Assumption of the BVM
15 August 2018
A formal and necessary part of Catholic faith is our belief that God has blessed Mary with certain privileges. These privileges bring salvation to Mary and they come purely from the generosity of the Holy Trinity and the desire of God that we have full life with Him. These privileges are an answer to the Original Sin of Adam and Eve, and so they are part of God’s plan to make it possible for mankind to have eternal salvation. All the privileges of Mary stem from her first or main privilege, namely that God chose her to be the Mother of the Son. In the Assumption we express our Catholic faith that at the end of her earthly life Mary, having been preserved from sin from the first moment of her life and having chosen to live sinless her entire life, was rescued from the decay of the tomb and brought up body and soul into heavenly life.
The first reading of this solemnity opens with the apocalyptic vision of St. John from the Book of Revelation. What St. John saw sets the tone for how the Church understands his vision, Mary’s unique role in salvation, and what we believe about today’s solemnity. The first reading began, “God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant could be seen in the temple.” And coinciding with this vision of the ark and the heavenly temple is what St. John reports next: “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” If you look at the citation of that first reading you would see that it is basically a portion of chapter 12 of Revelation. However, the Church backs the reading up one verse, to include the final verse of chapter 11. Why include the last verse of chapter 11? Because the Church wants to instruct us on how the faith has viewed Mary from ancient times. She is the fulfillment of the Ark of the Covenant. She is the New Ark. Today, observing our faith that upon the end of her life Mary was taken up body and soul into heaven, the Church wants us to hear what St. John saw in his vision: that heaven opened and there in the temple where God dwells and is worshiped St. John also saw the ark.
The Catholic faith always reads major Old Testament figures, objects, and events as precursors that foreshadow a fulfillment to come in the New Covenant. An Old Testament type or figure points to its New Covenant fulfillment. Thus, a New Covenant fulfillment is always necessarily greater than its Old Testament type. So, looking at what the Old Testament tells us about the original ark of the covenant tells us that Mary, in being its fulfillment, is greater still! In summary, the ark of the covenant in the Old Testament was the dwelling place of God with His people Israel; the ark was His sanctuary on earth (Ex. 25:8). The ark was the sacred chest, the container that carried within it those precious signs that were incarnations of God’s presence and promise: the ark contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 25:16), a golden urn containing the manna, and the staff of Aaron that had budded as a sign of the priesthood. The ark was made of acacia wood (Ex. 25:5), which was known as a hardy, incorruptible wood. The ark was covered in pure gold, and veiled in a cloth of blue (Num. 4:5-6). This should sound familiar and get us thinking about Mary. The ark of the covenant remained with God’s people and moved with them. It was placed in the holy of holies in the sanctuary. Finally, the Israelites would not face their enemies without carrying the ark of the covenant into battle with them; it was the reminder, the sign, and the proof that God was with them in battle.
Mary’s first privilege from God, that she was chosen by Him to be the mother of His Son, tells us that for all the reverence and care for the ark of the Old Covenant, Mary is greater still for she is the New Ark. As fitting as it was that the ark of the old covenant be placed in the holy of holies, how much more does it make sense that God’s chosen daughter, and the vessel of the Incarnation of the Son, should be preserved from the corruption of the grave and dwell in God’s presence in the temple where He is worshiped? Thus, the choice by the Church to have us listen to St. John’s vision in the first reading tells us something important about Mary and helps us situate our faith in her assumption within the context of where the ark should rightfully dwell.
Since the Gospels do not record an account of the assumption, the Church chooses the Gospel of the Visitation. That choice deserves some attention. There are similarities in the passage of the Visitation that hearken back to King David’s triumphal transfer of the ark of the old covenant into Jerusalem, recorded in the Book of 2 Samuel 6. There we read that David rose and went to the hill country of Judah to bring up the ark of God. David exclaims, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” He leaped before the ark as it was brought into the city with joyful shouting. Considering this joy before the ark of God’s dwelling we can appreciate the devastation when, upon exile, the ark disappears and is not seen again. With this in mind, the Gospel of the Visitation has been read by the Church for centuries as an account of the ark’s return to be with God’s people. This is fulfilled in Mary who is carrying God-incarnate in her womb. She goes out to the hill country of Judah to visit Elizabeth. Before the presence of God contained in the ark of Mary, John leapt in his mother’s womb. Elizabeth cries out in joy and asks how can the mother of my Lord come to me?
In celebrating Mary we are reminded that God is with us. As the New Ark, Mary fulfills to a greater extent than the signs of old that God is with us because she contained not just the old types of the commandments (God’s Word in stone), the manna, and the staff of priesthood, but God’s Word-made-flesh, the Bread of Life come down from heaven, the one Who is the great and eternal High Priest. Facing the many enemies of the Church without and within, we carry her into battle trusting the power of her prayers for us and knowing that she is the ark that tells us God is with us. Finally, we not only celebrate her rightful dwelling in the heavenly temple, but we find in our faith in her assumption a reminder of God’s loving invitation to us that we follow the life of grace so that we may take up our place in the vision seen by St. John, the heavens opened for us by the Savior who came to us through the New Ark, Mary assumed body and soul into heaven.