Since the Second Vatican Council, mainstream Catholic theology has focused on the experiential dimension of faith. How do Catholics, as individuals and as a community, experience such things as God, prayer, the Mass, the sacraments? How do the encounters with these transcendent realities concretely affect the lives of Catholics? The Fathers of the Church always referred their developing understanding of the nature and person of Jesus Christ to the experience of salvation described in the Bible. From this starting point they developed the Christological teachings that we take for granted today: Jesus is one in being with the Father, He is fully God and fully man, and so on.
Human experience, then, is a valid source for theological reflection, though problems arise when it dwells too much on the human aspect and forgets the role of the divine. Unfortunately, a fair amount of contemporary theology, some of which has been popularized and filtered into parish life, has fallen into this trap. For example, definitions of the Mass as “the community meal” and the sacrament of confirmation as an ecclesial “coming of age” ceremony immediately exclude the divine element of these sacred rituals. In order for human experience to bear fruit in our spiritual lives, it must lift us upward to God, not collapse downward in a celebration of ourselves.
Beginning from shared human experience is helpful in contemplating the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which falls annually on August 15. In one of only two dogmas ever declared infallible by the pope, Pius XII definitively taught a reality of faith that slowly became better understood after centuries of theological reflection and liturgical celebration: “the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”
What does Mary’s assumption have to do with our own human experience? Although she was the mother of God and thus the pinnacle of human existence, Mary lived a most ordinary life, a life with which we can all identify. She cooked dinner nightly, she cleaned the house, she was married and she raised a son. Her chores were perhaps even more strenuous than ours: she washed all the family’s clothes by hand (clothes which she likely sewed herself), she cleaned her home without aid of a vacuum, and she stoked the fire to stay warm. Above all, she experienced the emotional highs and lows of human life: she married a holy man and gave birth to a son; but she also buried her husband and endured the ultimate tragedy for any parent: she watched her innocent son die a torturous and agonizing death.
Yes, we lowly creatures share the same earthly experiences that our august, holy, and pious heavenly mother lived. The feast of the assumption reminds us that our common human experiences are oriented to experience in her ultimate glory, eternal life in Heaven. It is a feast of faith that showcases the ultimate promise of our Lord that earthly experiences are not the end; something far beyond what even the greatest saints can imagine awaits us. On this day we are called to put aside our electronic distractions for a few moments and raise our hearts to contemplate the glory promised to us for following the will of God and the shining example of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The readings for the Mass of the assumption encourage such contemplation. The first reading, from the Book of Revelation, points us immediately to our holy Mother in Heaven: “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” But, as the gospel relating Mary’s “Magnificat” reminds us, Heaven is not a pious thought unrelated to human experience; rather it is the final fulfillment of all the longings and desires of our human life:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. . . .He has come to the help of his servant
Israel for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.
Secularists who aim to banish religion from public life assert that religious belief is fine in private, but it is not fundamental to human experience. Today our celebration of the assumption proposes a jubilant counter to this dreary secular dogma, one that cries out from the depths of human desire for the transcendent. Brother Philip Anderson, prior of Clear Creek Monastary, powerfully sums up the Catholic response:
We certainly need to feel that Our Lady is close to us, but if ever there was a time in which human beings needed to be reminded of exalted and heavenly things – of purity and light not of this world – it is surely ours. While politicians and the shapers of popular culture lead us bravely downward, along the slippery slope into a moral quagmire. . .we stand in need of a heavenly reference point, of a guiding star. As we watch the Gospel of Life being trampled under foot in ever newer ways, we have to remember to look up to the stars. Gate of Heaven, Morning Star, pray for us. Lady, uplift us!