Friday, August 15, 2008

Olympian Virtue and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

(Solemnity of the Assumption-Year A; This homily was given on 15 August, 2008 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See Luke 1:39-56)

The Summer Olympics are well underway in Beijing, and for the next week and a half we will see and hear about men and women who are in the best physical shape of their lives. They have trained their bodies for speed, strength and endurance beyond what most of us will ever experience.

And yet every time the Olympics come around we also catch a glimpse of something more. We learn about the personal lives of many of the athletes, and often see heroic virtue and selflessness both on and off the playing field, both in and outside of the arena. We find that they are not just bodies, but persons like us—body and soul—and that many of them are remarkable in their own right, not simply as athletes.

In today's feast we honor a woman who brought glory to God in her body and magnified Him with her soul. We celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary—body and soul—into heaven. In St. Luke’s Gospel today, Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, who:

Filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
—Luke 1: 42

She announces that Mary is blessed because her body carries the Son of God, and she will physically bring Him forth into this world. And Mary’s response is a fitting one for that bodily blessing. She says:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
—Luke 1: 46-47

In both body and soul, Mary is beautiful and she is blessed. She brings great glory to God because of what she did in giving birth to Christ, but also because of who she is, the Mother of Christ, the Mother of God. Preacher to the Papal Household, Fr. Rainero Cantalamessa, OFMCap, expressed it this way:

You, Mary, will cease to be “blessed among women”
when Jesus ceases to be “the fruit of your womb.”

—Fr. Cantalamessa in “Mary, Mirror of the Church”

For this reason—the great dignity given to Mary all throughout her life—we believe that she was not consigned to the earth when her time here was complete. On November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII defined as dogma what the Church had already held and professed for centuries, that:

The Immaculate Virgin was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory upon completion of her earthly life.

—Pope Pius XII, Dogma of the Assumption

But why is this so important for us as Christians? Why do we celebrate this feast today with such solemnity and joy? There are two reasons why the Church celebrates this glorious event of Mary’s Assumption.

Firstly, because Mary is a member of the Church, indeed its most noble member, and she has finished the journey that the whole Church is striving toward. In short, Mary made it. The very thing that we struggle and strive for, our final end for which Christ gave everything on the cross, Mary has reached. She is forever in heaven with God. She becomes, for us—along with Christ her son—a pattern and example of the way of perfection.

Secondly, this feast is important because Mary is, for all of us, a sign of hope and comfort as we make our own way to that final end. Do you struggle with adversity in your daily life? So did Mary. Do you suffer, and at times ask God for help and consolation? So did Mary. Of all who have suffered, she is the one who can identify the most with St. Paul’s exhortation in the letter to the Romans:

Provided we suffer with [Christ], we will also be glorified with Him.
—Romans 8:17

Certainly no one else can help us more in our personal struggles, and in our desire to grow in union with Christ, than Mary. Therefore we turn to Mary—this day and everyday—as our model on the way to heaven, and as a sign of comfort and hope as we continue to follow Christ in this world.

And so, in these remaining days as we watch the athletes competing for glory and honor in Beijing, let us think of the woman who gained glory and honor in heaven. And as the Olympics reveal the achievements of both body and soul, let us remember this Woman who—body and soul—intercedes for us on our way to God.

Mary, Assumed into Heaven, pray for us.