(cf. Exodus 40: 34 – 35 & Luke 1: 35)
by Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
Published in Church and Life (1845-46) 20.12.2012 -30.1.2013 No 1-2 Pg 2 If one today uses the term “Madonna’ the first image that is usually conjured up by the mind, is of an individual whose life is so vastly different to that of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Christ. In fact so very different are the two women, that they can be seen as symbolic of two worlds within the modern world – a world of materialism as distinct from the world of the Spirit; a world of chastity against a world of unbridled sexuality; a world of humility as distinct from a cult of personality. It is true to say, that the most popularly venerated Saint of the Catholic Church, Mary the daughter of Joachim and Anna, is an anachronism to the modern world. The values for which she lived, such as her perpetual virginity, and her simplicity, are scoffed at today. However, if at the end of time, all of humanity come to understand that the Gospel narratives are indeed true – there will have been no greater woman who walked this earth, then she, who having just entered her teenage years, agreed to become the Mother of God. Then the world will recognize not only the beauty of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ words – but also their profound Truth: “She, wild web, wondrous robe, Mantles the guilty globe, Since God has let dispense, Her prayers his providence: Nay, more than almoner, The sweet alms’ self is her, And men are meant to share, Her life as life does air.” (“The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe”) Thomas Merton once wrote that perhaps the greatest difficulty a Protestant faced in accepting Catholicism was the cult of the Virgin Mary. According to Merton, many times even Catholics fail to realize that the Mother of God, the Theotokos, (Greek: The God-bearer) is not divine of her own right. As Merton writes in his essay, Understanding Catholic Devotion to Mary: “But this is all completely contrary to the true mind of the Catholic Church. It forgets that Mary’s chief glory is in her nothingness, in the fact of being the “Handmaid of the Lord,” as one who in becoming the Mother of God acted simply in loving submission to His command, in the pure obedience of faith. She is blessed not because of some mythical pseudo-divine prerogative, but in all her human and womanly limitations as one who has believed. It is the faith and the fidelity of this humble handmaid, “full of grace” that enables her to be the perfect instrument of God, and nothing else but His instrument. The work that was done in her purely the work of God. “He that is mighty hath done great things in me.” The glory of Mary is purely and simply the glory of God in her, and she, like anyone else, can say that she has nothing that she has not received from Him through Christ. Proclaimed as an infallible teaching of the Universal Church in the Apostolic Constitution, Munificentissimus Deus by Pius XII (on The Feast of All Saints in 1950), the Dormition of the Theotokos has tradition and roots that extend to the most ancient Christian communities of the East; where the assumption of the Holy Mother’s body and soul to Paradise has always been recognized and celebrated. Thus the comment attributed to the Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr by Paul Tillich after the latter asked whether Pius XII would indeed promulgate the Dormition of Our Lady as an infallible teaching, is indeed quizzical in the light of the long-standing Eastern Tradition. Tillich has Niebuhr say of Pius XII: “I don’t think so; he is too clever for that; it would be a slap in the face of the whole modern world and it would be dangerous for the Roman Church to do that today”. (Tillich, P., 1972, p. 224). Slap in the face it may be to a modern world, that scoffs at miracles as well as virgins, but the early Church provides us with numerous sources piecing together the last days of the Theotokos on earth. Let us now take but one. John, the seventh century Archbishop of Thessalonica teaches us that after having lived with St. John the Evangelist for some time: “this glorious virgin, the Mother of God, left the earth by a natural death”. (Daley, 1998, p. 47). He continued on to say that what he was writing was “what truly happened, what is remembered as having taken place, and what is witnessed until today by the existence of actual sites”. (Ibid, p. 49). John of Thessalonica paints the scene of the Holy Mother’s departure from this world in words of romantic beauty: “When the holy Mother of God, Mary, was about to lay aside her body, the great angel came to her and said, ”Rise, Mary, take this branch of palm, which he who planted Paradise gave to me, and give it to the Apostles, so that they may carry it as they sing before you, for after three days you will lay aside your body. For behold, I am sending all the Apostles to you, and they will take care of you and will behold your glory when they carry you to your resting place.” (Ibid, 49). We see in this passage the return of the Archangel Gabriel, addressing once more the hand-maid of the Lord; rewarding her with a branch from a palm that grew in Eden. The symbolism of this gift is rich; for Mary was the vehicle by which the salvific action of God took place; and the palm is integral to the story of the Crucifxion – that the Holy Mother witnessed. John continues his narrative of the final days of the Holy Mother by writing: “When she [Mary] had said this, she went out and said to her housemaid, ”hear me: go and all my relatives and acquaintances; say to them, ‘Mary calls you’.” Her maid went out and called them all, as she had commanded; and when they had come to her, Mary said to them, “Fathers and brothers, help me! For I am about to depart from the body for my eternal rest. Arise, then and show me a great act of generosity. I do not ask you for gold or silver, because all those things are vain and corruptible. But I ask you for the generosity of remaining with me these next two nights; let each of you take a lamp, and do not let it go for three days, and I will bless you before I depart.” (Ibid, p. 51). John of Thessalonica brings the recollection of the Dormition to its completion by saying that three days later the Holy Mother went outside of her home and prayed to the Lord; so doing, she returned and lay on her bed: “Peter sat at her head and John by her feet, while the rest of the Apostles stood in a circle around her pallet. And about the third hour of the day, there was a great clap of thunder from the heavens, and a sweet fragrance, which caused all those present to be overpowered by sleep, except for the Apostles alone, and three virgins, whom the Lord appointed to stay awake so that they might be witnesses of Mary’s funeral rites and her glory. And behold, the Lord came on the clouds, with a multitude of angels beyond number. And Jesus himself and Michael entered the inner chamber where Mary was, while the angels sang hymns and remained standing outside her chamber. And as soon as the Savior entered, he found the Apostles with holy Mary, and he embraced them all. After this, he embraced his own mother. And Mary opened her mouth and blessed him, saying, ”I bless you, for you have not grieved me with regard to the things you foretold. You foretold that you would not allow angels to come again to seek my soul, but that you would come for it yourself. It has happened, Lord, according to your word (cf. Lk. 1: 38). Who am I, lowly one, that I have been counted worthy of such glory?” And having said this, she brought the course of her life to its fulfillment, her face turned smilingly towards the Lord. And the Lord took her soul and placed it in the hands of Michael, after wrapping it in veils of some kind, whose splendor it is impossible to describe.” (Ibid, p. 63). After this miraculous event, the Apostles placed Mary’s body in a coffin, and then into a tomb, where as Archbishop John writes, three days later the Apostles came, only to find her funeral garments. John concludes: “she had been taken away by Christ, the God who became flesh from her, to the place of her eternal, living inheritance. And our Lord Jesus Christ himself, who bestowed glory on his immaculate Mother Mary Theotokos, will also bestow glory on those who glorify her. Those who call upon her, celebrating her memorial every year …”. (Ibid, p. 67). Thus John of Thessalonica recounts the early Tradition of the Holy Mother’s body and soul, entry into Paradise – something that the moderns may deem as fantasy; as they also do, the Resurrection of Christ, the Incarnation, or for that matter, a God awesome enough to create a world.