August 16, 2019
Albrecht Dürer, The Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin, 1510
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. Actually a source of strength and encouragement for all of us. 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 — this week, it struck me, nevertheless, that the Assumption is indeed a good case study for official Catholic teachings 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 very post-apostolic church traditions 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 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. There is really no big list of infallible teachings. That is because there are only two, and both are about Mary: her Immaculate Conception, declared by Pope Pius IX in 1854 even before the First Vatican Council’s declaration of papal infallibility in 1870 and her bodily Assumption into heaven.
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. 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 creative 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. In 313 AD, the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which accepted Christianity and 10 years later, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Helena told her son they needed some Christian holy places.
Helena was quite a researcher….. Everywhere she went, local tour guides (who were well paid) helped her find “evidence” of Jesus or the Mother of Jesus. 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 Catholic Church for open, respectful, and intellectually honest dialogue about serious kinds of theological questions. On the top of that list today I would put recognizing and supporting women’s ordination. (I think Mary would like that.) There are of course a great number of questions to be explored, especially when it comes to human sexuality and what is “natural” or “unnatural.” Theological exploration is an open field….or should be.