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The Assumption of Our Lady

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The Assumption by VenutiTomorrow we celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption. Catholics have become so used to the idea that when fundamentalists confront them with a question about the feast itself and the dogma of Pius XII declared in 1950, they are led to believe that their celebration in August 15 is due to the whimsy of a Pope. Thing is, the feast of the Assumption is much much older than the dogma of the Assumption, and the belief that Mary did not die but was preserved from corruption is a belief that is connected to her Immaculate Conception which in turn is directly linked to her Divine Motherhood. This latter, a dogma defined in Ephesus, is linked to the belief that Jesus is God (Jn. 1:1-18). This “chain” which shows how the different dogmas are linked together is what Catholics refer to as analogia fidei. Thus, if one does not accept the Assumption, one also does not accept the Divinity of Christ and therefore, as Pius XII puts it, “let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith”, and for that matter, from the Christian faith.

So how do we find the belief in the Assumption of Mary expressed now?  Let me begin with the Catechism and then to the declaration of the dogma in 1950 by Pius XII.

Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death

Thus we find the teaching of the Assumption of Mary quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “Quoted” I say, because the paragraph is taken from the encyclical in which the dogma of the Assumption was laid out, Munificentissimus Deus (November 1, 1950) by Pope Pius XII. It is a dogma, that is, the clear formulation of a belief already existing in the Church and is proclaimed “in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith” (CCC 88). In Munificentissimus Deus itself, we find the Pope narrating the steps taken before he defined the dogma. The immediate stage of the process was the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

Thus, when it was solemnly proclaimed that Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, was from the very beginning free from the taint of original sin, the minds of the faithful were filled with a stronger hope that the day might soon come when the dogma of the Virgin Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven would also be defined by the Church’s supreme teaching authority.

Actually it was seen that not only individual Catholics, but also those who could speak for nations or ecclesiastical provinces, and even a considerable number of the Fathers of the Vatican Council, urgently petitioned the Apostolic See to this effect (MD, 6-7)

The petitions ultimate grew in number until Pius XII ascended the papacy. “Consequently, when we were elevated to the throne of the supreme pontificate,” the Pope writes “petitions of this sort had already been addressed by the thousands from every part of the world and from every class of people, from our beloved sons the Cardinals of the Sacred College, from our venerable brethren, archbishops and bishops, from dioceses and from parishes.” So on May 1, 1946, the letter “Deiparae Virginis Mariae” where he asked the question “Do you, venerable brethren, in your outstanding wisdom and prudence, judge that the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin can be proposed and defined as a dogma of faith? Do you, with your clergy and people, desire it? “was sent out. The response was unanimous

(T)hose whom “the Holy Spirit has placed as bishops to rule the Church of God” gave an almost unanimous affirmative response to both these questions. This “outstanding agreement of the Catholic prelates and the faithful,” affirming that the bodily Assumption of God’s Mother into heaven can be defined as a dogma of faith, since it shows us the concordant teaching of the Church’s ordinary doctrinal authority and the concordant faith of the Christian people which the same doctrinal authority sustains and directs, thus by itself and in an entirely certain and infallible way, manifests this privilege as a truth revealed by God and contained in that divine deposit which Christ has delivered to his Spouse to be guarded faithfully and to be taught infallibly. Certainly this teaching authority of the Church, not by any merely human effort but under the protection of the Spirit of Truth, and therefore absolutely without error, carries out the commission entrusted to it, that of preserving the revealed truths pure and entire throughout every age, in such a way that it presents them undefiled, adding nothing to them and taking nothing away from them. For, as the Vatican Council teaches, “the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter in such a way that, by His revelation, they might manifest new doctrine, but so that, by His assistance, they might guard as sacred and might faithfully propose the revelation delivered through the apostles, or the deposit of faith.” Thus, from the universal agreement of the Church’s ordinary teaching authority we have a certain and firm proof, demonstrating that the Blessed Virgin Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven — which surely no faculty of the human mind could know by its own natural powers, as far as the heavenly glorification of the virginal body of the loving Mother of God is concerned — is a truth that has been revealed by God and consequently something that must be firmly and faithfully believed by all children of the Church. For, as the Vatican Council asserts, “all those things are to be believed by divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the written Word of God or in Tradition, and which are proposed by the Church, either in solemn judgment or in its ordinary and universal teaching office, as divinely revealed truths which must be believed (MD, 12)

Following this narration of the unanimity of faith expressed, the Pope enumerates the different testimonies of faith in the Assumption of Our Lady: from the privileges of her divine motherhood as found in Scriptures (14), the witness of devotions to Our Lady from early times (15), to the Tradition of the Fathers (16), the liturgical books of the past centuries (17) both in the Western and Byzantine Churches, especially in the way these shed light on the celebration of the Feast of the Assumption.

(T)o cite an illustrious example, this is set forth in that sacramentary which Adrian I, our predecessor of immortal memory, sent to the Emperor Charlemagne. These words are found in this volume: “Venerable to us, O Lord, is the festivity of this day on which the holy Mother of God suffered temporal death, but still could not be kept down by the bonds of death, who has begotten your Son our Lord incarnate from herself.”

What is here indicated in that sobriety characteristic of the Roman liturgy is presented more clearly and completely in other ancient liturgical books. To take one as an example, the Gallican sacramentary designates this privilege of Mary’s as “an ineffable mystery all the more worthy of praise as the Virgin’s Assumption is something unique among men.” And, in the Byzantine liturgy, not only is the Virgin Mary’s bodily Assumption connected time and time again with the dignity of the Mother of God, but also with the other privileges, and in particular with the virginal motherhood granted her by a singular decree of God’s Providence. “God, the King of the universe, has granted you favors that surpass nature. As He kept you a virgin in childbirth, thus He has kept your body incorrupt in the tomb and has glorified it by His divine act of transferring it from the tomb.

“The liturgy of the Church” writes Pius XII “does not engender the Catholic faith, but rather springs from it, in such a way that the practices of the sacred worship proceed from the faith as the fruit comes from the tree (20).” And so he also sets forward the testimony of the preaching and writing of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Interesting for me, in this regard, is the Pope’s report on how theologians and preachers have been drawing from the Scriptures to put forward this belief

some have employed the words of the psalmist: “Arise, O Lord, into your resting place: you and the ark, which you have sanctified”(Ps. 131:8); and have looked upon the Ark of the Covenant, built of incorruptible wood and placed in the Lord’s temple, as a type of the most pure body of the Virgin Mary, preserved and exempt from all the corruption of the tomb and raised up to such glory in heaven. Treating of this subject, they also describe her as the Queen entering triumphantly into the royal halls of heaven and sitting at the right hand of the divine Redeemer.(Ps. 44:10-14ff) Likewise they mention the Spouse of the Canticles “that goes up by the desert, as a pillar of smoke of aromatical spices, of myrrh and frankincense” to be crowned.(Cant. 3:6; cf also 4:8, 6:9) These are proposed as depicting that heavenly Queen and heavenly Spouse who has been lifted up to the courts of heaven with the divine Bridegroom.

Moreover, the scholastic Doctors have recognized the Assumption of the Virgin Mother of God as something signified, not only in various figures of the Old Testament, but also in that woman clothed with the sun whom John the Apostle contemplated on the Island of Patmos.(Rev. 12:1ff) Similarly they have given special attention to these words of the New Testament: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women,”(Luke 1:28) since they saw, in the mystery of the Assumption, the fulfillment of that most perfect grace granted to the Blessed Virgin and the special blessing that countered the curse of Eve. (MD, 26-27)

The Pope also lists those who defended Mary’s Assumption against those who thought that it is “temerarious if not heretical”

(L)ike not a few others, Saint Peter Canisius, after he had declared that the very word “assumption” signifies the glorification, not only of the soul but also of the body, and that the Church has venerated and has solemnly celebrated this mystery of Mary’s Assumption for many centuries, adds these words of warning: “This teaching has already been accepted for some centuries, it has been held as certain in the minds of the pious people, and it has been taught to the entire Church in such a way that those who deny that Mary’s body has been assumed into heaven are not to be listened to patiently but are everywhere to be denounced as over-contentious or rash men, and as imbued with a spirit that is heretical rather than Catholic.”

At the same time the great Suarez was professing in the field of mariology the norm that “keeping in mind the standards of propriety, and when there is no contradiction or repugnance on the part of Scripture, the mysteries of grace which God has wrought in the Virgin must be measured, not by the ordinary laws, but by the divine omnipotence.” Supported by the common faith of the entire Church on the subject of the mystery of the Assumption, he could conclude that this mystery was to be believed with the same firmness of assent as that given to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin. Thus he already held that such truths could be defined. (MD, 36-37)

After this survey, Pius XII summarizes the witness of the centuries thus:

All these proofs and considerations of the holy Fathers and the theologians are based upon the Sacred Writings as their ultimate foundation. These set the loving Mother of God as it were before our very eyes as most intimately joined to her divine Son and as always sharing his lot. Consequently it seems impossible to think of her, the one who conceived Christ, brought Him forth, nursed Him with her milk, held Him in her arms, and clasped Him to her breast, as being apart from Him in body, even though not in soul, after this earthly life. Since our Redeemer is the Son of Mary, He could not do otherwise, as the perfect observer of God’s law, than to honor, not only His eternal Father, but also His most beloved Mother. And, since it was within His power to grant her this great honor, to preserve her from the corruption of the tomb, we must believe that He really acted in this way.

We must remember especially that, since the second century, the Virgin Mary has been designated by the holy Fathers as the new Eve, who, although subject to the new Adam, is most intimately associated with him in that struggle against the infernal foe which, as foretold in the protoevangelium,(Gen. 3:15) would finally result in that most complete victory over the sin and death which are always mentioned together in the writings of the Apostle of the Gentiles.(Rom 5-6; I Cor. 15:21-26, 54-57) Consequently, just as the glorious resurrection of Christ was an essential part and the final sign of this victory, so that struggle which was common to the Blessed Virgin and her divine Son should be brought to a close by the glorification of her virginal body, for the same Apostle says: “When this mortal thing hath put on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory.”(I Cor 15:54)

Hence the revered Mother of God, from all eternity joined in a hidden way with Jesus Christ in one and the same decree of predestination, Immaculate in her conception, a most perfect virgin in her divine motherhood, the noble associate of the divine Redeemer who has won a complete triumph over sin and its consequences, finally obtained, as the supreme culmination of her privileges, that she should be preserved free from the corruption of the tomb and that, like her own Son, having overcome death, she might be taken up body and soul to the glory of heaven where, as Queen, she sits in splendor at the right hand of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages.(1 Tim. 1:17)

Towards the end of the document, then, the Pope makes the solemn declaration of the defined dogma:

For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that 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.

Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith. (MD, 44-45)

Updates, August 15 2011
The following articles are found at “Your Daily Inspiration”

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