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The Only Logical Conclusion

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary  |  Fr David McLean explains why we celebrate Our Lady's Assumption into heaven, and what this doctrine means. 

Today we are celebrating the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary: the raising of Our Lady, body and soul, at the end of her earthly life, to be with her Son in heaven. It easy to misunderstand the sense of ‘assumption’.We could think along the lines that, since Mary was such a great saint, we assume that she is heaven. That is not quite right though. The assumption is not on our part, but on God’s part. It is not we who make the assumption. It is God who makes the assumption. So perhaps the sense is better understood if we think of God ‘lifting’ Mary into heaven. A slightly different sense of the word ‘assumption’ than the one we often use.

This tendency to be misunderstood is perhaps one of the reasons the feast lends itself to controversy. In addition though, the Assumption’s apparent lack of scriptural foundation, and its comparatively recent declaration as official dogma of the Church in 1950, also tends to fuel the controversy.

The scriptural reference points are certainly scant. The Gospel reading at Mass for today’s feast describes Mary’s visit to her kinswoman Elizabeth. It is the scriptural foundation to another Marian feast: the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We use the Visitation reading, because there is nothing in the gospels that describes the Assumption in the way that the Visitation is described. Elsewhere, Psalm 132, where the Blessed Virgin is interpreted as the “Ark of God” that is taken into heaven, is cited. Along with similar interpretations of Genesis 3:15, 1 Corinthians 15:54, and Revelation 12:1-2, this hardly amounts to an explicit expression of the dogma of the Assumption; on their own, they are not a ringing endorsement.

 It will be no surprise then that those for whom the bible is paramount, for whom nothing can be said without clear biblical justification, the doctrine of the Assumption is not something they are easy with. Even Catholics can be unsure about asserting teaching that is not founded clearly in the bible. Saying that it comes from tradition is not too convincing unless you are someone who has studied the tradition, and can trace its development. Tradition, however, is what we should turn to. Tradition lends support to an interpretation of scripture that supports the dogma of the Assumption. Tradition and scripture considered together, place the dogma of the Assumption on firm foundations.

First of all, we should not be fazed that the Assumption was only declared official dogma in 1950.  It is not the case that the belief and practice were first conceived in 1950. The official declaration in 1950 was the culmination of long held beliefs and practices. In England, pre-reformation art in the York Minster depicts the Assumption. There are multiple apocryphal accounts of belief in the Assumption dating back to at least the 4th century. St John Damascene writes that the Virgin’s empty tomb was attested to at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Pope Saint Leo IV confirmed the feast of the Assumption in the 9th century, but it had already been celebrated for centuries.

 The Assumption was clearly supported by important church people across a wide area from just after the time in which the books of the bible were written. It may even be that the writers of the gospels were aware of the doctrine, but simply didn’t express it explicitly in their writings. It is certainly the case that the Assumption complements what is found in the bible. It doesn’t contradict the bible.

In today's gospel we have a description of the blessed life of the Virgin Mary. A blessed life to which the assumption is an appropriate end, and perhaps the only logical conclusion. It makes sense, that she should be assumed into heaven, as a representative of humanity, where she intercedes for humanity. Our Lady was born without sin, and was perfect in virtue. It is only proper then, that at the end of her earthly life, that she should be raised to heaven, to share in her Son's victory: an assumption that is on offer to the entire human race. Jesus tells us that he has gone to prepare a place for us. Surely, it is right to believe that the Blessed Virgin already has that place.

Apoc 11:19. 12:1-6, 10  |  1 Cor 15:20-26  |  Luke 1:39-56

Photography by Dominic Cunliffe of the Assumption Chapel in our Rosary Shrine church in London.

David McLean O.P.

David McLean O.P.fr. David M. McLean O.P. is a chaplain to the Royal Navy.
david.mclean@english.op.org

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