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Next Sunday, instead of the liturgy for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, which would normally follow the 19th Sunday of the year, we celebrate the Mass of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. This year, 15 August falls on a Sunday and the celebration of the solemnity takes precedence over a Sunday in Ordinary Time. On August 15,the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the belief that the Blessed Virgin Mary, having completed her earthly life, was in body and soul “assumed” into heavenly glory.
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, of course, at the Easter Vigil. On other occasions, the texts of the vigil need not be used at an evening Mass to celebrate the solemnity, for pastoral reasons. The main pastoral reason for using the one set of readings at all Masses would be to spare the preacher having to prepare two different homilies for next weekend!
The Assumption is certainly an appropriate time for singing Marian hymns, but not every hymn should refer to Mary. The normal principles for choosing music, that is the liturgical, musical and pastoral judgements, still apply. The main purpose of the opening hymn, for example, it to help form those present into a worshipping assembly (liturgical judgement). It must therefore be a familiar hymn that people can join in readily (pastoral judgement).
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 Mary’s privilege 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 the Church’s Evening Prayer from earliest times. The feast is a good time for singing one of the many musical settings of the Magnificat.
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.”