1939. Hardly twenty years had passed from what had been thought of as the ‘war to end all wars’. As Pope Pius XII ascended to the chair of St Peter, the bloodiest war in human history was just starting to break out. His reign would span some of the most agonising years for the Church and the world. It directly involved more than 100 million people from over 30 countries, resulting in around 75 million fatalities. It was marked by some of the worst human excesses and suffering – genocides (including the Holocaust), massacres, premeditated deaths from starvation – not to mention, people dying from disease. Six years later it would end in an equally horrifying manner. For the first time, a nuclear weapon would be used in war, as America deployed its new atomic bomb on Hiroshima and with Japan still refusing to surrender, onto Nagasaki. Finally, seventy-five years ago, on this day, the 15th August, 1945, Emperor Hirohito would unconditionally surrender citing the devastating power of “a new and most cruel bomb”.
WWII exposed the lie of all kinds of (near) atheistic philosophies of the Enlightenment and showed the world just how wretched man was, when left to his own devices. The Enlightenment philosophers dreamt of perpetual peace in the world and of continuous historical progress by man, and man alone. It would come about through the exaltation of reason and man’s liberation from all that shackled him – starting with God. God was at best, an overpowering Father who kept his children immature, or worse, a cosmic tyrant bent on destroying man’s freedom and needed to be fought. The Enlightenment would bring about a time where justice would flourish and there would be no need for punishment.
And at the end of WWII, man found himself, as one theologian noted, in a ‘disintegrating culture…[an age especially] characterised by two marks…: cruelty and carnality’. He would be more prophetic than he realised. To a generation overwhelmed by the cruelty they had witnessed, Pius XII placed before them, the ‘woman clothed with the sun’ glorified in body and soul. He wanted to give man hope, to lift his eyes to heaven, to the glory that God wanted to bestow on one who found himself miserable and humbled. A renewal of belief in the resurrection of the body and eternal life would in turn reaffirm the value of the human body and reject rampant sensuality. The Virgin Mary’s fortitude and chastity were upheld as an encouragement to the faithful in their search for sanctification in and through their particular Christian vocation. The Catholic Church began to emerge from this catastrophic setting finding it’s unity of purpose under the mantle of Mary. She was the first fruits of Christ’s redemption and the perfect symbol of embodied, glorified life of complete personhood.
Cruelty however, would subside only for carnality to erupt. Only three years after the promulgation of the doctrine, Hugh Hefner would start his magazine unleashing the pornographic revolution; the sexual revolution would go into full swing in about ten years. What can the doctrine of the Assumption do to address the lie behind these excesses, alive and well today? Let me draw out only two implications, and maybe a third.
The Glory of the Body: As the bombs exploded over Japan, many people were instantly vapourised. Their flesh was burnt away by the intensity of the explosion. Those were followed by many whose bodies were deformed by the radiation and/or those who died much more slower, agonising deaths. And at this time, the Church put forward the glory of the body – it’s true destiny. In Mary, one could see the glory that God wanted to bestow on man; she was the first fruits of Christ’s redemption and the perfection of embodied, glorified and complete personhood. Our bodies are meant to be deified – transformed by the love and power of God. Man is a union of body and soul. He is not spirit living inside a body, he is some-body; and without body or soul, he cannot be a person. It is not surprising that such cruelty was followed immediately by carnality, because the lies which informed these events were the same. When the body is devalued, one can be extremely ascetic, with an intention to ‘escape’ the prison of the body (cruelty); equally, one can give in to pleasure without restraint (carnality) as what one does in the body does not matter. But matter directly affects spirit and spirit affects matter. Man’s freedom, so highly valued by the Enlightenment, is affected by the body; freedom is not confined to the spirit. Which brings us to the second point.
Man’s freedom and God’s faithfulness: Mary’s assumption exposes the lie of much modernity which sought to drive God away to establish man’s freedom. A slogan like ‘my body, my choice’ does not arise in a vacuum. It encapsulates the lies of the Evil One propagated throughout modernity. From the beginning, Mary’s life was a simple and complete ‘yes’ to God. There was nothing she kept for herself. And in her, God reveals his love and faithfulness, precisely through her body. The completely gentle, non-violent nature of God is seen in Mary being exalted, fully human, fully a woman, fully a virgin, even as God is born of her own flesh. She is the perfect example of the flawless participation between God’s action and human freedom. What she could never have become by herself – the greatest of new creation, the most powerful creature on earth and heaven – she becomes precisely through giving her freedom to God.
The Woman and the Serpent: In Mary’s glorification, the ancient battle between the woman and the serpent (Gen 3:15) reaches its apocalyptic climax. In Mary is seen the dignity of the body, but even more so of the woman’s body. It is not coincidental that the declaration of the Assumption was immediately followed by the unleashing of the pornographic revolution, which has been so instrumental in attacking, degrading and violating, precisely, the woman’s body. Why does the serpent target the woman’s body so much? Because, in desecrating the sanctuary within her, he can try and destroy her seed. And even if the Seed of the Woman has already crushed him, his war continues, ‘against the rest of her seed’ (Rev 12:17). And to the rest of her seed, harassed by Satan, Mary comes in glory, magnificently with the all-powerful help of Christ and the heavenly court. She is the greatest weapon in our war against the dragon. It is not without reason, that the Church has always found refuge in Mary during the times of it’s greatest battles. In the exaltation of Mary is the exaltation of the whole church, of which she is the perfection and its first member. In Mary, we already have our victory. We have great hope, because in her heart we are enfolded and protected by her love. In heaven, we have a Mother, the New Eve. She could not be present to everyone on earth, but in her Assumption, she is fully present, with her mother’s care and love to each of us, in our daily struggles. It is summarised best in one of the most beautiful paragraphs in Vatican II’s document on the Church:
“This motherhood of Mary in the economy of grace lasts without interruption… to the perpetual consummation of all the elect. For after being assumed into heaven, she has not put aside this saving function, but by her manifold intercession, she continues to win the gifts of eternal salvation for us. By her motherly love, she takes care of the brothers of her Son who are still in pilgrimage and in dangers and difficulties, until they be led through to the happy fatherland. For this reason, the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adiutrix, and Mediatrix….[without either taking] away from… [or adding] anything to the dignity and efficaciousness of Christ, the one Mediator.” (Lumen Gentium, 62)
With this confidence, let us pray:
Open to us the gates of your compassion, O Holy Theotokos, as you are translated from earth to heaven this day. Your soul is taken up in the divine hands of Your Son, and we rejoice with angelic singing. You are brightly adorned with every virtue,and you have entered into the heavenly kingdom. By your example, may we prepare our souls to be the dwelling place of the Lord, by continual repentance and by striving to embody Christian virtue. Entreat your Son, O Holy Mother of God, that He will ever preserve us and save us from the hostile assaults of this corrupt world. By your intercession, O Holy Theotokos, may we experience communion with the very things we praise this day, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.