Today in our liturgy we celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While this doctrine was only formally defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950 it has been the constant belief of Catholics going back in antiquity.
What the Pope effectively did in 1950 was to confirm this long-held belief and give it a special feast day 15th August. Incidentally it is also a feast we share with the Orthodox Churches who call it the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The actual words Pope Pius XII used on that occasion when he defined the doctrine were these: ‘That 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.’
We know very well that Mary was marked out from the moment of her conception to be free from Original Sin so that she could be a worthy vessel to bring Jesus, the Son of God, into our world. So, from the very beginning Mary was privileged above all other human beings. And here at the end of her life we see that she is granted another great privilege because she is drawn up body and soul into heaven. What this means is that Mary is the first human being to experience the full fruits of the resurrection.
This tells us that what we have in this great feast is a meditation on the resurrection. This is something that is brought out rather well in the second reading from the First Letter of St Paul to the Corinthians. Paul explains that Christ is the first to rise from the dead and then after the Second Coming all those who belong to him will also rise.
The exception to this is Mary who at the very moment of her death rises straight away to heaven. And, as we have seen, this is in recognition of her special role in helping to bring about our salvation and her perfect fidelity to the will of God. She was privileged to be exempt from the corruption of the tomb and immediately on her death she is raised to heaven to be reunited with her Son Jesus.
An important thing to note is that Mary really did die. She was subject to death just as we are; she gets no special exemption from human mortality. She was a fully human being exactly like us and this makes it easier for us to identify with her. She shares our life, the only difference being that she was sinless while we ourselves are all too aware of our own sinfulness and need for repentance.
In recognition of all this we Christians realise that we can always turn to Mary and ask her intercession. We can invite her to plead with her Son for all our various needs and wants. We recognise the importance of her role and the persuasiveness of her prayers.
Of course, where Mary has gone God has promised that we will be able to follow. If we remain faithful to the Gospel and put into practice the teachings of Jesus then the way to eternal life will be opened up for us. We too will be able to look forward to our own resurrection and to the life of the Blessed in heaven.