When I was a priest graduate student at the Angelicum and living at the Casa Santa Maria dell’ Umilta of the North American College in Rome in the early 1980s, we would gather in the chapel of the “Casa” for Mass and morning and evening prayer. We would all look up above the high altar at a painting that pictured the apostles gathered around an open tomb filled with beautiful flowers. This is a famous painting and reflects a legend surrounding the end of life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The story is that at the time of her death, she was buried. All were present except Saint Thomas, just as on the evening of the Resurrection. He later returned and wanted to see her body. When the apostles went back to the tomb and opened it, the body was gone, and in its place were beautiful flowers. This account has legendary characteristics, but it nevertheless reflects a belief that was already present in the life of the Church: that at the end of her life Mary simply “went to sleep” and was taken body and soul into Heaven. This dogma of Faith, therefore, was not a sudden idea of Pope Pius XII, but was a belief that was clarified through the centuries through the life, teaching and worship of the Church. One of the very earliest homilies on this teaching comes from a bishop whose name was “Theoteknos,” the bishop of Livias on the left bank of the Jordan. He says, in part, that “It was fitting that the most holy body of Mary, God-bearing body, receptacle of God, incorruptible, illuminated by divine grace and full of glory…should be entrusted to the earth for a little while and raised up to heaven in glory with her soul pleasing to God.”
The articulation and clarification of this belief is concurrent with the writing and development of the canon of Sacred Scripture and reminds us how Scripture and tradition are “intertwined.” The belief in the Assumption is a reflection of the Paschal Mystery of Christ and our hope in the gift of eternal life. Reflecting on this mystery, the well-known catechist and Norbertine Father Alfred McBride notes that “One of the unique contributions of Pope John Paul II to modern thinking is his theology of the body. He stresses its unity with the soul. We are more than a frail and tenuous union of body and soul; we are embodied souls. Deep within the body are the longings of the soul. Two elements are mysteriously united in one reality, the human person. His thinking extends and deepens our understanding of the Assumption of Mary and our appreciation of the Assumption of Mary and our understanding of the future resurrection of our bodies. Seen this way, the Assumption of Mary is a canticle of praise for the fullness of the human person, an embodied soul.” Because this is a reflection of the Paschal Mystery of the death and resurrection of the Lord, it is liturgically equivalent to a Sunday, and that is why it is a Holy day of Obligation.
On another note of current importance, both places of pilgrimage associated with this mystery of Faith, Ephesus and Jerusalem, are found in a place of the world that we know too well is marked currently by violence and flight of refugees, which affects us all. Let us continue to inform ourselves of these events, and pray for peace, especially on August 17, as Pope Francis has requested.