Posted by: Fr Chris | August 15, 2018

The Assumption of Our Lady, Aug. 15

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In the icons, Jesus holds the soul of His most Blessed Mother, and comes to lift her body into heaven. There she stands as a sign of our own resurrection from the dead and life in glory! 

In the Eastern Churches, today is known as the Dormition, or the “falling asleep” of the Virgin. “Falling asleep” is the ancient phrase for dying, used by Saint Paul so often. It is the occasion of pilgrimages across Europe, as tens of thousands gather at shrines large and small, across most of Europe, as well as in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Mary has been honored as the Theotokos – the Mother of God. The oldest copy of the prayer We hasten to your protection, Sub Tuum Praesidium, gives her this title and asks her intercession, dates to about the year 250 and is found in Armenian, Coptic, Greek, Latin, and Syriac books and services.  Under your mercy we take refuge, Mother of God! Our prayers, do not despise in necessities, but from the danger deliver us, only pure, only blessed one.

The voice of the ancient Church acclaims her as the only pure one, using the word which refers to her virginity, the only blessed one, meaning a special and unique person, and the great title Mother of God. It further asks her intercession – the Coptic fragment we have probably dates to the great persecutions under either Valerian or Decius. So this is 200 years before the council of Ephesus, which uses the title Theotokos, not as an invention to defeat the Nestorian heresy but rather using ancient tradition. In antiquity, texts were written down after they had been used for a long time verbally.

What does it mean for her to be the Theotokos? God-bearer doesn’t convey the whole power of the word. As the Venerable Henry Cardinal Newman wrote:

She is not merely the Mother of our Lord’s manhood, or of our Lord’s body, but she is to be considered the Mother of the Word Himself, the Word incarnate. God, in the person of the Word, the Second Person of the All-glorious Trinity, humbled Himself to become her Son. Non horruisti Virginis uterum, as the Church sings, “Thou didst not disdain the Virgin’s womb”. He took the substance of His human flesh from her, and clothed in it He lay within her; and He bore it about with Him after birth, as a sort of badge and witness that He, though God, was hers. He was nursed and tended by her; He was suckled by her; He lay in her arms. As time went on, He ministered to her, and obeyed her. He lived with her for thirty years, in one house, with an uninterrupted intercourse, and with only the saintly Joseph to share it with Him. She was the witness of His growth, of His joys, of His sorrows, of His prayers; she was blest with His smile, with the touch of His hand, with the whisper of His affection, with the expression of His thoughts and His feelings, for that length of time.

The tradition that Mary died at the end of her life on earth but was bodily assumed into heaven and reunited with her soul goes back to very first century of Christianity. In a Church which values relics of the saints, the only ones we have of her are cloths claimed to be her veil and her belt. That her body was not left to undergo corruption in the grave makes sense – this was a unique body of the New Eve, who did not give in to the temptations of Satan, who acclaimed God’s saving power in the Magnificat at her visitation to Elizabeth, who nudged Jesus into His public ministry at the wedding in Cana, who wept at the cross and the tomb, who prayed with the apostles on the day of Pentecost. Basically, why should she who loved God so greatly, who followed Him as we were made to do so, be left to decay like all other people, when she is the only human not subject to the penalty of original sin? The tradition of her bodily assumption was confirmed by Pius XII in 1950, that the immaculate Mother of God stands as a sign to us of our eternal destiny: glorified body united with the soul, in the company of God, His angels, and all His saints, all the holy ones who have sought to follow God’s will and been purified to enter into the presence of the life-giving Holy Trinity forever.

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Pilgrims in August, Byzantine Catholic Shrine of Mariapocs 

The icon to which our parish is dedicated is that of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. This is the title which Mary herself gives to this image, in which the Child Jesus rests in her arms, frightened by the vision of His passion, which the angels Gabriel and Michael have shown to Him with the  cross, spear, and the sponge on a reed. In that icon, the Virgin looks out at us – she points to her Son with one hand, showing us He is the way, the life of the world, and with her other hand cradling her little boy against her. This is our goal: to be saved by the life-giving Passion of Christ, His death and resurrection, and to imitate Mary in her closeness to Jesus Christ.

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Crowning of the Perpetual Help statue at the Assumption Pilgrimage, Enugu, Nigeria 

May our blessed Lady intercede for our parish, our city, our nation, for all Christians, and through her perpetual prayers may all souls come to know Christ through the revelation entrusted to His Church on earth. It is a Church that is being rocked by scandals in a fallen world – a tragic reminder that Jesus left His Church guided by fallen people, not by angels. But the Church has gone through worst times, and emerged purified and triumphant. (If there were more women running diocesan offices, I doubt that the sexual scandals of the last 50 years could have taken place!)

Through the perpetual prayers of our Lady, glorified in heaven body and soul as a sign to us, may we enter into the heavenly court, and may we ourselves be living signs of that destiny and faith to those around us.

PS – Today the Church blesses flowers. Why? According to an ancient legend, when the apostles went to open Mary’s tomb, they found it empty, her body was gone. In its place, were flowers and herbs. Ever since, Christians send flowers to funerals as a sign of our faith in the resurrection of the dead to eternal life. 

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Statue of the deceased Virgin covered in flowers, Poland 

Card from the Assumption pilgrimage, Birkenstein in Bavaria 

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Carrying the statue of Our Lady for her assumption, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, Poland

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