By: Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
Back when I was in college I had an art history class that met at 8:00am. I both looked forward to the class and I dreaded it: why? Because I loved looking at slides of art for an hour and half two days a week. But I knew how hard it was to sit in the dark and try to stay awake.
Fast forward to 1998. I was in France to study fresco painting and while there visited my cousin Norbert and his family in Alsace. He took me to see the Gothic Cathedral in Strasbourg and while we were standing outside the cathedral, Norbert, who is a Protestant, (as are the rest of the Rohrbachers in France) asked me, as a Catholic, to help him understand the Catholic belief in the Assumption of Mary. He asked me, how could Pope Pius XII, in 1950, just up and declare that Mary was assumed into heaven, body and soul?
So, I explained to him the great antiquity of the Church’s belief that Mary was the first-fruits of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, that just as she bore Christ bodily into the world, in the Assumption she was borne bodily into heaven. But he said, where is that in scripture? I replied that there isn’t a scriptural account of her death and assumption, but that the Christian tradition bore witness to her assumption into heaven. “Tradition” he asked? Yes, I said, we see the Church’s ancient belief in the mystery of Mary’s assumption in its meditation on scripture, in liturgy, the lives of the saints and in sacred art.
“Art?” he asked.
It was at that moment that I turned my head slightly and noticed that behind us was an enormous bas-relief carved on the outside of the cathedral. It looked very familiar (I guessed I had managed to stay awake for that class, at least). I said, “Yes, Christian art testifies to Christian doctrine, it is part of tradition. As in this exquisite 1000-year-old sculpture to our right of the Assumption of Mary.”
What was impressive to me – that the Church has celebrated this feast in honor of the Virgin Mary from the very first centuries after Christ – I’m not sure I convinced my cousin.
Looking at that bas-relief, of Mary’s assumption into heaven body and soul, I was reminded that to really grasp the significance of the mystery we celebrate in Mary’s assumption, we need to see it through the lens of typology. Her assumption into heaven is primarily a historical event unique to the person of Mary but it is a type, a sign, an image of what God has already accomplished and will accomplish in the Church in its pilgrimage of faith. It is a type or sign of what God has accomplished and will accomplish in the lives of every Christian.
In each of our lives, the power of sin and death over us has been cast down and we have been raised up from the waters of baptism as adopted sons and daughters of the Father. Having died with Christ in baptism, each of us will be raised up, as Mary was, along with all who belong to God.
On the feast of the Assumption, which is in the late summer, just as the harvest in the northern hemisphere is beginning to come in, we celebrate the rich harvest of Christ’s resurrection actualized in Mary, in the Church, his Body, and in all of the baptized.
For this reason,the feast of the Assumption is the day on which Catholics in many cultures bring flowers, herbs and fruit to the church to be blessed. Flowers, of course, have traditionally been associated in the Catholic imagination with Mary. Herbs may have been blessed on this feast day because of the mention of herbs and spices in the epistle reading for this feast in the pre-Vatican II Missal. Or because of association of the curative powers of herbs with Mary’s assumption, body and soul, into heaven. And fruit may have been included in this blessing because this feast comes in mid-August when the fruit harvest is full swing and to honor Mary, who is the ‘first-fruit’ of her Son’s resurrection from the dead.
Here in Southeast Alaska, where we are surrounded in summer by wildflowers such as lupin, fireweed and forget-me-nots in such abundance; medicinal herbs such as devil’s club and blueberries, salmonberries and raspberries, the feast of the Assumption is an opportunity to thank God for the gift of the flowers, herbs and fruit that nourish our bodies and spirits.
You can ask your priest or deacon to bless the flowers, herbs and fruit that you bring to Mass on the feast of the Assumption using the rite from the Book of Blessings (See Chapter 59 No.1799-1804) or if you are unable to go to Mass on her feast day you can bless flowers, fruit and herbs at home using this prayer:
God of grace and goodness,
source of all grace and crown of all the saints,
through the intercession of Mary
grant that as we use these flowers, herbs and fruit
brought here for your blessing,
we may be eager to imitate her
whose Assumption we celebrate,
and that our reward in heaven
may be the company of Mary,
whose protection is our comfort on earth.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
The Solemnity of the Assumption is Wednesday, August 15th. You can find Mass times for parishes in the diocese at DioceseofJuneau.org