Robert Beaken considers the Feast of the Assumption
There are few hard facts about Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Instead, we are confronted with fragments, passed on by word of mouth for several generations, before finally being committed to writing. Some details have been lost to us. Other parts of these stories may over the passage of time have been a little ‘enriched’ here and there.
The first problem we encounter when looking at the Assumption is that no-one knows exactly when the Blessed Virgin Mary died. According to the Acts of the Apostles, she was present at Pentecost. She then disappears from our sight. We know that from his cross on Good Friday, Jesus commended his mother into the care of St John. There are traditions that after the Ascension of Christ, Mary lived both in Jerusalem and also at Ephesus.
I encountered one tradition which claimed that Mary died eleven years after Jesus, around the year 44 AD. But there are other, differing traditions, which we should take equally seriously. There is a tradition that Mary was still alive in 52 AD when Dionysius the Areopagite was converted by the preaching of St Paul in Athens. Dionysius is said to have later travelled to Jerusalem, where he met Mary, and indeed to have attended her funeral.
A further tradition is that Mary died around 63 AD, when she would probably have been in her late 70s, having earlier met St Luke or his helpers, to whom she told the stories of the birth and infancy of Jesus. According to this tradition, St Luke wrote his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles before Mary’s death, which may be why her death was not mentioned in Acts. There is a further tradition that some of the twelve apostles were still alive when Mary died. As quite a few of them are believed to have lived on into the 60s AD, this again potentially pushes the date of Mary’s death further on into the first century AD.
The persecution of the early Church would go a long way to explain why we know so little of Mary after the Resurrection: quite probably, she simply went to ground, in order to avoid being recognised and arrested. One tradition has it that St John took Mary away from Jerusalem to live in Ephesus precisely for this reason.
At some point, the Blessed Virgin Mary underwent bodily death like her son Jesus. The fragmentary oral traditions tell us that Mary’s death was surrounded by strange and miraculous events. According to one version, Mary had died but was later seen alive again, being carried off to Heaven by angels, rather like the assumption of Elijah in the Old Testament. In another version, Mary died and was buried, but three days later St Thomas the Apostle visited her tomb and found it empty.
Subsequent events sometimes cast light backwards and help us to understand the past. In the fifth century AD, the Byzantine Empress Pulcheria conceived of the idea of constructing a large church in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She approached St Juvenal, the patriarch of Jerusalem, asking where the body of Mary was buried. Juvenal replied that no-one claimed to have Mary’s body, adding: ‘Although there is no account of the circumstances of Mary’s death in Holy Scripture, we know about them from the most ancient and credible tradition.’ He sent Pulcheria some grave wrappings from Mary’s tomb, which the Empress placed in the church of St Mary at Blachernae, Constantinople.
It seems to me that had there been any contrary rumours about the remains of Mary still existing somewhere or other, the Christian Byzantine Empire, with its enormous resources of men, money and intellect, would have left no stone unturned in its efforts to find Mary’s body and pay it due honour. The fact that it did not, it seems to me, to cast light backwards and to support Mary’s Assumption into heaven.
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary has two main meanings. Firstly, it is not difficult to see in these stories of Mary’s death and Assumption into heaven echoes of the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ. He himself was the first fruits of his Resurrection. We might see the Assumption of Mary as a sort-of second fruits of the Lord’s paschal victory.
In her death, as in her life, Mary draws our attention to her son. It occurred to me the other day that the Assumption was rather like a lovely picture frame surrounding a beautiful painting. One has to be very careful when it comes to choosing frames for pictures – choose the wrong frame, and it can spoil our enjoyment of the picture – but the right frame helps us to enjoy and understand a painting by drawing our eye to the detail and thus to the message the artist has sought to convey. We might see Mary’s Assumption as the sort-of frame around the Resurrection of Jesus Christ: it draws our attention to the saving work of her son, Jesus Christ.
Secondly, the Assumption speaks significantly to us about the importance of Mary herself in the drama of our Christian salvation. Over the centuries Mary has been honoured with many different titles. One of these which appeals to me greatly is ‘the Ark of the Covenant.’ The original ark of the covenant in the Old Testament was a chest of acacia wood, covered within and without with gold, containing the two stone tablets with the Ten Commandments, Aaron’s priestly rod and some of the manna from heaven. The ark was placed in the holy of holies in the Temple in Jerusalem and was held to symbolise the indwelling presence of God with His chosen people, the Hebrews.
Early in Christian history, Mary began to be seen as a sort-of second and greater Ark of the Covenant. The original ark was covered inside and out with gold. Mary’s immaculate purity and faith came to be seen as her ‘gold.’ The original ark contained things given or used by God. For nine months, Mary’s womb contained the Son of God himself. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity took his human flesh from Mary. As I have said before, if we had seen Mary and Jesus walking along a street in Nazareth, we would have said “Ah, a mother and her son”, because they would have looked very much alike. Jesus fulfilled the Jewish Law, and through his death and resurrection he brought about the New Covenant. His New Covenant is greater than the Old Covenant, because under Jesus Christ, salvation is freely offered to all who simply believe and trust in him. By extension, we may say that Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant, is much greater than the Old Testament ark, because she is the Theotokos, the Mother of God.
For this reason, when reflecting on the Assumption, Christian writers have concluded that Mary’s body was such an important part of the Christian story that God did not want it to undergo decay. Instead, God resurrected Mary and assumed her into the kingdom of Heaven, never to be parted from her son Jesus Christ. In her death, as in her life, Mary draws our attention to the saving work of her son. By loving Mary during our pilgrimage through life, we come to enjoy a deeper and more profound personal love for her son and our redeemer, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Revd Dr Robert Beaken is Priest-in-Charge of Catsfield and Crowhurst in the Diocese of Chichester.