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.

Swimming the Tiber 23: When the Saints Go Marching in

God creates out of nothing, wonderful, you say: yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners.

– Søren Kierkegaard, trans. Alexander Dru (emphasis original)

But these [men], remaining behind in confidence, inherited glory and honor and both were raised and became written by God in their memorial into the ages of the ages. Amen.

It is also necessary therefore that we be glued to examples such as these, brothers. For [it] has been written,1 “Glue [yourselves] to the holy [ones], because the [ones] being glued to them will be made holy.”

– First Letter of Pope St. Clement I to the Corinthians
between AD 95 and 97 (my translation)
With the loyal you show yourself loyal;
with the blameless you show yourself blameless;
with the pure you show yourself pure;
and with the crooked you show yourself perverse.
– Psalm 18:25-26, NRSVCE

There are, perhaps, two primary elements of Protestant argumentation against the saints. Okay, three. We’ll go with three, because there are probably more, and I don’t want to spend months on this subject.

In the first place, I used to say, Scripture uses “the saints” to refer to all Christians, not just the dead in heaven. This is plainly evident in Acts 9:13, 32, 41; 26:10; Romans 8:27; 12:13; 15:25-26; 16:2, 15; 1 Corinthians 6:1-2; 14:33; 16:1, 15; 2 Corinthians 1:1; 8:4; 9:1, 12; 13:12; Ephesians 1:1, 15; 3:8; 4:12; 6:18; Philippians 1:1; 4:21-22; Colossians 1:2, 4, 26; 2 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 Timothy 5:10; Philemon 1:5, 7; Hebrews 6:10; 13:24; Jude 1:3; Revelation 13:7, 10; 22:21.

But you know where it’s less evident? In Scripture. Specifically, in Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 1:18; 2:19; 5:3; Colossians 1:11-12; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; Revelation 14:12; 18:20; 19:8. Sure, it’s fewer verses, but I really only need one to point out that use of the term is not universally consistent. The word itself means “holy” or “sacred” (I translated it “holy” in the passage above by the fourth Pope, as I usually do), not merely “Christian” or even “faithful,” so that’s strike one against it being synonymous with “believer.”

These passages point out what we already know quite intuitively: we are not already saints. We are “called to be saints” (Romans and 1 Corinthians) with a “glorious inheritance” to acquire (Ephesians 1), so we may be united with (others who are called) saints (Ephesians 2); all the while we are called to a higher standard of behavior (Ephesians 5). This inheritance belongs to the holy ones in the light, to which we must gain access by God’s grace (Colossians). The saints, too, are those who will return with Jesus when he comes to us again (1 Thessalonians). The saints adhere to righteousness (Revelation 14), though we on earth only strive to do so. They are counted among those in heaven (Revelation 18), and they have done “righteous deeds” (Revelation 19).

So while we are all “saints” (Christians), we are not all “saints” (holy). Both uses of the term were common in the early Church. As time went on, the “holy” usage (technically, the original usage) won out, because we called ourselves Christians and didn’t need euphemisms for it once people stopped killing us all the time.

The second major point I made against “the saints” as a Protestant was this: “You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear” (Deuteronomy 10:20, NRSVCE). Because, okay, sure, maybe there are some saintly folks in heaven–but that doesn’t mean we should worship them! Talking about “venerating” the saints, “revering” them, and so on–that’s idolatry, plain and simple!

But is that what veneration is? Is it “worship,” which is reserved for God alone? I would say not, and Scripture agrees with me. In the first place, most of our “veneration” is looking to the saints as examples (see the Clement quote above). We want to emulate the saints, and in so doing, emulate Christ (compare 1 Corinthians 4:15-16; 11:1-2; Philippians 3:17; 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:6-7; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9; etc.). We treat them with respect and honor (which is not worship, or else we would not be commanded to do it so often – compare Romans 12:9-10; Ephesians 6:1-3; 1 Timothy 5:3, 17-18; 1 Peter 2:16-17). We consider them paragons of virtue and people to be admired and followed (compare Hebrews 11).

“But what about angels?” you may say, “You venerate angels, too, and Revelation 19:10 clearly says not to do that.”

On the other hand, Joshua 5:13-15 seems to have no trouble with it whatsoever. The angels, like the saints, are faithful to God, obedient to his will, serving and worshiping him always; we should be so blessed as to live as they do. (And, I say in hope, someday we shall, worshiping and praising God in that eternal day.)

There seems to be little in Scripture to suggest that properly due veneration is forbidden, but rather setting people or things at or above God’s place is. The former is appropriate, the latter is idolatry. Catholics do the former and repudiate the latter as much as anyone. We follow the saints only insofar as they lead us to God.

My third argument against the saints was about what Catholics frequently do in venerating the saints: prayer. “You can’t pray to the saints!” I said, “Even if you don’t count veneration as worship, prayer must be!”

In a profoundly anticlimactic way, I ask, “Must it?” Let me refer back to my very first post in this series, wherein I defined the term “to pray” for the purposes of this conversation. For Catholics, “praying” doesn’t mean “worship,” but it means “making a request.” We are not worshiping the holy dead, but asking them for their assistance. After all, “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:16, NRSVCE) and, “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer” (1 Peter 3:12, NRSVCE). We know that the saints are in heaven, praising and worshiping God, and so we know that they are righteous; especially in the midst of our sin, their prayer would be effective indeed at getting us the grace and help we need.

This has nothing to do with adding a layer between us and God. Of course we can still pray to God. Catholics have more prayers to God than any other denomination.2 This is asking for help from people perfectly willing to offer it. Look at the full text of James 5:16. “Pray for one another.” Consider also Matthew 18:19-20; Romans 15:30-32; 1 Thessalonians 5:25; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; etc. We should pray to God for each other, and we ask each other for prayer. Christians of all denominations submit prayer requests to their local church or Bible study group or Sunday school. We submit these requests because we know that we are one Body in Christ with our fellow believers–but we are also one Body in Christ with all the saints in heaven; why should we not ask for their prayers as well?

Here ends my primer on the saints. I have answered the three points I thought were heavy-hitters when I was Protestant. Perhaps I have missed others, but I have confidence in the faith. Feel free to ask via comment or email if you have questions. Next week, we begin to tackle my greatest challenge yet; this one part of the Catholic faith tripped me up more than any other, but it is no stumbling block. The driving force behind my repulsion here was not sound theology or prophetic utterance, but simple emotional reactionism, couched in my ignorant youth. The topic for the next several weeks is the greatest of all the saints, Mary, Jesus’ mother.

Next Post:

1Coincidentally, no one is quite sure where this is written, but Clement certainly thought highly of it.
2Probably. I mean, it’s almost guaranteed, statistically speaking. Just by the numbers.