14 August 2011

Where No Christian Man Has Gone Before

Vigil of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
            I sometimes hear from people that the Catholic Church is a “men only” club.  Sure women attend (and are often more faithful than their male counterparts!) but only men can be deacons, priests, and bishops, many of the major saints are men, etc., etc.  This solemnity stands in direct contradiction to that vision of the Church.  It is a denial of that point of view at its root.  No other Christian man in the history of the Church has received so great an honor as the one we celebrate tonight.  And what we celebrate is that Mary, at the end of her life, was assumed, body and soul, into heaven.  She is the only Christian person to receive that honor. 
Painting of the Assumption from the
Orthodox Church of the Dormition
            What makes the Blessed Mother worthy of this unique privilege?  Was it simply the fact that Mary carried Jesus in her womb and nursed him?  In our Gospel, Jesus takes the usual Jewish thought of blessing being connected with the generation of children, and modifies it so that the truly blessed ones are those “‘who hear the word of God and observe it.’”  And who has done this better than the Blessed Virgin Mary?  Mary heard the word of God through the Archangel Gabriel telling her that she would be the Mother of God.  But, while she wondered how this could happen, since she did not know man, she did not doubt the angel, but said with that great act of faith, “Let it be done to me according to your word.”  Because Christ is the Incarnate Word of God, every time Mary, along with St. Joseph, cared for Jesus: feeding him, teaching Him to walk, teaching Him to talk, and all the work of raising a child, she was being attentive to the Word of God in a way no other person could. 
            But the fact that Mary carried Jesus in her womb was also a special privilege that prepared her for the privilege of the Assumption.  In our first reading we heard about the preparation of the Ark of the Covenant made by David.  The Ark of God was the place where God dwelt with humanity in a special way, and so it was treated with great honor and joy.  At the moment of the Incarnation, when Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Mother by the power of the Holy Spirit, she became the new Ark of God, the Ark of the New and Everlasting Covenant because she carried within herself God Himself.  Because of this previous honor, she who carried within her he Whom the universe cannot contain, the Source of Life Himself, it was most fitting that she should not taste death, but be preserved from it by her Son who gained for her the blessing of the Resurrection, not only of the soul, but also of the body. 
            But there the other mysteries of Mary’s life are also connected to this great privilege.  On November 1, 1950, in the Papal Bull Munificentissimus Deus, the document which solemnly defined the Assumption as belonging to the Deposit of the Faith, and therefore which must be believed by all the faithful, Pope Pius XII recalled how all the mysteries of Mary’s life are connected to this celebration.  He cites the Byzantine Divine Liturgy which, when celebrating this day, states, “‘God, the King of the universe, has granted you favors that surpass nature.  As he kept you a virgin in childbirth, thus he has kept your body incorrupt in the tomb and has glorified it by his divine act of transferring it from the tomb.’”  The privilege of Mary’s Virginal Motherhood is connected to this day.  So, too, is Mary’s Immaculate Conception, that she was conceived in the womb of St. Anne, without the taint of original sin touching her soul.  Pope Pius XII writes, “[Mary], by an entirely unique privilege, completely overcame sin by her Immaculate Conception, and as a result she was not subject to the law of remaining in the corruption of the grave, and she did not have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of her body.”  Even Mary’s Immaculate Conception prepares her for this day that we celebrate, when she did not undergo corruption, but already enjoys the full joys of heaven, body and soul.
            There is no male human person who shares the same honors that we give to a woman, the Blessed Virgin Mary.  There is no male person celebrated as much as we celebrate Mary, not even St. Peter or St. Paul.  Because of her Immaculate Conception, Virginal Motherhood, unique care for and adherence to Jesus as a perfect disciple, and her Assumption, no other human person can claim such honors.  We are a Church who celebrates only one human person who on earth lived perfectly, and that human person is a woman.  Mary is the glory of Jerusalem.  Mary is the fairest honor of our race.
            While women have often been the most faithful members of the Church, by the will of God only men can become deacons, priests, and bishops and share in the ordained ministry of Jesus Christ.  But, this is certainly not because men are better than women, smarter than women, or holier than women.  This celebration of the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary reminds all of us, men and women, that our salvation was made possible by a woman, and that the holiest human person we have is a woman.  But she is for all of us, men and women, an example to strive to follow in her obedience and love of Christ, so that one day, after our deaths and the resurrection of our bodies, we, too might be able to share in the joys of heaven, body and soul, and Mary currently does.