The liturgical life of the Church blesses us with many great celebrations throughout the year, all meant to help us reflect on some aspect of our redemption that Jesus Christ won for us on the Cross. Sometimes, these celebrations are so important that we as Catholics are obligated to attend Mass and refrain from menial labor just as if it were a Sunday. One such celebration is the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as the Dormition of the Mother of God.
Many of our non-Catholic Christian brethren are confused as to why this feast is given such prominence, let alone many Catholics on the street, and even in the pews! Many baptized Catholics today are reticent to even attend Mass every Sunday, let alone on a day during the week. Why must we go to Mass on this day? There is most definitely a reason why this feast is so important, and why Holy Mother Church expects every single one of her children to participate in the holy Sacrifice of the Mass in honor of it.
Receiving God’s Glory
To understand the significance of this feast of the Assumption, we must first go back a few days to a feast we just celebrated on August 6, the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus. This account is recorded in all three of the synoptic Gospels, and St. Peter himself talks about the event in his Second Letter. During the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah both appear alongside Jesus, representing the prophets and the law. But Pope Benedict XVI points out that the appearance of these two Old Testament saints show us something else. Both of these men received revelation from God. Moses received it when he climbed Mt. Sinai, but when he asked God to see his face, God replied that Moses would only see his back (cf. Exodus 33:18-23). Similarly, Elijah experiences the manifestation of God’s glory as a gentle breeze (cf. 1 Kings 19:11-13). Both Moses and Elijah are unable to receive the fullness of God’s glory. But that all changes in the New Testament.
In the Transfiguration, our Lord reveals himself to three of his apostles, Peter, James and John on Mount Tabor. However, this revelation isn’t partial or obscured. The apostles experience the full glory of Jesus in a way that they, in their limited human condition, are wholly overwhelmed. Pope Benedict describes what transpires:
“Unlike these two episodes, in the Transfiguration it is not Jesus who receives the revelation of God; rather, it is precisely in Jesus that God reveals himself and reveals his face to the Apostles. Thus, those who wish to know God must contemplate the face of Jesus, his face transfigured: Jesus is the perfect revelation of the Father’s holiness and mercy…
“Jesus… did not receive the revelation of what he was to do: he already knew it. Rather it was the Apostles who heard God’s voice in the cloud, commanding: ‘Listen to him’.
“God’s will was fully revealed in the Person of Jesus. Anyone who wants to live in accordance with God’s will must follow Jesus, listen to him and accept his words, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, acquire a deep knowledge of them.”
New Life in Jesus
Indeed, in Jesus’ Transfiguration, we as baptized Christians find our origin. From the moment we were baptized into Jesus’ death and Resurrection (cf. Romans 6:3-4) we received a new life into which we are called to grow in holiness. This process is often called divinization or theosis. St. Peter expounds on this in his Second Letter, as he reflects on what he witnessed on Mount Tabor:
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature…
“Therefore I intend always to remind you of these things, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have… For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain (2 Peter 1:3-4, 12, 16-18).”
In Christ, our human nature shares in his divine nature. It’s like the opposite of the Incarnation. Jesus, the Word of God, condescended and humiliated himself to become man and take on our nature. But because he’s God, our Lord Jesus is able to do the same to us through our baptism and through our leading a holy life in which we obey his commandments. He allows man to become like God, granting to all of us who believe in him to share in divine life. Now that we understand all this, we can take a look at the Assumption and its significance in our own lives.
The Significance of the Assumption
If we see our origin in light of the Transfiguration, then we can see our destiny in the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven. The Blessed Virgin Mary had a privilege that no one since has received. In our Lord’s wisdom, at the end of her earthly life, he brought his mother into heaven, body and soul. As we all know, we will not be reunited with our bodies until after the second coming. This is why we say that we look forward to the life to come and the resurrection of the dead in the Nicene Creed. But our mother Mary was able to enjoy this honor not only because of her own immaculate life, but so as to give the rest of us hope as well.
Pope St. John Paul II put it well when he said:
“Her Assumption into heaven is not only the culmination of her particular vocation as the Mother and disciple of the Lord Jesus, but also an eloquent sign of God’s fidelity to the universal plan of salvation aimed at the redemption of every man and of all men.”
Mary Joined to the Source of Life
Quoting Pope Pius XII’s Munificentissimus Deus (which solemnly and infallibly declared that the Assumption of Mary is a matter of faith that has been divinely revealed by God), the Catechism of the Catholic Church succinctly summarizes the purpose of the Assumption:
“‘Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death.’ The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians:
‘In giving birth you kept your virginity; in your Dormition you did not leave the world, O Mother of God, but were joined to the source of Life. You conceived the living God and, by your prayers, will deliver our souls from death’” (CCC 966).
The CCC also adds that:
“she already shares in the glory of her Son’s Resurrection, anticipating the resurrection of all members of his Body” (CCC 974).
The Divine Life that Awaits the Faithful
How marvelous is it to know that this is precisely what awaits us! When we reflect on this reality, we should be filled with joy. This is why in many classical church buildings, particularly in the Eastern Churches, you may notice that the Assumption is depicted at the building’s exit, on the western wall. This is so that we are constantly reminded to think of our earthly life’s end in light of Mary’s Assumption, offering ourselves to be enveloped in our Lord’s loving embrace.
Speaking of the Eastern Catholic Churches, let’s take a look at the second half of CCC 966 again. This prayer comes from the troparion (a Byzantine hymn) for the Feast of the Dormition. The Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Christ Our Pascha (from here on called CUCC), unpacks the mystery of the Assumption in a more detail than the CCC does. Notice the language at the very beginning of the selection, regarding divinization:
“With boldness, the Church addresses the Mother of God, the first to be divinized by grace, with the words, ‘Most holy Mother of God, save us.’ The Church does so with the understanding that it is God’s grace that saves and acts in her. Her peaceful death, tranquil as sleep in the fullness of grace, became an awakening into heaven itself; it is appropriately called the Dormition (Falling-Asleep). The Dormition of the Mother of God is portrayed on the icon of the feast as a birth into heaven: Christ holds in his arms the soul of Mary, wrapped in swaddling clothes. In the celebration of the Dormition, the Church professes that in her death the Mother of God did not undergo bodily corruption, but has been ‘translated from earth to heaven’, ‘raised body and soul into heavenly glory by the Lord.’ From among the human race, the Mother of God was the first to be glorified in her body. This is an image of our own resurrection as well. The Mother of God, being the Mother of Life, was transferred to Life; and ‘in her Dormition she did not abandon the world.’ Her constant intercession before the Creator is celebrated by the Church… ‘Today the Virgin stands before us in the church, and together with the choirs of saints invisibly prays to God for us’” (CUCC 313).
Assumed by God’s Power
It all connects back to what we learned in looking at the Transfiguration. Mary becomes fully divinized, as we one day will be when we enter through the heavenly gates. This is why the feast is so important in the life of the Church. She, a mere creature, has received fullness of life. She is living the life we are all destined for by God. And since we are mere creatures, too, our Lady of Hope strengthens us by her example, much in the same way our Lord strengthened the apostles with his Transfiguration before his crucifixion. Indeed, through her Assumption, she “shows unto us the blessed fruit of her womb, Jesus”, as she was assumed only by his power, and she also shows us what awaits those that do his will and keep his commands.
This brings us to one last parallel between the Transfiguration and the Assumption. Look at the words which God the Father speaks to the apostles as they fell on their faces in awe:
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Mark 17:5).
Now juxtapose that with what Mary, the Mother of God, says to the servers at the Wedding Feast at Cana:
“Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).
Both Jesus’ Father and his mother tell us the same thing: to follow the Son of God wherever he may lead us. That is precisely what the Assumption is all about. Our Lady continually points to her Son, and in constantly doing God’s will, she shows us how great our heavenly reward will be: the reunion of our body and soul in the presence of our Lord and Savior. How could we not want to go to Mass on this day?! As we say in the Divine Praises, “Blessed be her most glorious Assumption”, and may she continue to intercede for us always. Although her journey is complete, ours is not. As Pope Benedict confirms:
“Mary is the dawn and the splendor of the Church triumphant; she is the consolation and the hope of people still on the journey.”
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About Nicholas LaBanca
Nicholas is a 20-something cradle Catholic who wears many hats, (husband, father, tradesman, religious education catechist, liberal arts college graduate, et al.) and hopes to give a unique perspective on life in the Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney and St. Athanasius of Alexandria. He currently writes for the Diocese of Joliet’s monthly magazine, “Christ Is Our Hope”.