The world is in a lot of trouble right now. The COVID-19 pandemic, social unrest, and the upcoming political elections all compete for our attention. We would seem to have little attention left to pay to the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Yet celebrating this feast of our Blessed Mother amid so many worldly troubles shows us the great confrontation, at once cosmic in its dimensions and present in every human heart, between grace and sin.
The power of sin is clear enough to use these days. We see it all around us and in every form of media. The problems of the world today represent an existential crisis we must all confront, respond to, and live with.
We now face, once again, the terrible destruction wrought by sin. And that causes us, in turn, to reckon with our fallen nature, a term that in better times can sound deceptively gentle, but which now strikes us with its full force. While it is not Catholic belief that the Original Sin caused the total corruption of human nature, still, we have fallen, and fallen hard.
The Sacrament of Baptism removes the “stain” of Original Sin, restores us to grace and makes us adopted sons and daughters of God. But our inclination towards sin remains. It still entices us, attracts us, even seduces us if we are not vigilant. And when we are not vigilant and give in, the results can be terrifying.
The darkness we see around us will not soon dissipate, and yet there is a pure light shining into the darkness right now. At a time when the depravity of our humanity is so dramatically on display, the radiance of the graced-humanity of the Blessed Virgin Mary stands out all the more sharply, cutting through the darkness of sin and offering a beacon of hope.
William Wordsworth in 1822 wrote a sonnet entitled “The Virgin”, in which he praised Mary as “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” If current events show us how corrupt we can become, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary reminds us of the exalted heights to which God calls us. And it reminds us of God’s power to make good on his promise to enrich us with his gifts of grace.
The poet Dante in his Paradiso placed similar words to those of Wordsworth in the mouth of St. Bernard, who prayed as follows (translation by Laurence Binyon from The Liturgy of the Hours):
Maiden and Mother, daughter of thine own Son,
Beyond all creatures lowly and lifted high,
Of the eternal design the corner-stone
Thou art she who did man’s substance glorify
So that its own Maker did not eschew
Even to be made of its mortality.
Within thy womb the Love was kindled new
By generation of whose warmth supreme
This flower to bloom in peace eternal grew.
Here thou to us art the full noonday beam
Of love revealed: below, to mortal sight,
Hope, that for ever springs in living stream.
Lady, thou art so great and hast such might
That whoso crave grace, nor to thee repair,
Their longing even without wing seeketh flight.
Thy charity doth not only him up-bear
Who prays, but in thy bounty’s large excess
Thou oftentimes dost even forerun the prayer.
In thee is pity, in thee tenderness,
In thee magnificence, in thee the sum
Of all that in creation most can bless.
The sublime beauty of these words explains itself. The Blessed Virgin Mary stands as the crown jewel of God’s creation, and as the model of what God can do in the lives of those willing to be filled with his grace. The Original Sin was a sin of pride and a sin of the flesh, and in Mary God displays his power to triumph over our pride and destructive self-indulgence.
The key to sharing in the victory enjoyed by Mary—which is the victory of her divine Son—is to become humble before the Lord, perhaps not a difficult thing to do when we have been so humiliated by the sins of so many in the Church. The Blessed Virgin herself testifies to the critical role humility plays in our salvation in the Gospel appointed for the Assumption, which includes Mary’s Visitation to Elizabeth and her Magnificat, a song of praise that in beauty and truth exceeds the words of Dante, Wordsworth, and all the poets of all the ages:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
and has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children forever.
There is no “cheap grace”, and there will be no quick resolution to the current crisis in the world around us. But grace will triumph, because Christ is risen and he has conquered sin and death. For proof of his victory, we need look no further than to our Blessed Mother, who reigns as Queen of Heaven and Earth. She cares for us and will help us, especially in this very dark hour.
May the radiant beauty of the Blessed Virgin Mary be for us a source of hope and strength to us in these days. And may we never fail to seek her help as we confront sin and its consequences, striving to draw all of Mary’s wounded and scattered children closer to her.
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted at CWR in slightly different form on August 15, 2018.)
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