She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne. The woman herself fled into the desert where she had a place prepared by God.Rev. 12: 5-6
For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order: Christ the first fruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ; then comes the end, when he hands over the Kingdom to his God and Father, when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power.1 Cor. 15: 22-24
Today is the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. In this relatively contemporary dogma, the Church celebrates the place of Mary as first among believers, as, after Jesus himself, the “first fruits” of the life that overcomes death that Jesus brings. Carl Jung saw this feast archetypically as an official Church recognition of the presence of the feminine principal among the other masculine archetypes in the Divine. For the Church, however, this dogma is not an assertion of Mary’s divinity but rather a reminder of her role in “the economy of salvation,” and an eternal reminder of the promise of Christ.
As the book of Revelation speaks of it, the birth of the Messiah into the world comes in the face of the Evil One’s intention to devour him. But as the child is born of his mother, the child is “caught up to God and his throne.” The woman who gives birth to him flees “into the desert where she had a place prepared by God.” So, in the Divine plan, the child’s place is at the throne of God, while the woman’s place is in the desert. The desert, scripturally speaking, is also our place. As Jesus in the desert, we live constantly in face to face combat with the “Dragon.” We live the tensions of the counteracting “pulls” of human experience, an upward pull and a downward pull. Freud gave these the names or eros and thanatos.
Perhaps one significance of this Feast is as a reminder that our sense of the upward pulls, of the deeper truth of the transcendent dimension of life, is not merely imaginary but real. We believe that Jesus is truly human as well as divine, and yet, we proclaim in the creed that He is “begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father.” Perhaps the incarnation of Jesus should be enough for us to understand that the Word of God did become flesh, that human flesh is a “repository” for the Divine. But our beliefs express the tension of this truth. For Jesus is born not as we are but of a virgin. He is both the son of Mary and Joseph, and not. Even in its expression of God incarnate, our tradition expresses the inherent tension between the divine and the human. Are our human aspirations for a deeper life, for a dwelling in transcendence merely products of our imagination, an illusion, as Freud declared?
In the Assumption of Mary we do have one truly born as we are born who is taken up into heaven, who truly is body and soul with Jesus in the life of God. The author David Plante, whose Catholic and Franco-American initial formation traditions have so powerfully formed his life, points out that the tradition has imbued in him a profound sense of embodiment and incarnation. For him, Roman Catholic belief and practice make it impossible to dichotomize body and spirit. At the core of its sacramental practice is the belief that we are gifted to receive and so become the very body and blood of Jesus. The body is a temple for the Divine indwelling.
As St. Paul puts it, all of us are brought to life as fruits of the “first fruit” that is Jesus. In today’s Feast the Church draws our attention to the truth of Paul’s teaching, as concretely manifest in the taking up of Mary into heaven, the first fulfillment of the promise. In light of the image of Revelation, we can say that Mary prepared for this fulfillment by her “life in the desert.” The Buddha taught that “the Buddha” was not born from Queen Maya but rather of “the wisdom that enables one to reach the shore of enlightenment.” Is perhaps the Church’s insistence on the virginity of Mary a way of saying something similar of Jesus? Yes, Jesus is born of Mary in the flesh, but His origin is Divine Wisdom. What is “the Christ” in Jesus of Nazareth, as what is Buddha in Siddhartha Gautama, is born of “the Perfection of Wisdom.” In our story, it is the Spirit of God who impregnates Mary.
So, what does all of this matter in our day to day life in the desert. Mary is assumed into heaven because the very Wisdom and Spirit of God who is the source of Jesus’ life is also realized in her. She is not merely a passive receptacle for the Word to enter. She lives her whole life nurturing within that Wisdom and Spirit. She is available to God because that Spirit and Wisdom has been working in her throughout her life, and she has lived in an open responsiveness to the Spirit. But she has done that, as we must, in the desert, in the ongoing confrontation with the “Dragon,” with the downward pulls that always threaten our faith, hope, and love.
We carry within us the Wisdom of God, but the struggle and tedium of everyday life is always threatening to stifle, if not extinguish, that Wisdom. Jesus, “the power of God and the Wisdom of God,” as St. Paul says, incarnates in the everyday that Wisdom. We do so, at best, only momentarily. In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker writes:
By the time we grow up we become masters at dissimulation, at cultivating a self that the world cannot probe. But we pay a price. After years of turning people away, of protecting our inner self, of cultivating it by living in a different world, of furnishing this world with our fantasies and dreams—lo and behold we find that we are hopelessly separated from everyone else. We have become victims of our own art. We touch people on the outsides of their bodies, and they us, but we cannot get at their insides and cannot reveal our insides to them. This is one of the great tragedies of our interiority—it is utterly personal and unrevealable.
Today’s gospel relates the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. From the first moment this is a true encounter of one interiority with another. Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” cries out to Mary upon her arrival, declaring the blessedness of Mary in her deepest calling. Mary responds not by exalting her ego or exterior but by praising God in whom her spirit rejoices. The desert in which most of us live, in our so-called developed societies, is barren in its inability to truly make contact with each other. Becker says we are distant because, on the one hand, we protect our inner selves by turning people away, and, on the other, we attempt to cultivate our interiority with fantasies and dreams. Mary is assumed into heaven, body and soul, because she does not live to defend herself from reality and God and does not create an imaginary interior life. She, through living out “the common, ordinary, unspectacular (to her if not to us) flow of everyday life,” confronts all the temptations of the Dragon to conformism and self-illusion and emerges transformed. There is a great consolation and hope in the celebration of this Feast. We have a share in the life and triumph of Jesus. Mary is the first among us, but she is also the promise given to us all.
The god asked, “World-Honored One, if your teachings are like this, then why did the World-Honored One come to this heaven and spend three months here for the sake of the mother who gave him birth? After all, the World-Honored One was born from Queen Maya, was he not?”The Buddha, “Sermon in Tavatimsa Heaven”, On the Way: The Daily Zen Journal, August 14, 2019
The World-Honored One said, “O god, the Buddha was not born from Queen Maya. The mother of the Buddha is the wisdom that enables one to reach the shore of enlightenment. In other words, she is the Perfection of Wisdom. The reason for this is that all the forms that are attributes of the Buddha, all the wisdom and power, were not due to Queen Maya; they were truly born because of the attainment of the Perfection of Wisdom.”
And Queen Maya and all the people received the teachings of the World-Honored One and rejoiced in their hearts.