The Heavenly Mysteries of August


dormitio2The months of July and August were renamed in the last century before Christ.  They had been called “fifth month” and “sixth month” (like September, October, November, December; the year used to begin in March) but they were renamed for Julius Caesar and his adopted son Octavian, who was called Augustus.  Augustus is related to augment; Octavian expanded the Roman Empire, so he received that name as his honorific.

(March, May, and June were named for the Roman gods Mars, Maia, and Juno; January means doorway, or beginning; February is from a word for purification, or Spring cleaning; and I can’t find why it’s called April.)

So August is a month named for Empire.  And in this month the Church celebrates a kind of third set of high holy days.  There is the season of the Nativity in winter, the season of the Paschal mystery in spring – and the heavenly mysteries of August.  August reveals the awesome Empire of God.

We talk about a kind of tension about how you define Christianity.  We can call it the religion of the Incarnation: God has become man so that man can become God – and everything follows from that.  Or we can call it the religion of the Cross and Resurrection: by the divine power we pass through death to life.  Each of these is an almost complete way of thinking about Christianity – and each needs some help from the other, to keep its balance.  

But we can also think of Christianity in terms of the heavenly mysteries of August – and indeed, a large part of the tradition does so.  We can think about Christ – but we can also think about the Empire he builds.


Earlier this month, we pondered the Transfiguration.  It is a kind of manifestation of the Incarnation.  But where divinity is hidden in weakness at Christmas, at the Transfiguration the divine light pours through Christ’s humanity.  The Incarnation is revealed.  The Transfiguration is a preparation for the Cross – a reminder that the one who goes to die is glorious in his divinity.  The Transfiguration is a kind of summary of the Christian faith, a promise of the greatness of Christ.

So too are the two Marian feasts that follow, the Assumption, which we celebrate today, and the Coronation, next week.

The Assumption reveals the true Empire of God.  I heard a fine homily today from a young priest about how the Assumption was “necessary.”  (Friends, Thomists will remind you that our piety gets a little ahead of itself when we talk about divine “necessities.”  God’s pretty powerful, and doesn’t have to do many things.  But it’s okay, amongst ourselves, with several grains of salt, to think about how there’s a kind of connection among the mysteries that makes things sort of seem “necessary.”)  The homilist said it was necessary that she whom God had preserved incorrupt through her life would be uncorrupted by death.  It was necessary that she who had shared so personally in the Crucifixion should share in the Resurrection.  It was necessary that she whose body was united to Christ should share bodily in his triumph.  This is nice.


But it’s worth turning around the other way (and taking away the “necessity”).  You could say that God “had to” bring her body to heaven if he had involved it in the Incarnation.  But it’s more true to say the opposite: God wanted to bring her body to heaven, and so he involved it in the Incarnation.  Etc.

The Assumption isn’t an afterthought.  It’s more like God’s main thought: he wants to bring Mary – and all of us – body and soul to heaven.  He wants his Empire to extend that far, to save us in our entirety.  And that’s why he did all those other things.  That’s why he did the Incarnation and the Cross – so that we could reach the heavenly mysteries of August.  We mustn’t forget those other mysteries – but we understand all of them better if we know that this is the final destination, and Mary is the firstfruits.  

The Transfiguration, the Assumption, and the Coronation are our Christian destiny.  They are what it’s all about.  They are the glory God has in mind when he enters into all those other mysteries of our faith.

We should ponder these heavenly mysteries of August, dig deeper into them.  Each of them has a surface layer: Jesus is shiny, Mary’s body went up in the air, she gets a crown.  But each of these surfaces reveals the depths of the faith: Jesus’s humanity is filled with divinity; Mary participates fully, in every aspect of her person, in the glorious joys of heaven; everything is at the service of this mystery, everything comes together in the fulfillment prefigured in Mary’s coronation.  

Let us renew our dedication to these heavenly mysteries of August – to the uttermost glory of the Empire of God.

How could you focus your mind better on the August mysteries?  What do we lose when we forget them?

The Assumption: Our Feast

dormitio2Today’s feast, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, is in a sense the biggest feast of the year.

Of course, Easter is the biggest feast of the year, and Christmas is close behind.  But whereas Easter and Christmas celebrate the actions of Christ, the feasts of the saints, and above all today’s feast, celebrate the consequences of Christ’s actions, the victory he has won.

It is like celebrating the painter and his paintings.  Of course there are no paintings without the painter; everything great about the paintings merely reflects the genius and technique – the wisdom and power – of the painter.  On the other hand, we know precious little about the painter without studying his paintings.  The paintings express his greatness, and they are the reason for his work.

Protestantism rightly underlines the centrality of Christ.  But all the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is on display in our celebration of the saints, and their failure to celebrate them.  The Protestant Jesus doesn’t accomplish much; he gets sinners to heaven, but he doesn’t make them holy.  The Catholic Jesus creates masterpieces.

Mary is nothing, nothing at all, without Jesus.  She receives everything from him – as a blank canvas does not paint itself.  But Mary is Jesus’s greatest masterpiece, the clearest splendor of his wisdom and power, and the promise of what Jesus offers to us.  In this sense, Mary, and especially her Assumption, is the Gospel.


We celebrate the saints on their death days – the day of their birth into heaven.  This is that day for Mary.  (We don’t know if Mary died before her Assumption; the Tradition tends to say she did, though modern devotion tends to assume she did not.)

Mary has many feasts, but this is the feast of her victory, her ultimate feast: the ultimate feast of the saints, the ultimate feast of Jesus’s work.  The other Marian feasts celebrate particular aspects of Mary – even January 1, the feast of Mary, Mother of God, is a celebration of her maternity, her role in Christmas.  Today we celebrate her sanctity, her victory, Jesus’s ultimate gift to her.

It is a feast, first of all, of sanctity.  We can say she “earned” the Assumption through her sanctity – as long as we hear those words the way Catholic theoloy calls us to hear them.  First, sanctity itself cannot be earned, it is a gift.  It is Jesus’s work in her soul.  That’s the most important reason we celebrate the Immaculate Conception: to remember that Jesus worked in her before she even existed, intervened in her very coming to be.

Second, the Catholic theology of “merit” is about congruence, not earning.  It isn’t that Jesus “owed” her heaven.  It’s that he made her worthy of heaven.  Heaven means standing in the presence of God, worshipping him forever.  The Protestant theology of heaven without merit – if we understand merit appropriately – is a contradiction, as if we could enjoy God’s presence without loving him.  Mary “merited” heaven in the sense that her heart was truly converted to love of God; it made sense for her to be in heaven, whereas we, with our sin, wouldn’t fit: sin means that we don’t really want to be in God’s presence.

Today we celebrate that Jesus has made Mary fit for heaven.  We celebrate the joy of heaven, and we celebrate the Gospel promise that Jesus can do that “great thing” for us, as well.


Today we celebrate, alongside Mary’s soul ascending to heaven, Jesus bringing her body to heaven, too.

In this, we celebrate above all the humanity of heaven.  We celebrate, in fact, the image of God.  It’s tempting to think we would have to be something different to fit into heaven.  That’s Satan’s greatest lie, one he tells us over and over again: holiness is no fun, holiness means denying your nature, not really being you.

Jesus did not have to take Mary’s body into heaven.  But in doing so, he proclaims that our whole selves fit into heaven.  Our body is not the obstacle.  Sin is not about our bodies; holiness is not about being less bodily, or less human.  Jesus (the Word through whom all things were made) created us in the beginning in his image and likeness; he created us so that we, in the fullness of our humanity, can ascend to the presence of God.  We haven’t done that yet – but in the Assumption of Mary, Jesus shows us that our bodies are no obstacle to heaven.


Finally, like everything else about Mary, the Assumption proclaims Christocentrism.  It is only our proximity to Christ that can save us.  Again, Jesus didn’t have to do anything.  But he chose to make her “full of grace,” and to give her the unique privilege of the Assumption, as a way of proclaiming the Gospel.  By giving this special privilege to Mary, to rise before the General Resurrection, he reminds us that everything flows from our closeness to him.

How does devotion to the Assumption of Mary help you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called (Eph. 4:1)?

The Assumption of Mary


Readings for the Vigil Mass: 1 CHR 15:3-4, 15-16; 16:1-2; PS 132:6-7, 9-10, 13-14; 1 COR 15:54B-57; LK 11:27-28.

Readings for the Mass During the Day:  RV 11:19A; 12:1-6A, 10AB; PS 45:10, 11, 12, 16; 1 COR 15:20-27; LK 1:39-56

Mary is the perfect proclamation of the Gospel, the good news of God’s love and salvation.  Tomorrow we celebrate the Assumption, not only of Mary’s body – though that is essential – but of Mary herself.  This is the Gospel: that God draws us, our very selves, into heavenly union with him, through Christ our Lord.

The readings for our feast are exquisitely beautiful.  So rich are they for this grandest of feasts that the liturgy gives us two distinct sets of readings, one for the vigil, one for the day.  There is too much for just one liturgy.

But we will try to contain ourselves, and touch on them all in less than 800 words.


The Vigil’s reading from Luke warns us against misunderstanding.

“Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!”  “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”  The Gospel is not about our bodies.  The Assumption is not about the body of Mary.  It is about clinging to God’s word.  (The Greek is more personal than “obey”: it’s about guarding and keeping.)


Yet there is a relation between our heart, where we cling to God’s word, and our body.  Our body is where we live it out – but the relation goes even deeper.

The Vigil and the Daytime liturgies both read from 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul discusses the resurrection.  The Vigil gives us the ending: “the sting of death is sin . . . .  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The Daytime reading tells us more.  Death is “the last enemy.”  It is the ultimate enemy, the destruction of our very selves.  Pagan mythology sometimes came up with consolations for death, by claiming it was a liberation.  But those consolations were necessary because it is so obviously the ultimate destruction.

Maybe we can glimpse some of the awfulness of death through the words of St. Thérèse.  Amid all her sweetness and joy, as she lay dying, she also said things like, “I was lost in darkness, and from out of it came an accursed voice: ‘Are you certain God loves you?’”  “Oh! how necessary it is to pray for the agonizing! If one only knew!”  “Dear Mother, the chalice is full to overflowing! I could never have believed that it was possible to suffer so intensely.”

Death is horrible, because it is the destruction of our very selves.


But death begins with the sin of Adam: “death came through a man . . . all die in Adam.”

And on the other hand, Christ rules over all: “he hands over the kingdom to God the Father,” “For Christ must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”

Sin brings death because sin is the destruction of our selves.  Christ destroys death because he brings life to our souls, and so brings everything, even our bodies, into the kingdom of our Father.

The Resurrection, and the Assumption, is just part of bringing everything to the Father.


The Daytime Mass also gives us Revelation 12, the battle between the woman, the mother of him “who is to rule over all nations,” and the dragon.

We hear the same story, told a different way.  The dragon brings destruction, even of the physical world: “His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven.”  He hates God’s creation; sin is hatred of God’s creation.

But God brings protection, even of the physical world: “the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God,” and there is even a mysterious invocation of God’s care for time: “for one thousand two hundred sixty days.”

At the center is the Incarnation: “the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. . . . But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne.”

Christ, who is to rule over all, brings all things, even the body, into the Father’s kingdom.  The victory, though, is not the body’s.  The victory is Christ’s.


At the Vigil Mass, Jesus says, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”  But at the Daytime Mass, in the same Gospel of Luke, Elizabeth says of Mary, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Mary – not her body, not her disembodied soul, but Mary herself – is the one who hears the word of God and guards it, in her heart, in her womb, in her footsteps to the house of Elizabeth.  That’s why her voice, her bodily presence, brings joy to Elizabeth’s womb.

And that’s why Mary, Mary herself, body and soul, is taken up to heaven.

Are there parts of us that we that we find irredeemable?  What would it mean to let Christ rule even there?