A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Feast Day Readings)

Vigil Mass

First Reading (1 Chronicles 15:3-4,15-16; 16:1-2). They brought the ark of God and set it inside the tent which David had pitched for it. This reading is about the Ark of the Covenant. (also called the Ark of God). It was a small portable box or chest. On top of the ark was a gold plate, the Hebrew word for which is generally rendered in English as “mercy seat”. On top of the ark there were two cherubim figures. This was regarded as the place where God met Israel and revealed his commandments, and the Lord was spoken of as “enthroned upon the cherubim”. After being housed in various places, David finally brought it up to a new sanctuary in Jerusalem, to its final resting place as narrated in today’s reading.

             One of the many titles given to Our Lady is “Ark of the Covenant”, which make this reading apposite for the feast of the Assumption, the Blessed Virgin’s final resting place in heaven.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 131[132]). Go up, Lord, to the place of your rest, y ou and the ark of your strength.

Second Reading (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). He gave us victory through our Lord Christ. In the lengthy chapter 15 of this letter of Paul the apostles is addressing the question of the resurrection of Christ, followed by consideration of the resurrection of the dead, and finally that of the resurrection of the body. The risen body will be of another order to that of this life. It will be imperishable and spell the ultimate victory of Christ. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.

             This reading on the imperishable resurrection body, awaited by all believers, but enjoyed already by Jesus’ mother at her bodily Assumption makes this a suitable reading for this feast.

Gospel (Luke 11:27-28). Happy the womb that bore you! The spontaneous remark of the dignity of Jesus’ mother and Jesus’ reply are most apt for this Mass. Mary is worthy of honour as Jesus’ physical mother, and also as the model disciple of Jesus who heard God’s word and kept it (“Let it be with me according to your word”).

Mass during the day

First Reading (Apocalypse 11:19; 12:1-6,10). A woman adorned with the sun standing on the moon. In recent centuries the woman in this passage has been understood as Mary, the mother of the Messiah, and this understanding has influenced religious representations of the text, in statues and paintings. This understanding of the original sense of the text does not do justice to a reading of it. And in eighth-century Irish commentaries on the text the woman clothed with the sun is understood as the Church. For an appreciation of the original meaning of the text it is best place it with the background of the book of the Apocalypse as a whole. In this text as elsewhere, John is drawing on a wealth of traditional imagery, biblical, Jewish and non-Jewish.

             As immediate background to this text John has a vision of God’s Temple in heaven opened and the Ark of the Covenant visible within it, indicating the heavenly presence of God being made visible to the visionary John for revelation on earth. The great sign that appeared in heaven to be made known is represented by a woman adorned with the sun. The woman is probably the heavenly Israel, the people of God, about to give birth to the Messiah. The crown of twelve stars on her head may signify the twelve tribes of Israel. She was pregnant and in labour, with the eschatological woes which in biblical and Jewish tradition would precede the advent of the Messiah.

             The second sign that appeared to John in the heaven was the very opposite to this: a huge red dragon which had seven heads and ten horns. For the image of this dragon John could draw on biblical and extra-biblical tradition Babylonian tradition, specifically the dragon called Leviathan of primordial chaos, resisting God’s plan of creation, and in Babylonian tradition said to have seven-heads. It is thus described in Isaiah 27:1: “On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong hand will punish Leviathan, the strong fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea”. The ten horns may derive from Daniel 7:7 (for the fourth terrifying beast from the sea, Antiochus). But whatever about the background to his image of the dragon, John leaves us in no doubt about what dragon he has in mind here, as he says in 12:9: “The great dragon, that ancient serpent who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world”. He is the serpent of Genesis 3, who deceived the first woman Eve, and God’s word to him on that occasion are still being played out: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, your seed and her seed”. The dragon was prepared to destroy, t o devour, the child to be born of the woman, a son to rule as the Messiah. But the new-born son was taken up to heaven and the woman escaped to a safe place prepared for her by God in the desert. It is apocalyptic language, far removed from the birth scene of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. The ongoing battle between the serpent and the woman, and the seed of both, promised in Genesis 3:15 is seen as being played out when the fullness of time had come. In a biblical text omitted in this reading the woman is brought to the desert so that she can be nourished there for one thousand two hundred and sixty days, that is three and a half years, a symbolic number of a period of persecution, the number may represent symbolically the persecution of the Church, of the woman, by the dragon on earth until he is overthrown. The text omitted from the reading also speaks of a war in heaven against the dragon by Michael, and his angels, and the defeat of the dragon who is cast out of heaven, leading to the triumphal shout at the end of this reading on the victory of God and the authority of Christ.

             Finally, we may ask what has all this to do with the Assumption of Mary and with the feast we are celebrating. I believe it has much. The identification of the woman of the text with Mary can be seen as the end of a lengthy development. She was part of that enmity between the serpent and humanity, the Messiah and his mother, Israel or Mary. Her Assumption is part of the final victory of God over the ancient serpent, which can be seen in artistic representations of Mary as trampling on the serpent. And what is there said of may hold for all believers, as Paul comforted the Romans (Romans 16:20): “The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet”.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 44[45]). On your hand stands the queen, in garments of gold.

Second Reading (1 Corinthians 15:20-26). Christ as the first-fruits and then, those who belong to him. This reading speaks of the completion of God’s kingdom at the end of time. In this letter to the Corinthians the reading is in the context of the resurrection of the body which some members of the Corinthian church had difficulty in accepting, a difficulty known to Paul, their apostle. Paul makes clear the centrality of the resurrection of Christ for Christian belief. Without belief in this, Christian faith is in vain. From the resurrection of Christ there follows belief in the resurrection of all believers. Christ was the first-fruits of all who have died, the first of many brothers and sisters to rise from the dead. Death has come in through Adam’s sin; all are brought to life in Christ spiritually here on earth and in their bodies at the end of time. This final resurrection, when history has ended, will mean the completion of Christ’s kingdom, the kingdom of God.

            With regard to today’s second reading, it is good to recall that Paul is thinking against the background of two forces at work in the world, one that of (the first) Adam with whom sin and death (physical and moral) entered the world, the second force, power, was that of Christ (the second Adam) and his kingdom, from his resurrection to the final judgment and the resurrection of all believers in Christ. Christ and his kingdom are fighting and destroying sin, and will continue to do so in the church throughout history. Christ will be king during this period, destroying his enemies of every sort (all form of sin and evil powers, every sovereignty, authority and power), the last of them being sin (personified). All this is still the kingdom of God (the Father). Christ is not an end in himself; he is the Son, who on completion of his work will hand over the kingdom to his Father. Christian obedience, and God’s work in creation, will then be complete.

Gospel (Luke 1:39-56). The Almighty has done great thing for me, he has lifted up the lowly. The heading chosen for this reading indicates excellently its appropriateness for the feast of the Assumption of Mary. The reading gives then account of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Mary is declared the most blessed of all women by Elizabeth, who declares herself unworthy of as visit from the mother of Jesus her Lord. Mary is blessed because she believed the divine promise. Mary replies that the Lord has done great things from her, his lowly servant. He has exalted her in all he has done. Her bodily Assumption into heaven will be the ultimate exaltation.

B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day. Our Lady’s Assumption

The bodily assumption of Our Blessed Lady into heaven was defined as a dogma of faith by Pope Pius XII on 1 November 1950. The content of the doctrine it contains is thus expressed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church in a text borrowed from a document of the Second Vatican Council, itself dependent on the papal document that proclaimed the dogma. The text is question reads: “[T]he Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory. And exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be more full conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death”. The Catechism text goes on to say that the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in he Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians.

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