Since the days when Mass was celebrated over the mangled corpses of the martyrs in the Catacombs of the Roman Empire, Christians have paid honour to the bodily remains of the saints. In venerating their relics we acknowledge in a practical way the incarnationalcharacter of our Catholic Faith. One of the great treasures of the Church on earth is the wealth of shrines that have risen over the tombs of those Apostles, Martyrs, Virgins, Confessors and Holy Men and Women of God.
There is, however, one saint for whom we find no resting place and no mortal remains. And She happens to be the greatest saint of them all. Catholics have never even bothered to look for the bodily remains of the Mother of God. This is because the Church has always known that Her body is in Heaven, where She was assumed, body and soul, at the end of Her earthly life.
This is not just a pious belief, to be taken or left according to whether we happen to find it ‘useful’ to our spirituality. The Church has declared this great Mystery to be de Fide and part of Her infallible teaching. Furthermore, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is not merely some mystical trans-historical phenomenon. It is an actual fact. It is just as factual as the Norman Conquest or the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.
It is true, of course, that the doctrine of the Assumption was only given the official stamp of dogmatic infallibility in the middle of the last century by the Venerable Pope Pius XII. But that solemn definition was essentially a formality – the official and definitive recognition of a belief that Christians have held and cherished since the Apostolic age. The Church was declaring to the world that this event forms part of the contents of Her memory – a memory that is maintained in its freshness by the indwelling of the Holy Ghost.
But in another sense the definitive promulgation of that dogma in Munificentissimus Deusin 1950 could not have been more opportune. In an increasingly sceptical world it exploded like a bolt of divine lightening across the firmament. In an age when even many Catholics were about to start reducing the Church’s role to the level of social activism, the solemn declaration of the Dogma of the Assumption was, and remains, a powerful reminder of the profoundly supernatural character of our holy Catholic Faith. It points us to Heaven, and shows us that our lives here, however enormous their consequences for our immortal souls, are less than the flutter of an eyelid when compared with the eternal reality that awaits us in the life to come.
We do not know how long Our Lady remained on earth after the Ascension of Our Lord. But we can safely assume that the time between His Ascension and Her Assumption must have been for Her a period of intense longing for reunion with that beloved Son. During Her life, She had participated in His joys and in His sufferings with an intensity that we cannot imagine. Now She would share in His glory like no-one else. No more the dread of separation; but, for evermore, the complete bliss of union with Him in Heaven, where henceforth She would reign as Queen.
Heaven must the ultimate venue for reunions. Our Lady’s entry there is a sign of something that awaits everyone who leaves this world in a state of grace. It is a reminder that not only our souls but also our bodies have been created to share in that glory, in a wonderful reunion of spirit and flesh. It is an article of the Faith enshrined in the Creed that after Our Lord returns to the earth in glory our bodies will be raised from the grave to share in our eternal destiny. Our Lady’s body was the immaculate Ark of the Covenant. Through Baptism our bodies have been made living temples of the Holy Ghost. This means that how we live in our bodies really matters, and will in fact determine whether we shall enter Heaven or not.
In these days of anxiety and uncertainty, it should encourage us to know that our true home lies in Heaven, and that we have been created to participate in this glory on every level of our being, soul and body. Our Lady’s presence there, along with Her Beloved Son, in their own bodies, should bring Heaven closer to us. It means that Heaven is not just a state of disembodied existence. It is a real place.
Meanwhile Our Lord gives us a wonderful foretaste of our encounter with Him in Heaven. It is in receiving Holy Communion that we come to the most intimate union with Him that is possible in this life. In the Blessed Sacrament we partake of His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. In this month of the Assumption, let us make it our prayer that anticipation of the heavenly food that we receive at the altar will fill us with the same longing that possessed Our Lady after Our Lord’s Ascension until Her own entry into glory. And may Our Lady Assumed into Heaven guide and protect us, and intercede for us along every step of the way.
Fr Julian Large