The Immaculata's Rev. Matthew Spahr Reflects on Solemnity of the Assumption

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Rev. Matthew D. Spahr, a 1983 USD alumnus and the longtime pastor of The Immaculata Catholic Church located on the University of San Diego campus, shares his thoughts today, Aug. 15, 2018, which is the Solemnity of the Assumption.

On this feast, we celebrate the ancient faith of the Church that upon her death Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven. Together with the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption helps us to understand the full implications of that strange title given to Mary by the angel Gabriel when he addressed her as “The Filled with Grace One.” To be “filled with grace” is certainly to be free from sin (the truth celebrated in the Immaculate Conception) and to be free from the corruption sin brings (the truth we celebrate in the Assumption). The Immaculate Conception and Assumption were special privileges granted to Mary but it is the destiny of all the baptized to join her one day as those “full of grace” free from sin and corruption.

One of the issues we have to face in this feast is some ambiguity in the tradition regarding whether or not Mary actually died before the Assumption. In the Eastern Churches this feast is known as the Dormition or “Falling Asleep” of Mary and indeed death is often referred to as a falling asleep. The Western Church has been quieter on the issue of Mary’s death. The theological issue at stake concerns death as a consequence of sin. If Mary is indeed conceived without sin why would she be liable to death? Others have suggested that death apart from sin is like a peaceful falling asleep to wake to a new life. Pope Pius XII in declaring the dogma of Mary’s Assumption was carefully ambiguous when he wrote simply, “…when Mary’s life on earth had come to an end.”

Nevertheless, there is rich tradition in the Church about the end of Mary’s life. The late and beloved Sr. Betsy Walsh, RSCJ, Professor Emerita of USD did a study of this tradition in her article titled: “Images of Hope: Representations of the Death of the Virgin, East and West.” 

In the article, Sister Walsh posits that the image of the Dormition (falling asleep) or death of Mary, which underlies the doctrine of the Assumption in Christian legend, liturgy, art, and theology contains all the basic elements of Christian faith. Incarnation, death and resurrection are all represented and because this image spans the Church of the East and the West has great potential for unity and hope among Christians.

There are numerous legends surrounding the end of Mary’s life. Remember that Christian legends are not considered divine revelation as are the scriptures or Sacred Tradition but they tell us volumes about the faith of the Church at the time of their origin.

There are a number of common motifs in these legends. The first is that the Apostles are all gathered at her deathbed.  This often takes place in miraculous ways.  Remember that shortly after Pentecost the Apostles were widely dispersed to various, sometimes far-flung places, to preach the word. In the legends of Mary’s death, they are miraculously transported to be with the Blessed Mother at her death. This includes even the return of those Apostles who had already died.

Secondly, her son comes to her and speaks to her about the journey she will soon make. She asks him to help those (including us) that she leaves behind.

Another common feature of the legends is a certain tension with the Jewish people that reflects the strained relations between Christians and Jews at the time the legends originated around the fifth century. One example has a Jewish man attempt to attack the bed on which Mary’s body lay. He is consequently struck down but then healed and through the incident the relationship between Christians and Jews was healed.

Finally, Mary’s body is assumed into heaven in some way. 

Obviously, we don’t know the facts surrounding Mary’s death but what a marvelous faith is represented in the legends that have been passed down. We tend to skip Mary’s death and focus on the moment of the Assumption but look at the riches to be mined regarding our deaths as Christians.

First, we see in Mary’s death the role of the Communion of Saints. Isn’t it often the case at our deaths that those we have loved in this life gather to be with us?  And for those who die suddenly or for loved ones who cannot be present, isn’t it legend among us that deceased loved one suddenly came to mind at the moment of their deaths. Doesn’t this, as in the legends of Mary’s death extend to those who have gone before us?  Don’t those near death often relate that they had visions of loved ones who had gone before them coming to greet them: parents, grandparents, siblings, spouses?

What an absolutely beautiful image of the communion of saints as both those on earth and those who have gone before us gather to send forth and welcome the Christian making the passage from this world to the next. 

Don’t we often hear tell at the time of death stories of visions or conversations with the Lord himself who comes to meet us? 

Isn’t a primary concern of those near death to assure the care of those they leave behind?

And hasn’t it often been the case that the death of a faithful loved one brings about healing in those previously estranged?

Isn’t Mary’s Assumption following her life on earth just another way to express our ultimate hope that we will indeed meet our destiny to be full of grace in the life of heaven?

Even as we so often focus on the end of that mystery, let us not forget the beginning: the falling asleep, the death of the Christian, which like all aspects of our lives in Christ, stores the promise to be full of grace for us and those we love.

Mary, Solemnity of the AssumptionToday is the Catholic Solemnity of the Assumption. Rev. Matthew Spahr, pastor of The Immaculata Church on the USD campus, provides a reflection.


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