Saturday, August 15, 2020
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Liturgical Color: White
First reading: Revelation 11:19a; 12:1–6a, 10ab
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 45:10, 11, 12, 16
Second reading: 1 Corinthians 15:20–27
Gospel: Luke 1:39–56
The 12th chapter of the book of Revelation is a hugely popular passage, and the sheer number of commentaries and explanations is overwhelming. I have had to limit my resource selections to cover just a few of the interesting topics of this rich chapter.
The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible offers a rapid-fire summary of the First Reading, giving the bare facts without stopping to unpack them. Here is a sample:
The woman of Revelation 12 is both an individual person and a collective symbol. She is Mary, the Mother of the Messiah and the spiritual mother of his disciples (John 19:26–27). But she also represents the faithful of Israel, crying out for the Messiah (Revelation 12:2), as well as the Church, attacked by the devil for witnessing to Jesus (Revelation 12:17) (Catechism of the Catholic Church 501, 507, 1138). • The depiction of the woman is rich in biblical symbolism. (1) Antagonism between the woman and the dragon, the “ancient serpent” (12:9), recalls Genesis 3:15, the first prophecy in Scripture to foretell the demise of the devil through the offspring (Messiah) of a woman (a new Eve). (2) Images of the sun, moon, and stars call to mind Genesis 37:9–10, where they symbolize the family of Israel, namely, Jacob, his wife, and his twelve sons. (3) The pangs and anguish of childbirth recall Isaiah’s description of Daughter Zion, a maternal figure that represents the holy remnant of Israel groaning for redemption (Isaiah 26:17; Micah 4:9–10). (4) Because the woman is a queen who wears a crown and a mother who bears a royal male child, she is also the Queen Mother of the Davidic kingdom reestablished by Jesus, the Davidic male child (1 Kings 2:19–20; Jeremiah 13:18) (Catechism of the Catholic Church 489). (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible)
In contrast, the Navarre Bible Commentary draws out doctrinal and theological implications and quotes some ancient resources to back up and illustrate its assertions.
The mysterious figure of the woman has been interpreted ever since the time of the Fathers of the Church as referring to the ancient people of Israel, or the Church of Jesus Christ, or the Blessed Virgin. The text supports all of these interpretations but in none do all the details fit. The woman can stand for the people of Israel, for it is from that people that the Messiah comes, and Isaiah compares Israel to “a woman with child, who writhes and cries out in her pangs, when she is near her time” (Isaiah 26:17).
She can also stand for the Church, whose children strive to overcome evil and to bear witness to Jesus Christ (cf. verse 17). Following this interpretation St. Gregory wrote: “The sun stands for the light of truth, and the moon for the transitoriness of temporal things; the holy Church is clothed like the sun because she is protected by the splendour of supernatural truth, and she has the moon under her feet because she is above all earthly things” (Moralia in Job, 34, 12).
The passage can also refer to the Virgin Mary because it was she who truly and historically gave birth to the Messiah, Jesus Christ our Lord (cf. verse 5). St. Bernard comments: “The sun contains permanent colour and splendour; whereas the moon’s brightness is unpredictable and changeable, for it never stays the same. It is quite right, then, for Mary to be depicted as clothed with the sun, for she entered the profundity of divine wisdom much further than one can possibly conceive” (De B. Virgine, 2). (Navarre Bible Commentary)
Curiously, the image presented to the bishop of Mexico by the Indian visionary, St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatóatzin, is strikingly similar to the biblical Woman which we encounter in Revelation. The figure of Our Lady of Guadalupe, as the Mexican image has been known practically from its appearance in December of 1531, is well known. In this image, the details of the Woman of Revelation 12 are altered just enough to speak to the local Indian culture and allow the Aztecs and other tribes to understand that the white men from a far-off land had brought them the truth about God, that Jesus Christ is the savior of all the peoples of the world, and that, in contrast to their cultural beliefs and practices, violence and human sacrifice are abhorrent to God. You can read some basic facts about this image and its history at this link: https://bit.ly/33SxpFn. The Vatican document predates the canonization of St. Juan Diego in 2000; hence he is referred to there as Blessed.
In his description of the devil (cf. verse 9), St. John uses symbols taken from the Old Testament. The dragon or serpent comes from Genesis 3:1–24, a passage which underlies all the latter half of this book. Its red colour and seven heads with seven diadems show that it is bringing its full force to bear to wage this war. The ten horns in Daniel 7:7 stand for the kings who are Israel’s enemies; in Daniel a horn is also mentioned to refer to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, of whom Daniel also says (to emphasize the greatness of Antiochus’ victories) that it cast stars down from heaven onto the earth (cf. Daniel 8:10). Satan drags other angels along with him, as the text later recounts (Revelation 12:9). All these symbols, then, are designed to convey the enormous power of Satan. “The devil is described as a serpent,” St. Cyprian writes, “because he moves silently and seems peaceable and comes by easy ways and is so astute and so deceptive […] that he tries to have night taken for day, poison taken for medicine. So, by deceptions of this kind, he tries to destroy truth by cunning. That is why he passes himself off as an angel of light” (De unitate Ecclesiae, I-III). (Navarre Bible Commentary)
The war between the children of Adam and Eve (representing fallen but redeemed mankind) and the followers of Satan has been raging since that day in the Garden of Eden. The Woman, representing Israel until the time of Christ and the Church thereafter, is borne away to the wilderness, where God takes care of His people. Christ has left us the Sacraments, in particular the Eucharist, to nourish and protect His people with divine grace during this time of trial and suffering. We need only remember that there will be an end to the war, and that Christ has already won the victory, which will be proclaimed at the end of time, when Christ will return to judge all creation.
The traditional typology identifying Mary as the ark of the covenant has a biblical foundation. In the Gospel of Luke, [the angel] Gabriel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will “overshadow” her (Luke 1:35), using the same Greek word that in the wilderness described the descent of God’s presence on the tabernacle containing the ark (Exodus 40:35 LXX). For nine months the womb of the Virgin was God’s dwelling, his tabernacle on the earth. The sacred objects contained in the ark — the tablets of God’s word, the manna, and the rod of Aaron’s priesthood — all foreshadowed Christ, who is in the most literal sense the presence of God among his people. (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture)
Regarding the birth pangs suffered by the Woman, Jesus himself tells us the following in John’s Gospel:
Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy. When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived; but when she has given birth to a child, she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a child has been born into the world. So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you. (John 16:20–22)
In other words, the trials, pain and suffering experienced by the Woman are symbolic of what we, as followers of her Son, experience in our sojourn in this life. They are her suffering because they are our suffering; as Simeon told Mary in the Temple, just as her Son would be opposed and wounded unto death, “a sword will pierce through your own soul” (Luke 2:35).
Finally, the proclamation issued by the angel at the end of this week’s First Reading are not appropriate to our day, when the war is still in progress, but refer to the end of the world, when our Lord will return to judge not only us, but the demons as well.
Satan’s claim to power over the human race was based on accusations of wrongdoing (unfortunately true) that placed friendship with God and his blessing beyond our reach. But Satan’s claim has been rendered null and void [by Christ’s sacrifice and our acceptance of it, as verse 11, not included in our present reading, states: “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony”], and he has lost his ability to charge us before God. (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture)
The testimony given by the sources cited above just scratches the surface of this vast topic of the Woman of the Apocalypse. It is too rich for a brief presentation.
The Second Reading begins by speaking of Christ’s resurrection and our own. It explains how the one brings about the other.
The Apostle insists on the solidarity that exists between Christ and Christians: as members of one single body, of which Christ is the head, they form as it were one organism (cf. Romans 6:3–11; Galatians 3:28). Therefore, once the resurrection of Christ is affirmed, the resurrection of the just necessarily follows. Adam’s disobedience brought death for all; Jesus, the new Adam, has merited that all should rise (cf. Romans 5:12–21). “Again, the resurrection of Christ effects for us the resurrection of our bodies not only because it was the efficient cause of this mystery, but also because we all ought to arise after the example of the Lord. For with regard to the resurrection of the body we have this testimony of the Apostle: ‘As by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead’ (1 Corinthians 15:21). In all that God did to accomplish the mystery of our redemption he made use of the humanity of Christ as an effective instrument, and hence his resurrection was, as it were, an instrument for the accomplishment of our resurrection” (St. Pius V Catechism, I, 6, 13). (Navarre Bible Commentary)
The “one single body” mentioned here refers to the Church, which is Christ’s mystical body, of which St. Paul speaks earlier in this epistle. We, as Christians, thus participate in the resurrection on the last day (“when he comes”) through the office of the Church, because in that sense, we are his body, which is now raises from the dead.
Paul also uses the image of first fruits, which the Jewish Law required the people to offer in the Temple, dedicating the year’s harvest to the Lord and giving Him thanks for his generosity. Christ is the first fruit, whom we offer on the altar by the hands of our priest, just as the Jewish priests offered the people’s first fruits in the ancient Temple.
Now we have a basis for seeing what the Assumption of Mary is all about. It is a demonstration of what we ourselves will experience on the Day of Judgment (“the end”). Our body will be resurrected and reunited to our soul, making each one of us again a complete human being. Then, the just (let us strive now to be so judged in that day!) will be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven, where our every need and desire will be fulfilled. If we are in heaven, it will be because our desires are perfectly conformed to the will of God. There, we will be entirely and eternally filled with joy.
Christ’s sovereignty over all creation comes about in history, but it will achieve its final, complete, form after the Last Judgment. The Apostle presents that last event — a mystery to us — as a solemn act of homage to the Father. Christ will offer all creation to his Father as a kind of trophy, offering him the Kingdom which up to then had been confided to his care. From that moment on, the sovereignty of God and Christ will be absolute, they will have no enemies, no rivals; the stage of combat will have given way to that of contemplation, as St. Augustine puts it (cf. De Trinitate, 1, 8). (Navarre Bible Commentary)
Let’s talk a little more about what Paul means by “the end.” In our day, as in ancient times, there is considerable controversy about a “thousand year reign” of Christ on earth before the saved are taken up to heaven. The Catholic Church does not teach this, and numerous books have been written to explain why this is so. Suffice here to simply give the pauline understanding of the “end times,” which is part of this week’s Second Reading.
Christ’s sovereignty over all creation comes about in history, but it will achieve its final, complete, form after the Last Judgment. The Apostle presents that last event — a mystery to us — as a solemn act of homage to the Father. Christ will offer all creation to his Father as a kind of trophy, offering him the Kingdom which up to then had been confided to his care. From that moment on, the sovereignty of God and Christ will be absolute, they will have no enemies, no rivals; the stage of combat will have given way to that of contemplation, as St. Augustine puts it (cf. De Trinitate, 1, 8). (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture)
Now a few words to “clean up” our understanding of some phrases which may seem obscure.
Our text speaks of Christ “destroying every rule and every authority and power.” Paul is not speaking here of overthrowing earthly rulers, because he says elsewhere that they have received their posts through the will of God. So no matter how onorous their leadership may become, we must obey them in all things not intrinsically evil. Instead, these words in our text refer to demons, because Satan is the “ruler of this world” (John 14:30; compare Ephesians 6:12). However, this does not mean that our Lord will stand idly by while evil earthly rulers destroy the faithful. “Inasmuch as these demonic spiritual powers at times use earthly authorities [to corrupt those under them]…, those earthly sovereignties too will be abolished.” (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture)
But there is one more enemy that stands between us and the bliss of heaven: death. After all, Christ “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (verse 25). And the following verse states very clearly: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
By the way, that “until” in verse 25 does not mean that Christ will cease to reign once he has defeated his enemies. That would be absurd, for his kingship is eternal. Rather, we have yet another biblical example of “until” not following our contemporary way of speaking. In Scripture and doctrine, we must not think in terms of either/or, but of both/and.
Now here is our final quote for this Second Reading:
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Here Paul personifies death as Christ’s mortal enemy that won only an apparent victory in causing Christ’s death on the cross, for his death was followed by his rising from the dead and initiating a reign against sin, the cause of death. In 2 Timothy 1:10, Paul says that Christ “destroyed death.” There the verb translated “destroyed” means, literally, “disabled,” which has an interesting nuance, because in the present life we do not see physical death eliminated; but for Christians it is no longer a threat because of Christ’s resurrection and the promise of our own. Here [in the context of our Second Reading,] “destroyed”… refers to the final triumph over death, which comes in the resurrection of the just. (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture)
One last “clean-up” is in order. In saying “the resurrection of the just,” Paul is not asserting that the unjust do not rise. Rather, he is ignoring that detail to make the point that the audience of his letter is not the unjust, but those who believe in Jesus Christ and are in the process of salvation. Certainly, those who are not being saved will also be resurrected, but not to eternal glory, because John 5:28–29 states that “all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”
Catholic apologists have spoken amply concerning the significance of Mary’s stay with Elizabeth. As a result, our attention here will be on the meaning of Mary’s song, the Magnificat. The Navarre Bible Commentary provides an extensive verse-by-verse commentary on this passage. It is far too long to be included here, but we can provide couple of excerpts and summarize the rest.
The Magnificat emphasizes several virtues, especially humility. The strong and the proud are defeated by God, who then exalts the weak and humble. Mary’s personal humility is manifest throughout the Gospels. Except at this moment, when the Son of God enters his own creation becomes also the Son of Man, Mary scarcely appears. Instead, she allows her Son to describe the path we must follow; her task, like ours, is to follow that path to glory. The glory she attains is celebrated in this day on which we celebrate her assumption into heaven.
Three stanzas may be distinguished in the canticle: in the first (vv. 46–50) Mary glorifies God for making her the Mother of the Saviour, which is why future generations will call her blessed; she shows that the Incarnation is a mysterious expression of God’s power and holiness and mercy. In the second (vv. 51–53) she teaches us that the Lord has always had a preference for the humble, resisting the proud and boastful. In the third (vv. 54–55) she proclaims that God, in keeping with his promise, has always taken special care of his chosen people — and now does them the greatest honour of all by becoming a Jew (cf. Romans 1:3). (Navarre Bible Commentary)
I have always puzzled over the middle portion of the song, which speaks of a massive reversal of fortunes, in which the strong and the proud must give way to the weak, the lowly, the poor and the humble.
God rewards our Lady’s humility by mankind’s recognition of her greatness: “All generations will call me blessed.” This prophecy is fulfilled every time someone says the Hail Mary, and indeed she is praised on earth continually, without interruption. “From the earliest times the Blessed Virgin is honoured under the title of Mother of God, under whose protection the faithful take refuge together in prayer in all their perils and needs. Accordingly, following the Council of Ephesus, there was a remarkable growth in the cult of the people of God towards Mary, in veneration and love, in invocation and imitation, according to her own prophetic words: ‘all generations will call me blessed, for he who is mighty has done great things for me’” (Vatican II, Lumen gentium, 66). (Navarre Bible Commentary)
Mary’s personal humility and obscurity is the reason she is great. God exalts the humble, even as the proud look on and sneer. Why should this be? Because God Himself is humble. What pagan god would allow a mere human being to stand against Him? Yet the true God does this very thing by his gift of free will. His choice of an insignificant individual, Abraham, upon whom to establish a nation, Israel, must be understood in the same way. That He brought that nation out of slavery in Egypt to become his own People of God in the Promised Land is the perfect example. Among us humans, slaves are the lowest of the low. Yet God preferred those slaves and gave them a Law. So long as they lived by that Law, they prospered and grew strong. But when they became prideful and circumvented or spurned his Law, they were conquered and again became slaves.
One must, then, ask the same question of us Christians today: Has the world at large turned against the once great and powerful Christianity because we Christians have not lived the life of Mary, in humility and fidelity? What must we do to regain our place before God?