Its historicity and relevance today
With the passage of time, since the dogmatic pronouncements concerning Mary’s Immaculate Conception (1854) and her Assumption (1950), the great significance of these two truths has come into perspective in relation to the whole body of truths held by believing Christians.
Mary, mother of the Lord and the first among the faithful to be fully redeemed, has been a rich source for theological reflection. She has similarly been an abiding source of inspiration and devotion for the faithful within the greater Christian community.
Since the days of the Reformation, serious debate has ensued concerning the appropriateness and degree of assent required of the faithful regarding Mary’s Assumption; the theological, ecclesial and ecumenical impact surrounding this Marian belief has been enormous.
Theologians of all communions have brought their scholarly and spiritual integrity to bear on a meaningful understanding of this highest privilege known to any human person to date. Not all agree on the historicity or the relevance of Mary’s Assumption to the Church and the world today. In 1973 Rene Laurentin wrote:
Both the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are subsidiary doctrines, and these pronouncements, whose significance was considerably exaggerated in the writing of the time, which implied that they would be vital sources for a new era in the Church, appear in retrospect as of minor importance. Nothing indicates that they have prompted any renewal, even where devotion to Mary is concerned. On the contrary, the definition of the Assumption was followed by a kind of distaste, both for the dogma and for the feast (Rene Laurentin, quoted in Eamon R. Carroll, “A Survey of Recent Mariology,” Marian Studies, No. 37, p. 180).
At the Core of the Redemption
However, since the time of the Second Vatican Council, a significant progress has been made in establishing a meaningful role for Mary among the faithful in an increasingly unchurched world. Pope John Paul II frequently pointed out, especially in his 1983 homily at Lourdes, that Mary can be found at the very core of the mystery of redemption.
Her Assumption is the substantial promise to the world that humankind can indeed know the fullness of life in this most sublime transformation. Mary’s life, so imbued with the Spirit of God and so responsive to that Spirit, serves as a model of human life lived in loving selflessness before God and for the building up of the human community as it moves toward the parousia.
Desirous that ardent devotion to Mary not lapse among the faithful, John Paul II visited many Marian shrines. At the Lourdes Grotto in 1983, on the feast of the Assumption, 250,000 people heard his homily. He had come in pilgrimage to Lourdes under the sign of the woman adored with the sun (see Rv 12:1). He described Mary as having attained the fullness of this sign in her Assumption, since she has “for her mantle the sun of the unknowable divinity; the sun of our impenetrable Trinity…. She is full of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
The sign of the woman in heaven is the sign of the Assumption of Mary into heaven: It occurs above the earth and simultaneously the sign arises from the earth. The Pope declared that the two mysteries of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary into heaven came together here and “reveal their mutual complementarity” (John Paul II, “Marie, premiere figure de la Redemption, Homelie a la messe du 15 aout a Lourdes,” La Documentation Catholique, Sept. 4-18, 1983: No. 827-828).
The pontiff expressed his desire to live the jubilee year of 1983, marking the Year of the Redemption, near Mary. He had come to Lourdes to be in Mary’s presence so that he could be brought closer to the mystery of the redemption. He stressed some important lessons of a tradition that goes back to the Fathers.
Mary is immersed in the core of redemption more than any other person. Since she is at the heart of the mystery, she, more than any other person, can draw the faithful closer to that mystery. On the day of her Assumption the Church declared the glory of our Lady’s definitive birth in heaven.
The Pope then described the liturgy’s consideration of the Assumption from three aspects.
Mary believed the words spoken to her at the Visitation in the name of the Lord by Elizabeth, that she would be blessed by the presence of the Word, the fruit of her womb. The redemption of the world had depended upon the fiat of Mary at the time of the Annunciation: The redemption had begun its realization with the Incarnation.
The entire Magnificat, pronounced at the Visitation, became with the liturgy the hymn of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. The Virgin had announced the greatness of God’s action toward her when she cooperated in the birth of the Son of God upon earth. Mary pronounced, with great force, that greatness as manifest in our salvation.
The liturgy revealed a second aspect of the Assumption mystery as it is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The Assumption is part of Christ’s victory over death which had its beginning in His Resurrection. Jesus Christ’s work of redemption enables humankind to overcome the inheritance of sin and death (see 1 Cor 15:20,22,23). No one was of more concern to Christ or more redeemed by Him than His mother. The Pope continued by saying that Mary’s victory over death, her Assumption, lies at the heart of the redemptive act on Calvary and within the power of salvation accomplished through the Resurrection.
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To illustrate the third point of the liturgy, Pope John Paul II referred to the Responsorial Psalm: “Your throne, God, shall last forever and ever, your royal scepter is a scepter of integrity” (Ps 6:7). The reign, or rule, of God began with creation. Humankind lashed at it through sin. God’s reign renewed itself through the redemption. Mary was the first person to participate, soul and body, in the reign of God’s eternal glory. Her presence has become a sign of hope for the faithful: “Her birth in heaven is the definitive beginning of the glory which the sons and daughters of this world have to attain in God himself in virtue of the Redemption of Christ.”
Redemption has become the very foundation for the transformation of humankind into the reign of God. Since Mary was the first redeemed, the transformation of the history of the cosmos in God’s reign has already begun, in a human person. Mary’s Assumption to heaven, in both body and soul, is the mysterious sign of our new creation.
FATHER DUGGAN, who died March 7, 2007, was a gradutes of the Jesuit School of Theology in the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, Calif., and the Pontifical Marianum in union with its affiliate, the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton.