Brief synopsis of the readings: Today Catholics celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We have a choice of two readings and I’m choosing readings for the Mass During the Day. In the First Book of Chronicles we see David bringing the Ark of the Covenant (the tablets containing the 10 Commandments) into Jerusalem. They were brought in with great festivities and music. In a very short passage in Luke we see a woman blessing the womb that bore Jesus. Jesus replied: “Still happier those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Assumption Of The Blessed Virgin Mary. For non Catholics this may be a little bewildering and I hope to bring some light to it. I have to warn everyone that none of this is found in Scripture, but is instead part of our tradition, most of it finding its origin in the first few centuries after Jesus.
Scripture, alas, gives us precious little information on Mary but we do see her in important passages of Jesus’ life. She is obviously critically important in his infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke as well as crucifixion passage in John. She is also instrumental in John’s Gospel when Jesus turns water into wine.
In the early centuries of the Church we developed the idea that we are all born with “Original Sin” that is washed away by baptism (fear not: most of us have progressed beyond that) but that Mary was born without Original Sin and was “Immaculately Conceived.” Concurrently the Church taught that Mary did not die a natural death but was instead “assumed” body and soul into heaven. These teachings were affirmed by Pope Pius IX in 1854 and Pope Pius XII in 1950 (and it’s just a coincidence that they both chose the name Pius).
So if we have nowhere to turn in Scripture, what do we do with this feast? I propose that this gives us the opportunity to see this as a “blank slate” on which we can place our needs.
If this sets off alarm bells let me use a modern example to clarify what I mean. Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935 and believes strongly in the existence of a “Higher Power.” Many newly sober people struggle with the idea of a Higher Power in no small part because they were taught that God was a harsh judge who was often used as a hammer to condemn bad behavior. To those people the program suggests that they erase that version of God as judge and fashion a Higher Power that will give them the strength to live a sober and healthy life. It’s not always successful but it bears the suggestion.
Nearly from our earliest days we’ve used this blank slate as a canvas to place our needs that Mary can fulfill. We’ve called her the “Blessed Virgin,” the “Blessed Mother,” “Our Lady,” “Queen of Heaven” among others. Virtually without exception she has been portrayed as a loving mother, not only to Jesus, but to all of us.
Pregnant women have recognized the hope of new birth when a pregnant Mary visited her pregnant cousin Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist) in Luke 1:39-56. New parents have recognized the worry and even fear of caring for a new child when Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus fled to Egypt for fear of Herod in Matthew 2:13-15. And mothers who have lost a child have found solace in Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Pieta which he carved in 1499.
Unlike God, the figure of Mary has shown us the face of compassion in times of need. There’s even an old joke about this. As Jesus was wandering around Heaven he noticed a number of sinners were there. Puzzled and a little annoyed he went to St. Peter, the gatekeeper of Heaven, and asked why these sinners got by him. Peter replied: “Tell me about it. But every time I refuse someone entrance he goes around to the back and your mother lets him in.”
Please understand that on no level am I saying that God is a exclusively masculine or that men are judgemental or that those seeking mercy and compassion find their only source in Mary. In a perfect world we could look for mercy and compassion in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. But for better or worse we’ve oftentimes found Mary a safe harbor in our times of need.
And let’s face it: we’ve always been in time of need. I’m at the beginning of my 7th decade of life and our fear of cataclysmic destruction has never left me. In the decade before I was born everyone feared that polio would take their children because they allowed their children to swim in a public pool When I was a child we feared that defeat in Vietnam would drop the first domino in eventual worldwide Communist domination. As a teenager we feared that a corrupt President would not give up power and runaway inflation would rob all of us of our lifestyle. As a young adult we feared that Social Security would collapse and leave us destitute in our retirement.
But knowing that we live in a world of mercy and compassion has allowed us to make decisions that prevented this. We developed a vaccine to defeat polio. We lost Vietnam to the communists but entered into treaties to ensured no other dominoes would fall. Our belief in the strength of our democracy led a corrupt President to quietly and peacefully leave office and the leadership of his successors conquered runaway inflation. And Social Security is still alive and well.
Wherever we find mercy and compassion, be it from God, Jesus, or Mary, we find healing in our world. So today let us recognize the role of a woman we know very little about.
By the way, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is December 8th.