by Br Julian McDonald cfc
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leapt in her womb. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth cried out: “Blest are you among women and blest is the fruit of your womb”…Then Mary said: “My soul proclaims the greatness of my God…who has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.” Luke 1, 39-56
In November 1950, Pope Pius XII, somewhat unexpectedly, declared the assumption of Mary, body and soul into Heaven, to be an infallible teaching of the Church. The Pope stated: “The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” (Munificentissimus Deus #44). From as early as the sixth century, popular piety had held to the belief that Mary was taken up to heaven immediately after she died. However, there is no mention of this happening in the Gospels or anywhere else in the New Testament. Despite that, Christians from the earliest times have demonstrated fruitful imaginations. There is one story, paralleling Jesus’ Ascension, that tells how Mary was assumed into heaven as all the Apostles, except Thomas, looked on. Predictably, poor Thomas was described as doubting a second time, just as he had reputedly doubted the Resurrection of Jesus. The story adds that, to dissolve his doubt, Mary provided tangible proof by dropping her girdle down from the heavens. Myths and legends associated with Mary and the other saints have been created over the centuries. The renowned Irish-Canadian Anglican preacher and hymn-writer, Herbert O’Driscoll tells a story he heard in his childhood from an elderly Irish farmer: “John Brennan was a dairy-farmer who would sit, every evening after his work, on a large flat stone outside the milking shed. One evening, pointing his pipe up at the stars, he said: “Do you know that the stars and the sun and moon move around all the time?” I said I did. “Well,’’ said John, “do you know how the angel Gabriel came to Mary the mother of our Lord to tell her she would have a child?” I said I did. “Well then,” said John, looking skyward as he spoke, with my eyes following his gaze, “Do you know that when the angel asked Mary if she would bear the holy child, all the stars and the sun and the moon stopped moving until she gave Gabriel her reply? And when she said yes, they all began to move again. Did you know that?” said John triumphantly.
That story is a fitting lead into today’s gospel-reading from Luke, a reading which prompts me to ask myself how the account of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth connects with Mary’s assumption into Heaven. In case you think I have a clear answer, let me tell you that I’m still puzzled. When Pius XII declared Mary’s Assumption as an essential part of our Catholic faith, theologians got busy trying to work out what relevance her assumption into heaven has for the rest of us. The best explanation I have found comes from Hugo Rahner SJ, the older brother of the better-known Karl Rahner (1904-1984) also a Jesuit, and arguably the greatest theologian of the modern era. Mary is often referred to as the first among the disciples of Jesus (a little more about that later). She was certainly a very significant member of the first Christian community and has been dear to all Christians because of her significant role in bringing Jesus into the world as the greatest expression of God’s love for humanity. Hugo Rahner, reflecting on the intimate relationship between Mary and the People of God, asserted that the Assumption of Mary, body and soul, into Heaven is “A foreshadowing of what is to come for the whole Christian community” (that is, for the Church, for all of us)! He went on to say that Mary’s Assumption was a fulfilment of what had already happened to Jesus in his resurrection and Ascension. He concluded that the Assumption is something that is offered to the entire People of God. It is not just a special privilege for Mary: “Thus, the final glory of Mary, which we recognise with the eye of faith, is a recognition of the final glory of the Church” (the People of God, all of us). Hugo Rahner, Our Lady and the Church, Pantheon Books, New York, 1961
Hugo Rahner’s insight echoes Paul’s argument about the resurrection of Jesus in today’s second reading from Corinthians. Some members of the Christian community in Corinth apparently had reservations about the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Paul had no hesitations in calling them to task: “If there is no resurrection from the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, then empty is our preaching; and empty, too, your faith” (1 Corinthians 15, 13-14). He goes on to argue that, while the kingdom of God has begun on earth, it will not reach completion until the final enemy, death, is completely destroyed. Then we will follow him into a new life as our bodies are raised up. But he reminds us that we will have to wait patiently for our turn. This resonates with Hugo Rahner’s reasoning about Mary’s assumption. Mary was as fully human as we are. Her assumption into God’s heavenly kingdom was completely dependent on the resurrection of Jesus (Paul’s argument). It was on account of her role in giving birth to Jesus as a full human being that she was given the privilege of joining her risen Son in glory. That same destiny awaits us. And that is the message underlying Mary’s assumption into Heaven.
Now, back to dairy-farmer Brennan’s story. It’s important for us to remember that the angel Gabriel gave Mary two messages: that she would give birth to a child and that her elderly cousin Elizabeth was already six months pregnant. That second piece of news was enough to prompt Mary to visit Elizabeth. Let’s not forget that the angel had told her not to be afraid and that Mary was as human as we are. We can all remember times when we were gripped by fear. Even though people like our parents tried to comfort and reassure us, we know that our fear didn’t immediately evaporate. A strong emotion like fear does not respond to a directive like “Don’t be afraid”, even if it comes from an angel. The message that she would conceive and give birth to a son surely turned her upside down and filled her with confusion at best, and, very likely, with all kinds of questions and concerns. Falling pregnant before she was married put her at risk of being stoned to death at the entrance to her father’s house (Deuteronomy 22, 2021). Did she decide to go and stay with Elizabeth solely to be a support to her cousin? Did she guess that the older woman would be a support and comfort for her in the dilemma into which her pregnancy had pitched her? Perhaps she was hoping for a second opinion. We are told that she stayed with Elizabeth and Zechariah for three months. Was that so she would be on hand to assist Elizabeth when she reached full term? Could Mary have headed off to join Elizabeth in order to escape the quizzical looks and intrusive questions of her neighbours as her pregnancy became obvious? And, what about Elizabeth and Zechariah? They were elderly and surely knew the risks of a first child being safely delivered by a woman so advanced in age. So, it is little wonder that Elizabeth was overjoyed when her young cousin turned up on the doorstep unannounced. In her excitement, she felt the baby inside her body give a kick, and that in itself would have been a sign of reassurance that the child she was to have was alive and kicking. In her excitement, she told Mary how the sound of her voice was enough to bring to life everything within and around her. Inspired by God’s Spirit, joy and excitement erupted from within as she called Mary “blessed” three times. We have all witnessed joy and excitement in someone we know and love, and we have felt those emotions spill over into us. There is something infectious about emotions like those. It came, then, as no surprise when Mary, too, came alive and broke into a song which echoes the sentiments expressed by Hannah after she had dedicated to God her son Samuel – the son she thought she would never have.
A close look at Mary’s song, which we now call the Magnificat, reveals that it is a song in praise of a God who will turn the world upside down, who will overturn the powerful and important, who will replace injustice and oppression with justice and compassion. And that’s a summary of the Gospels in a nutshell. Her son Jesus would, in time, echo the sentiments of her song when he proclaimed: Blessed are the poor in spirit, the hungry, the persecuted, those overburdened by oppression and grief. The message he proclaimed so threatened the religious leaders of his day that they had him executed. Moreover, his mother’s song was and is so challenging that, as late as the 1980s, the Government of Guatemala saw fit to ban it, lest it incite ideas of rebellion in the minds of oppressed peasants.
How, then, is all this related to Mary’s assumption and a similar destiny for us? In journeying to visit Elizabeth, Mary gave expression to a wide range of the emotions that define and express the fullness of her humanity: confusion, compassion, excitement and joy, integrity, daring and courage. Her life demonstrates that her actions were fully in tune with the values she proclaimed. Therein lies the challenge for all of us who see ourselves as belonging to the People of God. By living our lives as truly human – and it is human that we are meant to be – we can be confident that we, too, are on the right road to assumption.