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The Feast of the Assumption as the Olympiad of Christian Hope

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Glorious things are spoken of you, O Mary, who today were exalted above the choirs of Angels into eternal triumph with Christ (Entrance Antiphon, The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary)

Elite athletes exist at the edge of the possible and the physically absurd. Consider for a moment the 31st Olympiad underway in Brazil.

  • The marathon runner, who pushes his or her body beyond human limitations to complete the 26.2 miles in the same time that it takes to drive a car from South Bend to Chicago.
  • The swimmer, whose powerful legs and lungs, enables her to move through the water in record time, all the while performing with grace.
  • The sprinter, who runs so swiftly, with such ease, that we re-imagine what the human being can do when formed according to such perfection.
  • The gymnast, who defies all laws of gravity, in the vault, the parallel bars, the floor routine.

And as the Olympics end, do not all of us (no matter the lack of our own athletic prowess) in some way expand our imaginations to what we ourselves can do. While I may not run a two hour marathon, I could train to run a single marathon in under six hours. I’ll never be Michael Phelps, but I could push myself to my own physical and mental limit. I’m not Simone Biles, but I can at least do a somersault that entertains small children.

The feast of the Assumption is to Christian hope what the Olympics are to the routine of exercise. Mary, falling asleep in the Lord, is received body and soul into heaven. She becomes for us the perfume of possibility, an icon of the destiny of the Church herself. The Preface of the Feast of the Assumption declares:

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord. For today the Virgin Mother of God was assumed into heaven as the beginning and image of your Church’s coming to perfection and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people; rightly you would not allow her to see the corruption of the tomb since from her own body she marvelously brought forth your incarnate Son, the Author of all life.

Mary receives the grace of transfigured life because she bore the Incarnate Son into the world. From her own body. For Mary, the Incarnation was not an idea or a theological principle. It was an event that took place through the particularities of her body, her own narrative, her own history.

  • The Incarnation, for Mary, was the angel’s greeting piercing through the silence of her contemplation of the Word of God.
  • It was the moment in which her cousin Elizabeth proclaimed, “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy” (Lk 1:43–44).
  • It was the stretch marks, imprinted upon her pregnant body—a permanent, bodily sign of her fiat. A sign that still remains, even in her bodily assumption.  
  • The Incarnation was the birth of her child in poverty, yet greeted by angels—all the while the Word of God made flesh soaked in the words of love addressed from his mother. Love itself knew the possibilities of human love through his mother.
  • The Incarnation was the promise of the sword that would pierce her heart, the sorrows of a life lived with God.
  • It was learning that her son was not “hers” alone but the Son of the Father, come to make all of humanity brothers and sisters in Christ. Do whatever he tells you (Jn 2:5).
  • For Mary, the Incarnation was standing beneath the Cross, as the faithless world rejected the light that had come into the world through her, yes, through her faithfulness. Woman, behold your son . . . Behold your mother (Jn 19:27).
  • It was the realization on Easter day that the promises uttered so long ago in Nazareth had come now to fulfillment, that death itself had been conquered, the Kingdom of God made manifest.
  • It was the Ascension of her Son into heaven, and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples gathered in the upper room, leading to the preaching of the Good News through all the world. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree (Lk 1:52).

So it is only right that the Church sees Mary’s own falling asleep, her dormition or assumption, as taken up into the mystery of the Word made flesh. All her life, Mary had allowed the Word of God to dwell deeply inside of her: in her contemplation of the Old Testament prophecies, in the angel’s greeting, in the cooing of her infant Son, in his preaching throughout Nazareth, in her stance beneath the Cross, in the infant Church, and now at her death.

And this, dear friends, is the hope of all Christians, of all humans. Not simply that we will one day be taken body and soul into heaven (we will!). No, that our whole lives will be lived as a mystery infused by the Word of God, echoing it in our words and deeds through all ages.

The feast of the Assumption is thus the Olympiad of Christian hope itself. It expands our imaginations to what is possible, if we allow ourselves to be taken up into the mystery of Christ. We come to sniff the perfume of possibility, of what our humanity can become in Christ Jesus (himself the privileged icon of human transformation).

We are indeed elevated above the angels, not because of any remarkable effort on our own behalf. Instead, through our humanity, the Word continues to take flesh if only we would let it be done. If we give ourselves over to the mystery of God’s love, unfolding in time and space, through the life of the Church.

And Mary, as the Queen of the saints, prays that her destiny might be ours. That all the joys and sorrows that are imprinted upon our bodies, our parishes, our cities, our nations, may not be erased or forgotten but transfigured through the gift of the Holy Spirit in her Son, Jesus.

For in contemplating the grace of life bestowed to the Virgin, we learn to long for that very same fire of love that she received. May the scent of resurrected light inflame our hearts on this arch-feast of Christian hope.

Timothy P. O’Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, associate professional specialist in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame, and founding editor for Church Life.