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The Assumption of Mary

Anthony Kelly CSsR

The Catholic doctrine of the Assumption of Our Lady was solemnly defined in 1950.  This is one more point where, theologically speaking, the intentionality of faith has hurried past its powers of expression. If Mary is declared to be assumed, body and soul, into heaven, then the corporate, historical authority of the Catholic Church is thereby committed to a view of materiality, corporeality, and physicality in a way that is largely beyond our powers of expression, in either conceptual or even imaginative terms.   

It would be of great ecumenical significance if our understandings of the ascension of Christ and the assumption of Mary interacted more positively. In the concrete liturgical unfolding of Catholic tradition, the  ascension of Jesus would be deprived of its salvific significance if left unrelated to the assumption of Mary as cause to effect. Likewise, the assumption, if more clearly connected to the ascension of Christ, would have a clearer ecclesiological and cosmic significance. In what follows, we offer a  few remarks.
In confessing both the ascension of Jesus and the assumption of Marym faith stretches forward and upward. Ambrose of Milan expressed the cosmic sweep of the mystery of Christ with the words, “In Christ’s resurrection, the world arose.  In Christ's resurrection, the heavens arose; in Christ’s
resurrection the earth itself arose’.i In terms of theological significance, the ascension is the completion and expansion of the incarnation.  That enables us to glimpse the connections between the incarnation, the ascension and theuniversal transformation anticipated in the Catholic doctrine of Mary “assumed body and soul into heaven”.  In that context, the assumption of Mary is a concrete symbol of the overbrimming significance of the ascension of Jesus.  Now assumed into the glory of Christ, she is the anticipation of the heaven of a transfigured creation.
In this perspective, Mary is the paradigmatic instance of creation open to, collaborating with, and transformed by, the creative mystery of God in Christ.  As the Mother of Christ, she symbolises the generativity of creation under the power of the Spirit.  In her, as the Advent antiphon has it, “the earth has been opened to bud forth the Saviour”.  In its confession of the assumption, Christian hope finds a particular confirmation.  In Mary, now assumed body and soul into the heaven of God and Christ, our humanity, our world and even our history have reached their divinely-destined term.  She embodies the reality of our world as having received into itself the mystery that is to transform the universe in its entirety.  The seer of the Apocalypse invites his readers to share the vision of “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:1-3).  Such a vision is the background for both a theology of the ascension of the one who uniquely descended from on high, and for Mary’s assumption as the New Eve and her place in the new creation.
In Mary’s assumption, our world is diaphanous to the glory of God, and the great cosmic marriage begins.  The Spirit has brought forth in her the particular beauty of creation as God sees it.  In her, human history has come to its maturity, its age of consent, to surrender to the transcendent love for which it was destined.  Out of such a union, the whole Christ of a transfigured creation is born. Thus, while the focus of Christian hope is in Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension, there is a reprise, as it were, of the paschal mystery in its efficacy.  In the assumption of Mary, the gift of Christ’s  transforming grace has already been received, and attained its transforming effect. The ascended Christ has conformed her to himself, so that she embodies receptivity to the gift of God—who “has raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindnesstowards us in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6-7).

United to Christ, Mary lives and acts, and continues to act, as the Mother of the Church.  In the heaven of Christ, her intercessory prayer and compassionate involvement has a measureless influence.

Assumed into the heaven of her Son, Mary is no longer subject to the  rule of death (1 Cor 15:42-58).  Her transformed existence is no more enclosed  in the physicality of a world undisturbed by the resurrection and the ascension of the crucified One. United to Christ, Mary lives and acts, and continues to act, as the Mother of the Church.  In the heaven of Christ, her intercessory prayer and compassionate involvement has a measureless influence.  Invoked as Mother of the Church, Our Lady Help of Christians, Mother of Mercy or Mother of Perpetual Help, Our Lady of Guadalupe (indeed, in all the invocations of the Litany of Loreto, and more), she is present in the divine realm of boundless life and love.

Mary of Nazareth is the name of an historical person – the Mother of Jesus.  Yet history has no record of her life except through the documents of faith, above all the Gospels of the New Testament.  It is significant in the present context that she has become known to faith only through the immense transformation that took place in the resurrection of her crucified Son, and its impact on human consciousness through faith, hope and love.

Her assumption enables faith to glimpse the “opened heaven” of Jesus’ promise to the disciples in his conversation with Nathanael: “Amen, amen, I say to you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51).  Jesus embodies the open heaven of communication between God and creation.  In Mary’s assumption, the effects of that communication are anticipated in way appropriate to her vocation as Mother of whole Christ, head and members.

In short, the salvific effect of the resurrection and ascension of Christ comes home to the life of faith through the assumption of Mary.  Not to recognise this would leave the theology of the ascension of Christ without its most personal effect. Furthermore, if the assumption of Mary is left disconnected from the ascension of Christ, it can quickly become a devotional “optional extra”, and cease to be feature of the universal and cosmic transformation of all creation in Christ.
On the other hand, in the light of the ascension in which the presence and activity of Christ is viewed, belief in the assumption of the Mother of Christ, body and soul, into heaven cannot but continue to inspire a fresh hearing of this exhortation from the Letter to the Ephesians,

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on the things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you will be revealed with him in glory (Eph3:1-4).                       
i De excessu fratris sui, bk 1. PL 16, 1354.