When I taught high school theology, it was one of many vocabulary words that students got confused: Assumption, Ascension, Annunciation. To help them remember, I offered a type of mnemonic device.
Which vocabulary word is used to describe when Jesus bodily rises to heaven and which word refers to Mary’s rising? The word with an “m” in it is the word referring to Mary’s rising, I offered. “I thought you said all of the Mysteries of the Rosary were about Jesus…?” one astute student said, catching me in an apparent contradiction about the 4th Glorious Mystery of the Rosary, the Assumption of Mary.
Ah, but even the Assumption of Mary is ultimately about Jesus, I suggested. Everything about Mary points us to Jesus; she magnifies the Lord. While Jesus ascended into heaven by his own power, Mary was assumed, not by any power of her own, but by her son’s. Glorious mysteries about the power of God indeed!
As the mother of two sons, it gives me great solace to know Jesus came back for his mother’s body at the end of her earthly life. After giving birth to her son, through and with her own body, Mary swaddled and nursed his, gently bathing and burping his flesh at the beginning of his earthly life. Again in his death she held and washed her son’s body, none other than the flesh of the only begotten Son of God. Of course Jesus would take care of his mother’s body at the end of her earthly life, after she had dedicated hers to caring for him. You can’t out-give God.
It’s hard to imagine it–a body ascending into heaven. While the bodily Assumption of Mary is part of our Catholic Tradition (dogmatically defined in 1950), there are Scriptural precedents for it, namely Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament. And of course, the Ascension of Jesus in the New Testament. Both Scripture and Tradition–and the Ascension of Jesus and the Assumption of Mary–remind us today of our most ancient creed as the Apostles understood it: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”
The resurrected Jesus was not a ghost, a disembodied spirit. Scripture tells us Thomas touched Jesus’ side and that Jesus ate with the disciples. Some of the earliest heresies involved the denial of the physical world, dismissing it as evil. “Right teaching” tells us that God entered into his creation by putting on flesh.
Two thousand years ago Jesus, began the process of sanctifying and redeeming the created world, pouring out his blood to reverse The Fall of humanity. He did this out of love for us so we might not know eternal death, but live with Him as bride forever. We were created for the Divine life, and while separated from this by sin, we are destined for eternal communion with God incarnate. (Of course we must confirm this destiny, in the flesh, by surrendering our our will and intellect to the will of God to be animated by His eternal Spirit.)
In the age of the Walking Dead, many of my students had a hard time accepting as good the resurrection of the body. Their cultural understanding of the body was that it is more of a cruel cage that contains and restricts the soul and that upon death, we would be freed once and for all from its confines. This is not Catholic teaching. St. Theresa of Avila wrote: “The spirit is not in the body, the body is in the spirit.” While evil can destroy the soul (Mt 10:28), it is the spirit that gives life to the body and to the soul.
Because of sin we are mortal, but that is not God’s original or redemptive plan for us. Thanks be to God, we joyfully await the resurrection of the body. This is the witness of the martyrs, who willingly and generously gave of their flesh in the way of Christ.
Mary was such a beautiful example of another kind of martyrdom, a “white martyrdom,” that dare I say motherhood itself, done well, models for humanity. In fact Mary is a perfect example of how the spirit is intended to animate us, body and soul. “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Luke 1:46-47). This is Mary’s yes to the will of God. Thanks to her Immaculate Conception, she is so full of grace that she gives birth to the “wholly other.” While this may fill us with wonder and hope, the bodily Assumption of Mary should not surprise us for she is the first of His many disciples.
In Catholic theological terms we are “bipartite”–composite beings made of body and soul. It is ironic that in our earthly life, we spend so much time preoccupied by the body and its needs, often disregarding the needs of the soul. Then in death, we quickly dismiss the body and cling to the idea of an eternal soul. May God, in the person of Jesus and with the help of the Holy Spirit, come to our aid. May our spiritual Mother, Mary, pray for us.
On this Feast of the Assumption, let us do as our Church compels us: let us feed and nourish our body and soul with the Bread of Angels in the Holy Eucharist. Let us joyfully surrender to the wisdom that calls us into Communion with God and his Church, fully embracing in humility both: the human and the divine, united as one.
I’ll see you this Thursday at the intersection of heaven and earth!
Allison Welch lives in SW Virginia with her husband, Barry, a Deacon in the Catholic Church. They are recent empty nesters, with two boys in college. She has a Masters in Theology, has taught high school Theology for 9 years and loves to share her faith. “I hope someday to meet God, because I want to thank him for the flowers.” Robert Breault