The Assumption: The Loveliest of Feasts
Rationalists deride the doctrine of the Assumption, says Fr. Peter Mullen. But we should proclaim it boldly.
Many suspect that the Assumption of Our Lady is one of those superstitious aspects - despite the fact that the observance of this feast day is universal in both eastern and western churches.
The Assumption is not mentioned in the New Testament but there are many references to it in the so-called apocryphal gospels. For example, in an early Coptic text attributed to Evodius, described as first Bishop of Antioch and said to have been among the 72 disciples who followed Christ with St Peter, there is the following account.
"The chariot of the cherubim appeared with the Virgin seated in it. There were greetings. Jesus bade the apostles go and preach in all the world. He spent all that day with us and his Mother and gave us the salutation of peace and went up to heaven in glory. Such was the death of the Virgin on 21st of the month Tobi and her Assumption on 16th of the month Mesore. I, Evodius, saw it all."
The first really firm and reliable record is that of St Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, at the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451. St Juvenal told the Emperor Marcian and his wife Pulcheria - who had requested they be allowed to possess the body of the Blessed Virgin - that Mary had died in the presence of all the apostles but that her tomb, when opened, was found to be empty. The apostles concluded that she had been taken up bodily into heaven. Other ancient pious traditions claim that the Assumption took place at Ephesus, where Mary had lived into her old age with St John the beloved disciple.
By the time of Pope Sergius I (c AD 700), commemoration of the Assumption was one of the principal feast days in Rome and always a holy day of obligation. In 863 Pope Nicholas made the feast equal to Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. The historicity of the Assumption was argued by St Thomas Aquinas and St Albertus Magnus.
But I suppose doubts arise because it was not until Pope Pius XII issued the Bull Munificentissimus Deus on November 1 1950 that the Assumption was declared an infallible dogma of the Catholic Faith. Sceptics asked why it had taken so long for the Church to notice something so incontrovertibly true. Pope Pius's declaration was underscored by the Second Vatican Council: "The Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of Original Sin, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, when her earthly life was over, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things."
Logically and theologically, the Assumption is a deduction from the Immaculate Conception and, of course, from the Incarnation itself when the Blessed Virgin, according to the will of the First Person of the Trinity, bore in her body the Second Person of the Trinity by the operation of the Third Person of the Trinity.
Most ordinary Catholics have, it seems, throughout the ages tended to agree with G K Chesterton's remark about which parts of the Faith they love the most: for the Assumption has always been one of the most popular of all the festivals. I have been thrilled and delighted in Spain, Italy and Portugal on the Feast of the Assumption when towns and villages are decorated for a fiesta and the local statue of Our Lady is carried down from the hills to the beat of drums and the sounding of trumpets. Fireworks and dancing in the evening and the celebrations can last for days.
One of the most interesting commentaries on all this in recent years is that of the great psychologist C G Jung in his book Answer to Job (1952). Jung, the Protestant, was delighted when Pope Pius declared the Assumption to be an infallible dogma because, he said, it answered one of the profoundest needs of the human psyche: the incorporation of the feminine.
He wrote: "The Pope has recently announced the dogma of the Assumptio Mariae, very much to the astonishment of all rationalists. Mary as the bride is united with her Son in the heavenly bridal chamber, and as Sophia (wisdom) with the Godhead."
Jung coined the term "Collective Unconscious" to denote the deep psychological needs and longings of our civilisation and culture - which, of course, for 2,000 years has been formed by Christianity. This Collective Unconscious, Jung said, needs to be kept in homeostasis (balance). He thought this balance had been skewed in favour of masculine principles and archetypes. The proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption went a long way towards redressing this balance by introducing the feminine aspect.
"Anyone who has followed with attention the visions of Mary which have been increasing in number over the last few decades, and has taken their psychological significance into account, might have known what was brewing," he wrote. "The fact especially that it was largely children who had the visions might have given pause for thought; for in such cases the Collective Unconscious is always at work. Incidentally, the Pope himself is rumoured to have had several visions of the Mother of God on the occasion of his declaration." This is imaginative writing on Jung's part who, in many of his works, displays more insight than some of the theologians.
Of course one would expect psychological experiences to reflect metaphysical and religious truths. But that is the point: the psychological experiences must be responses to spiritual revelations and declared dogmas, whereas generally Jung seems to write as if the experiences create and generate the religious truth itself. It looks as if Jung regards his Collective Unconscious as a synonym for God.
The danger is that our psychological experiences, conscious or unconscious, can be and frequently are in error: this is bound to be the case given our understanding of human imperfection and Original Sin. The safeguard is always correct dogma. Bluntly, God precedes our idea of God and it is He alone who can reveal to us the truth about his nature.
The Assumption is one of the loveliest of feasts. I end with a few lines I wrote about it.
"The fields are all rust after the spring rain,
And the sky descends heavily, compressing the light
In which only the early insects are at home,
Silent, moist, flickering towards nightfall.
Should not spring be Our Lady's season,
The Assumption of Mary
In April's bright showers
All that blue, rainbows and new lambs;
Sharp shadows rushing across the limestone?
In the courts of heaven it was put to Our Lady,
This matter of her Feast Day.
She said, "No, not that cold spring
With its bright nails,
Love lifted up against the cruel sky:
Give me Our Father's harvest ripening,
And grace descending in the August rain,
Even as I rise."
The Revd Dr Peter Mullen is the Rector of St Michael's, Cornhill, in the City of London. For further information, visit www.st-michaels.org.uk
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