The Assumption Is a Lesson in the Theology of the Body

COMMENTARY: Despite the occasional complaint that the holy-day obligation of the Assumption may ‘ruin a perfectly good beach day,’ realize that it, too, reveals more about the body than what one sees at the beach.

Assumption painting by Giovanni Batista Gaulli
Assumption painting by Giovanni Batista Gaulli (photo: Public domain)

Summer is, in a lot of ways, the “revelation of the body.” That’s true, even on the most natural level. People wear less. Just peruse the typical woman’s or, even more, teen magazines in April or May. There’s always an article about the agony and ecstasy of bathing-suit season. Summer reveals the body.

That’s especially true in the Church in the first half of August. No, I’m not talking about wearing clothes more typical for the beach to Mass: We have forgotten about the concept of one’s “Sunday best,” but that’s a subject for another day. What I’m talking about are two feasts that bookend early August and, in fact, form a nice, nine-day novena between them: the feast of the Transfiguration (Aug. 6) and the Solemnity of the Assumption (Aug. 15). They, too, are about the “revelation of the body.”

The Transfiguration permeates much of the liturgical year. The Gospel account of Jesus taking Peter, James and John up Mount Tabor shows up twice in the Lectionary: Aug. 6 and the Second Sunday of Lent.

Right up front in Lent we are reminded that we mortify the body (the Gospel of the First Sunday of Lent is always of the Temptation in the Desert) because it is destined for glory (Second Sunday’s Gospel of the Transfiguration). But, apart from these two references, the Transfiguration pervades the entire liturgical year. How so? Well, the Transfiguration is the foretaste and promise of the Resurrection (which is the central fact of Christianity; see I Corinthians 15:12-22), and Easter is the heart of the liturgical year and Christian life.

So, already on the Second Sunday of Lent, the Church is pointing us to the resurrection of the body at Easter. And, because Easter is the center of the liturgical year, every Sunday of the year is a “little Easter” because it is a remembrance of the resurrection of Christ: Every Sunday reminds us that we are Christians and saved because Jesus Christ “rose from the dead in his human body.”

The Transfiguration reminds us that, even beneath the seeming ordinariness of human flesh, lies great potential. The human body is not destined to be food for worms (at least not forever); nor is it simply compost material for recycling into the next generation of human beings or interstellar dust, as some nebulous “spiritualities” suggest today. Why?

Because the body is personal. The body is me. I am not just an “I” in a body. I just don’t “wear” my body like I wear my clothes or a summer swimsuit. It’s not just “body armor” like a turtle’s shell.

All those impersonal images hark back to an understanding of human beings — an “anthropology” — that is not Christian but gnostic. The ancient world was infected by Gnosticism. Greek dualism downplayed the significance of the body: The body was a prison, a covering like a snake’s, to be slithered out of in joyous escape at death. The old euphemistic phrase about death — “shedding our mortal coil” — embodied that.

But Catholic theology does not think of the body as a “prison” to be “escaped.” Yes, there have been times in Catholic spirituality that embodiment has been underappreciated, but that is certainly not the case in modern Catholic theology, especially after St. John Paul II’s masterful “theology of the body.” The body is an integral part of me.

Why so? Because what I do, I do in and with my body.

Let’s take it, step-by-step. An act is both the deed in itself and an intention. Both must be good. I may intend to stop somebody from suffering, but it’s wrong if I do it by giving the patient a fatal shot. I may give somebody a charitable donation, but it’s wrong if my motive is to bribe them into silence about something wrong. A good act has to be good both in deed and in intention.

But to do any act — good or bad — requires the whole person, body and soul. I may intend to give charity, but it is this hand that hands over the money or writes the check. I may want to steal, but it is this hand that takes what is not mine. I intend to commit adultery, but I do it with this body. I want to praise God, but I do it with this voice.

And, because God is just, both body and soul share the fate of the person. It would be manifestly unfair if the good person’s soul enjoyed heaven forever (or the evil person’s soul suffered hell forever) but the bodies of both faced the same fate: the grave. That is why “I believe in the resurrection of the body” — and not just the eternal life of the soul.

That is what the Resurrection was about: Jesus is risen, body and soul. He lives forever, in heaven; the Second Person of the Trinity, body and soul, is alive. The hands that mixed mud for the blind man’s eyes, the hands that touched lepers, and the “sacred and venerable hands” that took bread all live forever in heaven.

And that is what Jesus wanted to show Peter, James and John at the Transfiguration.

At the other end of the August novena is the Assumption. The Church infallibly and solemnly teaches that “at the end of her earthly life” Mary was taken body and soul into heaven. A Marian privilege? Yes. But more than that.

It would have been manifestly unjust for the “womb that bore thee and the breasts that suckled thee” (Luke 11:27) to have ended in corruption. It would have been unjust, for she was conceived without sin, to suffer the punishment of sin that is death as we know it. And God is not unjust.

So Mary’s Assumption is also a sign and confirmation of who she was. Like Jesus, the full person of Mary — body and soul — stands in heaven. But it doesn’t end there.

In 1 Corinthians 15:20, St. Paul speaks of Jesus’ resurrection as the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” The ancient Israelites brought the first fruits gleaned in the harvest to offer in the Temple because they symbolically embodied the whole harvest. So, when St. Paul speaks of Jesus’ resurrection as “first fruits,” he means that Jesus’ resurrection is not an isolated event, but the first step in a chain that ends in the General Resurrection of all men.

And, in that light, Mary’s assumption is the “second fruits,” the first application of the power unleashed at Easter. The renewal of the earth that began with Jesus and to which “we look forward” in the Resurrection of the Dead has already paid its first installment in Mary. The Assumption is Mary’s privilege, but it is also our promise.

Her body, like her Son’s, has gone to where we hope one day also — body and soul — to go.

That’s the “revelation of the body” the Church reveals to us in early August. So, despite the occasional complaint that the holy-day obligation of the Assumption “ruins a perfectly good beach day,” realize that it, too, reveals more about the body than what one sees at the beach.

John M. Grondelski writes from Falls Church, Virginia.