Lesson: Ecclesiasticus 24: 7-15. Gospel: Luke 10: 38-42
“And the temple of God was opened in heaven, and there was seen in his temple the ark of the covenant … [T]here appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars … And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne” (Rev. 11:19, 12:1, 12:5).+
I have begun today's sermon with a quotation from the Book of Revelation, rather than either of today's assigned passages. Why? Because here we have the clearest teaching on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Scriptures. In this passage we have two images of a surprising nature, both regarding things located in heaven.
First, there is the presence of the Ark of the Covenant. This was, in ancient days, the gold-plated and beautifully decorated box that contained, among other things, the word of God in the 10 Commandments and a sample of the manna with which God fed the Israelites in the wilderness after they escaped Egypt. This is surprising because this Ark had been lost and missing for centuries by the time Revelation was written. It is also surprising because the author of Revelation, St John, makes no obvious attempt to explain or expand upon this image.
The second image is of the heavenly woman surrounded by sun, moon and stars. Who is she? John does not spell it out explicitly. Some of the imagery could refer to redeemed Israel (cp. Genesis 37:9-11) or to the Church (Revelation 12:17 cp. 2 John 13). But other aspects refer more properly to Mary. This layering of meaning is paralleled in other prophecies in the Bible. The Marian reference is hard to ignore because this woman bears a son who will rule all nations “with a rod of iron”, that is, unquestionable and unbreakable authority, and who rises up to the throne of God. The “rod of iron” phrase is taken from Psalm 2 as part of a section the earliest disciples realised was a prophecy about Christ (Acts 13:33, Hebrews 1:5). And, of course, the one who John knew to have ascended to God's seat of authority was Jesus, as he makes clear earlier in this book (5:6). So, the woman is, at one important level, the very mother of Jesus, Mary. Indeed, twice in St John's Gospel he simply calls his mother “Woman” (John 2:4, 19:26).
But, getting back to the image of the Ark, which immediately precedes that of the Woman, what should we understand by it? This image too has an inescapably Marian reference, once the wider Biblical context is known.
Allow me to quote from a modern Catholic scholar's excellent summary of the biblical comparisons (from Dave Armstrong: http://socrates58.blogspot.com/2009/07/biblical-evidence-for-patristic-analogy.html):
Luke 1:35 (RSV)And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”
The Greek word for overshadow is episkiasei, which describes a bright, glorious cloud. It is used with reference to the cloud of transfiguration of Jesus (Mt 17:5; Mk 9:7; Lk 9:34) and also has a connection to the shekinah glory of God in the Old Testament (Ex 24:15-16; 40:34-38; 1 Ki 8:10). Mary is, therefore, in effect, the new temple and holy of holies, where God was present in a special fashion. In fact, Scripture draws many parallels between Mary, the “ark of the new covenant” and the ark of the (old) covenant:
Exodus 40:34-35 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
The Greek Septuagint translation uses the same word, episkiasei, in this passage.
1 Kings 8:6-11 Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim. For the cherubim spread out their wings over the place of the ark, so that the cherubim made a covering above the ark and its poles. And the poles were so long that the ends of the poles were seen from the holy place before the inner sanctuary; but they could not be seen from outside; and they are there to this day. There was nothing in the ark except the two tables of stone which Moses put there at Horeb, where the LORD made a covenant with the people of Israel, when they came out of the land of Egypt. And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD.
More direct parallels occur as well:
2 Samuel 6:9 And David was afraid of the LORD that day; and he said, “How can the ark of the LORD come to me?”
Luke 1:43 And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
2 Samuel 6:14,16 And David danced before the LORD with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod. . . . King David leaping and dancing before the LORD . . .
1 Chronicles 15:29 And as the ark of the covenant of the LORD came to the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David dancing and making merry . . .
Luke 1:44 For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy.
2 Samuel 6:10-11 So David was not willing to take the ark of the LORD into the city of David; but David took it aside to the house of O'bed-e'dom the Gittite. And the ark of the LORD remained in the house of O'bed-e'dom the Gittite three months . . .
Luke 1:39,56 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, . . . And Mary remained with her about three months, and returned to her home.
Then there is the powerful witness of St Athanasius, one of the greatest theologians of the early Church, speaking of Mary: “You are greater than them all O [Ark of the] Covenant, clothed with purity instead of gold! You are the ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which divinity resides”. Athanasius saw the clear connection between the literal Ark containing the word and bread of God and our Lady, who contained in her womb the One who was declared to be the Word and the Bread in John's Gospel (John 1:14, 6:33, 35).
Therefore, the Assumption of St Mary into heaven, body and soul, is implied by the book of Revelation, since she is clearly present in heaven. While some other references to departed Christians in this book talk specifically of their “souls” (e.g., 6:9), these Marian images are strikingly and robustly physical in connotation as well as spiritual. It was not Mary's soul alone that acted as the Ark of the New Covenant! In this context this verse from Psalm 132:8 is seen to be another prophecy of Christ and Mary: “Arise, O Lord, into thy rest; thou, and the ark of thy strength.”
There are other pieces of biblical evidence which could be considered [including comparison of the Protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15 with Revelation 12], but we should also look briefly at the evidence from Tradition. A number of scholars have pointed out that evidence for the doctrine in the Fathers is missing for the first few centuries of church history, and that when it does first appear in the literature a bodily assumption is not explicitly mentioned, but one of the soul. Also, the accounts we have are normally assessed as apocryphal. Nevertheless, the perpetual absence of a tradition of relics or an occupied burial site associated with the Blessed Virgin’s body is extremely suggestive when compared to the traditions associated with many other less important Saints, despite this being an argument from silence. Also, some scholars believe there is additional artistic confirmation of the belief from a period earlier than the relatively late-appearing written tradition. When the Fathers do eventually write about the Assumption, the Church's acceptance becomes virtually universal. Clear affirmation of the Assumption can be found in Fathers as diversely located as St Gregory of Tours and St John of Damascus.
While the Assumption has perhaps not been explicitly revealed in Scripture and does not strictly satisfy the Vincentian Canon (by having been taught constantly by virtually the whole Church), it is Scriptural and part of the Church's mature theological reflection and of its devotion. Thus, it cannot be considered equivalent to a creedal truth, and so a “dogma” in the sense that word had for the early Church and has for us and the Eastern Orthodox. But it should be considered to be a true element of Holy Tradition which we share joyfully with the rest of the Catholic Church, past and present.
Why does the Assumption of Our Lady matter to us? What can we learn from it? The Assumption gives a prototype of the glorification of the body that awaits all Christians, but also because it shows the distinct blessedness of the Immaculate Mother. The resurrection and elevation to heavenly bliss is a promise made to all Christians (1 Thessalonians 4:4:16-17), so the Assumption should not be looked on as a distant, untouchable glory but a token of joys to come. On the other hand, there is no doubt that Mary's privilege of being taken almost straight away is a reflection of her special character and role. What we can also learn from the Assumption is the more of the similarity and the difference between our divine Lord and his creaturely Mother. Both rise to be with God, but Christ ascends (an active verb) by his own power, whereas the Mary is assumed (a passive verb). This reflects the relationship of all Christians to Christ. He is the giver, we are the receivers, saved by grace. Perhaps most importantly, we can learn from the Assumption yet another reason to praise and worship God for his majesty, wisdom and mercy. The last verse of chapter 12 reveals one particularly lovely aspect of this. Christians suffering the warfare of the Devil are said to be “the remnant of her seed”. The Blessed Virgin Mary really is our Mother too, and Jesus is our brother. Doubt not that she loves you and prays for you. Doubt not that he is pleased to incorporate you into his family and make you worthy children of God. +