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Assumption of the Virgin Mary
For the second week in a row, a special feast is celebrated at Masses this Sunday. The solemnity of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary falls on a Sunday this year and takes precedence over the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time.
The Assumption is a holy day of obligation in Australia. When people ask me how many such days there are now, they are always surprised when I reply “54”. Every Sunday of the year is a holy day of obligation as well as Christmas and the Assumption.
The Roman Catholic Church believes that the Blessed Virgin Mary was “assumed” body and soul into heavenly glory when she died.
Although the Church in Jerusalem celebrated the death of Mary from the 5th century, the doctrine of her assumption was not formulated in the west until the late 6th century. In Rome there was only one feast in honour of Mary (on January 1) until the Byzantine feast of the Assumption on August 15th was introduced into the universal calendar at the end of the 8th century. In the Eastern Church, the feast is called the Dormition (literally ‘falling asleep’) of Mary and is included among the twelve principal feasts of the year.
The earliest form of the celebration focussed on Mary’s death as a share in Christ’s paschal mystery. Later developments used scriptural imagery to make Mary’s entrance into heaven more explicit.
On 1st November in the Marian year 1950 Pope Pius XII defined the doctrine of the Assumption and provided a new Mass for the feast which portrayed Mary as an image of the Church. Vatican II enriched the celebration with an extensive selection of readings and prayers and a new preface.
The Feast of the Assumption is one of those few occasions in the Church year when two sets of readings are provided, one for the Vigil Mass and another for Masses celebrated on the day. The only time when the Vigil readings must be used is at the Easter Vigil. On other occasions, the texts of the day can be used at an evening Mass for pastoral reasons – the main one being to spare the preacher having to prepare two different homilies!
The readings of the day for the solemnity emphasise what God did in Mary. The first reading, from the book of the Apocalypse, depicts “the woman” in the process of giving birth to a son and being threatened by a dragon. God rescues them, evil is foiled, God’s reign is established and Mary rejoices. In the second reading from Corinthians, Paul reminds us that what was granted to Mary will be shared by all who follow Christ.
The Gospel emphasises that Mary’s greatness comes from her participation in God’s plan. Mary responds to Elizabeth’s greeting with a splendid hymn of praise, the Magnificat, which Christians have sung at Evening Prayer from earliest times.
The preface of the Assumption gives us words of hope:
“Today the virgin Mother of God was taken up into heaven
to be the beginning and the pattern of the Church in its perfection,
and a sign of hope and comfort for your people on their pilgrim way.”