The month of August is bathed in the glorious rays of Our Lady’s Assumption into Heaven. This doctrine of the Faith was only given the official seal of dogmatic infallibility sixty seven years ago by Pope Pius XII. But the definition enshrined in Munificentissimus Deus, which was proclaimed at St Peter’s with all the splendour and majesty of the old papal ceremonies on 1st November 1950, was really a formality. It was the definitive recognition of a belief that Christians had held since the beginning. The Church was proclaiming that the Blessed Virgin’s Assumption had always been part of Her memory of events and belongs to the Deposit of Faith which was entrusted to the Apostles.
We have been given many ways of describing the Church, each of which helps us to understand a different aspect of Her nature and mission. She is the Barque of Peter, the divinely appointed vessel of salvation traversing the stormy seas of history throughout the ages, with the successors of the fisherman at Her helm. She is the Bride of Christ, born from Our Lord’s pierced side on the Cross just as Eve was formed from the side of Adam as he slept in the garden. She is united indissolubly to Her Divine Spouse and waits to greet Him when He returns to earth in Glory at the end of time. She is also the Mystical Body of Christ, into which we are incorporated as living members in our Baptism. Christ is the head of this Body, and from this head flows the supernatural life which unites us into a single whole, just as the soul which is the principle of life unites and animates all of the parts which form a single living organism.
By the time you have finished this sentence, around fifty million of the cells of your body will have died and been replaced (or so the trusting Provost read recently in a scientific journal). The truth is that our cells are dying and being replaced all the time, and yet we retain a continuity of memory and identity throughout a lifetime. Similarly, as the centuries roll on, generations of Catholics die and are replaced within the Church on earth, while all the time the Church retains Her own continuity of memory and identity. This means that when a dogma is proclaimed, She is not teaching anything new. All She is saying is that She was there when Our Lady was taken into Heaven, that She witnessed it happening through the eyes of the Apostles and that She has treasured that precious memory ever since. Dogmas are proclaimed with papal authority in order to clarify confusion and confute error, and, for the edification of the faithful and the glory of God, to ensure and promote authentic devotion to the Mysteries of salvation.
This is certainly not to say that the magnificent promulgation of Munificentissmus Deus was essentially a ‘non-event’. Heaven forbid. In an increasingly sceptical world it shot like a bolt of divine lightning across the firmament. In an age when Christians might be tempted to reduce the role of the Church to social activism, the solemn declaration of the Assumption is a powerful reminder of the profoundly supernatural character of our religion. It raises our hearts and mind to Heaven. Our Lady’s Assumption body and soul into that realm of everlasting bliss, where She reigns as Queen over the Angels and Saints, also brings Heaven much closer to us. If after the Resurrection and Ascension of Our Lord we were left in any doubt about the final destination of our own human bodies, the Blessed Virgin’s Assumption must dispel any doubt. Bodies do not just exist in a state, they exist in a place. In Heaven there are already two bodies that we know of, Our Lord’s and Our Lady’s. This makes Heaven a real place. And there is place there for our bodies as well as our souls.
The Immaculate Virgin is the New Eve because the obedience of Her fiat to the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation ushers in the invincible reversal of the dreadful consequences of Eve’s disobedience when she consented to the temptation of a fallen angel. Death is the result of Adam and Eve’s sin. The Incarnate Word, conceived in Our Lady’s womb at the moment when She uttered the words “Be it done unto me according to Thy word”, has overcome death in His Resurrection, and with the promised reunion of our souls and bodies at the end of time will come the fullness of salvation.
Our Lady’s Assumption has sublime implications for us then, and also for the Church as a whole. The Church on earth is called the Church Militant because we must constantly struggle against temptation and sin in our own hearts and against evils in the world around us. At times it might seem that evil is gaining ground, both because of our own failures and due to public scandals within the Church which inflict horrific damage on Her credibility and mission. The Assumption points us to that glorious moment when the Church Militant on Earth will be perfected and glorified as She is subsumed into the Church Triumphant in Heaven. Meanwhile, we ask the intercession of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven to help us in the task of beautifying the robes of the Bride of Christ with our virtues.
Fr Julian Large