Scripture and the Liturgy

The Solemnity of the Assumption!

Well, I dropped the ball last week and never posted any commentary for the Sunday Readings, so I’m trying to get this up early this week, as this coming Sunday is a Big One: the Solemnity of the Assumption!

The Assumption has a unique set of Readings for the Vigil Mass, and those are all in my new book, The Word of the Lord: Solemnities and Feasts which you can purchase here. Which has the obvious advantage that it contains the full commentary for every fixed Solemnity or major Feast and you are not dependent on my posting in time!

Having said all that, here’s my comments for the Solemnity of the Assumption:

I moved my family onto the campus of the University of Notre Dame in the Fall of 1999 to begin a doctoral program in Scripture, never anticipating the events that would transpire from this fateful decision.  One of the first persons I met on campus had three qualities I never thought I’d find in one person: he was full of the Holy Spirit, highly intelligent, and Catholic.  Why didn’t he explode, since he was a living contradiction?  I decided to meet regularly with him to show him the “error of his ways,” and help him out of the Catholic Church. 

However, I quickly found the tables turned on me, because my newfound friend was able to answer almost any objection I had against the Catholic Church, usually be reference to the Bible.  One day I was so frustrated by his ability to counter my attacks using Scripture, I suddenly came up with what I thought was a brilliant argument: “Show me one text of Scripture that lends support to Mary being Queen of Heaven!!” I almost shouted.  He responded by turning to our First Reading for this Solemnity of the Assumption, namely, Revelation 12.  More on that below.

This Sunday is one of the greatest Marian Feasts, and on it we read strategic texts that enable us to create a biblical theology of Mary.  Our Reading point to Mary’s role as Ark of the New Covenant and Queen Mother of the House of David. 

Our First Reading is the one my Catholic friend showed me in Fall of 1999: Rev. 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab:

God’s temple in heaven was opened,
and the ark of his covenant could be seen in the temple.

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.
She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth.
Then another sign appeared in the sky;
it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns,
and on its heads were seven diadems.
Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky
and hurled them down to the earth.
Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth,
to devour her child when she gave birth.
She gave birth to a son, a male child,
destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod.
Her child was caught up to God and his throne.
The woman herself fled into the desert
where she had a place prepared by God.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:
“Now have salvation and power come,
and the Kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Anointed One.”

The first thing we notice is that the reading is prefaced with the announcement that “God’s Temple was opened … and the ark of the covenant was visible in the Temple …”  But then, without missing a beat, the author proceeds to describe a “woman clothed with the sun” in the very place we were expecting a description of the ark itself.  Why is this? Because the woman is the ark, as we discussed in the Vigil readings, which begin with the Chroniclers’ account of the ark being taken up in to Jerusalem. 

The woman is described as being in the heavens: clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars. The imagery is being drawn from the Song of Songs, which was all about the beauty and romance of the royal princess (cf. Song 6:10).  The twelve stars are for the twelve tribes of Israel, so she is the queen of Israel, royal mother of the House of David.  In ancient Israel, it was not the wife of the king who reigned, but the king’s mother.  However, not only is she the queen of Israel, but she is a cosmic queen—queen of the universe, because the heavenly bodies serve as her clothing and adornment. 

The pangs of the woman in birth are not physical pangs, as we believe that the Blessed Mother was freed from those, but the interior pain of participating in the birth of the mystical body of Christ, the Church.  The red dragon is a sign of Satan as well as a sign of the Roman Empire and its system, which controlled Judea through the puppet kings of the Herodian dynasty.  The attempt to kill the messianic child upon its birth represents the effort to kill the infant Church, but also the effort to kill the Christ child due to the satanically-influenced actions of Herod (Matt 2:16). 

The son, the “male child destined to rule the nations with a rod of iron,” is clearly the Davidic Messiah prophesied by Psalm 2:7-9, in other words, Jesus.  “Caught up to God and his throne” is the Ascension of the Lord.  The fleeing of the woman to a special place refers to God’s special protection of the Blessed Mother and the early Church—we think of the flight into the deserts of Egypt, and later the flight to Nazareth, a tiny hamlet “off the grid” in the poor, hilly backwaters of Galilee.  The Assumption is the ultimate expression of God’s rescuing the Blessed Mother from the dangers of Satan and his manifestations. Satan cannot prevent the kingdom of God from being established on earth: “Now salvation and power have come, and the kingdom of our God!”  It reminds us of Jesus’ preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of God has drawn near!”  That kingdom is manifested in the Church.

This woman, then, is the mother of the Messiah: Mary of Nazareth.  Some say, “No, she is only a symbol of Israel (or the Church),” but these interpretations will not work.  Israel did precede Christ and could be thought of as Christ’s “mother,” but Israel was not whisked away and spared from the onslaught of the beast the way this woman was.  Likewise, the woman cannot be the Church, because Jesus gives birth to the Church, not the Church to Jesus.  No, just as the dragon is an individual, Satan, who also represents a group (the powers in league with him), and just as the child is an individual, Jesus, who also represents a group (the Church), so the woman is an individual, Mary, who also represents a group (the faithful remnant of the people of Israel, who received the Messiah).

I had never thought of the Marian implications of this passage before September 1999, but once seen, it is hard to rule it out. How can one insist that a passage that portrays Jesus being born of a heavenly queen can’t possibly be saying anything about Jesus’ actual mother?  No, it cannot be ruled out.  The Marian interpretation of this passage is viable and, once Mary is recognized as the icon of the faithful people of God in both old and new covenants, then it becomes compelling.

Our responsorial Psalm 45:10-12, 16:

R. (10bc) The queen stands at your right hand, arrayed in gold.
The queen takes her place at your right hand in gold of Ophir.
R. The queen stands at your right hand, arrayed in gold.
Hear, O daughter, and see; turn your ear,
forget your people and your father’s house.
R. The queen stands at your right hand, arrayed in gold.
So shall the king desire your beauty;
for he is your lord.
R. The queen stands at your right hand, arrayed in gold.
They are borne in with gladness and joy;
they enter the palace of the king.
R. The queen stands at your right hand, arrayed in gold.

Psalm 45 is the “Royal Wedding Psalm,” and it is unlike any other psalm in the Psalter; in fact, it is closer in style and diction to the Song of Songs than to any other Psalm.  Psalm 45 is a minstrel’s song sung addressed to the bridegroom king and the princess-bride in Solomon’s court.  Two royal women show up in the Psalm: the “queen” who “stands are your right hand, arrayed in gold.”  This is the Queen Mother, who is a type of Mary as the Mother of Jesus, King of the Universe.  The other royal woman is the princess-bride. It is to her that all but the first verse of our responsorial are addressed.  Lines like “Hear, O daughter, and see; turn your ear, forget your people and your father’s house” are addressed to the foreign-born princess who is about to become the wife of Solomon and thus take an elite place in ancient Near Eastern society.  She, too, is a type of the Blessed Mother, who is the “spouse of the Spirit,” bound in a complex nuptial relationship with God. 

Mary’s assumption into heaven, where she is enthroned in the presence of her royal son, is perhaps easiest to comprehend as the anti-type of the Queen Mother who stood by Solomon in robes of gold.  The princess-bride may be thought of as a type for the rest of Christians, who have not yet been glorified like our beloved Queen Mother Mary, but can be raised to that status if we embrace the nuptial relationship with Christ the King offered to us through the Sacraments.

Our Second Reading is 1 Cor 15:20-27:

Brothers and sisters:
Christ has been raised from the dead,
the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
For since death came through man,
the resurrection of the dead came also through man.
For just as in Adam all die,
so too in Christ shall all be brought to life,
but each one in proper order:
Christ the firstfruits;
then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ;
then comes the end,
when he hands over the Kingdom to his God and Father,
when he has destroyed every sovereignty
and every authority and power.
For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
The last enemy to be destroyed is death,
for “he subjected everything under his feet.”

The Blessed Mother and the truths about her are the beautiful feminine complement to all the truths about Christ that are expressed in this passage. If Jesus Christ is the sun, then his Mother is the moon, perfectly reflecting the truth and doctrine of his person and mission.  If Christ is the firstfruits from the dead, the Blessed Mother in her assumption are the “secondfruits,” if you will.  If death came through a man, Adam, it also came through a woman, Eve.  And if the resurrection came through a man, Jesus Christ, then resurrection also comes through a woman, Mary. We can recast Paul’s words in the feminine: “As in Eve all die, so in Mary shall all be brought to life.”  Mary has gone before us, an “advance” or foretaste of the truth that “those who belong to Christ” will be brought to life at his coming. We are living in an interim, where a battle is going on, in which Christ is destroying “every sovereignty and every authority and power” and putting “all his enemies under his feet.”  This is spiritual warfare, and it goes on in the interim period, which is why we speak of the “Church militant.”  The last enemy is death, but for his Mother, Jesus neutralized this enemy in advance, in the extraordinary grace of the assumption. 

Paul quotes Ps 8:6, which says of the Son of Man, “you put all things under his feet.”  There may also be an echo here of Ps 110:1: “Sit at my right hand till I make your enemies a footstool.”  Both of these Psalms are speaking of the royal son of David, to whom God promised universal dominion.  Mary shares in that dominion as the Mother of the King.  So we see that the theme of the royal Davidic covenant unites all the Readings.

Our Gospel is Luke 1:39-56:

Mary set out
and traveled to the hill country in haste
to a town of Judah,
where she entered the house of Zechariah
and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting,
the infant leaped in her womb,
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit,
cried out in a loud voice and said,
“Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,
the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.”

I’m going to stop the Reading here and comment: We have at least two typological themes operating in this Gospel.  The first is the Ark of the Covenant.  When Luke speaks of Mary “going up into the hill country of Judah” and of John the Baptist “leaping” in Elizabeth’s womb, he is using language and images from the famous account of David’s bringing the Ark up into Jerusalem, recounted in 2 Samuel 6 and 1 Chronicles 15—it was our First Reading for the Vigil.  David brings the Ark up into the hill country of Judah, to Jerusalem, and he “leaps” and dances before the Ark wearing a linen ephod, a priestly garment.  In this interesting typological relationship, both David and John the Baptist are cast in the role of priestly figures leaping and celebrating before the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant, the seat of God’s presence.  Just as we saw in our First Reading from Revelation, Mary is cast in the role of the New Ark. 

Elizabeth exclaims: “Blessed are you among women!”  This is a Hebraism or Aramaism.  Neither Hebrew nor Aramaic have superlative forms (e.g. “best,” “most,” “fastest”).  To construct them, they predicate an adjective and then express a context, i.e. “You are strong among men” means “You are the strongest man.”  So Elizabeth actually means: “You are the most blessed of all women!”  That concept extends to the next predication as well, so the “fruit of her womb” is also “most blessed.” 

Then Elizabeth, although much older and of a higher social caste in Judean society, shows deference to her younger, poorer cousin: “Why is this granted to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?”  Elizabeth treats Mary like a Queen, namely, like the Queen Mother, and uses a term for the Queen Mother: “Mother of my Lord.”  We modern readers are not sensitive to these subtleties, because we don’t live in a royalty.  In hindsight, it amazes me that for thirty years I lived as a Protestant and confessed that Jesus was King of the Universe, etc. but considered his mother to be an ordinary commoner.  That simply is not possible in the ancient world or modern, for that matter!  In ancient times, the mother of the king or emperor had enormous influence (as perusal of the histories of the times will show), and her position was often formalized with titles and honors, as it was in the ancient Kingdom of David. The fact that Mary would bear the Messiah, Son of David, Lord of Lord and King of Kings, necessarily made her and makes her the Queen of Creation, over all that her son rules.  Yet there is no competition between Mother and Son because, as an example to all her subjects, she is completely deferential to God’s Word, which is her Son.

That is why Elizabeth commends her: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Elizabeth identifies why it is that Mary is blessed: not merely because of her physical relationship, the womb that bore and the breasts that nursed, but because of her faith. The Sacred Scriptures hold up to us Mary as a woman of faith, and example of faith to all disciples—Catholic, Protestant or indifferent!  Every baptized person who reads the Scriptures has to admit, if he or she is using the proper means of interpretation, that she is held up as an example, perhaps the example, of faith in God’s Word. She undoes Eve’s lack of faith, who listened to the Serpent and doubted that she would “truly die” when she ate of the fruit, and doubted God’s love and benevolence toward her, and ended disobeying and contradicting the divine Word.

We continue the Gospel Reading with the Magnificat.  This is one of only two times it is read in the Lectionary for Sundays and Feasts:

And Mary said:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

Here the Blessed Mother shows her humility, because she says literally in Greek: “He has looked upon the humility of his female slave.”

From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me
and holy is his Name.

Here she picks up on a theme from the Canticle of the Valiant Woman (Prov. 31:10-31), esp. the last few verses: “Her children rise up and call her blessed;

her husband also, and he praises her: ‘Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.’ Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised” (Prov. 31:28-30).  Mary is the woman of excellent character who is so precious and hard to find (Prov. 31:10).

He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.

“Mercy” here means “covenantal love and faithfulness, the loving fidelity or faithful love characteristic of persons bound in a sacred covenant.” It is Greek eleos, “mercy,” translating Hebrew hesed, an untranslatable word.

He has shown the strength of his arm,
and has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

Here we see themes from Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10.  The two canticles are very similar.  Hannah’s name means “Grace” in Hebrew. So in 1 Samuel 1-2, the woman whose name means “grace” conceives miraculously and gives birth to a prophet who is left at the sanctuary to become a priest and save his people.  And in Luke 1-2, a woman who is “full of grace” repeats that same sequence of experiences.  And the sacred songs of thanksgiving of both women are full of common themes.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children (lit. “his seed”) forever.”

Mary remained with her about three months
and then returned to her home.

The “promise of his mercy” is a covenantal concept—Mary is speaking of the covenant to Abraham, which she describes as “the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his seed forever.”  She refers to Genesis 22:15-18, God’s oath after Isaac was offered on the altar (a figure of Calvary), when God said to Abraham, “Because you have done this, and not withheld from me your only begotten son, I will surely bless you … and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (adapted from RSVCE2). So the Blessed Mother is a good biblical theologian!  She knows that in her womb is the “seed” that was promised to Abraham, who will bring blessing to all the nations!  There are three “seeds” in the OT: the seed of the woman who will crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15), the seed of Abraham who will bring blessing to all the nations, and the seed of David who will rule over an eternal kingdom (2 Sam 7:12, the zerah or “seed”, usually translated “offspring”). Jesus is all three seeds!  He is the seed of the woman, since no male seed was involved in his conception.  Mary identifies him as the seed of Abraham here. And he is certainly the seed of David, as all the Readings have made clear. 

The point is that in the Magnificat, Mary the good biblical theologian recognizes that what is taking place within her is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to his people over thousands of years.  She is identifying her place in God’s plan and in his promises.  This is a gift of insight from the Holy Spirit that we need as well: to identify how our lives and our current experiences fit into God’s plan of salvation that he has been working for all time.  May the mystery of the Assumption increase our faith that God has a place for each one of us in his good plan to save us, and may the Holy Spirit help us to identify what that place is!

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