Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Revelation 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10b; 1 Corinthians 15:20-27; Luke 1:39-56
Alphonsus Ligouri was not prone to moderate his baroque extravagance when writing about the Blessed Virgin Mary. However, when he considered the end of her earthly life, his opinion was sober. If the eternal Word of God, incarnate as a man had to suffer death, Saint Alphonsus saw no reason why the Lord’s mother should be exempt from that same experience.
His reflection calls to my mind not the conventional paintings of Mary’s Assumption but a rather curious manuscript illumination from the Twelfth Century York Psalter. It depicts in a stylized Romanesque composition the burial and Assumption of Mary. In the upper register, the apostles and other members of the Jerusalem Church lower the shrouded body of the Virgin into her grave, while four angel thurifers incense her corpse from above; in a lower register stands Christ blessing an empty tomb while a host of angels lift a sheet, bearing the body of Mary.
Her figure is totally shrouded in the winding cloth, not even her face uncovered. Yet she is liberated from the tomb and embodied in the heavenly realm. How well this conveys the mystery of death and glorification, veiled from our limited, mortal understanding.
Unlike an illusionistic painting, the heavenly realm is not above in the sky but below. Our perception is not invited to take flight, but is drawn down deeper into incomprehensible mysteries. We’re not permitted to evade the stark trappings of death but are drawn below where the proverbial grain of wheat has fallen into the depths to yield an abundant harvest.
There Mary is closer to the Divine life than when she encompassed it in her womb. In her person she celebrates thoroughly the call of every believer, buried with Christ. We draw closer to God through repentance. Mary, as a contingent human being, also has to draw closer to God, through her vocation and the portal of death.
Perhaps death is not just a consequence of sin, but the wounded form of that God-ordained metamorphosis from mortality to deification. In solidarity with her Divine Son, and with her brothers and sisters in faith, can’t we perceive the Ecclesial dimension of Mary in her transitus and Assumption? There lies our hope and our joy.