Swimming the Tiber 29: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

As a term, “the bodily assumption of Mary” is probably the second most confusing Marian doctrine. (The first most confusing is “the Immaculate Conception,” and that’s mostly because people think that it refers to Jesus’ conception instead of Mary’s.) Certainly, when I first encountered it, I didn’t have a clue what it meant. Once I learned about it, though, I actually had less trouble accepting it than most Marian doctrines.

In short, the Assumption refers to when Mary’s body was taken up into Heaven at the end of her life on earth. The main point of contention for this doctrine (even within the Catholic Church) is whether this event occurred before or after she died. There’s strong precedent for the former, and traditionally, the Church has always taught that she died, but people still fight over it for some reason.

Perhaps she is like Enoch and Elijah. Enoch appears most prominently in a genealogy in Genesis 5, where person after person is recorded as having died–except Enoch. Enoch, we are told, “walked with God; and he was not, for God took him” (Genesis 5:24, NRSVCE). The author of Hebrews reminds us, “By faith Enoch was transposed in order that he might not see death, and [he] was not being found because God transposed him; for before the transposition [it] has been testified that [he] has been well-pleasing to God” (Hebrews 11:5, my translation). Elijah is taken up in a chariot of fire (hence the song and, by way of that song, the title of this post) in 2 Kings 2:11: “As they were going along and talking, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven” (NRSVCE).

But perhaps Mary is different; most likely, like her beloved Son, she saw death, one final pain for the woman who suffered more than any other (not because no other woman has lost a child, but because no other woman has watched the death of, all at once, her Child and her God). And after her dormition (“falling asleep”), God took her up to be with her Son then. This brings to mind the death and burial of Moses; Deuteronomy 34 tells us that God buried him in the land of Moab, but his exact burial place was never known to the Israelites. What God chooses to do with someone’s body is up to him, naturally.

So why would Mary be taken bodily up to Heaven? Well, this recalls her status as the new Eve, which we talked about two weeks ago. Christ was the firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5), the first to be resurrected fully in the glory of God, the first fruits of the new Creation (1 Corinthians 15:20-23)–as Adam was the first time around. Mary is the first woman of the new Creation, fulfilling her status as the new Eve and as mother of the Church through her Son.

Besides that, look again at Hebrews 11:5 and recall what we talked about last week–for who (except Jesus) can be more pleasing to God than Mary? Indeed, she is “graced” by God and he is with her (Luke 1:28). If Enoch was taken up because he was pleasing to God, how much more should Mary be taken up for the same reason?

I am now going to diverge off-topic briefly and talk about the moment at which all of these Marian doctrines fell into place for me–because it wasn’t an intellectual conversion, and if you’re at all like I was, then all of my talk up to this point doesn’t convince you one whit (even if you have trouble dismissing the arguments themselves).

You see, the way I was raised put Mary in a very negative light, not so much for what she did, but for what Southern Baptists used her to represent in the Catholic Church. Because Catholics, as we all knew back then, are idolatrous and polytheistic and worship people and things that are not God. And Mary became this symbol of that; any devotion to Mary, any positive thought about Mary, was shunned in the churches I grew up in.

Now, maybe it wasn’t entirely intentional, and maybe no one intended to paint Mary as a bad person, but it was the little ways in which we ascribed importance to passages or interpreted words or made assumptions. I mean, there were people who associated the woman of Revelation 12 (obviously the mother of Jesus when read sensibly) with the whore of Babylon in Revelation 17 (obviously not the same person). We read Luke 2 every Christmas, but I don’t recall ever reading Luke 1 in Advent. Jesus’ calling his mother “woman” was not seen as praising or relating back to Genesis 3, but was called condescension or disdain (as in, “Woman, make me a sandwich!” or, “Woman, get out of my sight!”).

So as I learned about Catholicism, Mary was the last piece of the puzzle. I had read de Sales’ “Catholic Controversy,” which made no mention of Mary (because the early Reformers were perfectly happy to venerate Mary), and almost every other question had been answered to my satisfaction, but I resented Mary, and I refused to accept Catholic doctrine about her.

I was going to a men’s group at the time, and it was there that a fellow named Robert Tunmire, himself a convert, talked about the time he finally came to terms with Mary. He was visiting a parish (I forget where, unfortunately), where there was one of those enormous statues of Mary that just rankles you as a Protestant. And for one reason or another, he ended up in there alone with this statue. And standing there in that room, he prayed (not to the statue, of course), “Mary, if you’ve got something to say to me, say it.” And he received the words of what I have since come to call the Tunmire prayer, because I still pray it often: “You should pray, ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, help me to look upon all your daughters with the purity of your love for me.'”

Those words were powerful for Robert, and as I sat in that men’s group for another hour, they worked powerfully on me. Because it never occurred to me that Mary loves me–not just me as one among many humans on earth, but me personally. She sits enthroned in heaven as the queen mother, and she always does whatever Christ tells her to do (John 2:5), and he tells us more than anything to love–so surely she loves us, and prays for our well-being and the salvation of our souls. Which means that, all this time that I had resented Mary and treated her poorly, she loved me and prayed for me. It broke my heart, and on my way home that morning, I repented of my ill will and finally saw Mary in the glory of God, the way he intended.

This post concludes our in-depth examination of the Marian doctrines of the Church, which very nearly puts us in the home stretch for this series. Before long, we’ll examine historical and social issues around the Church, personal practice of Church doctrines, and a couple more differences between Church teaching and what I used to believe that I haven’t touched on yet. But next week, we’ll be looking at where we go when we die, and what the Church teaches about that.

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