Friday, August 15, 2008

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
A cycle

Reading 1. Revelation 11: 19a; 12: 1-6a, 10ab
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 15: 20-27
Gospel. Luke 1: 39-56 (Visitation).

It's funny how so many people today are critical of the idea of Papal Infallibility. Ever since the First Vatican Council proclaimed the doctrine of Papal Infallibility back in 1870, commentators, including some Catholic ones, have voiced opposition. Many of them while denying the doctrine seem to put on the very mantle of infallibility themselves. Today all we have to do is look at the political talk shows on TV to see pundit after pundit absolutely sure that their position on any issue is the only correct one.

As a matter of fact the Popes have acted in a much more cautious and humble way than most of their critics. Papal Infallibility only means that the Pope cannot err when he is speaking "ex cathedra," that is, from the chair of Peter, in unison with the entire Church, and only on matters of faith and morals. As far as I can tell the Popes have only done this on two occasions and both concerned Mary.

In 1854 even before the first Vatican Council Pope Pius IX promulgated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. He affirmed that Mary from the first moment of her existence was free from the stain of original sin. Now the Pope wasn't talking about the birth of Jesus to a virgin. He merely said that Mary through the grace of her divine Son was conceived without the flaw or imperfection that every son and daughter of Adam and Eve inherits. Interestingly enough the idea of Mary's Immaculate Conception had been debated by theologians and scholars for almost 800 years before the Pope's proclamation.

Since that time the only other occasion when a Pope ventured to speak "infallibly" occurred in 1950 when Pope Pius XII promulgated the doctrine which we celebrate today, the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. Now Catholics didn't start believing in the Assumption only in 1950. Think of how many churches were constructed before 1950 dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption. Belief in Mary's Assumption can be found in the writings of the early Church Fathers and for centuries artists have delighted in rendering the scene of Mary being taken up into Heaven.

Of course, Catholics have always loved images of Mary. In today's first reading we have the famous image of "the woman clothed with the sun" who was about to give birth to a son, "destined to rule all the nations." In today's gospel we have St. Luke's famous account of the Visitation. Almost immediately after the Annunciation Mary embarks on a journey to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who is herself expecting. Artists have loved to portray this tender scene of the meeting of the two women. The young Mary, barely pregnant, greets her elder cousin whose pregnancy is well advanced.

St. Luke is the only evangelist to describe this meeting but, of course, he wasn't present. How did he get his information? It's possible that he was merely relating an earlier oral tradition and giving us an account of what the early Church believed Mary would have said on this occasion. Perhaps he talked with the Blessed Mother herself after the death and resurrection of her Son. In that event, this passage would represent her profound recollection of the Visitation in the light of everything that came after.

Nevertheless, what image does St. Luke give us of Mary? We certainly can't take from his account that Mary was a bewildered, frightened teenager. The very name, Mary or Miriam, means "the exalted one." Scholars tell us that the expression "leaped for joy" is only used in the Bible when one is in the presence of the Almighty, such as the time King David danced in front of the Ark of the Covenant. Elizabeth's greeting,

Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb...

which we repeat every day in the "Hail Mary," proclaims that from Mary will come the Savior of the world.

The beautiful prayer of Mary which we call the Magnificat is a collection of verses from many sources in the Hebrew scriptures, especially the Psalms, those beautiful hymns of praise. We all know the beginning,

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked upon his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:

This is the song of a great Queen who has accepted a great mission.

In artistic renderings of the Immaculate Conception Mary is portrayed as the woman clothed with the Sun, with the Moon at her feet, and stars in her crown. Her dress is white but she is covered with a blue mantle. Ordinarily, she is pictured with a red dress covered with the blue mantle. Now "red" is the symbol of earth or humanity but "blue" is the symbol of divinity. The artists follow the teaching of the Church. Mary is human but she has been cloaked with immortality. In the vigil Mass for today's feast, the words of St. Paul apply not only to Mary but to any who put on the mantle of her Son.

When that which is mortal clothes itself with immortality,
then the word that is written shall come about:
'Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?'