Back in 1950, Pope Pius XII solemnly defined the dogma of The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, ‘brought body and soul to the highest glory of heaven’. Seventy years on, what will we make of the feast as it is kept in our churches this Sunday?
I could certainly make no sense of it at all as a young man. What use to me were clouds of glory? Wasn’t this ‘world-denying’ in the worst sense? To my juvenile mind the feast seemed to dismiss the life I loved as just the ‘vale of tears’ from which we ‘poor banished children of Eve’ must yearn to escape. Mary, being perfect, got her ‘get out of jail free’ card (and, according to the artworks, seemingly still looking pretty good for her age). But what use was that to me? And where did the body ‘go’?
My assessment of the feast could not have been more wrong, I think – even if most painted depictions of it still leave me cold. The dogma states the very opposite of what I had read into it then. It is neither about Mary attaining escape velocity as she ‘cast off this mortal coil’ nor even about her sidestepping death. The Eastern title for the feast is, after all, the ‘Dormition’ of the Mother of God. She also knew the sleep of death, as did her Son before her. But like him she knew it sinlessly, hence sharing fully from the get-go in his Risen Life.
These are revolutionary thoughts, not pretty pieties. From now on death is to be seen as no mere husking to release ‘the soul’, no winnowing away of the chaff of physicality. With Mary, created matter is drawn fully into redemption and into the eternal life of the Trinity. If the Incarnation made the Covenant bond of God and humankind unbreakable, the Assumption of Mary shows our humble humus eternally enthroned as (to quote the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins) ‘immortal diamond’.
In the light of the Assumption, no Christian spirituality which dismisses the physical realm can be seen as adequate (or even orthodox). No expression of hope which seeks only ‘flight from the world’ can be seen as true. With Mary, the whole of our humanity has been raised body and soul into the presence of God. True piety means a radical commitment to care for the whole person and the whole planet. For we are daughters and sons of the second Eve, and our song is her Magnificat.
Fr Rob Esdaile is Parish Priest of Our Lady of Lourdes, Thames Ditton.