Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., for the Solemnity of the Assumption 2017 at the Church of the Holy Innocents in Manhattan.
Permit me to begin this evening by acknowledging the most welcome presence as our deacon this evening Br. Leo Camurati of the St. Joseph Province of Dominicans – one of the few mainstream religious communities that has maintained its Catholic identity and has a fine future, with a glut of vocations, so much so that the Dominican House of Studies in Washington had to engage in a major capital campaign for expansion. I should also note that it was that institution where I studied for my licentiate in theology and where I learned genuine Catholic theology (since my seminary had not provided that). I should also mention that some years back, I intended to attend Christmas morning Mass at St. Agnes when the pastor asked me to preach, completely out of the blue, and then, likewise completely unexpected, importuned me to be the celebrant of the Mass. I had never celebrated in the Extraordinary Form (except as boy, “playing priest”) and the then-Paul Camurati was the master of ceremonies who gently and effectively guided me through a Mass, which was both valid and licit. Thanks, Br. Leo.
Today the Church Universal – in all her rites – and all the Orthodox Churches and even Anglicans and Lutherans celebrate the bodily assumption of Our Lady. For the sake of clarity, let us make sure we understand precisely what we are celebrating. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, citing Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium and Venerable Pope Pius XII’s dogmatic definition Munificentissimus Deus, informs us: “Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians” (n. 966).
As you undoubtedly know, the definition of the Assumption occurred on All Saints Day in 1950. That fact leads some people to assert that this dogma was a modern invention of the Catholic Church. However, such an assertion fails to reflect either history or the proper notion of doctrinal development. The first church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary was under the title of her Dormition or Assumption – already in the fourth century. Obviously, something believed in the fourth century cannot be an invention of the twentieth century. More to the point: When the Church defines a dogma, she is acknowledging a doctrine which has been believed all along and throughout the Church. That having been said, it must also be noted that dogmatic definition rarely occurs unless a doctrine is contested, which was never the case with the Assumption – unlike the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which had a rather checkered history, with some of the greatest theological luminaries (including St. Thomas Aquinas) having serious questions about it. On the contrary, even every so-called reformer of the Protestant movement of the sixteenth century accepted and taught the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven.
So, what inspired Pius XII to define an uncontested doctrine? Clearly, it was the Holy Spirit. But why? Christians had always believed that the Assumption was a privilege accorded to Mary in view of both her Immaculate Conception and her divine maternity. I think there were two phenomena on the horizon, perhaps yet unknown to Pope Pius, which moved him to teach this truth of faith infallibly. The Assumption would be able to underscore the dignity of the human body and the dignity of women, concepts to be assaulted not long after in the dominant culture, especially brought on by the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
From the very beginning of Christianity, we find movements that depreciated the human body. The epistles of St. John take aim at the Gnostics, probably the earliest Christian heretics. According to their theories, the entire physical universe was evil, created by an evil god; only the spiritual had meaning and value. If that were true, then the Incarnation would not be salvific, nor the means of our own future resurrected bodies.
The Gnostics have had numerous descendants in history: the Manichees, who attracted the young Augustine to their number; the Cathars of the Middle Ages, whom St. Dominic fought with every fiber of his being; the Jansenists, who despised the body to such a degree that Parisians quipped that the nuns of Port Royale were “as pure as angels and as proud as devils.” When disdain of the body takes full control, ironically enough, it usually ends up in total depravity. The “logic” goes something like this: If the body has no inherent dignity, then do with it whatever you wish. On the contrary, if the body is what St. Paul says it is, namely, a temple of the Holy Spirit, then it must be reverenced. Our age, whether it knows it or not, has revived the Manicheeism of old, with the result that “anything goes.” Manichees glory in orgies. And why not?
This lack of appreciation for the body has crept into the consciousness even of practicing Catholics. How many believers tend to think of the afterlife as a gathering of disembodied souls, perhaps flitting around on two cute wings? But, no, Christian doctrine holds that after the General Judgment, our souls will be reunited to our bodies; the disembodied soul is a temporary, incomplete state of human existence. Jesus, right now, reigning gloriously in Heaven has a body; Mary, right now, at her Son’s right hand, has a body. And since bodies need a space, Heaven has a zip code! That realization caused St. Thomas Aquinas – good Aristotelian philosopher that he was – to declare: “Thomas is his body.”
Therefore, it is incumbent on us to take care of the body given to us at our conception: what we put into it and what we do with it. After all, a temple is sacred. That said, we must avoid the opposite contemporary error – worshiping the body. The cult of the body mistakes the creature for the Creator. I am always perversely amused by some of my neighbors, who are out running bright and early every morning but can’t get into their car to go to church on Sunday. Some days I feel like telling them that if they don’t get their priorities straight, on the last day they will find their trim, sculpted, beautiful bodies burning in Hell!
Now, let’s get back to something a bit more pleasant. The Risen Christ in His male body and the Assumed Virgin in her female body – the New Adam and the New Eve – represent the fullness of humanity – male and female. They anticipate the general resurrection and stand ready to welcome all Christ’s brethren and Mary’s children. Yes, a woman is essential to the complete picture.
If you pay attention to the conventional wisdom (and you shouldn’t) you will hear a non-stop drumbeat: The Catholic Church is anti-woman. Really? Let’s do a little fact-check on that assertion. First of all, those usually making that accusation, somehow or other, never seem to lob that charge at Orthodox Judaism or Islam, where the status of women really could use some attention.
If we start with the central mystery of the Christian faith – the Incarnation – we see that the greatest event in human history takes place with no male involvement whatsoever, just a young woman cooperating with her God. The veneration of Mary the Virgin brought in its wake veneration of all women. For the first time in history, women had a dignity proper to them; in the Christian scheme of things, they were no longer valued for the pleasure they gave men in bed or the sons they bore them. The esteem for virginity actually fostered the creation of the order of virgins in the Church, which eventually evolved into female religious life. In the Middle Ages, women were queens, scholars, foundresses of religious orders, abbesses and ecclesiastical reformers. Interestingly, one of the criticisms leveled against the Catholic Church by the Protestants of the sixteenth century was that the Church gave too high a place to women – a sure sign of a corrupt Church!
In our own country, if you told someone in the 1940s or 50s or 60s that your school principal or college president or hospital administrator was a woman, that person would know that you were referring to a nun. Secular society had not yet caught up with the Church. But then came the women’s liberation movement with its radical feminism. “Isms” are usually dangerous, and the radical feminism of the 60s and 70s was devastating.
There is, however, a good feminism, which the Church always practiced – even without having a name for it. That good feminism was given form in a particular way by Pope John Paul II in his homilies, addresses, and actions. I am thinking especially of his apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, promulgated during the Marian Year of 1988, on the Solemnity of the Assumption. I heartily recommend a careful reading or re-reading of that insightful document. The Holy Father astutely observes that equality is not sameness; rather, the correct relationship between the sexes is that of complementarity. In reality, John Paul was following a trajectory of reflection on what he dubbed “the feminine genius” that began with the Pope Pius XII and was continued by Blessed Pope Paul VI. Waxing poetic – as he was wont to do – the Pope proclaims:
The Church gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine “genius” which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness. (n. 31).
The Pope does not shy away from tackling the feminist argument, while warning us about the perils of a derailed feminism:
In our times the question of “women’s rights” has taken on new significance in the broad context of the rights of the human person. The biblical and evangelical message sheds light on this cause, which is the object of much attention today, by safeguarding the truth about the “unity” of the “two”, that is to say the truth about that dignity and vocation that result from the specific diversity and personal originality of man and woman. Consequently, even the rightful opposition of women to what is expressed in the biblical words “He shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16) must not under any condition lead to the “masculinization” of women. In the name of liberation from male “domination”, women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine “originality”. There is a well-founded fear that if they take this path, women will not “reach fulfilment”, but instead will deform and lose what constitutes their essential richness. It is indeed an enormous richness. (n. 10)
He sums it all up thus: “The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity; they are merely different” (n. 10). He also reminds us most wisely:
Thus, by considering the reality “Woman – Mother of God,” we enter in a very appropriate way into this Marian Year meditation. This reality also determines the essential horizon of reflection on the dignity and the vocation of women. In anything we think, say or do concerning the dignity and the vocation of women, our thoughts, hearts and actions must not become detached from this horizon. The dignity of every human being and the vocation corresponding to that dignity find their definitive measure in union with God. Mary, the woman of the Bible, is the most complete expression of this dignity and vocation. For no human being, male or female, created in the image and likeness of God, can in any way attain fulfilment apart from this image and likeness. (n. 5)
Our Lady had two roles in life: as a virgin and as a mother. Sad to say, both roles have fallen on hard times in the past few decades. The witness of Mary needs to be highlighted for the benefit of all women and for the good of all society. In her dual identity as virgin and mother, she gives a face to the dignity of woman. Her glorious assumption also gives hope.
From the glory of Heaven, Mary does not merely offer a holy and hopeful example; she actively intercedes for her children still on their earthly pilgrimage home. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council in their Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, bring that document to a conclusion with a stirring Marian reflection:
This maternity of Mary in the order of grace began with the consent which she gave in faith at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, and lasts until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this salvific duty, but by her constant intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth. . . until they are led into the happiness of their true home. (n. 62)
Early on in this homily, I said that the Blessed Virgin has her place at her Son’s right hand. Where does that idea come from? In ancient Israel, the most powerful woman in the kingdom was the queen mother. And so, we read that when Bathsheba entered the royal chamber, King Solomon stood and bowed to his mother as she assumed a throne next to his. Indeed, to this day, in traditional Judaism, petitioners approach a man’s mother with a request in the assurance that her plea will find a favorable hearing with her son. That conviction is likewise an intensely Catholic conviction as well.
Hans Urs von Balthasar comments poignantly that Mary is “Queen of the Apostles without any pretensions to apostolic powers: she has other and greater powers.” I would suggest that it was consideration of those “other and greater powers” that inspired Pius XII to define the dogma we celebrate today. The humble Virgin of Nazareth, under divine inspiration, exclaimed in her Magnificat, which the Church sings every day: “Ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes” (“For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.”). Today we are proud to say that we have a Mother who provides us with her holy example and her powerful intercession. We are equally proud to take our place in that long line of believers who have fulfilled her prophecy in calling her “blessed.”
Sancta Virgo, Sancta Mater, Assumpta in caelum, ora pro nobis.
Holy Virgin, Holy Mother, assumed into Heaven, pray for us.