People, Look East: The Meaning of Our Lady’s Assumption

Although the Assumption of the Virgin Mary — solemnly commemorated on 15 August — has deep roots in Christian piety, belief in the Assumption as Catholic dogma is fairly recent; Pope Pius XII pronounced it in 1950. Members of the Eastern churches refer to the feast as the Dormition or the “falling asleep” of Mary.

From the outset, we must be clear that after the accounts of the first Easter Sunday there is nothing in the New Testament referring to Mary, the mother of Jesus. But as the Christian faith spread throughout the East and West, it developed in different yet complementary ways, spiritually and theologically. These approaches can be mutually enriching, even if history, geography and politics have all too often hindered or prevented a fruitful exchange.

Comparisons among these great traditions can be helpful, but must be recognized as fluid, to a great extent subjective and not to be turned into something hard and fast. Parallels may be very helpful; they are not, however, paradigms. Nevertheless, and very broadly speaking — and with all the limitations that imposes — Western Christians tend to focus on “what happened” even as Eastern Christians tend to focus on “what it means.”

Several years ago, I wrote on devotion to the Blessed Mother in the Christian East. In it I cited Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, an Orthodox bishop and renowned theologian, who in an article on Marian devotion noted something I have never forgotten: “There is a danger of trying to say too much about the Mother of God.

“St. Basil’s warning is not to be forgotten: ‘Let the ineffable [that which can never be adequately expressed in words] be honored in silence.’ ”

Thus, while Eastern Christians, such as Metropolitan Kallistos, believe in the mystery of the Assumption, some wonder if Christians in the Western tradition might not be “dissecting” it more than contemplating it. One of the lions of 20th-century Catholic theology, however, has offered a clue to understanding better the meaning of the Assumption of Mary.

In response to some of the wildly apocalyptic trends that were and remain common in some forms of Western Christianity, Father Karl Rahner, S.J., reflected on the “last things.” The Jesuit noted that in speaking of humanity, salvation is the fulfillment of the human as a “spirit-person and corporal being,” stating that the one reality of humans “cannot be neatly divided into two parts, body and soul.” For the believer, it is the present experience of salvation in Christ that allows a future of hope in which to be known and believed. Father Rahner maintained that anything we say about the End — personal and collective — must be understood as a Christological assertion.

This is extremely important in that it “locates” or “situates” the death and Assumption of Mary theologically, not merely as a report on something that happened to a Palestinian Jew 2,000 years ago, but rather as a mystery that points to the past as well as to the future of all of us, although in different ways.

The Assumption of Mary is meaningless without the Resurrection of her son, Jesus Christ. He is the “first born from the dead” (Col 1:18; 1 Cor 15:20; Rev 1:5). In the Resurrection, Christ destroys death (1 Cor 15:26) for all who are in Christ. The salvation that the Resurrection of Christ brings is the paradigm for the salvation of all in Christ. That would, of course, preeminently include Mary.

Likewise, just as the Gospel stories of Easter Sunday stress that the Risen Lord is not a “ghost’’ or some disembodied spirit (Lk 24:36-43; Jn 21:9-15; Acts 10:41), so, too, salvation is the salvation of the entire human person and not of a disembodied spirit. The future of salvation is known in the church’s experience of the Risen Christ.

Thus, the Assumption of Mary looks back to the Resurrection of Christ, which makes salvation possible. Her Assumption also looks forward as the hoped-for salvation of all who are “in Christ.” The Assumption of Mary is not an isolated event but a profession of faith in what we believe God has accomplished in Christ — here manifest in the Assumption of his mother — and will accomplish in all believers.

A biblical scholar and ecumenist, Atonement Friar Elias D. Mallon represents CNEWA at the United Nations.

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