Let’s ponder this feast in three stages.
I. Explained – To be “assumed” means to be taken up by God bodily into Heaven. As far back as the Church can remember we have celebrated the fact that Mary was taken up into Heaven. We do not just acknowledge that her soul was taken to Heaven as is the case with all the rest of the faithful who are taken there (likely after purgation). Rather, Mary was taken up soul AND body into Heaven after her sojourn on this earth was complete. There is no earthly tomb containing her body; neither are there relics of her body to be found among the Christian faithful. This is our ancient memory and what we celebrate today: Mary was taken up body and soul into Heaven.
II. Exemplified – The actual event of Mary’s Assumption is not described in Scripture. However, there are other assumptions recorded in the Scriptures, thus the concept itself is biblical.
- It happened to Enoch in the Old Testament. The Book of Genesis records: Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away (Gen. 5:24). Hebrews 11:5 elaborates: By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was attested as having pleased God.
- It also happened to Elijah as he walked with Elisha: And as they still went on and talked, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven … And he was seen no more. (2 Kings 2:11 ).
- Some say that Moses, too, was taken up since his grave is not known: He was buried in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is (Dt. 34:6). The text of course does not say that his body was taken up, and even if it was, it occurred after death and burial. Jude 1:9 hints at that fact when it says, But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses … (Jude 1:9). Some further credibility is lent to the view of Moses being assumed by the fact that he appears alongside Elijah in the Transfiguration account. Some of the Church Fathers held this view and there is also a Jewish work from the 6th Century AD entitled The Assumption of Moses that represents the tradition of Moses’ assumption. But in the end the assumption of Moses is a view held only by some, and it not officially held by the Church.
- And while it is true that the historical event of Mary’s Assumption is not recorded in Scripture nor are there historical accounts of the event, there may be one other scriptural account that evidences Mary’s whereabouts, body and soul. The Church presents for our consideration in today’s second reading a passage from the Book of Revelation wherein John records his sighting of the Ark of God:
Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm. A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads … The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter (Rev 11:19 – 12:5).
The woman is clearly Mary since the child is clearly Jesus. And where is Mary seen? In Heaven. Now some may argue that this passage does not necessarily indicate that her body is in Heaven but rather may only be referring to her soul. However, the physical description of her in the text is rather strong. Some also argue that Mary is linked to John’s sighting of the Ark of the Covenant, which is seen by John in Heaven. He mentions the Ark and goes on to describe the woman clothed with the sun (Mary) and there is a possibility that he is still describing the Ark. (I have written on this elsewhere: Mary: The Ark of the New Covenant.) If Mary is the Ark described, then she is in Heaven, since the Ark is clearly described as being in Heaven.
So the biblical record, while not recording the event of the Assumption of Mary, does set forth other assumptions and thus shows that assumption itself is a biblical concept. Further, Mary’s physical presence in Heaven seems to be hinted at by John and some would argue that the passage actually attests to her physical presence there.
But remember, the Church does not rely solely on Scripture. In this case what we celebrate is most fundamentally taught to us by Sacred Tradition in that the memory of Mary’s Assumption goes back as long as we can remember.
III. Extended – The Feast of the Assumption may be of theological interest to some and may provide for interesting biblical reflection, but eventually the question is bound to arise: “So what? How does what happened to Mary affect my life and what does it mean for me?” The answer to this question is bound up in nearly every Marian doctrine. Simply put, what happened to Mary, in a profound and preliminary way, will also happen to us in the end. As Mary bore Christ into the world, we too bear him there in the Holy Communion we receive and in the witness of his indwelling presence in our life. As Mary is (and always was) sinless, so too will we one day be sinless (immaculate) with God in Heaven. As Mary cared for Christ in His need, so do we care for Him in the poor, the suffering, the needy, and the afflicted. And as Mary was assumed body and soul into Heaven, so too will we be there one day, both body and soul.
For now, our soul goes to Heaven (once purified) but our body lies in a tomb. But one day when the trumpet shall sound, on that “great gettin’ up morning,” our body will rise and be joined to our soul:
For we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” … Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:51-57).
So our body shall be assumed, shall rise and be joined to our soul.
Improved model! An older woman once said to me (upon hearing that her body would rise): “Father if this old body has to rise, I’m hoping for an improved model!” Yes indeed! Me too! I want my hair back, my slender figure to return, and I want knees that work! I want to upgrade from a general issue version to a luxury model. And God will in fact do that. Scripture says,
- He will take these lowly bodies of ours and transform them to be like his own glorified body (Phil 3:21).
- But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body … So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; … And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven (1 Cor 15:35-49).
- Yes, we shall also be taken up—assumed—and then shall be fulfilled for us the saying of Job, I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another ‘s (Job 19:25-27).
The assumption of our bodies, prefigured by Christ in His own power and also in Mary by the gift of God, will one day be our gift, too. For now, though, it waits till that “great gettin’ up morning.” Until that day and on that day, fare you well; fare you well!
This song is an African-American Spiritual and speaks of that “great gettin’ up morning” when our bodies will rise. And if we have been faithful they will rise to glory!
I’m gonna tell you about the coming of the judgment (Fare you well) There’s a better day a coming … In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well! Oh preacher fold your Bible, For the last soul’s converted … Blow your trumpet Gabriel … Lord, how loud shall I blow it? Blow it right calm and easy Do not alarm all my people … Tell them to come to the judgment … In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well. Do you see them coffins bursting? Do you see them folks is rising? Do you see the world on fire? Do you see the stars a falling? Do you see that smoke and lightning? Do you hear the rumbling thunder? Oh Fare you well poor sinner. In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well.