On Saturday the Church will celebrate the Assumption of Blessed Virgin Mary, one of the major feasts of the College’s patron saint. This is the Church’s memorial of Mary’s passing. It is the first entry for August 15 in the Roman Martyrology:
“The Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of our God and Lord Jesus Christ, who, having completed the earthly course of life, was taken up to heavenly glory in body and soul.”
This day is a holy day of obligation when Catholics are bound to come together at Mass. Pope Pius XII, in 1950, solemnly defined the Assumption to be an article of faith. The pope exercised his authority in this instance to proclaim an infallible teaching, to which a religious submission of mind and will is enjoined on the faithful. The context of such a teaching is that it is and has been universally held without controversy by all Catholics everywhere. Anecdotally, one of the Brothers of Saint Mary’s College remembers explaining to his mother that the pope had declared the belief in the Assumption as an infallible teaching to which she expressed shock that such hadn’t been the case already. She and everyone she knew already thought of the Assumption as part of the faith. It may be the case that the decree of 1950 was more an expression of popular devotion to Mary than any doctrinal exigency. The Feast of the Assumption has a pedigree reaching back to the earliest Church calendars. In the fifth century the Church in Jerusalem celebrated Mary as the God-bearer on this day. By the seventh century the celebration had become a memorial of her passing, in the East more commonly called the Dormition (the “falling asleep”) and in the West, the Assumption (the “taking up”).
Medieval monks of southern Italy used to read a homily by the eighth-century school-master Paul the Deacon about Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) on this day . The message of the homily was about the active and passive life. It may seem strange at first glance to read about the sisters of Lazarus on a major feast of the Mother of God. But the theme of the active and passive life and the theological meaning of the Assumption come together. Mary was the first to believe the Good News of the Incarnation and her bodily assumption into heaven at the end of her life is the promise of our own. The use of Paul the Deacon’s homily is a joyful reminder of the resurrection of the flesh, when on the last day we will be transformed body and soul into a new creation. Heaven, it seems, is about more than passive contemplation. There is a place for Martha there too! Evelyn Underhill, the Anglican spiritual writer of the last century, has a poem envisioning both the active and passive life of heaven.
Thoughts about Heaven
Heaven’s not a place.
Where time doth race
Across the flatted fields of edgeless space
thou shalt not hear its news, nor its retreat discover.
No! ’tis a dance
Where love perpetual,
Loved one to lover.
Heaven’s not a rest.
No! but to battle with new zest:
Untired, with warrior joy
The sharp clean spirit to employ
On life’s new enterprise.
It’s the surprise
Of keen delighted mind
That wakes to find
Old fetters gone,
Strong shining immortality put on.
Heaven is to be
In God at last made free,
There more and more
Strange secrets of communion to explore:
Within the mighty movements of His will
Our tangled loves fulfil:
To pluck the rosemary we cannot reach
With the mind’s span,
And so at last
Breathe the rich fragrance of our hoarded past
And learn the slow unfolding of the plan.
Together to unroll
The blazoned story of the pilgrim soul;
All the long ardent pain,
The craving and the bliss at last made plain.
Sometimes to sleep
Locked each to each
Within his deep,
Or playing in his wave
The sudden splendour of the flood to brave:
Great tide of his undimmed vitality
That breaks in beauty on the world’s wide beach
And draws all life again toward its heart,
Stirring to new and mutual increase
Love-quickened souls therein that have their part,
Therein that find their peace.
Nuns of medieval southern Italy had the practice, in the octave of the feast, of reading the Song of Songs, the biblical epithalamy in honor of Solomon and his bride, the Queen of the South. Such a beautiful custom was a reminder that in Mary we witness God’s passionate and undying love for humanity.
Our chapel celebrates the Assumption of Saint Mary in the grand statue of the narthex and in the stained glass above the altar. It is interesting to note that the original patronal feast of the College would have been on December 8, the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Bishop Alemany dedicated the newly erected cathedral of San Francisco to the Immaculate Conception in 1854. Saint Mary’s College was born there in 1863. After the building of the College chapel in Moraga in 1928 the Assumption of Mary has become the main patronal feast. It is a long-standing custom for the College community to gather for a late morning Mass on August 15 when it falls on a weekday, followed by a barbeque and the rest of the day off from work. Assumption Residence Hall, the first-year honors community and once the home of student Brothers, is named in honor of this feast of Saint Mary. Private meditation on Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven is available to everyone year round as the fourth Glorious Mystery of the Holy Rosary.
Evelyn Underhill, An Anthology of the Love of God (New York:1953), pp. 99-100.
History of the feast from Pierre Jounel, Le culte des saints dans les basiliques du Latran et du Vatican au douzième siècle (Paris: 1977).