On Wednesday of this week, August 15th, I went to church. I was having a "quiet day," and decided to spend some time at St. Mary's Catholic Cathedral. Every so often, I make my way down to the Cathedral for mid-day mass. No, I'm not Roman Catholic, and I don't receive communion; but it is nice to participate in liturgy as a member of the congregation rather than as the priest.
I arrived quite early, and spent some time reading in one of the pews. As 12:15 approached, more and more people started coming in. Pretty soon, there were hundreds of people in the congregation. Normally, there are at most fifty or so people at one of these services. Something was going on.
As the service was about to begin, the deacon stood before the congregation and told us that today was the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. There was a special bulletin in the pews (which I had missed since it was on the end and I was in the middle). We all stood and sang a song about Mary, and the service was underway.
Now, I had heard of this idea before. The idea that Mary had been taken into heaven. But, frankly, I had not paid any attention to it. So, I was very interested in hearing what the priest would say in his sermon.
Well, I found out a lot. He told us that the Virgin Mary was taken "body and soul" into heaven. He did not tell us if she died first or not, but I got the impression that she didn't. He told us that this Assumption had just recently become official dogma of the Catholic church, when Pope Pius XII had "infallibly" declared it in the 1950s. He said that the doctrine was much older than the 1950s, going all the way back to fifth century. He told us it is an important doctrine, and talked about the Immaculate Conception of Mary and her place as Queen of Heaven.
OK, I need to make something clear. I am an ecumenical sort of guy. I am fine with different churches having their own ideas. I'm sure that many of my Anglican ideas are strange, even foolish or worse, to other Christians. Also, I have enormous respect for Roman Catholicism.
That said, this Assumption of the Virgin Mary thing made me cringe. I literally sat there looking at the priest, thinking to myself "do you really believe what you are saying?" First, of course, is the reality that the Bible says nothing about Mary's supposed immaculate conception or her assumption into heaven. One could reasonably say that the moment of the Assumption lies outside the period of the biblical writers. O.K., then why is it that there is no mention of it in the Church for five hundred years or so after the event? Why is it that the first mention we find of Mary's death in the history of the Church is Epiphanius of Salamis in 375ish saying that no one knows what happened to Mary? Add to that the total weirdness of these stories about Mary's assumption. Want to read them, find them here. Talk about in-credible: as in not credible.
I may be reading into this doctrine, but I'll tell you what I see. I see fear of the body, fear of the natural world. I mean, what is wrong with dying? And what is wrong with staying dead with the rest of us? Why does Mary, who truly is blessed among women AND the bearer of God, need to be this otherworldly Queen of Heaven? The only thing I can come up with is that some people feel that being a regular human being is just not good enough for Jesus' mother. She had to be superhuman, from birth through death. She can't just be one of us.
Well, I for one see Mary as a heroic figure in large part because she was one of us. No immaculate conception, no eternal virginity (what is wrong with marital sex, people?), no death bed beam-ups. Just a woman who was chosen, and responded in faith, to bring God made Flesh into the world. A woman who did not suffer for my salvation, but suffered because of her child's death which brought salvation. A woman who was no queen, but was the Lord's handmaid, as she herself said.
In the Anglican world, August 15th is Feast of the Virgin Mary. We celebrate her life and her death. I remembered her on that day, as I do on many days. I didn't celebrate her Assumption, because I disbelieve in it. Regardless of what some say about her, I am still strengthened by her witness.