Fr Billy Swan
Of all the religions of the world, none insists on the dignity of the human person more than Christianity. With our Jewish brothers and sisters, we hold that we bear the imago Dei, the image of our creator. If that claim wasn’t extraordinary enough, Christianity takes it a stage further and says that every baptised person is also a beloved child of God the Father, a temple of the Holy Spirit and co-heir of Christ. This means that we have been adopted in love by the Father and given an inheritance that Paul describes as ‘every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places’ (Eph. 1:3). With the words of the father in the parable of the prodigal son, God reminds us that because we are co-heirs with Christ, ‘all I have is yours’ (Luke 15:31). Christians hold that this amazing inheritance as sons and daughters of God is enjoyed by us already in the present but that its full benefits will be enjoyed in a future preserved for us by God.
In the course of human history, this divinely conferred dignity of the human person has often been reduced or ignored with tragic consequences. There are several examples we could mention including the horrors of the Second World War. In the aftermath of that conflict, the world struggled to come to terms with the barbaric examples it had witnessed of man’s inhumanity to man. In response, the United Nations drew up its Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. In the Church, the Dogma of the Assumption of Mary was defined in Rome on 1st November 1950 by Pope Pius XII. To most people at the time, the dogma had only to do with Mary and the confirmation of something that Christians had held for centuries beforehand, namely that Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven at the end of her earthly life. But perhaps without fully realising it, the Church was making an extremely important affirmation not only about the dignity and destiny of Mary but about the dignity and destiny of every human being. Only five short years after World War II had ended, the totality of human existence, its dignity before God and its future was being asserted as a direct consequence of Mary’s Assumption. It was a message the world badly needed to hear then as it does now.
From the moment Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb, the relationship between the Lord and his mother was unique. Mary’s life and soul were profoundly united to her Son in a bond of love beyond all telling. Because of this great love and her faith in Jesus, Mary’s life and destiny were united to his. As she shared in his life and suffering on earth, so she shared in his glory in heaven that he won for her and for all. Mary’s Assumption means that at the end of her earthly life, by the power of her Son’s resurrection, she was fully united to God in the totality of her existence, body and soul. In her we truly see a woman of faith who has reached the destiny promised her by God where her whole existence is radiant with God’s light in the glory of heaven. In Mary we see the great plan of the Father fulfilled where Christ was raised from the dead and would be joined in that new life by all who believe in him. As St Paul teaches, this coming to new life in Christ would take place ‘all in their proper order…Christ the first-fruits and next, at his coming, all who belong to him’ (1 Cor. 15:23-24). From ‘all who belong to him’ Mary holds first place as the first disciple and mother of the Lord. So it is fitting that she should be the first to share fully in the resurrection of her Son in body and soul.
Since 1950, Mary’s Assumption has come to be understood not only as a personal privilege for her but as a sign of hope for all humanity. At Vatican II, the teaching on Mary found itself within the Constitution on the Church, emphasising that she is one of the Church and a type of the Church. This means that we look to her in hope for our future destiny in God and with God. Where she has gone, we hope to follow. Her present is tied to our future. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: ‘In the glory of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity…the Church is awaited by the one she venerates as Mother of her Lord and as her own mother’ (CCC 972).
Mary’s Assumption reminds us that God’s infinite desire is that we be with him for all eternity. It was Jesus himself who revealed this desire when he prayed: ‘Father I want those you have given me to be with me where I am’ (John 17:24). Here is the God who loves our company, a Father who loves his children and wants us to be with them forever. With the feast of the Assumption, God’s Word beckons us: ‘Here in glory with me is where I want you to be. Here is your future and your fulfilment. Never take your eyes off the destiny of your journey in life and never depart from the path that leads here’.
The Assumption of Mary into heaven also speaks to the modern world of the innate dignity of every human being, body and soul. It speaks of human dignity being once again ‘lifted up’ after a horrific time of war in the last century when it had been beaten down. God wants us to know that dignity, to cherish it in ourselves and honour it in others. He wants us to know where our dignity comes from and who has conferred it upon us. Mary’s glorification in body and soul is a sign that every aspect of our lives is important to God and is touched by his saving spirit. The salvation Christ won for us is not just about our souls getting to heaven in the future but about our whole existence being sanctified in the present in a way that leads to future fulfilment. By our whole existence is meant every part of who we are – our past, present and future, our bodies, our health, our minds, our wills, emotions, sexuality, our memories, our deepest desires and all things human. All of these aspects of our existence have been redeemed by Christ in the present and will be fulfilled in the future. This is why the events of the holocaust were so horrific where millions of people suffered abuse of their bodies, minds and spirits and where their futures were annihilated on a mass scale. We are embodied persons of both and soul, flesh and spirit. When all of these aspects are recognised, held together and respected, God’s saving power makes itself felt. Human dignity is ‘assumed’ and lifted closer towards its future in the company of Mary in whose life the seeds of resurrection have fully blossomed. This is why Mary is a profound symbol of hope and healing for body and soul in a broken world.
Mary’s Assumption takes us back to the future and urges us never to forget the destiny of the journey we are making as earthly pilgrims. Mary assumed into heaven is a window of beauty in which we see our entire existence transfigured and radiant with God’s glory – something which is already true in the present and will be consummated in the future. The Assumption is an inspiration for us to protect human rights and defend human dignity especially for those who are in danger of their futures being taken away through violence or neglect. In every age and time, dark forces try to reduce the dignity of the human person or convince Christianity that her insistence on the sacredness of human life is too high. The Assumption of Mary holds before us again, the awesome truth of what the Gospel teaches and the awesome dignity to which God has raised humanity.