Maria Assumpta Est

Sunday 16th August 2009
The Blessed Virgin Mary (The Assumption of Our Blessed Lady into Heaven)

"I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting." Those are the words that we are all going to say when I have stepped down from here. They are the words we say every Sunday when we recite the Nicene Creed. This short set of almost after-thoughts to the long passage on the nature of Christ, pack a great deal into a few words. First of all, the Holy Ghost gets half a line; and we might make the same comment on the Holy Catholic Church and the forgiveness of sins; but my purpose today is to consider: "The communion of saints, The resurrection of the body and life everlasting". What can we possibly mean by all that?

What I want to show is how these words relate to the Doctrine of the Assumption of Our Blessed Lady into heaven, first articulated by Saint Gregory of Tours in 597 and crystallised by Pope Pius XII in 1950.

The obvious starting point is that we probably all mean these words slightly differently when we say them but, as they constitute a major slab of Christian doctrine, shared by all Trinitarian Christians, we should expect them to mean something that we hold in common to such an extent that they are useful pieces of language in which to discuss the theology.

What we are saying, in reverse order, is that we believe in everlasting life when we have died, that this will be constituted physically, involving our bodies, in some way, just as Jesus manifested himself in some physical way after his Resurrection; and the way that we define these bodily phenomena which are to live forever is to call them "Saints". So far so good; if any of us are not on board, then we have some serious thinking to do before saying the Creed.

But before going on, let me explain why I think that some of us may be in difficulties. For the past five hundred years, Christianity has tended literally to disembody itself, it has partially at least given way to the gnostic heretical position, based on the philosophy of Plato (neo-Platonism), that the spirit is separate from and superior to our bodies; and in spite of the best efforts of Saint Paul, the greatest champion - in spite of some of his obvious disgust with procreation - against dualism, Protestant reformers built on the Medieval concept of "The soul" to complete the separation saying, for example, that how we live on earth does not influence whether we will enjoy that everlasting life. This kind of thinking has led many Christians to believe, in spite of the Creed, that our spirits or "souls" will go to Heaven and that our bodies are simply a temporary, earthly, corrupting phenomenon. This is why clergy are often said to have the "care of souls" when, of course, they should have the care of bodies.

Having crossed off, so to speak, the "resurrection of the body", reformers then thought about "the community of saints" and assumed that this could only mean an assemblage, if that's the right word, of the souls of saints. So, to sum up, many reformers ended up believing, in spite of their reluctance to revise the Creed, three connected propositions:

At this point, then, with no identifiable saints but only the ethereal winners of the dice throwing, we come across the particular case of the most eminent of all the saints, Our Lady, the Theotokos or carrier of Jesus, conceived without stain of sin. I need to stop here a minute also, so that I can clear up a little more confusion: the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception refers to Mary's conception and is quite separate from the Virgin conception of the human and divine Jesus. That doctrine says that Mary was conceived without 'original sin', which is only important if you believe in the concept of original sin - but let's leave that for another day - and, by extension, it says that Mary never committed any sin. In other words, on both counts, Mary was perfectly pure in her obedience to God and the moral law. We might want to consider on a separate occasion, as well as the doctrine of Original Sin, what the implications might be of Jesus being born to somebody who was a sinner, but I am simply stating the Christian doctrine as it is held by Catholics and Protestants alike.

So this doctrine says that Mary is outside the dice throwing; she is the only human dead cert - if you will excuse the pun! - to be in heaven. Now for Catholics who, in spite of the development of the concept of "the soul", still had some notion of bodily resurrection, it soon became clear that if Mary automatically merited everlasting life, her body must be part of the translation from earth to heaven; but for Protestants this was a move too far. While they went on affirming "The Communion of Saints and the Resurrection of the body" in the Creed, they could not bring themselves to apply this formulary to the person of Immaculate Mary.

I think I have gone as far as I can to explain the theology but there is some psychology in here, too. It is an immense and tragic irony that the country which was most Marian in the late Middle Ages turned most decisively against Mary at the Reformation. As an historian I would argue that this was because: first, Henry VIII was a profound misogynist, regarding women merely as sexual and dynastic objects; Secondly, England suffered the most centralised, and therefore power dominated, Reformation and power, with the exception of Queen Elizabeth I, meant men; and, thirdly, following Charles Taylor at least in outline [i], England was the first country to divorce its religion from the divinely mysterious and to identify religion as the means of elite self discipline and, subsequently, the imposition by the elite of that discipline on the masses, so that what was a profoundly religious experience in 1500 ended up being transformed by 1800 into the public school ethic of "playing the game", of decency and patriotism, ideas far removed from the mystery of Mary.

In conclusion, I think that there are three reasons, in ascending order of importance, why we should affirm the Doctrine of the Assumption as an integral part of our affirmation of the Nicene Creed: first, it accords with our doctrinal position on the immaculate nature of Mary and the "Resurrection of the body"; secondly, it accords with our spiritual and psychological need; and, finally, it is, as it is meant to be, an iconic expression of our hope.

[i] Taylor, Charles: A Secular Society, Belknap, Harvard, 2007