In the year 2000, I traveled to the Holy Land and to Italy on a pilgrimage that was a gift from two friends in honor of my Silver Jubilee of Ordination. All I was expected to do was to celebrate the Eucharist every other day while on the pilgrimage (another priest was also making the trip).
When we got to Jerusalem and started to explore the various sites, our tour leader led us to an underground cavern which contained the reputed tomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Several of the pilgrims were visibly upset and pulled me aside asking how this could be since we believe that Mary was assumed, body and soul, into heaven. Like so many, they thought this meant that the Blessed Virgin never tasted death. I assured them that the tomb was a fit object of veneration and explained that Mary did in fact die. However, after her body was laid in the tomb, she was assumed into heaven by her Son, Jesus. In fact, the Solemnity that we know as the Feast of the Assumption is known by another name in some Eastern rites. These Catholics refer to this feast as the Dormition of Mary, the day on which she “fell asleep.”
The Catholic Church teaches as dogma that the Virgin Mary "having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory". This doctrine was dogmatically defined by Pope Pius XII on November 1, 1950, in the apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus by exercising papal infallibility.
The first reading for this feast accentuates the image of Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant. Just as the Ark of the Sinai Covenant contained artifacts that revealed the identity of God to the children of Israel, Mary carried within her body the final revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ.
St. Paul writes to the Corinthians explaining that Jesus is the first fruit of the Resurrection. It follows logically that if Jesus is first, there must be a second and a third, etc. If Jesus were the only one to experience the Resurrection, he would be called the “only fruit” rather than the first fruit.
In the Gospel we read of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth in which we hear the hymn that we pray every day in our Evening Prayer, a hymn that reminds us that God’s gift of holiness, even the holiness of the Blessed Mother, is a gift of God, not something that we earn but something that is freely given.
Catholics have celebrated the Assumption of Mary since the 4th Century, A.D. It has long been part of the piety and spirituality of the Church that Mary is the first to experience what is in store for all believers. It is, after all, only fitting that the woman who bore the Son of God in her womb should reap the full benefits of our redemption before everyone else.
This summer feast day is a reminder that we are all destined for life eternal. The Eucharist we celebrate is a foretaste of what heaven will be like, but only a foretaste since no one can even conceive what our life with God will be after we too have fallen asleep in the Lord.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Moderator