The Assumption of Mary and the Holy Eucharist
Homily for the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Today the Church turns aside from her triennial pilgrimage through John 6, the great Eucharistic chapter with the “bread of life” discourse, where we’ve spent the past few weeks, to celebrate a mystery of faith that was believed from the days of antiquity but defined as dogma within living memory of some here today.
Not my memory — I wasn’t born yet — but my father, not yet 9 years old at the time, remembered hearing the news in November 1950 that the pope had said that Mary was not buried on earth somewhere; that her body had been taken up into heaven, like Jesus.
Not exactly like Jesus, of course, but my dad was very young and, as many of you know, not a Catholic, so he had an understandably limited grasp of what Pope Pius XII had defined in his Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus— that the Blessed Virgin Mary, “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”
I was surprised to learn how the news affected my dad. He told me it made him angry! He felt very strongly that it wasn’t right for the pope to say this. And as he grew up and went to Calvin Theological Seminary and became a Protestant clergyman, his opposition to the distinctive teachings of the Catholic Church, like the Assumption, only grew stronger. As a Protestant he believed in the Virgin Birth, but not in Mary’s perpetual virginity, Immaculate Conception, or Assumption into heaven.
Many of you also know that my father died a Catholic. For 27 years — over a third of his life — he believed and professed (in the words of his 1994 declaration of faith) “all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God,” including the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Countless times over those 27 years he prayed the Mysteries of the Rosary with our family and with others, including the Fourth Glorious Mystery, the Assumption.
Mary, Mother of the Eucharist
How he got there is a long story, but a big part of that story has to do with the theme of the readings that we didn’t hear today: the continuing readings on the Holy Eucharist which will conclude next Sunday.
You see, there’s a close relationship between the mystery of the Holy Eucharist and the mystery of the Mother of God which sheds light on her Assumption into heaven.
“The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Our Lord, the bread of life, is the eternal Word made flesh. “The Word became flesh,” St. John tells us right at the beginning of his Gospel.
This greatest of mysteries, by far the most staggering and momentous miracle that has ever occurred, the single greatest thing that God has ever done — the eternal, infinite, pure Spirit that is the Divine Nature joining to himself our frail, fragile bodily nature, our DNA and chromosomes, our cells and fluids, tissues and organs and systems — this mystery of mysteries, that we call the Incarnation, took place within Mary’s body.
Not only within her body, but from her body. Like every other unborn child, Jesus’ flesh was knit together in his mother’s womb from substance taken from Mary’s own body. The flesh that hung on the cross for our salvation, the flesh and blood given to us to eat and drink in the Eucharist, took substance within and from the body of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
“She gave milk to our bread,” says St. Augustine. “That which we consecrate is the Body born from the Virgin,” says St. Ambrose in a passage quoted by St. Thomas Aquinas.
Listen to a few lines from a 15th-century Eucharistic hymn written by an English Franciscan named James Ryman:
Eat ye this bread, eat ye this bread
And eat it so ye be not dead.
This bread from heaven did descend
From all ills us to defend
And to give us life without end.
In Virgin Mary this bread was baked
When Christ, of her, manhood did take
Free of all sin mankind to make.
“In Virgin Mary this bread was baked.” We can hardly help thinking of a colloquial, jocular expression for pregnancy: People sometimes say a pregnant woman has “a bun in the oven.” Mary’s “bun in the oven” was the bread of life!
Mary, Ark of the New Covenant
To serve so sacred a function in the plan of God is to be not only blessed, as Mary proclaims in her great prayer, the Magnificat, in today’s Gospel, but holy in the sense of “set apart.”
One way that Mary’s set-apartness has been expressed throughout Church history going back to the very scriptures we heard today is the connection between Mary and the ark of the covenant — the sacred box built in the Old Testament in the days of Moses, made of gold-plated wood, containing a jar of manna, the bread from heaven that the Israelites ate in the wilderness, the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, and the staff of Moses’ brother Aaron that miraculously budded.
The ark was the visible symbol of God’s presence among his people. It was kept first in the tabernacle or tent-sanctuary in the wilderness, and later in the Temple of King Solomon, and when the ark was placed within the tabernacle, within the Temple, the glory of the Lord filled that place as a radiant cloud that prevented anyone from entering.
The ark was so holy that it was never to be touched. It was made with gold rings in which the priests set gold-covered rods to carry it without touching it. You may have seen this in Old Testament movies or in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The ark was lost hundreds of years before Jesus’ time when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple. The Temple was rebuilt in Jesus’ day, but there were no reports of the ark until the day that St. John, in the first reading from Revelation, saw God’s temple in heaven opened, and the ark of the covenant in God’s temple in heaven.
John’s vision then shows him a great woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of 12 stars, laboring to give birth to the Messiah. There’s a lot of complex symbolism in Revelation, and this woman can be seen as a symbol of the People of God, both Old-Testament Israel and the New-Testament Church, but the basis for the symbol, the starting point, is the mother of the Messiah, the Virgin Mary.
“How Can the Ark of the Lord Come to Me?”
The connection between Mary and the ark of the covenant is also made by St. Luke in our Gospel in his account of the Visitation of our Lady to Elizabeth, the Second Joyful Mystery of the Rosary — but to see this, you have to know an Old Testament story that was read in part at the Vigil Mass last night: the story of how King David, a thousand years before Jesus, first brought the ark to Jerusalem.
2 Samuel 6 tells us that David arose and went to a city of Judah where the ark was, and they were bringing up the ark to Jerusalem in a cart drawn by oxen, which was not how the ark was meant to be moved. It was meant to be carried by priests with those rods. So the oxen stumble and the cart lurches, and a man named Uzzah put out his hand to steady the ark — and was struck dead.
And David became afraid, saying, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” So instead it went to the house of a man named Obed-edom, where it stayed for three months. But when David heard that God had blessed Obed-edom, he took courage and went to bring the ark to Jerusalem — the right way this time — and all the while David was leaping and dancing before the Lord. And after the celebration, all the people departed, each to his own house.
Did you hear the language that Luke uses in his account of the Annunciation? David “arose and went”; Mary “arose and went.” For “three months” the ark was at Obed-edom’s house; for “about three months” Mary remained with Elizabeth. David “leaped” before the ark; Elizabeth’s child “leaped” in her womb.
There are other connections, but the most important is David’s awe-filled question, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” “How does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” There’s no fear here, as with David and the ark, but the same sense of awe before the holy, the set-apart.
It was connections like this that helped my father, and me before him, begin to understand the necessity of Mary remaining ever virgin — why no man could touch her as a husband touches his wife; why her womb would not go on to bring other children into the world.
Abide in Me, and I in You
A scientific aside: You may be aware that feto-maternal biology has discovered that in the early stages of pregnancy a mother and child share one another’s cells, and that some cells from the child are carried throughout the mother’s body and become part of her.
All of you who are mothers, even those of you who lost children to miscarriage, continue to carry living remnants of all your children literally in your heart, in your brain, in your bones and other organs and tissues — and these cells appear to have beneficial health effects. The child, too, carries cells from the mother. There’s a biological sense in which a mother abides in her children, and they abide in her.
The bottom line is that Mary, and Mary alone, is wholly united with her Son in an absolutely unique way, extending to every aspect of his life and his mission. It’s the reason for her Immaculate Conception, her perpetual virginity, and her Assumption into heaven. The Lord has done great things for her, and we join with all prior Christian generations in calling her “blessed.”
And yet Mary’s unique privileges are meant not to exclude us, but to beckon to us, to invite us. Mary reigns in heaven not only as our Queen, but as our mother and as our model — the model disciple. We are invited not only to venerate her, but to imitate her in the hope of coming to share in some measure in the gifts she has in the highest degree.
None of us were conceived without sin. But all of us who were baptized were washed clean of original sin and hope to share the sinlessness of Mary and all the saints in heaven.
None of us will be assumed bodily into heaven at the end of our earthly life. But all of us share the hope of participating, body and soul, with Mary and Jesus in the eternal joys of the new heavens and the new earth, after the general resurrection and the Last Judgment.
None of us have shared in the kind of union with Jesus that a mother has with her child. But we are invited, here today, and in every Mass, to a union with Christ that defies comprehension. “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him,” and “I will raise him up on the last day.” Amen.