A confrère – a Franciscan friar who spent some years as a missionary in the Central American country of Honduras – was visiting his parish in the mountains of Comayagüela. He would ride his donkey from village to village and visit parishioners in their homes. Arriving at the home of a very poor family, he complimented the mother on the beauty of the house altar – like in most Spanish speaking households, this family had an altar set up against one wall as a focus of devotion. The woman had on display three beautiful pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Lourdes and Our Lady of Fatima.
With joy in her voice, she pointed to each picture and said, “This is the virgin I pray to when someone in the family is sick, this is the virgin I pray to for strength in our daily work at home and in the fields, this is the virgin I pray to for the happiness and success of my children.” In his wishful thinking, the priest asked her, “You are aware, are you not, that there is only one Blessed Virgin Mary and all these pictures are of the same woman.” “Oh no, Father”, the woman replied, “there are many Blessed Virgin Mary’s and they’re all cousins!”
The priest knew better than to argue with a woman whose faith was stronger and more lively than his or that of any priest. It does remind me, however, that since the early days of the Church, our theological tradition has spoken of two Mary’s.
Most of the big Marian Feasts of the Catholic calendar commemorate the earthly, historical Mary of the Gospels: the Immaculate Conception, the Nativity of Mary, the Annunciation, the Visitation.
On the other hand, there is the cosmic Mary, the heavenly Mary, the Mary of the Book of Revelation (cf. today’s first reading, Rev. 11:19a; 12:1-6a,10ab). This is the Mary who is Queen of Heaven, Queen of the Angels, the Mary who intercedes for us – now and at the hour of our death. Today’s feast – the Assumption of the Virgin Mary Body and Soul into Heaven – celebrates her passage from the earthly Mary to the Cosmic Mary.
On the one hand, we are called by God truly to be in this world, to be part of it, to take it seriously. In the beginning, God placed humanity in the earthly garden and made us its stewards, to nurture and protect it in His name. (Gen. 2:8) We are called to build up a human society in this world that is just and good and holy, reflecting the goodness of our maker. “Be fruitful and multiply,” God said. (Gen. 1:28) We are called upon to raise families, to love our spouses and children and ancestors, to let our families be the foundation of civilization and of the domestic Church. (Cf. Vat II, Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People, chap. 3, par. 11: The Family)
But at the same time, we are called upon to remember that all of this passes away, none of it is as important as Heaven. “Our true citizenship is only in Heaven.” (Phil. 3:20) We must remember that only when we see God face to face will we know who we really are. Only in heaven will you become the human being you were always meant to be.
How do we do both at the same time?
Mary’s greatest example, however – and I say this with trepidation because I know that I shall never experience this first hand – is the example she gave as a mother. The job of every parent is to pour your heart and soul and strength, your life’s blood, your joy, your tears, your hopes, your fears, your dreams, your being, into your children – just to let them go in the end, to say goodbye as they move out into the world. Mary did that with Jesus.
And Mary did that with her own life. The passage from the earthly Mary to the cosmic Mary was made possible by Mary’s willingness to let go. “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled." (Luke 1:45)
Fulfillment of our calling means to be like the Virgin Mary. St. Francis of Assisi said, “We become the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ when we carry Him in our heart and body through a divine love and a pure and sincere conscience, we give birth to Jesus through a holy activity which must shine as an example before others.” (Earlier Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, chap. 1)
You move from your earthly you to your cosmic you – that is, you fulfill the commandment of Jesus to be in the world but not of it – by accepting the will of God, living in true humility and true greatness, filled with the joy of the Gospel, and then by letting this go in the power of the Holy Spirit. You become the Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ. You become the Church. Be the Church!
Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) Eschatologie, Tod und ewiges Leben. Kleine Katholische Dogmatik, Bd. IX. Verlag Fr. Pustet 1977. [English: Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life. Catholic University of America Press 1988]
Pope John Paul II. “Marie, premiere figure de la Redemption, Homelie a la messe du 15 aout a Lourdes,” in: La Documentation Catholique, Sept. 4-18, 1983: No. 827-828.
Charlene Spretnak. Missing Mary: The Queen of Heaven and Her Re-emergence in the Modern Church. Palgrave Macmillan 2004.
Paul Duggan. "The Assumption. Its Historicity and Relevance Today”, in: The Priest 7/3/2013 (https://www.osv.com/TheChurch/Papacy/PapalDocuments/Article/TabId/1341/ArtMID/15298/ArticleID/11003/The-Assumption.aspx)
For the writings of St. Francis of Assisi:
Francis of Assisi: Early Documents. Vol. 1: The Saint. Edited by Regis J. Armstrong OFM Cap., J.A. Wayne Hellmann OFM Conv., & William J. Short OFM. New City Press 1999.