Reflections for the Feast of the Assumption
After the Second World War, Mary was declared as assumed into heaven, body and spirit after her death by Pope Pius Xll despite Catholics having already believed this. Experts were concerned that such a new dogma might complicate relations with other Christians. What is important is the timing of this move. Pius XII became pope in March 1939, six months before the Second World War began. The global upheaval that marked the first decade of the papacy of Pius XII produced a veritable litany of the debasement of human dignity.
Complicity and indifference abetted the atrocities of the era even at the most ordinary levels. In response to this degradation of human bodies and communities Pius wanted to affirm the goodness of the body and offered an alternative vision for a shared destiny. Pius was reacting to the horrors and wars he had experienced: 10 million people killed in WW I, 40 million killed during the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust killed millions of Jews, Gypsies and Homosexuals, and WW II claimed 50 million lives. As it did in 1950, so today, this dogmas challenges the logic of "it is what it is." It is call to resistance against this logic as we see in today’s gospel reading. Mary is among the cloud of witnesses who had sought to be present to others and build social communion and friendship rather than destroy the bonds of love.
The Pope wanted to say something not only about the body of Mary, but about the body of all of us. The aims was that celebration of Mary's Assumption would teach us to a new respect for every person’s bodily presence and history. This has profound implications and relevance for us today: we have seen the terrible wars in the Vietnam and Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, apartheid in South Africa and some say in Israel, the genocide in Rwanda and Darfur, nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the inequities with vaccine distribution during the Covid 19 pandemic, not to mention world poverty. The body, our body, deserves reverence and respect, as also of our sisters and brothers.
The Gospel today affirms the belief that this world is pregnant with newness, with possibility, with God's life. It celebrates that the breaking into the life of a peasant woman probably doing her domestic chores. And she can sing of God's subversive activity in our world where the plans and designs of those in power are reversed. God chooses the little instead of the big, the weak instead of the strong, lifts up the lowly, brings down the mighty. The readings suggest struggle as we see in the first reading from Revelation and making the Resurrection a reality in our lives and relationships. They reflect the ongoing struggle in our lives and our world. Mary’s song is not peaceful, but unsettling and proclaims upheaval of for the comfortable and those in power. The lowly here are the ‘tapeinoi’ – Greek for those “pressed down,” or oppressed. The ‘tapeinoi’ or oppressed will be raised up, and the hungry will be “filled with good things.”
Mary sings about how God is fruitful in her life, and an elderly woman, not because of her purity and goodness – which sidetracked later generations - but because she was a nobody which enabled God to break into her life. We need only pay attention to the apparitions that have occurred. Few, if any, have been to the rich, powerful or famous. They were nearly always to the poor and lowly, peasants, women and children.
Mary’s Song sounds the mission of Jesus himself which was expressed in proclaiming good news to the poor, liberation for the oppressed. It implicitly manifests the innate sacredness and value of each person of whatever group they belong to. Jesus rubbed shoulders with the poor, the destitute, and people outside the law and Mary sings that same motif: that God's preference is for those who, like herself, are nobodies.
Mary’s Song is one who has already been rescued from the limits of her time, society, and religion; someone who is on her way to the final exodus out of all oppression and injustice. ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit exults in God my saviour; because God has looked down on the lowly handmaid.’ Luke puts this song in her mouth... and with good reason... because to let anyone sing such a song indicates that you think her heart was bursting with it.
This song indicates knowledge of the problems of her time and society, as well as what has to happen to remedy the situation: ‘God has shown the power of his arm, routed the proud of heart, pulled down princes from their thrones, and exalted the lowly. The hungry have been filled with good things, the rich sent away empty. God has come to the help of Israel the servant, mindful of mercy.’ In other words, God listens to the oppressed. Mary's song is a wave of compassion. It is a song that gives hope to everyone. It is not against anyone, but it is for the poor and the oppressed. It stand in opposition to the view "it is what it is" which is apathetic and passive and leads to neglect.
Mary's hymn has remained a woman's tune. It is a tune for women, the elderly, people living with disabilities, people of colour, the poor gay people and oppressed people. Women in Manila sang it to confront Ferdinand Marcos. Women in Chile and Argentina sang it as they protested the disappearance of their husbands, brothers, sons and daughters. Mother Teresa and her sisters sang it when they opened a hospice for people living with HIV/AIDS in Washington, D.C. Russian mothers lived it when they went to the Chechen border to tell their sons to stop fighting and come home. Women in West Papua, the Balkans, Bougainville lived it when they were at the forefront of peace making in their communities and the healing that needs to occur afterwards. All those women are ahead of their time. "It is what it is" is not acceptable.
2020-2021 bear witness to a troubling litany of loss and assaults on human dignity. COVID-19 has claimed the lives millions. Too many are counted among our most vulnerable, and how many remain uncounted because their inconvenient deaths contradict optimistic predictions of a "return to normal."
We celebrate this feast because of what it promises. Mary is caught up in this great process of realising the effects of the resurrection. It does not promise peace but tension and struggle. One way to understand the action of God in the mystery of the Assumption is to recognise it as God’s promise to be present as have been the known and unknown among our ancestors who stood with the poor and oppressed. As this dogma reminds us, these said by their lives that "it is what it is" is not our destiny. Let us affirm life lived in the embrace of God’s reign, of relationships honoured with our sisters and brothers and God’s creation. Let us affirm our mutual obligations toward each other and to proclaim, with our words and deeds, ¡Presente! (ala Oscar Romero).