Monday, August 15, 2011

St Paul and the Assumption


One of the stickiest issues related to today's Solemnity of the Assumption is the ecumenical conflict over the dogma itself. Bible Christians just don't see where we got this, since it is not directly testified to in the Scriptures, their only source of doctrine. Surely, if Mary had been taken into heaven before the Apostles' eyes, as the legend says, that would have made it into the Bible! Can you imagine St. Paul not testifying to something like that?
Given that today's second reading is from St. Paul, it would seem to be a weak point (if the upper-case T Tradition were not so unanimous in what it tells us about the end of Mary's earthly life). But this morning two very different thoughts came to me.
For one, the (lower-case t) tradition says that Mary lived into her early 70's. That means that she would have still been alive during most of Paul's ministry. He couldn't very well be expected to write about a fact that hadn't happened yet. That same tradition also suggests that Mary's death and Assumption took place not that long before Paul wrote the letter to the Romans. This letter contains Paul's most highly developed thought about Christian hope, and the implications of Christ's resurrection for all of us.
I mean, his very earliest letters, 1 Thessalonians, for example, use standard apocalyptic language and express Christian hope in a really rudimentary way—correct but undeveloped, and vague enough that a 2nd Thessalonians was necessary. By the time we get to Romans, Paul is saying that Christ's resurrection set the “pattern,” and everyone who is conformed to his death will share in the likeness of his resurrection. This is the very meaning of the Assumption.
Is it too outlandish to suggest that Mary's actual, historical Assumption (or, as the Eastern Churches call it, “Dormition”) was a further gift of Divine Revelation in which the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 16:12-14) taught the Apostles that the Risen Christ really was meant to be the “firstfruits” of the Resurrection, the “firstborn” of many brothers and sisters, and not a unique example of God's power and grace?
What if those very passages in Romans and 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul spells out the implications of the Resurrection of Christ were the fruit of Paul's meditative reflection on the “experience” of Mary's unexpectedly anticipated entrance into full glory with her Son?
It is really inspiring to me today to imagine that as Paul wrote those hope-filled passages in Romans 6-8, he was reflecting on what God had done not only for his divine Son (the one who, being in the nature of God, did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at), but also for the one who was his first and best handmaid.