ASSUMPTION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY-AUGUST 15
THE LORD OF LIFE HAS DONE GREAT THINGS FOR US
Mary is remembered for the last time in the New Testament at the beginning of the book of Acts: in prayer, surrounded by the apostles and the first Christian community (Acts 1:14). Then this sweet and reserved woman leaves the scene, as silent and discreet as she had entered, and we know nothing more about her; the canonical texts do not mention where she spent the last years of her life or how she left this earth. From the sixth century onwards, numerous versions of a single theme, the Dormition of Our Lady, spread among Christians.
These apocryphal texts hand down a series of news about Mary's last days and her death. These are folk tales, mostly romanticized, but their original nucleus, dating back to the second century and composed in the context of the Mother Church of Jerusalem, also contains some reliable information. After Easter, Mary most likely lived in Jerusalem, on Mount Zion, perhaps in the same house where her son had celebrated the Last Supper with the apostles.
When the time came for her to leave this world—and here begins the legendary aspect of the apocryphal stories—a heavenly messenger appeared to her and announced her imminent transit. From the most remote lands, the apostles, miraculously transported on clouds, arrived at her bedside, conversed tenderly with her, and remained at her side until the moment when Jesus with a host of angels came to take her soul.
They then accompanied her body in procession to the Cedron stream and deposited it in a tomb hewn out of the rock. This is probably a historical detail. Since the first century, her grave, near the cave of Gethsemane, has been continuously venerated. In the fourth century, it was isolated from the others and enclosed in a church.
Three days after his burial—and here the legendary news resumes—Jesus appeared again to take his body that the apostles had continued to watch over. He ordered the angels to take her to the clouds and the apostles to accompany her. The clouds went towards the east, towards Paradise and, having arrived in the kingdom of light, amidst the songs of the angels and the most delicious perfumes, they deposited her next to the tree of life.
These fictional details have no historical value, but they do testify, through images and symbols, to the developing devotion of the Christian people to the mother of the Lord.
These fictional details have no historical value. However, through images and symbols, they bear witness to the developing devotion of the Christian people for the mother of the Lord. Believers' reflection on Mary's fate after death continued to develop down the centuries, led to faith in her Assumption and, on November 1, 1950, to the papal definition: ‘The Immaculate Conception, Mother of God, ever virgin, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed into heavenly glory in body and soul.’
What does this dogma mean? Perhaps that Mary's body did not undergo corruption or that only she and Jesus would be in heaven in the flesh, while the other deceased would be in heaven only with their souls, awaiting reunion with their bodies? This naive and gross conception of Jesus' ascension and Mary's assumption—besides being a legacy of Greek dualistic philosophy and contradicting the Bible which considers humans an inseparable unity—is positively excluded by Paul who, writing to the Corinthians, makes it clear that it is not the material body that rises, but "a spiritual body" (1 Cor 15:44).
The text of the papal definition does not speak of ‘assumed into heaven’—as if there had been a shift in space or a ‘rapture’ of her body from the tomb to God's dwelling place—but says: ‘assumed into heavenly glory.’ The ‘heavenly glory’ is not a place but a new condition. Mary did not go to another place, taking with her the fragile remains that are destined to return to dust, she did not abandon the community of disciples who continue to walk as pilgrims in this world; she changed the way she was with them, as her son did on Easter Day.
Mary—the ‘handmaid of the Lord’—is presented today to all believers not as a privileged one, but as the most exalted model, as the sign of the destiny that awaits every person who believes "in the fulfillment of the words of the Lord" (Lk 1:45).
In the world, the forces of life and death confront each other in a dramatic duel. Sorrow, sickness, and the aches and pains of old age are the skirmishes that announce the last assault of the frightful dragon. In the end, the fight becomes unequal, and death always grabs its prey. Does God, the lover of life, impassively witness this defeat of the creatures who have his image imprinted on their faces? The answer to this question is given to us today in Mary. In her, we are invited to contemplate the triumph of the God of life.
To internalize the message, today we will repeat:"O God, lover of life, you do not abandon anyone in the tomb."
First Reading: Revelation 11:19; 12:1-6.10
God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant could be seen in the temple. A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems. Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth. She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne. The woman herself fled into the desert where she had a place prepared by God. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have salvation and power come, and the Kingdom of our God and the authority of his Anointed One.”
The scene that unfolds before the eyes of the seer of Revelation is grandiose, and today we are invited to contemplate and interpret it. In the sky, that is, in God's world, two signs appear. The first is qualified as ‘great’: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She is pregnant, cries out in labor pains, and gives birth to a son. The second sign is an enormous red dragon, a gigantic serpent flushed with blood, endowed with frightening strength—symbolized by seven heads, ten horns, and seven diadems.
It drags down from the sky a third of the stars with its tail and hurls them down to earth. Then it stands before the woman who is giving birth and tries to devour her newborn child. It is in a hurry because it knows that this child "is destined to rule all nations with a scepter of iron."
God intervenes, takes the son, and carries him to heaven, while the woman seeks refuge in the desert where she remains for three and a half years, fed by the Lord. A titanic battle then breaks out. In heaven, on one side Michael and his angels, on the other side the great dragon with his angels. The great dragon, the ancient serpent, the one who is called the devil, Satan, seducer of the whole earth, fell to earth, and with him, his angels fell as well (vv. 7-9).
The scene of this battle is not reported in our reading, which concludes with the victory song, sung in heaven by a mysterious voice, at the end of the terrifying clash: "Now salvation and the kingdom of our God has been accomplished."
After this overview, we can make a more detailed analysis of the passage. This page was composed towards the end of the first century, at a difficult time for Christian communities tempted to apostatize because of the abuse, harassment, and persecution they were subjected to. The author addresses them in a deliberately cryptic way so as not to incur the reprisals of power. He uses images and symbols that his readers who know the Old Testament can immediately decode.
First, we ask ourselves who is the male child who is given birth. The destiny that awaited him and referred to in the quotation from Psalm 2:9 leaves no doubt about his identity. Throughout the New Testament, the one called to shepherd all peoples with a rod of iron is always Christ. If he is the child who is about to be born, then the woman can only be Mary. This is the most straightforward and most immediate interpretation, and in fact, Our Lady is often depicted as bright as the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.
In reality, the Christian communities—who deciphered the symbolism of the text in the light of the Old Testament—were not thinking of Mary, but of the people of God, who in the Bible is personified by the woman, fruitful wife of the Lord, mother of the Messiah. Here the woman represents the Christian community; she embodies the faithful remnant of Israel. She is clothed with the sun, a star which, because of its splendor and magnificence, was considered the symbol of all that is beautiful (Song 6:10) and of God himself (Ps 84:12).
The Christian community, loved by the Lord and filled with his most precious gifts, is splendid because it shines a divine light. The moon was, among the peoples of the ancient Middle East, the god whose phases of growth and decline related to time changing. In our text, this moon god is crushed by the community of believers. This community is not subject to the conditioning of time; it is not at the mercy of the vicissitudes of this transitory world because it is already in the world of the Eternal. The crown on the head indicates triumph. In God's perspective, the Church has already achieved ultimate victory over evil. The twelve stars highlight its identity: it is the true Israel that fulfills the promises made to Abraham.
The second sign also appears in heaven, that is, in God's world. It is an enormous red dragon that opposes the birth of the child. It is the symbol of all the forces hostile to God embodied in the centers of power. They have three characteristics: they are perfect in planning evil (they have seven heads), they are monstrous in strength but not invincible (they have ten horns), they triumph, they receive honors and recognition from all (they have seven diadems).
These diabolical structures are opposed to the child from the day of his birth. However, it must be made clear that the birth of Christ referred to by the seer of Revelation is not the birth of Mary in Bethlehem, but Easter. That is the moment when Christ, being born from the tomb, appeared to the world as the Messiah of God. Immediately the powers of evil came against him, but he is unreachable: the Father has welcomed him in his glory.
The dragon's head is crushed—struck to death by the divine power of the Risen One (Michael is none other than God himself)—it is definitively defeated but still struggles and with its tail manages to drag to earth a third of the stars of heaven. These stars do not represent the angels, but the Christians of Asia Minor who, shocked and disoriented, cannot resist the seductions of the Evil One, deny their faith and abandon their communities in great numbers.
The woman who flees and seeks refuge in the desert is the people of God who have not succumbed to the lure and power of the dragon. The Lord puts her to the test, as he did with Israel. He puts her in the condition in which she can show God the authenticity of his love, and He does not abandon her, assists her with his manna: the bread of the Word and the Eucharist. One thousand two hundred and sixty days corresponds to three and a half years, the time that, according to the prophet Daniel (Dn 7:25), indicates the duration of very painful but brief persecution.
At this point, a conclusion must be drawn: if the child is Christ and the woman is not Mary, but the community of believers, then the son Christ is born of the Church. This is indeed the case, and this is the moving message that the author wishes to convey to the discouraged Christians of his communities. He invites them to become aware of their sublime identity. Day after day, with toil, pain, and during trials of every kind, they give birth to the new man, Christ, in the history of the world.
Paul was aware of this maternal mission when he wrote to the Galatians: "My children, for whom I am again in labor until Christ be formed in you!" (Gal 4:19). Violence, lies, and cruelty make one suffer, but they cannot frighten the believer because they are not omens of death but unavoidable pains of a difficult birth.
If the woman is not Mary but the community, why does the liturgy propose this passage to us on the feast of the Assumption? All the texts—both in the Old and in the New Testament—which speak of God's faithful people can be rightly referred to Mary because it is from her that the Messiah was born; she is the woman-Israel.
The invitation addressed to us today is to look to her, to the way she carried out her mission as a mother. By looking at her, the Church discovers her own identity as the begetter of the total Christ, the One who will recapitulate all creation in Himself.
The final song, "Now salvation is accomplished," is an invitation to hope. Despite the overwhelming power that the forces of evil still display, the believer knows that the 'power of Christ has already defeated the dragon;' its tail strokes will still be terrifying, but its head has been crushed—as God predicted from the beginning of the world (Gen 3:15).
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:20-26
Brothers and sisters:
Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through man, the resurrection of the dead came also through man. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order: Christ the first fruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ; then comes the end, when he hands over the Kingdom to his God and Father, when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death, for “he subjected everything under his feet.”
The Christians in Corinth were firmly convinced that Christ had risen. However, some of them had serious difficulties in admitting the resurrection of all the dead. The case of Jesus, they believed, was a special and exclusive one, a kind of an exception to the destiny of death which all people share. It is to these doubtful people that Paul addresses himself in the last part of his letter: "If there is no resurrection of the dead," he says, "then neither has Christ been raised" (1 Cor 15:13).
His reasoning is simple: if Christ has not succeeded in ultimately defeating the most terrible of his adversaries, then he is not the Lord of the universe, but his enemy, death, is the ruler.
At this point, our reading begins with a solemn affirmation: the resurrection of Christ is not unique, but it is the firstfruits followed by the abundant harvest, represented by the whole of humanity. Christ did not eliminate biological death: man's organism eventually wears out like that of every living being. He conquered death by depriving it of its lethal sting (1 Cor 15:55), transforming it into a birth. This is the victory we sing about on Easter night.
Today we celebrate the liberation from death wrought by God in Mary. We celebrate because in her we contemplate the dawn of the new humanity because what God accomplished in her is the destiny that awaits us all.
Gospel: Luke 1:39-56
Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and 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. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” And Mary said: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for meand 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 has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever." Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
In the face of the evidence of death and the corruption of a body in the tomb, it takes great courage to believe that the Lord is the God of life and hopes for life beyond life. In today's feast, we are offered as a model, the one who has always trusted God.
Elizabeth proclaims her blessed because she believed in the fulfillment of the Lord's words (v. 45). Mary responds to her by raising a hymn of praise to the Lord. Every evening the Christian community sings this hymn after Vespers to keep alive in all the faithful, perhaps disturbed by the vicissitudes of the day, the gaze of faith with which Mary was able to read the events of her life and the history of her people.
It begins with a cry of exultation: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord" (v. 47). Literally, the expression sounds: 'I render the Lord great.' Our heart tends to make us imagine him as small, modeling him according to our meanness and shortcomings: a God who is generous with the good and angry, an implacable executioner, with those who transgress his orders, just as we are. Mary has a pure gaze; she has experienced the immensity of God's love, she has understood that He makes his sun shine on the wicked and the good; for this reason, she feels the irrepressible need to proclaim his greatness.
Whoever assimilates Mary's gaze and discovers that the Lord loves humankind unconditionally exults—as she did—in God his savior. One rejoices because salvation does not depend on our abilities and good works but is anchored in God's unfailing fidelity. This certainty puts an end to the anxieties awakened by the desire to build one's perfection and is the source of inner serenity, peace, and boundless joy.
After having magnified the Lord, Mary clarifies the reason why she raises a hymn of praise to him: "For he has looked upon his handmaid's lowliness" (v. 48). God's gaze is not drawn to man's moral qualities and virtues, but his poverty, to his need to be enriched with the gifts of heaven. Mary knows that she is a wonderful woman, but she has no reason to boast; she is aware that she has no merit and recognizes that everything in her is a gift from the Lord.
To the angel of the annunciation, she had said: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord;" in her song of praise, the self-presentation returns to her lips: I am the handmaid. It is the title of honor that the Bible reserves for those who have placed their lives at God's disposal.
Generations will proclaim her blessed because looking at her, those who are despised because of their distressing condition, physical or moral, will cease to feel defeated and rejected by God. They will realize that they are in the ideal condition to become the recipients of the Lord's tenderness.
"The Mighty One has done great things for me" (v. 49). Great things is the expression with which the Bible presents the extraordinary interventions of God: "He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted" (Job 5:9). He is not the omnipotent one who can do whatever he wants; he is the Mighty One who respects the laws of creation and people's freedom and always manages to perform unexpected and surprising wonders of love.
Now begins the second part of the song (vv. 50-55), in which Mary reviews the Lord's wonderful works of love. First of all, she clarifies why he is so attentive and caring. He generously distributes his benefits because he is merciful: "His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him" (v. 50). Merciful to us is the one who is moved by misfortune, pain, and the plight of the poor and those afflicted by misfortune. Yet this feeling would be in vain if it did not move us to intervene in favor of those in need of help.
In the Bible, God presents himself as "merciful and forgiving" (Ex 34:6). The Hebrew terms are used to express an intense and profound emotion—that which a mother feels for the child she is carrying—and the action that this feeling determines, the irresistible impulse to come to the aid of the loved one. Throughout the centuries, those who fear the Lord, that is, those who have trusted him and his word, have always experienced his tenderness and care.
The song goes on to list seven of God's saving interventions.
"He has shown might with his arm" (v. 51). The Bible often mentions the arm of God, a symbol of the strength with which he intervenes to free the oppressed, protect the weak, protect those who are abused. Mary knows the history of her people and remembers that the Lord went into Egypt to choose Israel "by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm" (Deut 4:34). She is not even touched by the doubt that evil can prevail over good, lies over truth, abuse over righteousness, arrogance over meekness. She knows that the arm of the Lord holds firmly in its hand the destinies of the world and the life of every man.
"He dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart" (v. 51). With this term, the Bible indicates the insolent, uninterested in God, speak with arrogance and look down on everyone. Mary promises that the Lord will disperse them. This is not an invitation to wait patiently for God to intervene to strike down and reduce the prevaricators to an object of ridicule. The Lord does not triumph by humiliating those who mock him, but he speaks his word as a father and converts with his love. Mary announces the new world, the world from which the haughty and arrogant are dispersed—they are made to disappear. All are changed into humble servants of their brothers and sisters.
"He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly" (v. 52). History teaches that the strong have always ruled and the weak have been subjugated. Mary knows this. She belongs to a people tyrannized by the great empires. Now, she assures us, God has sided with the poor and set up a revolution; he has overturned the balance of power: the powerful have been overthrown and the poor elevated. Has the moment of revenge arrived? With God's help, will the weak raise their heads, conquer power and subjugate those who have harassed them? If this were the result of divine intervention, we would not be witnessing a new event but only replacing one class of exploiters with another.
God does not enter history to play the protagonist's part in that senseless script that people have always staged. He does not intervene forcefully to change the actors but to introduce a completely different script. Gone is the comedy in which we compete to rise to the top and rule. Now we compete to go down, become servants for love, and become bread for the hungry. Outstanding and worthy of honor is no longer he who sits on the throne, but he sits at the bottom and responds with joy to the requests of those who need him.
This is the true novelty: a new heart given to all, a heart like Christ's, a heart of servants. Will we never see such humanity? Mary is so sure that God will build it that she speaks in the past tense - she has overthrown, she has elevated - as if this prodigious transformation of the world were already accomplished. She remembers, she kept well in mind the word of the heavenly messenger, "Nothing is impossible to God" (Luke 1:37).
"The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty" (v. 53). "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world and all who live in it" (Ps 24:1). If everything belongs to God, people are not masters of anything; they are guests, diners at the table that the generous Father has prepared for his children. He lavishes his gifts so that all may share equally; whoever hoards them for themselves, whoever refuses to share them appropriates goods that are not his or hers, commits theft. Covetousness—the root of all evil (1 Tim 6:10)—leads to hoarding more than necessary and enrichment. This insatiable greed leads to injustice, inequality, discrimination, and a world at odds with God's designs.
Mary sees a new world dawning, a world in which diners share what the Father makes freely available to them, a world where all are satiated with bread, freedom, and love. She has a message of hope for the rich as well: God sends them back empty. It is not a threat of punishment; it is an announcement of salvation. The goods they have accumulated—often through extortion and robbery—have been for them a source of pleasure, but also anguish and anxiety; they have become a cumbersome ballast, a burden that has weighed down their hearts, making them insensitive to the needs of their brothers and sisters.
God sends them back empty, relieving them of the burden of riches, admonishing them that "we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it" (1 Tim 6:7), making them understand that even if one has an abundance, "life does not consist in an abundance of possessions" (Lk 12:15) and convincing them that "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35).
The song closes with a reflection on God's faithfulness to the promises made to the patriarchs and David (vv. 54-55). Israel is a people that remember. The Lord often invites them not to forget the wonders he has worked and the promises he made to the ancient fathers (Deut 4:9; 7:18). Mary, too—daughter of this people—remembers and is confident that God does not forget the oath he made to Abraham and his descendants. The child she carries in her womb is God's faithful response to the commitments he made to his people.
Not only now, but forever, for eternity—Mary assures us—God will remain faithful. He will never fail in his pact of love with humanity and, indeed, He will not abandon us even in death.