Tag Archives: gnosticism

Where did the Mystery of the Assumption come from?

Mary’s Tomb, Jerusalem

Can we find the story of the Assumption of Mary in scripture?

There’s no account of Mary’s death in scripture. The first accounts are found in the apocryphal body of literature called the Transitus Mariae, popular in the Christian churches of the east from the 5th century, which describe the return of the apostles to Jerusalem for Mary’s burial and their discovery that her body was taken up to heaven. The writings attest to a early interest in the death of Mary in some parts of the early church.

The first liturgical celebrations of Mary’s death and assumption to heaven took place in Jerusalem at her tomb (above) on the Mount of Olives about the 5th century. The Roman Catholic church draws her present belief from this early tradition. Mary is “wholly united with her son in the work of salvation,” For scriptural support, the church looks to sources like Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians–the second reading at Mass for August 15th–to understand Mary’s Assumption.

Paul wrote that letter about the year 56 AD to Corinthian Christians who had questions about the resurrection of Jesus . Their precise difficulty seems to be that they saw only the soul surviving death and not the body, a common conception of the Greek mind-set of the day. That belief brought a low appreciation of the body and the place of creation itself in the mystery of redemption.  The created world wasn’t worth much and was passing away, so let it go.

Paul countered that opinion with the belief he received, a belief preached from the beginning:  “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” ( 1 Corinthians 15, 3-6)

Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, Paul affirms, and we will rise bodily too. Jesus is “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Mary’s bodily assumption follows the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Because of her unique role in the mystery of redemption she is among the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep”, Her assumption is a resurrection story and we see it as an affirmation that we will follow Jesus who rose body and soul.

In her prayer, the Magnificat– the gospel read on the Feast of the Assumption – Mary accepts her mission from God to share in the mission of her Son, the Word made flesh, who came to redeem the world.

The church gradually understood the mystery of Mary’s Assumption over time. The rise of Gnosticism in the 3rd and 4th centuries certainly promoted appreciation of this mystery. As a world view, Gnosticism promised escape from the limits of bodily life through a higher knowledge. As a result, human life and creation itself didn’t matter.

Mary’s Assumption claims they do.

The Roman Catholic church formally defined the dogma of the Assumption November 1, 1959, on the Feast of All Saints, but the belief was firmly held for centuries before:

“…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.” The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians: ‘In giving birth you kept your virginity; in your Dormition you did not leave the world, O Mother of God, but were joined to the source of Life. You conceived the living God and, by your prayers, will deliver our souls from death'”                             Catechism of the Catholic Faith  966

Mary’s Assumption was defined in a century when human life and the planet itself were threatened.  World War I ended in 1918 after four years when millions perished. World War II, ending in 1945, left the real possibility that war and nuclear weapons could bring about the destruction of the human race. The Holocaust seemed to prove the capability of human evil.

Threats to human life and creation still continue; now, we face new dangers from climate change and consequent poverty.

Mary’s Assumption is a sign of the sacredness of human life and creation itself. In her, God calls us to honor and preserve the human body and our created world for their final destiny, a share in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We believe in the resurrection of the body.

The Feast of Mary’s Assumption is the oldest and most important of Mary’s feasts in our church calendar.

Saint Irenaeus

Tagbha carol roth

“We are all called to be holy. ‘Each in his or her own way,’” Pope Francis says in his exhortation “ Gaudete et exultate”.  We’re all different; saints are different too.

Today, the church remembers St. Irenaeus,  yesterday was the memorial of St. Cyril of Alexandria. You can’t find two people, two saints, so different. Cyril was a the forceful, confrontative bishop of Alexandria; Irenaeus, as his name suggests, was a fair man who worked tirelessly for peace.

Many years ago I took a course on Gnosticism in Rome under Fr. Antonio Orbe, SJ, an expert on the subject. Gnosticism was an early heresy that threatened Christianity in the 2nd century and afterwards most of its writings were destroyed. In the last century a large cache of those writings buried in the sands of Egypt was discovered and Father Orbe was just back after studying them. Until then, the Gnostic teachings  were known mostly through the writings of St. Irenaeus, whom we honor today in our liturgy,

I remember an observation Fr. Orbe made about St.Irenaeus. He said that, as he compared the writings, he was struck how accurately and fairly Irenaeus reported what the gnostics taught, not distorting anything they said or omitting their ideas. He was very fair and respectful. From what we know of Irenaeus, that’s what he was, fair minded and respectful to friend and foe alike. He was a peace-maker. Cyril of Alexandria had a different kind of personality. He would have left those writings buried in the sands of Egypt.

Irenaeus is not a bad example for today when hot words and smear attacks, distortions and lies dominate so much communication. Irenaeus was a peace-maker. Peace makers don’t destroy, they heal and unite. That’s why they’re called blessed.

Irenaeus also had a deep respect for creation. Some scholars today say the ancient gnostics were broadminded, creative people–rather like themselves–  more progressive than the plodding, conservative people of the “great church”– a term Irenaeus used to call it.

In fact, the gnostics made the world smaller than it is, because they made much of the world evil, only some of it meant anything at all. Forget about the rest of it.

All creation is God’s, Irenaeus replied. “With God, there is nothing without purpose, nothing without its meaning or reason.” All creation is charged with the glory of God.

Irenaeus pointed to the Eucharist as a sign of this. Bread and wine represent all creation. God comes to us through these earthly signs. We go to God through them.

“God keeps calling us to what is primary by what is secondary, that is, through things of time to things of eternity, through things of the flesh to things of the spirit, through earthly things to heavenly things.”

Moses struck the rock and water comes out. People drank and were refreshed, but something more happened–they knew through the water, though dimly, the generous God who slaked their thirst.

We should not demean creation, Ireneaus taught. That’s also the message of Pope Francis in “Laudato si.”

Image of the Invisible God

There’s always a temptation to make God distant and abstract. After all, God dwells “in light inaccessible,” the scriptures say. God is beyond the eyes of our mind and body.

But God reveals himself in Jesus Christ, the “image of the invisible God.” The first followers of Jesus saw him with their own eyes and proclaimed that “the grace and kindness of our God has appeared” in him.

We’re reading from the 1st Letter of John, which was written as that first generation of  eyewitnesses to the gospel was passing on. The letter’s message to a new generation (and certainly to us too) is simple: believe in Jesus Christ. As eyewitnesses pass on and years go by, we’re tempted to forget or minimize his place in our world and in our lives.

John’s letter warns about the dangers of docetism and gnosticism, two heresies supporting that temptation. A note in the New American Bible describes what these strange sounding heresies are all about:

“The specific heresy described in this letter cannot be identified exactly, but it is a form of docetism or gnosticism; the former doctrine denied the humanity of Christ to insure that his divinity was untainted, and the latter viewed the appearance of Christ as a mere stepping-stone to higher knowledge of God.”

He came “through water and Blood,” John writes. He urges us not to forget the humanity of Jesus Christ, the humble way he became flesh and shared our experience as human beings. God comes to us that way too. He was baptized in the waters of the Jordan uniting all nations in journeying to God’s Kingdom. He died and shed his blood for us. Don’t forget the mystery of his death and resurrection.

“God gave us eternal life,

and this life is in his Son.”