Ryan Danker reflects on what the Assumption reveals about Mary
I want to take us back to my home turf, Washington, DC, and to the basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Roman Catholic church in the United States. This mammoth Byzantine pile is one of the most recognizable structures in the capital as it towers over the northeast corner of the District of Columbia. The church was built to make a statement: that the Roman Catholic church is a part of the American scene and is not intending to leave. And so it’s bold, and very, very Catholic in its architecture and its mosaics. One mosaic in particular caught my attention, a massive depiction just to the side of the high altar of the Virgin and the dragon described in St John’s Revelation. Both Mary and the dragon are large and imposing figures in the mosaic, the dragon having multiple heads like serpents. But Mary stands composed, not intimidated in the slightest. She’s robed in Marian blue with the stars from the Revelation text around her head. She’s obviously in charge of the situation. And all of this points to her Assumption.
The Assumption of the Virgin Mary is the catholic dogma that states that Mary was taken up into the presence of God, soul and body at the moment of her death. She did not see corruption. And this was granted to her as a gift from the Father for her unique role in salvation history. The one who bore God in the world is taken by God into heaven as a sign of his favour and grace. This is a mystery that the Church calls us to ponder, to sit with, much like sitting with a mosaic in a cavernous church, or a great painting in a museum.
Just like Christ told his early disciples to ‘come and see,’ so the Church calls us to come and see what God has done for the Virgin in assuming her completely, all of her, body, soul, into heaven. There are many reasons for us to ponder this mystery. And while I won’t go through them all (and nor could I) ultimately it comes down to the fact that every Marian feast, like every feast of the Church, points us to the resurrected Christ. Every Marian feast is, in fact, a feast of the resurrection, a participation in the new Easter reality in which we as the Church exist.
This past Wednesday, I skipped out of my conference to attend a mass for the Assumption in Oxford. What struck me more than anything else was the greeting of the priest, who made it very clear that we had gathered that evening to celebrate a feast of the resurrection. Arguably, it’s also about the incarnation of Christ, God made man in our midst. God made tangible, physical by means of the body of the Virgin. And I think that’s key, the physical part. God seems to be enamoured with the physical.
The catholic faith is one that celebrates the fact that God created all that is and called it good, that He called a people to be his own, a physical, tangible people who were given a physical, tangible place to live. He came physically in the person of Jesus, his physical nature coming from the Virgin herself. The same Christ rose again physically, with his body, and now that same body is offered to us as bread and wine within a world that he has promised to renew at the culmination of time.
So much of this is physical. It seems that God loves the physical. And that’s what I see in the Assumption, the continuation of God’s love for and redemption of the physical. The doctrine of the Assumption makes it very plain that Mary was assumed in both body and soul; both, not separated. This is a great and wonderful mystery. The richness of the event in salvation history is so deep that it takes time to ponder. And that is, in part, what the Church is calling us to do.
I teach seminarians studying for various ministry contexts, and before each lecture I provide them a list of key terms that they need to have in their notes. I have named the weekly list ‘Ponder These Things’ after the words of St Luke about the Virgin Mary who after the birth of Christ, ‘pondered these things in her heart.’ On the Feast of the Assumption, the Church is saying not just ‘ponder these things’ but ‘ponder this event.’ This is the case because in reality we’re talking about God and about his work of salvation for us all. And the work of God is worth pondering.
The more I’ve pondered the Assumption of the Virgin, the more I’m convinced that the central theme of the Assumption is ultimately God’s work. In the Assumption, we see very clearly what God has done for one human being. He showed us what our lives would ultimately look like in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ’s resurrection wasn’t the first and last resurrection. We who are baptized and filled with the same spirit that raised Christ from the dead will also be raised in our mortal bodies. But here in the Assumption we have a reminder of this ultimate reality. It’s almost as though God thought we might need yet one more reminder of his love for us and the resurrection reality that he has in store for each and every believer. He’s saying, look, I’ve shown you what I’ve done in Jesus and now I’m showing you what I’ll do in Mary. If you don’t have it by now, look again.
As St John wrote: ‘See what love hath the Father bestowed on us in his goodness, that we should become the children of God.’ Mary shows us what that love looks like. But there’s more here. In the Assumption, God grants to Mary a role in his ultimate triumph over evil. The Book of Revelation speaks of a woman who ‘fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God.’ This speaks not of a wilderness of desolation or a wilderness of wandering like the children of Israel before the Promised Land. Rather, this speaks of the wilderness where we can be with God, in peace. Just think of the times when Jesus went by himself into the wilderness to pray, to spend time with the Father, to be rejuvenated and empowered for the work of his earthly ministry. So too, the Father has allowed that the Virgin should enter into a wilderness of peace and communion with God, enabling her to accomplish that which God has asked her to do.
But what does God have for me and for you to do here and now? One aspect I think you already have and that is to sit and ponder the mystery of the Assumption, to see what God has done in the Virgin and to realize that that work God will do in us, too. But secondly, I think the work we are called to do in light of the Assumption is the very work that Mary has taken on from the very moment of the incarnation.
Let me explain by returning to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception that I mentioned earlier. The first time that I visited the National Shrine, I went with a colleague from divinity school. We had come up to Washington from North Carolina and we were visiting different churches. We had already gone to the Anglican National Cathedral, and loved its Gothic splendour. When we came to the National Shrine, however, I had the exact opposite reaction. I couldn’t stand it. I thought it was completely over the top and it focused too much on Mary. Give me Jesus, I thought. That’s who I want. And so as you can imagine, my Protestantism came out with a vengeance.
But I had missed something that was key. I had missed that, in fact, the Shrine, while Marian, was bathed in Jesus. In fact, if I had paid any attention at all, I would have seen that each and every image, statue, or mosaic of the Virgin actually showed her pointing to her son. The Virgin mirrors Christ to the world. That is what the Virgin does. That is what the Virgin has always done. She points us to Christ, over and over and over again, in everything that she does. And so as we praise God for the Assumption of the Virgin, for this foreshadowing of our own resurrected life, but we need to look and see what she’s doing and by God’s enabling grace to join in her eternal work of pointing, in all that she is, in her life and work, soul and body, to the one who is Saviour of all.
Let us pray: Father, we give you thanks for the witness of the Virgin Mary to your work of redemption. Grant that we who embrace your work and your will may be being filled with grace as she was, not only to ponder the mysteries of salvation, but to join with Mary in everything that we do, in your ultimate renewal of all things, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Dr Ryan Danker is Assistant Professor of Christian History at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington DC. A version of this homily was preached at St Stephen’s, Lewisham.