Tag Archives: Passionists

Where did the Mystery of the Assumption come from?

Mary’s Tomb, Jerusalem

Where in scripture or elsewhere do you find the story of the Assumption of Mary?

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 witness 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. believing that Mary is “wholly united with her son in the work of salvation” looks to scriptural sources like Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians–the second reading at Mass for August 15th–to understand Mary’s Assumption.

In this letter Paul writes to Christians in Corinth about the year 56 AD who have 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. With that belief came a low appreciation of the resurrection 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. Let it go.

Paul counters that opinion with the belief he has 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 is a consequence of the mystery of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. She’s among the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep”, because of her unique role in the drama of redemption. Her assumption  affirms that we follow in the steps of Jesus who rose body and soul. Her assumption, body and soul into heaven, is a resurrection story.

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

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

Though the Roman Catholic church formally defined the dogma of the Assumption November 1, 1959, on the Feast of All Saints, the mystery was a firmly held belief 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

The dogma of Mary’s Assumption into heaven was defined during a century when human life and the planet itself were in danger.  World War I ended in 1918 after four years of bloody conflict when millions perished. World War II ended in 1945. Conventual war and later nuclear weapons brought the real threat of mass destruction to the human race. Millions of lives were taken in the Holocaust.

Threats to human life and creation itself continue. Besides threats of war and terrorism, our planet faces new dangers from climate change and widespread poverty.

Far from a pious legend the Assumption of Mary is a sign that God holds human life and creation itself sacred. We believe in the resurrection of the body.  God’s command is to honor and preserve the human body and all creation for its final destiny, a share in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our bodily life and creation itself are important.

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

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Assumption, Dormition

The Feast of the Assumption, August 15th in the Roman Church, like the Feast of the Dormition in the Eastern Church, celebrates the belief that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was taken up body and soul into heaven by her welcoming Son.

The Eastern Church begins its year with the Feast of the Birth of Mary, September 8 and ends its year with Feast of the Dormition. The mysteries of Jesus take place within these two feasts.

The two churches express the mystery differently in art. In the Western Church Mary, radiantly dressed, turns her face to heaven, often surrounded by angels.

The Eastern Church invariably has Jesus standing over his mother’s body, carrying her soul in his arms as a little child. How else would she be at death? Jesus said we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven unless we become a little child. She became one.

Her Son brings her body and soul to heaven. She bore him in her womb through grace, now she enters heaven through grace. The apostles, surrounding her body, have been summoned from the ends of the earth to be witnesses to her death and resurrection. She is the “first fruits” of her Son’s redemption. Angels cry out for heaven’s gates to be opened.

“Open your gates and welcome the One who gave birth to the Creator of Heaven and earth; let us celebrate with hymns of glory her holy and venerable body which housed the Lord who is unseen by us. We also cry out: O worthy of all praise, lift up our heads and save our souls”. (Troparion, Feast of the Dormition)

“Today, the Virgin Mother of God

was assumed into heaven

as the beginning and image

of your church’s coming to perfection

and a sign of sure hope and comfort

to your pilgrim people.” (Preface of the Assumption)

God took Mary, the lowly one, and “raised her up to this grace, that your Only-Begotten Son was born to her according to the flesh and that she was crowned this day with surpassing glory. Grant through her prayers that, saved by the mysteries of your redemption, we may merit to be exalted by you on high.” (Collect, Feast of the Assumption)

Because Mary shares in her Son’s resurrection, she also share his desire that “all be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” She joins her voice to his and intercedes for us.

“In falling asleep, you did not forsake the world, O Mother of God,

You were translated to life, O Mother of Life.

And by your prayers you deliver our souls from death.” (Troparion)

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Remembering Lawrence

We remember Lawrence the deacon on August 19. He’s a favorite of mine whom I followed through the many churches and works of art in Rome that witness his influence on the Roman church. Some years ago I worked with others to produce a video on Lawrence. (See above.)

Lawrence reminds us that the Poor are the Treasures of the Church. I’m wondering if a good bit of Pope Francis’ present popularity comes from his strong commitment to the poor. He’s reminding the church-and the world too–how important the poor are   to Jesus and those who follow him.

Augustine in a sermon on Lawrence says that you don’t have to be in charge of a major relief effort to be like Lawrence, however. Each of us, treasuring the poor in our own way, follow Jesus.

“The garden of the Lord, brethren, includes – yes, it truly includes –  not only the roses of martyrs but also the lilies of virgins, and the ivy of married people, and the violets of widows. There is absolutely no kind of human beings, my dearly beloved, who need to look down on their calling.”

We’ all grow in the garden of the Lord. That’s a nice way of saying we’re all have something to give. Who are the poor we  treasure?

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Why Read the Old Testament?

Some people complain about the selections from the Old Testament we’re reading at weekday Mass these past few weeks. Too long, they say, they don’t tell us anything. They’d rather hear what Jesus is saying and doing.

Why do we read from the Old Testament? Reading from the Old Testament is a lot like reading from the New York Times or the Daily News, or following David Muir on ABC each evening. You’re not going to hear much about Jesus there either. The media gives us the news of the day as it happens and, especially these days, it’s not encouraging.

Not much encouraging news in our Old Testament reading today from the Book of Numbers either. (Numbers 13-14) Giants are out there blocking the way to the promised land. Israel’s scouts face giants as they reconnoiter the world ahead. There’s no way ahead.

Our media tells us the same: giants are blocking our way– North Korea, the Middle East, storms from climate change, political giants who seem to get in the way of a world of justice and peace. And we don’t have answers what to do.

But the Old Testament tells us more than the media. It’s salvation history. More than the story of the Jews, the Old Testament is the story of the human race and all creation on a journey, from the beginning of time to its end. Human sinfulness, tragedies and delays are there, but the story begins and ends in hope. God is there.

That makes the Old Testament stories so different from the stories the media serves up everyday. God is there from the beginning. That’s the way our selection today from the Book of Numbers begins: “The LORD said to Moses [in the desert of Paran,]‘Send men to reconnoiter the land of Canaan,
which I am giving the children of Israel.’” And God is there as his people experience the consequences of their foolishness and lack of faith.

The columnist David Brooks in the Times yesterday said he has to think less about Donald Trump or he’s going to go crazy. He needs to think more about the deeper shifts taking place in society, he says.

I wonder if thinking about the deeper shifts is enough to stop you from going crazy these days. We need hope from another source. That’s where the Old Testament and the rest of the scriptures comes in. Some prefer calling it the “First Testament.” It testifies that the first thing to keep in mind about time is that God is there, from beginning to the end. God is our Savior.

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St. Dominic: A Redeemed Face

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October 8th is the feast of St. Dominic, founder of the Dominicans. A biographer mentions something about him that’s true of all the saints, I think.  It’s one of the signs of holiness– Saints look redeemed. Dominic had a joyful face, which came from a joyful heart and a soul at peace. He believed God was with him.

“He was a man of great equanimity, except when moved to compassion and mercy. And since a joyful heart animates the face, he displayed the peaceful composure of a spiritual man in the kindness he manifested outwardly and by the cheerfulness of his countenance.”

That same “cheerfulness of countenance” seems to be what people remark about Pope Francis. That doesn’t mean  you have to smile continuously, but joy is our “default,” it’s the attitude usually there.  Fra Angelico seems to capture  the  peacefulness of Dominic in his portrait of the saint. (above)

One of the critics of Christianity, I think it was the 19th century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, once said he didn’t think Christians looked redeemed. In other words, they were sad-sacks: dour, worried, self-engaged people.

Might be a good test to look in a mirror and ask myself: “Do I look redeemed?” But another question–why do artists often make saints look so sad? They’re not.

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Psalms say it all

I like the way psalms say it all. “Rejoice in the Lord, you just!” a psalm response said recently. No need to double your efforts or think hard about something. “Rejoice in the Lord, you just!”

The earth rejoices in God, our king. Why not join it? The “many isles are glad.” Be glad with them.

The psalms have a way of stilling our souls and calling them into the quiet grace of God’s presence. Does everything depend on us? No, it doesn’t. God “melts the mountains like wax” and “guards the lives of his faithful ones.” We think we have to know everything, but only God can do that.

We take part in the liturgy, not to know more and more, but to be drawn closer to God. The scriptures, prayers and actions feed our minds and hearts, but only little by little. One of the special graces of the psalms is invite us to rest in God as a child in a mother’s arms.

Most of the psalms in our liturgy are songs of praise. “Rejoice in the Lord!” Some cry for help. They call us to simple, deep prayer. Keep your eye on them in the liturgy. They’re wonderful basic prayers.

“Although the whole of Scripture breathes God’s grace upon us, this is especially true of that delightful book, the book of the psalms.” (St. Ambrose)

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Martha, Martha

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We read St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ visit to Bethany for the Feast of St. Martha. It’s part of Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem (Luke 10,38-42), a journey Luke describes,  not by miles, but by the people Jesus meets.

Jesus is a prophet speaking God’s word as he goes. Some reject him outright on his way to Jerusalem.  Jesus enters the house of Martha and Mary as a prophet speaking God’s word. Unfortunately Martha, busy about many things, misses his word and Jesus rebukes her. Mary hears his word and is praised. Good as she is, Martha’s carrying too many of the “cares of this life” when Jesus visits.

That’s what Luke wants us to learn from this gospel- the cares of this life can get in the way of hearing God’s word. But we all know there’s more to Martha than what Luke tells us here. Other New Testament sources praise this good woman.  John’s gospel, for example, says that  Jesus was a long time friend of Lazarus and his sisters in Bethany.

I keep two other sources in mind when I read Luke’s story.  One is a painting (above) by the 13th century Tuscan artist, Giovanni di Milano, showing Jesus with Martha and Mary at Bethany.

The artist imagines a supper at Bethany. The table’s set for four people– that would be Jesus, Lazarus, Mary and Martha. But look at the others coming in the door. Obviously, they’re Jesus’ disciples, led by Peter. One disciple gestures towards Peter, as if saying, “He told us to come.”

Poor Martha in her apron holds up her hands in frustration, “What are we going to do?”
There will be no miracle. The miracle is Martha’s hospitality. Thanks to her,  more than four are going to be fed. We need artists like di Milano to flesh out what the gospels say.

The other source I like is St. Augustine who obviously has a soft spot for Martha and the work she does. Both Martha and Mary had the same holy desire, Augustine says: “ They stayed close to our Lord and both served him harmoniously when he was among them.”

Martha served him as the “Word made flesh,” who was hungry and thirsty, tired and in need of human care and support. She longs to share what Mary enjoys, his presence, his wisdom and his gifts. And she will find her desires fulfilled.

“You, Martha, if I may say so, will find your service blessed and your work rewarded with peace. Now you are much occupied in nourishing the body, admittedly a holy one. But when you come to the heavenly homeland you will find no traveller to welcome, no one hungry to feed or thirsty to give drink, no one to visit or quarreling to reconcile, no one dead to bury.”

“No, there will be none of these tasks there. What you will find there is what Mary chose. There we shall not feed others, we ourselves shall be fed. What Mary chose in this life will be realized there in full. She was gathering only fragments from that rich banquet, the Word of God. Do you wish to know what we will have there? The Lord himself tells us when he says of his servants, Amen, I say to you, he will make them recline and passing he will serve them.”

Want to see Bethany, home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Take a look here.

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