–Russian Icon, The Dormition of the Theotokos
On August 15, Roman Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.* This is the belief that the mother of Jesus was ‘assumed’, or taken into heaven, ‘body and soul,’ immediately upon her death, without having to undergo the grave’s decay. By this feast, the Catholic Church teaches that the final restoration of all creation to which scripture attests, including the resurrection of the body, is anticipated in Mary.
Catholics are taught that because of her unique role in the drama of salvation, God chose to bestow on her, in an anticipated way, the glory we will all enjoy one day. The glory Mary enjoys it isn’t for her alone: she is given first what all the redeemed receive later. In the Assumption, we get to see in her what will become of us all because of the saving grace of Christ. The Assumption is the Church’s way of affirming the ancient conviction that ‘humanity’s future has a body’ (Luke Powery).
This festival has deep roots in Christian liturgy and devotion. The first extant mention of it is in the 4th century in the East. It was universally celebrated by the 6th . Clearly there was ‘something about Mary’ that the ancient church appreciated more than we do today—especially we who are Protestants and tend to view Marian doctrines as unnecessary at best and idolatrous at worst.
Here’s what I’m appreciating about the Assumption today—
The Assumption of Mary asks us to imagine that a human being in her body, not just her soul or spirit, now lives in the eternity of God we have traditionally called ‘heaven.’ Forget for a moment the triumphalist trappings, physical, and metaphysical problems of this doctrine. Go to the nub of it and allow yourself to see Mary in her body welcomed into heaven, enjoying God forever in a fully bodily way, breathing, sensing, moving… in all her body’s uniqueness. If you grant this vision, even for a moment, and if you grant that her present is our future, what does this feast day say?
It says the human body belongs in the presence of God. It says that the body is holy. It says that God and bodies are not opposites. It says that bodies are not ‘mere’ bodies, not inferior housing for a superior soul; not to be escaped from, dispensed with, or despised. It says there’s no such thing as ‘spirituality’ without ‘bodiality.’ It says you have to love the body because God does. Even when it’s hard to love the body, your particular body, and especially when it’s hard to love somebody else’s, it says you have to honor them all. It says you can’t kill Michael Brown or (insert another name here while you weep) because their bodies are male and black. It says you have to love those black bodies. It says you can’t make any body no body. It says God cares, infinitely cares, what we do with our bodies. It says when any body’s hands go up, the guns go down.
If you observe this feast day, that’s what you commit to. If you don’t, maybe you should.
*The Orthodox also observe this mid-August commemoration, but they call it the Dormition (falling asleep)of the Theotokos. They prefer to think she was taken to God without experiencing even the slightest twinge of death’s customary pangs. Anglicans call this observance the Feast of Mary the Virgin, or more familiarly, the Feast of Mary in Summer. It’s a more generic celebration of Mary, but the collect of the day mentions God taking Mary to Godself, a clear nod to the ancient doctrine of the Assumption.