The Assumption of the Virgin (1476), Francesco Botticini
On August 15 of every year, Catholics commemorate the Solemnity of the Assumption, a Holy Day of Obligation and one of the great Marian feasts of the year. The following is my homily for the Masses this year:
As part of my summer reading this year, I’ve recently been making my way through a history of the Second Vatican Council. As you may know, it’s been 50 years since Vatican II, and I’ve been interested to learn more about the deliberations that led to the documents we now have.
The Council considered a whole variety of topics – the liturgy, the Church, the priesthood, bishops, the laity, relations between Christians and non-Christians, religious freedom, the modern world, and many more. One of the topics considered was Mary. In fact, during the second session of the Council, there was a big debate between the cardinals and bishops about whether they should craft a separate document just about Mary, or whether she should be treated in a special chapter within the document about the Church.
What they ultimately decided – they went with the second option – is not as important as the fact that they had the discussion. As Catholics, we place great importance on Mary, just like the Orthodox and some Protestants do. But why is that? Why was a young Jewish woman who lived in a backwoods town two millennia ago the subject of debate and discussion by hundreds cardinals and bishops in the modern day? Why is Mary so important for us?
Of course, it has to do with who her Son was, who Jesus is. As our Savior, Jesus has forged a New Covenant between mankind and God. As his Mother, Mary is the instrument by which God chose to bring his Son into the world. In the first reading we heard about the ark of the Lord, that great vessel which the Israelites carried, which bore the Ten Commandments and Moses’ staff and some manna. The Israelites revered it greatly, because they saw it to be the symbol of God’s abiding presence in their midst. Mary is sometimes called the ark of the new covenant, for it is she who bore God into the world, so that in Jesus, God would be not merely in the midst of his people but one of them, like us in all things but sin.
Just as the Israelites honored the ark of the Lord because of what it contained, we honor Mary because of who she gave us. She welcomed Jesus at the Annunciation, she gave birth to him at Christmas, she raised and formed him. But on the Solemnity of the Assumption every year, we honor Mary not only for what she did for Jesus, but for what Jesus did for her. We recall that it is our firm belief as Catholics that at the close of her life, God assumed Mary to himself – he took her to heaven, soul AND body. Because she was without sin, because she had been the vessel by which God had given us our salvation, God preserved her from any stain of corruption or decay and welcomed her wholly to heaven.
As the bishops and the cardinals who were at the Vatican Council knew, Mary is indeed important for all of us who are in the Church – not merely for what she once did, as great as that was, but for what she still can do and does for us who wish to follow Jesus. By the faith and virtue of her life, and by the power of her intercession, Mary always points us to Jesus. Today, though we also see how, in the Solemnity of the Assumption, Jesus points us to Mary. In what he did for Mary at the close of her life, Jesus gives a preview and a promise of what he will do for all who live their lives in communion with God’s will. Our Savior has given us a powerful ally in our struggles for holiness, a friend and a mother who will not fail to be there for us. Let us turn to her in all of our needs, that she will be our guide and companion on our journey through this life, so that at the close of our days, we might share in the same glory that she now enjoys.