Focus on three key words:
struggle, resurrection, hope
At the end of its Constitution on the Church, the Second Vatican Council left us a very beautiful meditation on Mary Most Holy. Let me just recall the words referring to the mystery we celebrate today: “the immaculate Virgin preserved free from all stain of original sin, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, when her earthly life was over, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things” (no. 59). Then towards the end, there is: “the Mother of Jesus in the glory which she possesses in body and soul in heaven is the image and the beginning of the church as it is to be perfected in the world to come. Likewise, she shines forth on earth, until the day of the Lord shall come” (no. 68). In the light of this most beautiful image of our Mother, we are able to see the message of the biblical readings that we have just heard. We can focus on three key words: struggle, resurrection, hope.
The passage from Revelation presents the vision of the struggle between the woman and the dragon. The figure of the woman, representing the Church, is, on the one hand, glorious and triumphant and yet, on the other, still in travail. And the Church is like that: if in heaven she is already associated in some way with the glory of her Lord, in history she continually lives through the trials and challenges which the conflict between God and the evil one, the perennial enemy, brings. And in the struggle which the disciples must confront – all of us, all the disciples of Jesus, we must face this struggle – Mary does not leave them alone: the Mother of Christ and of the Church is always with us. She walks with us always, she is with us. And in a way, Mary shares this dual condition. She has of course already entered, once and for all, into heavenly glory. But this does not mean that she is distant or detached from us; rather Mary accompanies us, struggles with us, sustains Christians in their fight against the forces of evil. Prayer with Mary, especially the rosary – but listen carefully: the Rosary. Do you pray the Rosary every day? But I’m not sure you do [the people shout “Yes!”]… Really? Well, prayer with Mary, especially the Rosary, has this “suffering” dimension, that is of struggle, a sustaining prayer in the battle against the evil one and his accomplices. The Rosary also sustains us in the battle.
The second reading speaks to us of resurrection. The Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, insists that being Christian means believing that Christ is truly risen from the dead. Our whole faith is based upon this fundamental truth which is not an idea but an event. Even the mystery of Mary’s Assumption body and soul is fully inscribed in the resurrection of Christ. The Mother’s humanity is “attracted” by the Son in his own passage from death to life. Once and for all, Jesus entered into eternal life with all the humanity he had drawn from Mary; and she, the Mother, who followed him faithfully throughout her life, followed him with her heart, and entered with him into eternal life which we also call heaven, paradise, the Father’s house.
Mary also experienced the martyrdom of the Cross: the martyrdom of her heart, the martyrdom of her soul. She lived her Son’s Passion to the depths of her soul. She was fully united to him in his death, and so she was given the gift of resurrection. Christ is the first fruits from the dead and Mary is the first of the redeemed, the first of “those who are in Christ”. She is our Mother, but we can also say that she is our representative, our sister, our eldest sister, she is the first of the redeemed, who has arrived in heaven.
The Gospel suggests to us the third word: hope. Hope is the virtue of those who, experiencing conflict – the struggle between life and death, good and evil – believe in the resurrection of Christ, in the victory of love. We heard the Song of Mary, the Magnificat: it is the song of hope, it is the song of the People of God walking through history. It is the song many saints, men and women, some famous, and very many others unknown to us but known to God: mums, dads, catechists, missionaries, priests, sisters, young people, even children and grandparents: these have faced the struggle of life while carrying in their heart the hope of the little and the humble. Mary says: “My souls glorifies the Lord” – today, the Church too sings this in every part of the world. This song is particularly strong in places where the Body of Christ is suffering the Passion. For us Christians, wherever the Cross is, there is hope, always. If there is no hope, we are not Christian. That is why I like to say: do not allow yourselves to be robbed of hope. May we not be robbed of hope, because this strength is a grace, a gift from God which carries us forward with our eyes fixed on heaven. And Mary is always there, near those communities, our brothers and sisters, she accompanies them, suffers with them, and sings the Magnificat of hope with them.
Dear Brothers and Sisters, with all our heart let us too unite ourselves to this song of patience and victory, of struggle and joy, that unites the triumphant Church with the pilgrim one, earth with heaven, and that joins our lives to the eternity towards which we journey. Amen.
The Dormition of the Virgin Mary
Mary is remembered for the last time in the New Testament at the beginning of the book of Acts: in prayer, surrounded by the apostles and the first Christian community (Acts 1:14). Then this sweet and reserved woman leaves the scene, silent and discreet as she entered. Then we don’t know anything about her. Where she spent the last years of her life and how she left this earth were not mentioned in the canonical texts. Many versions of a single theme—the Dormition of the Virgin Mary—spread among Christians from the VI century onwards.
These apocryphal texts handed down a series of news about the last days of Mary and on her death. These are folk tales, largely fictional, whose original nucleus, however, dates back to the second century and composed in the ambient of the mother church of Jerusalem. It also contains some reliable information.
After Easter, Mary, in all probability, lived in Jerusalem, on Mount Zion, perhaps in the same house where her son had celebrated the Last Supper with his apostles. Her time to leave this world came—and here the legendary aspect of the apocryphal stories begins—a heavenly messenger appeared and announced her coming exit. From the most remote lands, the apostles, miraculously transported on clouds, came to her bedside, conversed with her tenderly, staying next to her until the time when Jesus, with a host of angels, came to take her soul.
They accompanied her body in a procession to the brook of Kidron, and there laid her in a tomb cut into the rock. This is probably a historical detail. Since the first century, in fact, her tomb, near the grotto of Gethsemane, has been continuously venerated. In the fourth century, it was isolated from the others and enclosed in a church.
Three days after her burial—and here the legendary news resume—Jesus appears again to also take her body that the apostles had continued to watch. He gave orders to the angels to bring her on the clouds and the apostles to accompany her. The clouds made their way to the east, at the archway of paradise and, arrived in the kingdom of light. Among the songs of the angels and the most delicious scents, they took her down beside the tree of life.
These fictional details have evidently no historical value, however, they bear witness, through images and symbols, of the incipient devotion of the Christian people for the mother of the Lord.
The believers’ reflection on the fate of Mary after death continued to grow over the centuries. It led to the belief in her assumption and, on 1 November 1950, to the papal definition: “The Immaculate Conception Mother of God ever Virgin, finished the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”
What does this dogma mean? Is it perhaps that Mary’s body did not suffer corruption or that only she and Jesus would be in heaven in flesh and blood, while the others would be dead in the heaven only with their souls, awaiting reunification with their bodies?
This naive and gross view of the ascension of Jesus and the Assumption of Mary—besides being a legacy of Greek dualistic philosophy and that contradicts the Bible that considers man an inseparable unit—is positively excluded by Paul. Writing to the Corinthians, he clarifies that it is not the material body that is resurrected, but “a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44).
The text of the papal definition does not speak of “assumed into heaven”—as if there had been a shift in space or an “abduction” of her body from the grave to the dwelling of God—but it says: “assumed into heavenly glory.”
The “heavenly glory” is not a place, but a new condition. Mary did not go to another place, bringing with her the fragile remains that are destined to return to dust. She has not abandoned the community of disciples who continue to walk as pilgrims in this world. She has changed the way to be with them, as her Son did on Easter day.
Mary—the “handmaid of the Lord”—is presented today to all believers not as a privileged one, but as the most excellent model, as the sign of destiny that awaits every person who believes “that the Lord’s word would come true” (Lk 1:45).
The forces of life and death confront each other in a dramatic duel in the world. Pain, disease, infirmities of old age are the skirmishes that announce the final assault of the fearsome dragon. Eventually, the fight becomes one-sided and death always grabs its prey. Does God, “lover of life,” impassively assist this defeat of the creatures in whose face his image is imprinted? The answer to this question is given to us today in Mary. In her, we are invited to contemplate the triumph of the God of life.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“O God, lover of life, you do not abandon anyone in the tomb.”