition does not affirm that Mary was assumed to heaven, as if it were a displacement in space or a rapture of her body from the grave to the abode of God. The definition mentions Mary 'assuming to the heavenly glory'.
‘Heavenly glory’ is not a place but the new condition where Mary has entered upon concluding her pilgrimage in this world, and has begun for her the glory in the world of God. Mary did not go to another place with her fragile remains that are destined, like those of all, to return to the dust. She has not abandoned the community of the disciples. She simply changed the way of being with them, just as happened to her son on Easter day.
Mary is no longer conditioned to the limitations of space and time. Therefore, she is always and everywhere near each one. If she were in the condition like when she walked the streets of Palestine, then only some could see her and only those who were by her side; those who were far away could neither see nor hear her. But when Mary entered the heavenly glory, she was no longer subject to the limitations of space and time.
This is the truth: Mary is with us, close to each one of us, anywhere and at any time. Recall that, in the account of the Acts of the Apostles, when Jesus entered into the glory of the Father, presented by Luke as the ‘Ascension' the disciples returned to Jerusalem joyful and happy, not because Jesus is gone, but because Jesus is no longer limited to his physical presence and is now in a condition in which he is always close and always in the midst of the community of his disciples.
What has happened to Christ has happened to Mary. And I add immediately: so happens also with every believer who enters the world of God when he or she finishes his or her pilgrimage on earth. Christ and Mary have preceded us in the glory of heaven.
A second observation: the dogma does not say that this assumption to the celestial glory is reserved to Mary. It is not a 'privileged', but is presented to all believers as the great model, as the sign of the destiny that awaits each person.
So what does this dogma mean? Does it mean that Mary's body has not suffered corruption? Or that only she and Jesus are in heaven in the flesh, while the other deceased would be in heaven only with their souls waiting for a happy meeting with their bodies? It is difficult to accept such a presentation concerning this dogma.
Paul in the letter to the Corinthians, calls 'afron' - 'fool' those who think that the body of the resurrected be made of atoms. He says that the corruptible cannot become incorruptible (1 Cor 15:53). It is a 'resurrected' body, a spiritual body. That is, the whole person, not a piece of the person which enters into heavenly glory. And what has happened to Mary is not reserved only for her. Every child of God, at the time of death, is immediately received with the whole of his or her person and with all his or her history and enters the world of God.
The Bible does not speak of a distinction between soul and body. The Bible knows the indivisible unity of the whole person. What's going on? I will try to translate this thought with an example that may help us.
Imagine a developing fetus in the womb. He has his life, but this life serves to prepare his second life, which will develop in the years spent in this world. Suppose the fetus considers that the life in the womb is the only, the definitive life. And in the life he has in the womb, the lungs have no use and therefore he does not need them. The stomach, the ears, the eyes do not serve him ... he does not need them, they are useless. He does not prepare for the life that will come, when he will need the ears, the eyes, the stomach, the lungs. He is not ready.
In the new life, the fetus enters with all its history: this is the body, the one prepared, not with a soul separated from the body and from the material atoms. Therefore, in the world of God, the person enters with all its history. She has been prepared when she had lived in this world of gestation made of love, which has allowed to develop the 'divine' that remains for all eternity. Let us listen together the Gospel text where Mary sings this great victory that has been realized by him who is 'mighty and whose name is holy.' He alone can give to our bodies, or to every mortal, his very life, immortal life.
“Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.’ “Then Mary said, ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. for he has looked upon his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name. He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, and has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel for he remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever’” (Lk 1:42-55).
In our world, we are faced in a dramatic duel between the forces of life and the forces of death. Pains, illnesses, old-age ailments, are the incursions that herald the last assault of that terrifying dragon that is death. In the end, this struggle between the force of life and the force of death becomes unequal and the struggle is for some years, but in the end death always catches its prey.
Then we ask ourselves: God lover of life, does he remain impassive to this defeat of the creatures that have his image imprinted in their faces? And the answer to this, which is the most disturbing of the questions, is presented to us today in Mary.
We are invited to contemplate in her the triumph of the God of life. Facing the evidence of death and the corruption of a body in the tomb, it takes a lot of courage to believe that the Lord is the God of life, and to wait in a life beyond the biological life.
At the feast today Mary is marked as one who has always relied on God and presents the destiny of those who believe in the fulfillment of the word of the Lord. We have the cry of joy of Mary: "The Almighty has done great things for me.” This expression: 'great things' is used in the bible to present the extraordinary interventions of God. It is not that he is the omnipotent one who can do what he wants, as we imagine. It is called: 'hotóngates': the powerful, the only one who is able to defeat death.
Today is celebrated in Mary this prodigious intervention of God. The one who loves cannot abandon the beloved person in hell, in the realm of death. The psalmists had already intuited it. For example, the psalmist who composed Psalm 16 concludes by saying: "You, my God, you cannot allow your faithful (the Hebrew text says 'hasid ha' meaning 'your lover') You cannot allow your lover to remain in death" (Psalm 16:10).
We are loved, how can the God of life allow the one who has been his companion of love disappear forever? You, God, will show me the meaning of life and will be endless glory in your presence. The psalmist does not have the light of Easter, but he has intuited that a lover cannot abandon the loved one to be a prey of death. And he says: You, Lord, will show me the way to escape the sepulcher because you cannot be without me as I cannot be without you.
He intuited the reasons that, as Dostoyevsky said 'if there is a God, I am immortal'. In her song, Mary attributes this extraordinary work of God to his mercy. 'Mercy' is a term that does not explain well the meaning it has in the Bible. It is visceral involvement of God's love for humanity, which leads God to donate to man his own immortal life.
Then the song of Mary goes on to mention seven interventions of this God in love with the life of man. 'He has shown the strength of his arm'—only his arm could bring down that monster that is death.
'He has scattered the arrogant'—the arrogant are those who look at others from top to bottom and create a world of death. What does God do? The God of life disperses them. It does not mean that He humiliates or oppresses them, but He makes them disappear.
He turns them all to his love. All are transformed into humble servants of their brothers and sisters. He disperses the arrogant, because they belong to the realm of death. And God is the God of life. And Mary in her song raises a hymn to praise Him for what He has done.
She has made the experience. 'Brings down the mighty from the throne and lifts up the humble,' the last ones. And so, the Lord of life puts an end to that comedy in which people struggle to seize and create the realm of death.
"Fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty." It is not a threat of punishment; it is the proclamation of salvation. The ancient world, the realm of death is reduced to nothingness. The Lord's powerful arm has created a new world in which every form of death is eliminated.
This is the total victory of the love of the Lord that we celebrate today in Mary. Victory has not been realized only in her, but in every person, because God cannot abandon any of his sons or daughters as prey to death. He welcomes all in his glory, as he has done with Mary, at the same moment when our pilgrimage in this world is concluded.
I wish you all a happy day today. In Mary we have contemplated our destiny: The definitive life that awaits us in the world of God. And this feast of today with friends, with banquet, will have a different flavor and glory if we have this second look that allows us to see in Mary our destiny.