The Solemnity of the Assumption is Especially Important in 2020

In the Assumption of Our Lady, we see one of the final notes of a symphony begun with her Magnificat.

Wit Stwosz (c. 1450-1533), “Dormition of Mary,” from the Kosciol Mariacki in Krakow
Wit Stwosz (c. 1450-1533), “Dormition of Mary,” from the Kosciol Mariacki in Krakow (photo: GFDL/Wikimedia Commons)

One is painfully aware in 2020 of the loss of the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. True, it remains on the liturgical calendar, but with dispensations remaining in most places even from Sunday Mass and the norm of the U.S. Bishops that waives the obligation of this holyday on Saturdays and Mondays anyway, Assumption Day is likely to be as noteworthy this year as, say, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus: listed in the calendar but…

Which is unfortunate, because if there was ever a year this Solemnity was needed, it’s pandemic 2020.

The Solemnity of the Assumption is another reminder of the dignity of the body and the physical. The dogma of the Assumption affirms that Mary, “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” (emphasis added).

The Assumption is not some dogma “floating out in space,” disjointed from the rest of our faith. It forms an integral part of that faith, starting from the central event of that faith: the Resurrection. Jesus’ Resurrection is the sine qua non of our faith: without it, Jesus is just another dead Jew. St. Paul admits as much (1 Corinthians 15:17).

But we believe that Jesus rose, body and soul, from the grave, making the cemetery no longer a one-way street. He is the “first fruits” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23), i.e., the Resurrection is not just a special “reward” for Jesus alone, but the beginning of a process of what God intended for all humanity in union with Him, but for the sin of Adam.

If, as I have noted previously, Jesus is “first fruits,” Mary is “second fruits.” The Assumption is the first proof, the first evidence that Jesus’ Resurrection is not a purely personal privilege, a one-time only event, but has in fact set in motion that process of reclamation and integration by which sin and death will be defeated. Mary, truly and only human, already shares body and soul in what the God-Man has made available to humanity.

If this is a process, a chain, then its final link is the “Resurrection of the Body” on the last day, the one article of the Creed we still profess in the future tense. That is where the Resurrection of Easter leads. And it leads there through the Assumption. (Even the Church calendar shows us this, as Easter is always in March/April, the Assumption falls on Aug. 15, and those readings dealing with the end, the Resurrection of the Body and the Last Judgment, all cluster in the final weeks of Ordinary Time in November).

But why do I say that the Assumption is particularly important this year?

For some time already, I have tried to warn against how our Judaeo-Christian worldview is subtly undermined by various currents in the modern mindset. I say “Judaeo-Christian” because while Christianity is the religion of incarnation par excellence (“the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” – John 1:14), Judaism also walks the earth with feet pretty firmly on solid ground. As Karl Adam noted against those who wanted to turn Jesus’ Resurrection into something that happened primarily in the disciples’ heads, such a “spiritual” resurrection would have been meaningless to the Apostles who, good Jews that they were, would not have understood someone except as body and soul.

There are lots of factors that make the modern world anti-physical and quasi-gnostic. The two biggest ones have been at it for centuries: Descartes’ epistemology and Ockham’s nominalism.

Descartes’ famous cogito, ergo sum (I think; therefore, I am) gets it precisely backward. One thinks because he is. But in having equated reality with a head thing, Descartes set into motion the progressive depreciation of the body as something sub-personal, something that is not an essential part of the person but inferior to the person. This devaluation of the bodily has had its consequences, from the loss of an understanding of human nature (other than its being “rational”) to the view that people sometimes become “vegetables” to an idea of sex disconnected from biology and renamed “gender.”

Ockham’s nominalism also makes reality dependent on my recognition of it. From Ockham’s willingness to turn morality into labels of “good” and “evil” arbitrarily attached by God’s will to Luther’s forensic justification (grace changes nothing but just covers up our moral corruption, so that God plays “peek-a-boo” and only sees that cover up) to modern man throwing God out of the picture and deciding reality is whatever people name it, nominalism again makes physical reality subordinate to mental constructs.

These two intellectual maggots have been gnawing at Western thought for five centuries and are responsible for the loss of metaphysics in the intellectual repertoire of many modern elites. I have no illusions about arresting their work of continued erosion, but suggest that it is accelerated — particularly among younger people raised in the post-1990s IT world — where the “virtual” is more practically “real” for them that … reality. Increasingly, reality is a concept, perhaps even just a “virtual concept,” while physical, tangible reality is just stuff, raw material, a resource to be made “real.” Case-in-point: is a “friend” flesh and blood or one of 4,941 computer key clicks?

COVID-19 has tended to reinforce this anti-physical bias. We “socially distance,” which really means we physically distance. The comedy model of pizza delivery in Home Alone  — “leave it on the doorstep and get out of here” — has become our way of interacting with people at large. We are deathly afraid to “reach out and touch someone.” One can hardly imagine a more infernal punishment —  but in which some ways modernity has paved the way for — than the fact that COVID-19 deaths often lack a human touch. Join that to the fact that wakes and funerals were already going the way of the dodo before COVID-19 (Catholics were not discernibly distinct from non-Catholics in terms of accepting cremation rather than burial), pandemic limitations on funerals may not so much change as much as accelerate the further disappearance of the body (to the benefit of the culture of death).

Even our liturgy has gone “virtual,” with some suggesting that “spiritual Communion” is as good as the Real Presence. I admit my own fear that, given our intellectual ethos, once the bishops finally lift their Mass moratoria, they will find many modern Catholics remaining equally comfortable in their “virtual Church.”

The truth of the Assumption clashes against all this. Mary is not just a disincarnate intellect that once upon a time said “Fiat.” Mary is not just an idea that inspires us. Mary’s body is not something less than “her.” Mary is, “body and soul,” in heaven. Heaven is not some realm of disincarnate spirits. Mary’s body does not just disappear, like the modern who’s here today and cremated tomorrow. Her body is not gone, its disappearance not the work of human hands. She — body and soul — remains intact, elevated and transformed, to heavenly glory.

I have urged the bishops to consider some sort of “novena” or other observance between Aug. 6-15 to mark the dignity of the body. From the Feast of the Transfiguration (which transfigures Jesus’ Body) to the Assumption (which assumes Mary’s), the opportunity to underscore the dignity and importance of human embodiment as an essential aspect of the human person. That is a truth increasingly being lost today, a loss the COVID pandemic threatens to quicken. Any effort to draw pastoral lessons from this health crisis has to reckon with that for the good of the Church and Catholicism.

Some revisionist theologians (e.g., Richard McBrien) tended to downplay the significance of the dogma of the Assumption, relegating it to the “less central” truths of the faith. The truth is that the truths of our fact are not like a football field, with “Incarnation” at the 10 yard line and “Assumption” at the 50 yard line. The truths of our faith are like a tapestry, where each plays an integral and non-substitutable part that, together and in unison, create what Von Balthasar once called “symphonic truth.” In the Assumption, we see one of the final notes of a symphony begun with “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.”

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In Polish tradition, Catholics bring flowers to Mass on the Solemnity of the Assumption to be blessed. On Assumption Day 2020, when our churches are largely empty and the physical has been depreciated, perhaps we can fill our altars with flowers?

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Assumption of Mary,” 1626

Waking up on Aug. 15

“Our Advocate rose up to heaven, so she will arrange for our salvation as Mother of the Judge, the Mother of Mercy.” —St. Bernard, Homily on the Feast of the Assumption