When I was in seminary, one of my professors used to say that he could only keep track of when each Marian dogma was defined by recalling that it was in the 1950s that the first unmanned space flights were launched. “That helps me remember that the Assumption of Mary was dogmatically defined in 1950,” he said, “because I picture her being launched into space like a rocket.”
It is easy to ridicule the Marian dogmas, particularly from within Anglicanism, where less is more, and we only have to believe what the Bible says and the creeds confirm. The teaching of Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven is not antithetical to Scripture, but it also cannot be proven from it. There are passages like Psalm 131:8, Psalm 44:10-14, and Revelation 12 that can be interpreted to point towards Mary’s Assumption, but they can hardly be called irrefutable evidence. The fact is, Mary’s Assumption is not discernible from Scripture alone, and, for that reason, it has long seemed silly to some people that we should be compelled to believe in it as an article of faith.
While some Christians object to any sort of veneration of Mary out of fear that it will obscure the proper devotion due to her Son, a lot of people today write off things like the Assumption because they simply do not see the point of it. Why go in for this extra-biblical story? What does it get us that believing in Christ alone does not win for us already? Why does there need to be a Feast of the Assumption and not simply a Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin, as the 1979 Book of Common Prayer renames it?
A lot of people find Marian piety to be hokey, sentimental, and overly spiritualized, yet what is most fascinating to me about both of the Marian dogmas (the Assumption, and the Immaculate Conception) is just how very earthy and fleshly they are. Both dogmas are concerned with Mary’s body and what happens to it, and the Assumption is particularly concerned with how the flesh of Mary has been sanctified by the flesh of Christ. Because the incarnate Son of God was born from her womb, Mary’s whole being, including her body, was made holy. Therefore, her body could not be left to decay the way other bodies do. It was the biological bond between Jesus and his mother that cleared the way for her Assumption.
In his apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus that defined the dogma, Pope Pius XII quotes a number of the saints to make this point, including Saint Alphonsus who said:
Jesus did not wish to have the body of Mary corrupted after death, since it would have redounded to his own dishonor to have her virginal flesh, from which he himself had assumed flesh, reduced to dust.
One of the great blessings of Catholic Christianity is that it affirms both the earthiness and the enchantment of the world we live in. There is no shying away from the stark realities of our physicality. People bleed in this world. The Son of Man sweats. Worshippers bow and gesture. The saints pluck their beards and nurse their babies.
Yet the world is also full of magic that we can only just barely grasp. Light and darkness are tangible realities. Beauty transcends its own apprehension and points to something far greater beyond itself. Holy water applied to the forehead transforms you. An hour in front of a consecrated host can change your life.
Our bodies are not like Mary’s. When we die, they will be left to rot. Yet the promise of the Assumption, much like the Resurrection, is that what God has touched cannot be destroyed. We feel the effects of sin in our bodies as we grow older, as we become sick and our aches and pains multiply. We feel the strain of our limitations, yet we know that there is more to the story than that. Our bodies are magic. Sin is a diabolical lie that has been pulled tight over the surface of our limbs, but when Jesus touches it, the lie will break apart and we will find our bodies transformed into glorious icons of Christ.
Why is it good to believe that Mary was assumed? It is good because it points to the goodness of our bodies, as well as our souls, if we have Christ within us.
It is good because it means that when God took on human flesh, it was not just an act. It had real consequences. It changed the very being of Mary to carry Jesus in her womb, just as it changes our very being whenever we receive his Body and Blood on our tongues.
The teaching of the Assumption is good because it shows us the goodness of Jesus himself, as well as the long hidden goodness of the world God spoke into being through him, the world that he came to redeem and recover.
The featured image of the high altar of Chartres Cathedral was taken by Zachary Guiliano in 2013.