4th Glorious Mystery revisted with the Fathers of the Church

Back in the day, I did a patristiblogger series called The Patristic Rosary ProjectSome newcomers to the blog may not have seen it.  Here is a slightly modified review of my entry for the 4th Glorious Mystery, appropriate for today’s wonderful feast!

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We continue our Patristic Rosary Project today with the:

4th Glorious Mystery: The Assumption

We do not know if Mary died and was assumed body and soul into heaven or if she was assumed without dying. Either way, it was fitting that the Mother of God, who had never known the stain of sin, while requiring a Redeemer just like every other human being, should not experience the corruption of the grave.

Our humanity is seated at the right hand of the Father in the divine Person of our Lord, but now also in the human person of our Lady.

Christ is consubstantial with the Father. Christ is consubstantial with His mother.

Mary is Mother of a divine Person with two natures. She is not Mother of part of Christ, but Mother of all of Christ in His integrity. And so, we can call her Mother of God and Mother of the Church.

Her heavenly Assumption was fitting.

There are not elaborate reflections in the writings of the Fathers on the Assumption, because it was not a main point of reflection. Still, we can find their thoughts on some passages of Scripture which help us to understand Mary’s role in the plan of our salvation.

As a perfect model for our own Christian discipleship, we can consider, among many texts, Proverbs 8:

And now, my sons, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways. Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it. Happy is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. For he who finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD; but he who misses me injures himself; all who hate me love death.

While this concerns Wisdom, in a sense it harks to Mary, Wisdom’s seat.

Here is the reflection of Athenagoras on this section of Proverbs:

[The Son] is the first offspring of the Father, I do not mean that He was created, for, since God is eternal mind, He had His Word within Himself from the beginning, being eternally wise. Rather did the Son come forth from God to give form and actuality to all material things, which essentially have a sort of formless nature and inert quality, the heavier particles being mixed up with the lighter. The prophetic Spirit agrees with this opinion when He says, "The Lord created me as the first of His ways, for His works." Indeed we say that the Holy Spirit Himself, who inspires those who utter prophecies, is an effluence from God, flowing from Him, and returning like ray of the sun. Who, then, would not be astonished to hear those called atheists who admit God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and who teach their unity of power and their distinction in rank? … We affirm, too, a crowd of angels and ministers, whom God, the maker and creator of the world, appointed to their several tasks through His Word, He gave them charge over the good order of the universe, over the elements, the heavens, the world, and all it contains. [A plea regarding Christians 10]

This fellow sounds a bit like a subordinationist, but he is fascinating. This passage is interesting also for its hints at the cosmology and physics of late antiquity. Also, it aims at the spiritual hierarchy in which Our Lady has a privileged place.

Consider that the reward of assumption into the beatific vision stems as well from Mary’s perfect act of free will when she gave her "Fiat" to God’s will as expressed by the angel.

Here is St. Augustine speaking of the impact of free will:

Man in paradise was capable of self-destruction by abandoning justice by an act of will; yet if the life of justice was to be maintained, his will alone would not have sufficed, unless He who made Him glad had given him aid. But, after the fall, God’s mercy was even more abundant, for then the will itself had to be freed from the bondage in which sin and death are the masters. There is no way at all by which it can be freed by itself, but only though God’s grace, which is made effectual in the faith of Christ. Thus, as it is written, even the will by which "the will itself is prepared by the Lord" so that we may receive the other gifts of God through which we come to the Gift eternal – this too comes from God. [Enchiridion 28.106]

God’s grace … Mary’s "Fiat", which was by grace. Mary was drawn with love into God’s plan and, later, into God’s presence.

The Fathers made frequent use of the Song of Songs. St. Gregory the Great writes about the exchanges of heaven and earth which marked the plan of salvation:

The Church speaks through Solomon: "See how he comes leaping on the mountains, bounding over the hill!" … By coming for our redemption the Lord leaped! My friends, do you want to become acquainted with these leaps of His? From heaven He came to the womb, from the womb to the manger, from the manger to the Cross, from the Cross to the sepulcher, and from the sepulcher He returned to heaven. You see how Truth, having made Himself known in the flesh, leaped for us to make us run after Him. [Forty Gospel Homilies 29]

Our Lady, who would feel Christ leap beneath her heart, would herself leap after Christ in her heart by her "Fiat". She leapt to spark His public ministry when she said at Cana "Do whatever He tell you." She leapt up Calvary with Him when the Blood and water flowed down. Her motherly and Christian heart leaped in joy in seeing Him gloriously risen. She leapt to Him in heaven when her earthly life was concluded.

In heaven Mary shines with the glory God shares with her.

In the book of Revelation we have a description chapter 12 of the woman clothed with the sun. The Fathers speak about this image. They will mostly consider the woman as an image of the Church. We cannot reduce the Church to Mary. Nor in talking of the Church as Christ’s Body reduce Christ to the Church. But the three, Christ, Mary and Church are intimately associated.

Hippolytus (+245) writes:

By the "woman clothed with the sun", he meant most manifestly the Church, endued with the Father’s Word, whose brightness is above the sun. And by "the moon under her feet," he referred to [the Church] being adorned, like the moon, with heavenly glory. And the words "upon her head a crowd of twelve stars" refer to the twelve apostles by whom the Church was founded.

Of course Christ founded the Church on the Apostles, and chiefly upon the Rock who is Peter. The description of the woman, however, fits Mary the Mother of the Church as well as the Church herself.

Here is an extended piece by someone not too many in the West may read, Oecumenius (6th c.) called the "Rhetor" who wrote the earliest Greek commentary on Revelation:

The vision intends to describe more completely to us the circumstances concerning the antichrist…. However, since the incarnation of the Lord, which made the world his possession and subjected it, provided a pretext for Satan to raise this one up and to choose him [as his instrument] – for the antichrist will be raised to cause the world again to fall from Christ and to persuade it to desert to Satan – and since moreover His fleshly conception and birth was the beginning of the incarnation of the Lord, the vision gives a certain order and sequence to the material that it is going to discuss and begins the discussion from the fleshly conception of the Lord by portraying for us the mother of God. What does he say? "And a sign appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sum and the moon was under her feet." As we said, it is peaking about the mother of our Savior. The vision appropriately depicts her as in heaven and not on the earth, for she is pure in soul and body, equal to an angel and a citizen of heaven. She possesses God who rests in heaven – "for heaven is my throne" – it says yet she is flesh, although she has nothing in common with the earth nor is there any evil in her. Rather, she is exalted, wholly worthy of heaven, even though she possesses our human nature and substance. For the Virgin is consubstantial with us. Let the impious teaching of Eutyches, which make the fanciful claim that the Virgin is of another substance than we, be excluded from the belief of the holy courts together with his other opinions. And what does it mean that she was clothed with the sun and the moon was under her feet? The holy prophet Habakkuk, prophesied concerning the Lord, saying, "The sun was lifted up, and the moon stood still in its place for light." calling Christ our Savior, or at least the proclamation of the gospel, the "sun of righteousness". When He was exalted and increased, the moon – that is, the law of Moses – "stood still" and no longer received any addition. For after the appearance of Christ, it no longer received proselytes from the nations as before but endured diminution and cessation. You will, therefore, observe this with me, that also the holy Virgin is covered by the spiritual sun. For this is what the prophet calls the Lord when concerning Israel he says, "Fire fell upon them, and they did not see the sun." But the moon, that is, the worship and citizenship according to the law, being subdued and become much less than itself, is under her feet, for it has been conquered by the brightness of the gospel. And rightly does he call the things of the law by the word "moon", for they have been given light by the sun, that is, Christ just as the physical moon is given its light by the physical sun. The point would have been better made had it said not that the woman was clothed with the sun but that the woman enclothed the sun, which was enclosed in her womb. However, that the vision might show that the Lord, who was being carried in the womb, was the shelter of His own mother and the whole creation, it says that He was enclothing the woman. Indeed, the holy angel said something similar to the holy Virgin: "The Spirit of the Lord will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you." For to overshadow is to protect, and to enclothe is the same according to power. [Commentary on the Apocalypse 12.1-2]

Take careful note of the image drawn on by the interesting Oecumenius, which also speaks to the cosmology of late antiquity.  Oecumenius either knew that the sun gave light to the moon, as it does, or he extrapolates this from the glory that Christ gives to Mary.

All our Marian feasts, all our reflection, to keep the sunlight and moon theme going, always must draw us back to the Person of the Lord. We reflect on the face of the Lord who is reflected in the face of His Mother.

Our recitation of the Rosary brings us to know the Lord more and more and, in turn, know ourselves better. We reflect His image and likeness and He came into the word to reveal us more fully to ourselves.

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9 Responses to 4th Glorious Mystery revisted with the Fathers of the Church

  1. Jon says:

    Father,

    Thank you. It’s somewhat of a consolation for not seeing you in New Jersey again this year!

  2. Bp. Basil says:

    You said, >

    Yes, we do.

    All of the Eastern Churches, including those in communion with Rome, make it clear that Our Lady did die. The Icon you posted of the Dormition of the Theotokos, showing the Savior receiving His Mother’s soul into His arms, illustrates this truth.

    Furthermore, in the Roman office for the feast promulgated in 1950 when Pius XII dogmatized the Assumption, the fifth Matins lesson, quoting St. John of Damascus, says “But she yielded obedience to the law established by him to whom she had given birth, and, as the daughter of the old Adam, underwent the old sentence, which even her Son, who is the very Life Itself, had not refused.” Lex orandi, lex credendi. If it’s in the liturgical formularies of the Church, it’s the teaching of the church.

  3. Jon: I will come later in the summer, I think.

  4. Bp Basil: I assume you left out your quotation of what I wrote, namely, “We do not know if Mary died and was assumed body and soul into heaven or if she was assumed without dying. Either way, it was fitting that the Mother of God, who had never known the stain of sin, while requiring a Redeemer just like every other human being, should not experience the corruption of the grave.”

    The most important thing is that ” the Mother of God, who had never known the stain of sin, while requiring a Redeemer just like every other human being, should not experience the corruption of the grave.”

    That said, Munificentissimus Deus (Pius XII’s Apostolic Constitution) does not state that Mary died. 

    We have no Scripture to attest to Mary’s death.  Among the Father’s, the great St. Gregory of Nyssa stated that death came “near” Mary and “shattered” against her!  St. Epiphanius restated that Scripture is silent about Mary’s death and that this is impossible to determine.  In subsequent times while some assume that Mary died, there is a strong tradition, in the West at least, that her priviledged role exempted her from death, because of her Immaculate Conception, even though some think that because Christ died, she would also.

    We just don’t know.

  5. Jordan Potter says:

    Father Z. is right that the question of whether or not Mary died is unsettled. Yes, lex orandi lex credendi could indicate that the Church teaches she died, but lex orandi lex credendi could also indicate that the Church teaches she didn’t die, and it could also indicate that the Church doesn’t know or hasn’t yet the settled the question.

    Bp. Basil said: All of the Eastern Churches, including those in communion with Rome, make it clear that Our Lady did die.

    As a matter of fact, the teaching of the Eastern Churches is rather more nuanced than that. For the Dormition, the liturgical texts of the Eastern Churches include such words as:

    What spiritual songs shall we now offer you, all-holy one?
    For by your deathless Dormition you have sanctified the whole world,
    and have passed over to the celestial places
    where you contemplate the beauty of the King of all.

    And

    She who is higher than the heavens
    and more glorious than the cherubim;
    who is honored more highly than all creation;
    who by reason of her surpassing purity
    became the receiver of the ever-lasting Essence —
    today commends her all-pure soul into the hands of her Son.

    And

    The band of disciples gathered
    from the ends of the earth
    with the holy angels,
    to attend the burial, Theotokos,
    of your body which had held God. . . .
    Your all-pure body
    was yielded up to burial
    through the laws of nature:
    Yet it ever remains
    beyond corruption
    . . . .
    The all-immaculate Bride and Mother
    in whom the Father was well-pleased:
    She who was preordained by God to be the holy abode
    of the union without confusion,
    delivers her undefiled soul to her Maker and God today.
    The bodiless powers receive her in a divine manner;
    she who is truly the Mother of Life departs to life! . . .
    In giving birth you preserved your virginity;
    in falling asleep you did not forsake the world, Theotokos.
    You were translated to life, O Mother of Life,
    and by your prayers, you deliver our souls from death. . . .
    Neither the tomb nor death could hold the Theotokos,
    who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions.
    For being the Mother of Life, she was translated to life
    by the One Who dwelt in her virginal womb.

    So, do the Eastern Churches say that she “died”? Maybe. Not really. You can see that this liturgical text is quite reluctant to clearly say that Our Lady “died.” And I recall the homily I heard at a Byzantine Divine Liturgy last August, where the priest said that Mary’s passing from this world is a mystery that cannot really be expressed in words, but that it isn’t right to say that she died. As I understood what the priest was saying, even if Mary’s soul and body were momentarily separated, it still would not be accurate to say that she died, for she “departed to life.”

    Therefore, the doctrine of the Church on this matter is not clearly that she died, nor does the above-quoted passage in the liturgy from St. John the Damascene settle the question, as it only gives one of the acceptable theological positions. The Holy Father could have defined the question when he defined the dogma of the Assumption, but he declined to do so, referring only to the completion of the course of Mary’s life, not to her “death.”

  6. RBrown says:

    Interestingly enough, Fr Garrigou-LaGrange op adopted the Eastern view that Mary died and was resurrected.

  7. Francis Brennan says:

    Fr. Z.,

    If Jesus died but Mary did not, doesn’t that give her, in one important respect, a more exalted status than that of her Son? And a status that, in her humility, she would not wish to have? I have no theological training but it seems counter-intuitive to me that Mary, who followed her Son to the foot of the Cross and watched Him die would not follow Him into death at the end of her earthly life, if only momentarily. But what do I know…

  8. Jordan Potter says:

    Yes, that is one way we can look at it, Francis. On the other hand, the Scriptures tell us that Enoch was assumed into heaven “that he should not see death,” and Mary is greater than Enoch, so one could argue from the assumption of Enoch that it would be most fitting if Mary also never tasted death (which, after all, is not something that humans are supposed to experience at all). So that argument is inconclusive.