Today is the feast of Mary's assumption into heaven, a belief held by Christians since at least the second century and proclaimed as a dogma of the Catholic Church in 1950 by Pope Pius XII:
"we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”To get a better sense of what this teaching of the Church means and, even more importantly, what its implications are, I would like to share some passages from homilies given by the last three popes on this important marian feast that have given me most joy.
To begin with, St. John Paul II situates the feast of the Assumption not only as a guide for Catholics or Christians, but for all "people of good will" and links it to two themes so central to Pope Francis' teaching: the poor and mercy:
"Taken up into heaven, Mary shows us the way to God, the way to heaven, the way to life. She shows it to her children baptized in Christ and to all people of good will. She opens this way especially to the little ones and to the poor, those who are dear to divine mercy. The Queen of the world reveals to individuals and to nations the power of the love of God whose plan upsets that of the proud, pulls down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the humble, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich empty away (cf. Lk 1:51-53)." (St. John Paul II, 15 August 1999)Pope Benedict XVI then elaborates on what is meant by the destination of Mary's assumption - Heaven - and how this teaching of the Church is central to two important aspects of its world view: that all of what is on earth is destined for salvation and that there is a profound continuity between the here and now and the eternal:
"All of us today are well aware that by the term "Heaven" we are not referring to somewhere in the universe, to a star or such like; no. We mean something far greater and far more difficult to define with our limited human conceptions. With this term "Heaven" we wish to say that God, the God who made himself close to us, does not abandon us in or after death but keeps a place for us and gives us eternity. We mean that in God there is room for us. To understand this reality a little better let us look at our own lives. We all experience that when people die they continue to exist, in a certain way, in the memory and heart of those who knew and loved them. We might say that a part of the person lives on in them but it resembles a "shadow" because this survival in the heart of their loved ones is destined to end. God, on the contrary, never passes away and we all exist by virtue of his love. We exist because he loves us, because he conceived of us and called us to life. We exist in God's thoughts and in God's love. We exist in the whole of our reality, not only in our "shadow". Our serenity, our hope and our peace are based precisely on this: in God, in his thoughts and in his love, it is not merely a "shadow" of ourselves that survives but rather we are preserved and ushered into eternity with the whole of our being in him, in his creator love. It is his Love that triumphs over death and gives us eternity and it is this love that we call "Heaven": God is so great that he also makes room for us. And Jesus the man, who at the same time is God, is the guarantee for us that the being-man and the being-God can exist and live, the one within the other, for eternity.Benedict also traces the belief in Mary's Assumption to her closeness with her Son and, like Francis does in Evangelii Gaudium (§269) with regard to the life and passion of Jesus, explains its deep continuity:
This means that not only a part of each one of us will continue to exist, as it were pulled to safety, while other parts fall into ruin; on the contrary it means that God knows and loves the whole of the human being, what we are. And God welcomes into his eternity what is developing and becoming now, in our life made up of suffering and love, of hope, joy and sorrow. The whole of man, the whole of his life, is taken by God and, purified in him, receives eternity. Dear Friends! I think this is a truth that should fill us with deep joy. Christianity does not proclaim merely some salvation of the soul in a vague afterlife in which all that is precious and dear to us in this world would be eliminated, but promises eternal life, "the life of the world to come". Nothing that is precious and dear to us will fall into ruin; rather, it will find fullness in God. Every hair of our head is counted, Jesus said one day (cf. Mt 10: 30). The definitive world will also be the fulfilment of this earth, as St Paul says: "Creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom 8: 21). Then we understand that Christianity imparts a strong hope in a bright future and paves the way to the realization of this future. We are called, precisely as Christians, to build this new world, to work so that, one day, it may become the "world of God", a world that will surpass all that we ourselves have been able to build. In Mary taken up into Heaven, who fully shares in the Resurrection of the Son, we contemplate the fulfilment of the human creature in accordance with "God's world". (Benedict XVI, 15 August 2010)
"[T]he Mother of God is so deeply integrated into Christ's Mystery that at the end of her earthly life she already participates with her whole self in her Son's Resurrection. She lives what we await at the end of time when the "last enemy" death will have been destroyed (cf. 1 Cor 15: 26); she already lives what we proclaim in the Creed: "We look for the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come". (Benedict XVI, 15 August 2010)Two years later, during the last year of his pontificate, Benedict XVI focuses on what the specific implications of the Assumption are for our life as Christians, and he points to two complementary statements: in God there is room for man, and in man there is room for God:
“But now let us ask ourselves: how does the Assumption of Mary help our journey? The first answer is: in the Assumption we see that in God there is room for man, God himself is the house with many rooms of which Jesus speaks (cf. Jn 14:2); God is man’s home, in God there is God’s space. And Mary, by uniting herself, united to God, does not distance herself from us. She does not go to an unknown galaxy, but whoever approaches God comes closer, for God is close to us all; and Mary, united to God, shares in the presence of God, is so close to us, to each one of us.Finally, Pope Francis, in his first Assumption homily as pope, outlined the strong parallels between Jesus' and Mary's lives, as a result of Mary's unity with her Son, making her not only our Mother, but also our "eldest sister":
There is a beautiful passage from St Gregory the Great on St Benedict that we can apply to Mary too. St Gregory the Great says that the heart of St Benedict expanded so much that all creation could enter it. This is even truer of Mary: Mary, totally united to God, has a heart so big that all creation can enter this heart, and the ex-votos in every part of the earth show it. Mary is close, she can hear us, she can help us, she is close to everyone of us. In God there is room for man and God is close, and Mary, united to God, is very close; she has a heart as great as the heart of God.
But there is also another aspect: in God not only is there room for man; in man there is room for God. This too we see in Mary, the Holy Ark who bears the presence of God. In us there is space for God and this presence of God in us, so important for bringing light to the world with all its sadness, with its problems. This presence is realized in the faith: in the faith we open the doors of our existence so that God may enter us, so that God can be the power that gives life and a path to our existence. In us there is room, let us open ourselves like Mary opened herself, saying: “Let your will be done, I am the servant of the Lord”. By opening ourselves to God, we lose nothing. On the contrary, our life becomes rich and great." (Benedict XVI, 15 August 2012)
"The Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, insists that being Christian means believing that Christ is truly risen from the dead. Our whole faith is based upon this fundamental truth which is not an idea but an event. Even the mystery of Mary's Assumption body and soul is fully inscribed in the resurrection of Christ. The Mother's humanity is "attracted" by the Son in his own passage from death to life. Once and for all, Jesus entered into eternal life with all the humanity he had drawn from Mary; and she, the Mother, who followed him faithfully throughout her life, followed him with her heart, and entered with him into eternal life which we also call heaven, paradise, the Father's house.Thinking about the words of these three popes, what stood out for me is the profound logic of Mary's assumption into heaven - body and soul - and her closeness to all of humanity, and this - in turn - reminded me of a beautiful passage from the intellectual visions that the Servant of God Chiara Lubich had in 1949. There, she one day saw the following image:1
Mary also experienced the martyrdom of the Cross: the martyrdom of her heart, the martyrdom of her soul. She lived her Son's Passion to the depths of her soul. She was fully united to him in his death, and so she was given the gift of resurrection. Christ is the first fruits from the dead and Mary is the first of the redeemed, the first of "those who are in Christ". She is our Mother, but we can also say that she is our representative, our sister, our eldest sister, she is the first of the redeemed, who has arrived in heaven.” (Francis, 15 August 2013)
"Looking at nature, it seems that Jesus has given his new commandment also to it.
I observed two plants and I thought about pollination. Before it happens, the plants grow upward, as if they loved God with their whole being. Then they unite, almost as if they loved one another as the Persons of the Trinity love one another. Out of two they make one single thing. They love to the point of abandonment, to the point of losing - so to speak - their personality like Jesus in His forsakenness.
Then, from the flower that emerges, the fruit is born and, therefore, life continues. It is like the eternal Life of God imprinted in nature.
The Old and New Testaments form a single tree. Its flowering came about in the fullness of time. And the only flower was Mary.
The fruit that followed it was Jesus.
Also the tree of humanity was created in God's image.
In the fullness of time, at the point of blooming, unity came about between heaven and earth and the Holy Spirit married Mary."
1 Apologies for the limitations of the following translation from Italian, which is mine.