August 15, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — Last August, I reflected on five lessons the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary teaches Christians. This year, I take inspiration from a poem by the English convert poet Richard Crashaw:
Hark! She is call’d, the parting hour is come;
Take thy farewell, poor World, Heaven must go home.
A piece of heavenly earth, purer and brighter
Than the chaste stars whose choice lamps come to light her,
While through the crystal orbs clearer than they
She climbs, and makes a far more Milky Way.
The unanimous testimony of the Christian tradition, Eastern and Western, tells us that the Virgin did not die in pain and anguish, as the rest of Adam’s sinful children do in payment of the debt of our nature, but rather fell into a peaceful slumber that transitioned seamlessly to her glorification, as befitted the sinless temple of God — the one whom Crashaw in his poem calls “Heaven,” because her heart and her womb are sanctified by God’s indwelling: “Heaven must go home.”
The Byzantine tradition speaks of the “dormition” of Our Lady rather than her “death.” The ritual rehearsal of death in the Office of Compline’s Nunc Dimittis — “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation” — had its archetypal fulfillment in Mary: her departure was like going to sleep in the great silence, to be awakened on the morn in the full sunlight of glory. “Hark! She is call’d, the parting hour is come; Take thy farewell, poor World, Heaven must go home.”
Legend tells us that all the apostles except Thomas were present at the deathbed of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Thomas, with habitual tardiness, showed up after Mary was already being taken up and received her belt as a parting gift. This holy belt is venerated today in the cathedral of the city of Prato.) If one looks at paintings done of the Assumption, especially in the Middle Ages, one will often see a touching scene. The Apostles are gathered around. Some are weeping; some are raising their hands to God, begging Him to restore the Virgin to their company; some are preparing oils and a prayer book for imparting extreme unction! It’s as if, like Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration, they hardly know what to do or say. They would build Our Lady a tent, when Our Lord is calling her to His everlasting tabernacles.
As Dom Mark Kirby, OSB rhapsodizes in a homily preached on this great feast:
The Assumption of the Mother of God is the liturgy of her Great Entrance; the feast of her oblation in the heavenly sanctuary, “the tabernacle, which the Lord hath pitched, and not man” (Heb 8:2). She is the Mother of Holy Hope. She is given to us to be our strongest comfort, to be the anchor of our souls, “sure and firm, and which entereth in even within the veil” (Heb 6:18–19). Today heaven and earth keep the summer festival of Marymas, Ladyday-in-the-Harvest, the Pascha of the all-holy Mother of God. She has passed into the great summer that, stretching from the springtime of the Resurrection until the return of the Lord in glory, presages the shining harvest of all the saints. The song of the angels soars, stretching, swelling, and cresting from choir to choir. The soul of the Virgin magnifies the Lord and her God-bearing flesh rejoices (Lk 1:46). “And the temple of God was opened in heaven: and the ark of His testament was seen in His temple” (Apoc 11:19).
The Benedictine preacher continues:
The Virgin of Nazareth who surrendered her heart, her soul, and her flesh to the Word and the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost;
the Virgin of Bethlehem, joyful in her poverty;
the Virgin of Egypt, trusting in her exile;
the Virgin of Jerusalem, anguished and amazed by her child;
the Virgin of Cana, strong in her intercession;
the Virgin of Calvary, faithful in her compassion;
the Virgin of Holy Saturday, silent and indomitable in her hope;
the Virgin of the Cenacle, persevering in prayer;
the Virgin of the Mount of Olives, ardent in r desire,
has, at last, come to rest at the feet of her Son.
As the familiar legend implies, it must have come as a great surprise to the apostles that Our Lady was to be taken up into Heaven, out of their presence, in an ending to her life as marvelous as its immaculate beginning and its subsequent course, unique in the history of mankind. But it should come as no surprise to us, her children and heirs of apostolic faith, that this great feast has always been seen as the feast par excellence of contemplative souls — in a special way for the monks and nuns who form the hidden heart of the Church, the steady quiet beating of which pumps the oxygenated blood of grace through the veins of the Mystical Body, but no less for all souls who seek to imitate the “better part” chosen by Mary in her interior life totally consecrated to Christ.
The Assumption is the feast of the primacy of the kingdom of Heaven over the kingdoms of Earth, the priority of worship and prayer over apostolate and this-worldly affairs, the precedence of Christ over the claims of any other lord or master. It is a salutary reminder of why the Church without contemplatives would cease to be Christ’s, cease to be Marian, cease to be, and more particularly, of why the Church’s liturgy should be, like Our Lady, absolutely clear in its priorities. Only in this way will the liturgy reflect that which the Second Vatican Council stated in no uncertain terms — in words that can also be adapted to Our Lady as the exemplar of the Church:
It is of the essence of the Church that she be both human and divine, visible and yet invisibly equipped, eager to act and yet intent on contemplation, present in this world and yet not at home in it; and she is all these things in such wise that in her the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek. (Sacrosanctum Concilium 2)