I have absolutely no desire to denigrate Jesus’ Mother. She must have been a wonderfully faith-filled, attentive, and caring mother. She remains as well a source of strength and encouragement for any woman who has lost a son or a husband especially through a violent death. No wonder she is also Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Consolation, and Mother of Perpetual Help.
Reflecting, on August 15th — Feast of the Assumption — at the end of my vacation, it struck me, nevertheless, that The Assumption is indeed a good case study for Catholic dogmatics past and present.
The Assumption of Mary is a Roman Catholic dogma: a belief which must be accepted and affirmed by all Catholics. Pope Pius XII proclaimed this dogma, infallibly, on November 1, 1950. The document issued that day taught that the “Immaculate Virgin,” the Mother of Jesus, “after the completion of her earthly life was assumed body and soul into the glory of Heaven.” This means that after her death, Jesus’ Mother was assumed into heaven, body and soul, in a manner similar to Enoch and Elijah in the Hebrew Scriptures. The doctrine further states that she was glorified in heaven and is “exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things.”
The dogma of the Assumption, however, is based solely on church tradition and has no foundation in the Christian Scriptures.
The Christian Scriptures say very little, in fact, about the Mother of Jesus. The Gospel According to Mark names her only once (6:3) and mentions her as Jesus’ Mother, without mentioning her name: in 3:31. The Gospel According to Luke Luke’s mentions Mary the Mother of Jesus most often: identifying her by name twelve times and all of these in the infancy narrative (1:27,30,34,38,39,41,46,56; 2:5,16,19,34). The Gospel According to Matthew mentions her by name five times, four of these (1:16,18,20; 2:11) in the infancy narrative and only once (13:55) outside the infancy narrative.
The Gospel According to John refers to the Mother of Jesus twice but never mentions her by name. She makes two appearances in the Johannine Gospel. She is first seen at the wedding at Cana of Galilee (Jn 2:1-12) which is mentioned only in this Gospel. The second reference, also exclusively listed in this Gospel, has the Mother of Jesus standing near the cross of her son together with the (also unnamed) “disciple whom Jesus loved” (Jn 19:25-26). John 2:1-12, by the way, is the only text in the Christian canonical scriptures in which the Mother of Jesus speaks to, and about, the adult Jesus.
In the Book of Acts, the Mother of Jesus, and the “brothers of Jesus,” are mentioned in the company of the eleven, gathered in the upper room after the ascension (Acts 1:14).
It took a good four or five hundred years, after the earthly days of Jesus’ Mother, for the development of an imaginative and creative Marian tradition that became the basis for nineteenth and twentieth century infallibly-proclaimed Virgin Mary dogmas.
In the second century, St. Justin the Martyr (c. 100 to 165 CE) gave us the understanding that the Mother of Jesus had always been a virgin (based on a mistranslation of Isaiah 7.14, in which “virgin” was substituted for “young woman” as found in the Septuagint). In the fourth century, Christian theologians decided Mary the Mother of Jesus was a very unique kind of virgin: her hymen was not even broken in childbirth. Baby Jesus simply passed miraculously through the wall. (A bit of theological hymenology by celibate males?) But then the learned men had to deal with another Bible-based theological problem.
In the Gospel According to Mark and in the Gospel According to Matthew, we read about Jesus’ “brothers and sisters.” As the doctrine of Mary’s “perpetual virginity” became increasingly widespread so did confusion about Jesus’ siblings. Theologians had to harmonize the New Testament with the new dogma (a bit of biblical revisionism) ….and so “brothers and sisters” became “cousins.” Problem solved……
The fourth century was also a particularly fruitful time for religious archeology. Constantine’s mother, Empress Helena (c. 246 to 330 CE) was a strong supporter of the developing Mary-Mother-of-Jesus cult and created what one could call ecclesiastical archeology.
Helena was quite a tourist. Everywhere she went she found “evidence” of Jesus or the Mother of Jesus; and she then had churches built on the spot! She found, for example, the cave of the nativity (or so the local people had told her), the house of the Last Supper (or so the local people had told her), the Garden of Gethsemane (or so the local people……), the hill of crucifixion, the empty tomb, the cross itself. She even found the very tree from which the wood for Jesus’ cross was cut!
Every shrine that Helena discovered was honored with imperial patronage and became a profitable pilgrimage site as well. With each shrine went a Mary festival.
But back to my reflection about The Assumption……
The world view and the theological perspective that underlie The Assumption belong to an archaic pre-Galileo cosmology: the older flat earth model of Hebrew biblical and early and medieval Christian cosmology. Over the flat earth was a dome-shaped rigid canopy called the firmament. God the Father’s throne was in the firmament and he controlled the earthly and human events down below. Heaven was understood as the place and space around God high up in the firmament.
Sitting at the right hand of God the Father was Jesus, his Son, whom he raised from the dead and elevated up to heaven, on a cloud, on Jesus’ Ascension Day.
Later, in the seventh century, thanks especially to the theology of John of Damascus (c. 675 to 749 CE) and Gregory of Tours (c. 538 to 594 CE), the church developed the understanding (another theological assumption) that the Mother of Jesus, as well, was carried on a cloud and assumed body and soul up to heaven.
And my point today?
What do contemporary Catholic believers do when they suspect that a dogma or doctrine safeguarded by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is flawed or is simply not believed anymore by many in the Church, including its best scholars?
There must be an avenue in the Roman Catholic Church for open and respectful and intellectually honest dialogue about these very serious kinds of questions.
The Assumption is probably more of a side issue. There are indeed bigger issues confronting us today, with major implications for Catholic belief and institutional credibility.
What do our leaders fear? Is it disloyal to ask a question? To ask for discussion? To propose a changed doctrinal understating based on new historical or biblical evidence? Yes our statements of belief do change and are shaped by history and culture and new knowledge. I certainly would not go to a cardiologist operating out of a nineteenth century medical understanding. Why do church authorities maintain and insist upon nineteenth century (or medieval) theological understandings?
— Historians and biblical scholars agree that Jesus did not ordain anyone at the Last Supper. Why do our institutional leaders maintain that he did! (And why do they think the Last Supper was just a group of guys sitting around a table with Jesus?)
— In the early Christian communities, the first people to preside at Eucharist were not “ordained” but were the heads of families: men and women. Why do our institutional leaders insist that women cannot be ordained? When it comes to women presiding at Eucharist, historical evidence says our leaders are simply misinformed or outright sexists.
— Why do our institutional leaders still operate with a distorted and uninformed understanding of human sexuality? This has direct implications for any consideration (or refused consideration) of issues touching on marriage, birth control, celibacy, sexual abuse, and of course homosexuality.
— I am 100% pro-life, but I wonder why we cannot discuss whether or not all procedures called “abortion” are really taking human life. My bio-medical friends — some very conservative — tell me even here we need to make distinctions.
— And if many of our institutional leaders are genuinely appalled by an “anti-life” socio-political America, why have they been, in comparison to the abortion rhetoric, so silent about capital punishment, the war in Iraq, US military activities in Afghanistan, and closer to home: universal health care, child support for the unmarried, and strong criticism for the US rich getting ever richer.
The biggest and most important question of course concerns the Divine Presence.
I would expect authentic Christian leaders to be insightful and trustworthy guides here. Genuine spiritual directors.
Who is God for us today? How do contemporary people speak about and relate to the Divine Presence? God the Father up in the heavens doesn’t work for truly contemporary people. But contemporary people long for an experience the Divine…not up there but right down here where normal people live, make love, raise or educate the next generation, grow older in wisdom from life experience, then pass on to the next life.
Well friends….enough reflections for today…… I have neglected my yard and garden for three weeks. Now I need to get busy in the backyard!