Today’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)?