Heavens above!

On 15 August we celebrate the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary to heaven. Sr Elizabeth Julian ponders the implications of this bodily assumption.

Heavens above! Archdiocese of Wellington Is it really? Did Mary have an ‘Up, up, and away!’ experience? Take a moment to ask a family member where they think heaven is. Or try googling it.

On 15 August we celebrate the patronal feast of our country—Mary’s assumption into heaven. So what happened? Where did Mary go?

Close your eyes for a moment and picture it. You may have an image of Mary floating upwards on clouds with her robes (probably blue) billowing about her. Where did this come from? Does it make sense today?

The actual dogma (or teaching) says:

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.

Where exactly do we locate ‘heavenly glory’, if, indeed, we can locate it?

(The careful wording of the teaching leaves open the theological and historical question of whether Mary actually died before being assumed, but it also includes the three other Marian dogmas.)

An evolving belief

In the Roman Catholic tradition there are two different views concerning the end of Mary’s life on earth. According to one view, she was assumed into heaven while still alive; according to the other, she died and was buried and only then was her body assumed into heaven. (Logically speaking, because Jesus actually died it would make sense that Mary also died.)

It is the second view that is depicted in works of art and in apocryphal stories. Christians of the East also share this view.

In Jerusalem today there are two sites that commemorate Mary’s death and burial: an empty tomb in the Kidron valley, near the Church of the Agony in the Garden; and an altar in the crypt of the Benedictine Abbey of the Dormition which is built over part of the foundations of an ancient basilica containing a chapel commemorating the dormition of Mary.

The belief concerning Mary’s assumption didn’t fall from on high. It gradually developed from the first Christians until by the 13th century it was almost unanimously accepted.

On 1 November 1950, Pope Pius XII defined it as a dogma of our faith, that is, an infallible teaching. He was under considerable pressure to do so because, during the previous 100 years, various popes had received countless petitions from throughout the church to declare it a dogma. So it was an honour bestowed on Mary that both laity and clergy wanted.

But where is the heaven that Mary was assumed into?

Biblically speaking, heaven begins as a place that encompasses everything above the earth—the sun, moon, stars and rain. Genesis opens with, ‘In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth’.

This understanding of heaven as a spatial reality or a place developed throughout the Old Testament to include the relationship between believers and God. Eventually it evolved to mean the place of eternal reward, everlasting paradise, the final destiny of believers, the new creation where the good will be united body and soul with God.

In the final book of the bible the author writes, ‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth’ (Rev 21:1). So, while the biblical language (and much teaching and preaching stemming from it) emphasises heaven as a place of eternal reward and uses various images, eg a wedding feast, these images are not meant to be taken literally. Heaven is not a ‘place’; basically, it’s a theological way of speaking about our relationship with God.

Not long before he died, the great theologian Karl Rahner, a man of a great many words, wrote in his prayer to God for recognition:

No more human words, no more concepts, no more pictures will stand between us.

You Yourself will be the one exultant word of love and life filling out every corner of my soul. 

When we get to heaven then we won’t need any images. We will be with God, absorbed into God, resting in God, overwhelmed by God.

Thy will be done

Heaven has a lot to do with earth. Jesus’ followers didn’t ask what heaven was like but, instead, what they had to do here in the present to get there in the future. As well as reminding the scholar of the law about love of God and love of neighbour, Jesus taught his disciples to pray ‘…thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. So Jesus wants what goes on in heaven to actually go on here, on earth!

If heaven means perfect happiness and fullness of life for all, that is, no more poverty, no more injustice, no more suffering, no more hunger, etc, then perhaps we have to do something about it here and now.

Jesus mentions feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, etc. This really does give us ‘something to go on with’!  Our responsibility is to help others experience heaven on earth.

We cannot shirk this responsibility by assuring the hungry, the homeless, etc, that they will get their reward in heaven. Our bodies are important now. They are worthy of the utmost dignity, they deserve to be fed and housed. In other words, they matter here.

A symbol of hope

It is the feast of Mary’s Assumption that affirms the very goodness of our bodies. It teaches us that the whole person will be saved. Mary has been totally redeemed and now shares fully in the risen life of her son Jesus. She is not a ghost or a spirit floating around in the sky. She is a real bodily person.

What happened to her is what will ultimately happen to us. As we pray in the Creed: ‘We believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.’ Whether we think of life everlasting or heaven as a place, or a relationship, for Christians it has always been a symbol of hope; the risen Christ has conquered death. We can rightly claim in utter amazement, then, at so wonderful a reality, ‘Heaven’s Above!’

Mary assumed into heaven, pray for us.