August 15th is the feast day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, one of those particularly Catholic feasts that are widely celebrated, though rarely understood. The assumption is one of only TWO (count 'em, two) times that papal infallibility has been exercised. In 1950, Pope Pius XII decreed that Mary, "at the end of her earthly existence,"was assumed bodily in heaven. Whether she tasted death or not is not specified.
But dogma aside, I'm not sure of any Catholics, aside from the most pious conservatives, who gets excited about the Assumption. In some ways, its a late show version of the much more dumbstriking Resurrection -- the return from death of a man-god cruelly killed three days before. Mary's similar experience happened years later, and is not clearly adduced in the biblical texts. It's even tacked on to the end of the mysteries of the rosary. Also an afterthought.
Each era seems to have its religious preoccupations. In eras past, the idea that Mary might have had intercourse with Joseph seemed distasteful and blasphemous. The idea that Jesus would have let his Mom decay in an earthly tomb also seemed horrifying, and maybe a little callous. If anyone deserved a life in Heaven, surely it was the Mother of our Lord!
But, without denying the dogma, I wonder where the enthusiasm is for deifying Mary today? Even Pope John Paul II, a true devotee of the Virgin, never managed to declare her Redemptrix -- a title that would have had her share bringing salvation to the world with her son, Jesus.
Mary seems to be in the need of an extreme makeover.
What can Mary say to the heart-sore, lonely and dispossessed of our time? Is she the apt symbol of the lonely mother, cast off by her minister son in search of communion with something greater than she could provide? Is she the mother of those killed by war, terrorized by torture, held captive to societal evils?
Is she the Mary of the visionaries -- nagging her children to pray more and dress modestly? Or the Mary of the old-time nuns, a last resort to those in need of minor miracles?
The Mary who moves me the most is the one who stands confused by life's accidents, "pondering these things in her heart," unsure of the future, traumatized by the present. She is unsophisticated, not as a choice, but as a consequence of her time and her society. She is humble by necessity, enduring a life that expects nothing of her and grants her neither wisdom nor status. She is poor, her husband gone, her child murdered, her dreams nailed to a tree. Yet she is also a survivor. Battered and bruised, hanging on to a hope spoken to her as a girl. That somehow, this would all mean something.
The Mary I honor may well have gone to her death not knowing how the story ended. Her son "risen" yet absent. Yet in perhaps the most divine of human traits, she held in her heart that her life, and that of all, was ultimately in Other hands. And that the sketched line of her life was one small brush stroke in a master work beyond her ken and beyond her dreams.
What may ultimately make Mary divine is not an exemplary life, but an ordinary one, raised to the level where hope is rewarded with a view of how it all comes together in the end. How the suffering, cruelty, idiocy, meanness and poverty are turned inside out and upside down.
from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
Because he that is mighty,
hath done great things to me;
and holy is his name.