The 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?