— Vatican II: Constitution on the Church
The Mystery of the Assumption teaches us that in Mary, the transfiguration of the Cosmos, the principle of which lies in the Resurrection of Christ, has already begun to produce its effect. The Assumption is the dawn of the New Creation whose first rays filter through into the darkness of the world.
— Jean Danielou, “Le Dogme de l’Assomption,” Etudes
The Assumption is part of God’s wondrous plan for humankind. It reminds us that God’s plan to give us life and being has not been undone by sin or the obscurity of life and death. The gift of life and being, given originally in creation and regiven in the Resurrection of Christ, is being enjoyed by at least one human being, Mary. Since Mary is the mother of all believers, the Assumption teaches us that we, like her, are not destined for the deep pit of death and despair, but rather for the glory of heaven’s everlasting life. In Mary we are able to see what God intends and is doing for all of us.1
Mary’s death is not to be looked upon merely as a passive happening. Rather, it is the model of our confidence in God’s loving benevolence that we, like Mary, can reject sin as well as death, and also freely choose God and future life.
The Assumption implies the transformation of a body-person into an entirely new dimension of existence.2 Human flesh has been taken up and glorified with Christ. Eternal glory is now a possibility. This humanity and flesh is already a possibility in the flesh of Christ, which is a part of the world; it is already a reality.3
The Assumption is the completion of Mary’s redemption,4 God’s glorification of her whole person. We are God’s children in this life. It is more certain that we shall be God’s children in the next life, although we do not realize the precise manner through which this will happen (see Jn 3:2).
Mircea Eliade, an historian of religion, stated that Mary’s going to heaven did not imply an automatic, immediate divinization. A good person could be brought to heaven without becoming a participant in divinity. Such a person could take on a new existential dimension and still remain completely human. There are two distinguishing characteristics of this new heavenly existence: the person transcends human imperfection and fulfills a previously limited potential in total freedom. Eliade denied that the Assumption implied a freedom in the Gnostic sense. Rather, Mary, in the unity of her body and soul, existed freely in the fullness of her Son’s redemption without any possibility of human decay. Since she joined Christ in heaven, there was evidenced a growth in the intensity of her humanness.
Mary’s Assumption points to the transformation we will experience in heaven. The faithful will retain their personal identity in body and soul. St. Paul tells us, “Not that we should be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so what is mortal may be swallowed up in life” (2 Cor 5:4). A continuity exists between Mary’s earthly and heavenly life since our Lady retains her own body–soul identity.
Part of the fear associated with death is the fact that there is an unfounded loss of body that can never be regained. Our own reality is transformed and not simply replaced by another.
Humankind’s heavenly destiny is a complete transformation of the life we have known in this world, not simply a replacement of what we have known with another world. The taking up of the Virgin’s physical body verifies an indissoluble union between what is and what is to come. The Communion of Saints is, consequently, a reality and not just a symbol.
A Transformative Theological Event
Our Lady’s Assumption, the expression of her being changed over in body and soul to a new order of existence, has a relevance like Christ’s Resurrection for Christian anthropology. She realized the fulfillment of her personhood in body and soul, that is, of a human person already living and enjoying this transformation in the fullness of her humanity. Mary was always open to union with God, always open to the self-gift of her humanity to the divinity in a nuptial giving. While the Virgin conceived the Lord in her fleshly womb and bore him without sin, she ultimately knows him through a bodily assumption into glorified life. Even after Christ’s Ascension, Mary remained open to the new work of the Holy Spirit, and through prayer served as the nucleus around whom the apostles gathered at Pentecost.
Her Assumption establishes her as the one who participated most completely and intimately in the redemptive work of her Son. Hence the Church bestows on Mary the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress and Mediatrix. Our Lady’s earthly present and heavenly future are perfectly accomplished in her body–soul entity. The Assumption would be a meaningless, even frustrating, source of humiliation if it held no meaning as a universal transformation from our tragic, sinful, human condition.
The Person in Relation to Thanatos
Death (thanatos) is usually considered as an unknown, definitive separation of matter and spirit from the earth — the consequence of sin. What this transformation would be like without human sinfulness is an unknown. In 1 Corinthians 15:56, Paul says that the sting of death is sin, but he does not go on to tell us what death would be without the sting of sin.5 Yet the human person yearns for transcendence, a translation into heavenly glory without the negative concept of death. Jesus transformed, rather than destroyed, bread as he approached death. He changed it into his own body, which is given to us as a gift of self. In consonance with this mystery of the Eucharist, our Lady’s Assumption is seen as a transformation of continuity, rather than as a destruction, by a new reality and identity. The life of every human being is called to be “Eucharistic,” that is, a life given in the example of Mary who, by her whole life, is a “Eucharistic woman.”6
Mother of the Lord
It was Cyril of Alexandria who insisted upon the hypostatic identity of Jesus with the preexistent Logos. The Word became humankind’s Savior. This served as the Christological foundation for Marian devotion after the fifth century. Since Jesus’ humanization came about through Mary, she became inseparable from her Son’s person and mission. Since in Jesus there is no human hypostasis and since a mother can be a mother only of “someone,” not of something, Mary is indeed the Mother of the Incarnate Logos, Theotokos, the Mother of God. And since the deification of humankind takes place “in Christ,” she is also — in a sense just as real as humankind’s participation in Christ — the mother of the whole body of the Church. Mary’s bodily Assumption then becomes an eschatological sign, both pursuant to Christ’s Resurrection and as an anticipation of the general resurrection. TP
1Robert Kress, “Mary’s Assumption, God’s Promise Fulfilled,” America, 137, 73.
2There are no direct scriptural references to the Assumption. Further, there are presently no references from early patristic Church literature. Refer to A. C. Rush, “Assumption Theology in Transitus Mariae,” AER 123, 93-110. It is possible that such literature could be discovered. It is also possible that the Transitus literature could be traced back to the second century.
3Karl Rahner, Mary, Mother of the Lord: Theological Meditations (New York: Herder & Herder, 1970), 89.
4Karl Rahner, “Interpretation of the Dogma of the Assumption,” in Theological Investigations I, trans. C. Ernst (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1961), 223.
5Agnostic and atheistic existentialists point from the loss of identity and of continuity in this life to annihilation in death.
6John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, (No. 53).
Father Duggan, who died March 7, 2007, was a graduate of the Jesuit School of Theology in the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, Calif., and the Pontifical Marianum in union with its affiliate, the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton.