Through her assumption into heaven, Mary enjoys now what all disciples hope for—the resurrection of the body, life eternal in the presence of God.
It may seem like just a single moment in your life, but right now, every moment, a river is coursing. We can usually only see it in retrospect. We realize that as we were making a certain decision, this factor from the past was pushing us one way, another factor was shading our thinking in another way, hopes for a particular future were inspiring us, and in the midst of it all, coincidence, happenstance, and any number of other factors were also at work. All kinds of things are going on, including, perhaps, a plan, greater and deeper than we could have realized then or even grasp now.
This dynamic between our ways and God’s, the accidental and the purposeful, the hope that glimmers through questions, uncertainty, and even darkness is the complicated, enticing mystery at the heart of the life God has given us. And given to Mary, because she is one of us.
But what of the life to come? What, in the end, does it all mean?
Again, Mary gives us a glimpse.
The Woman in the Book of Revelation
Revelation is a strange, mysterious book, read in various ways throughout history and put to various theological uses. Exploding with symbolism, it is not a book for casual reading.
The form of the book is “apocalyptic,” a term derived from a Greek word meaning “unveiling.” Apocalyptic literature is marked by a sense that great events playing out in heaven are reflected in earthly events, and those earthly events usually involve suffering, but ultimately hope, for believers.
You can find examples of apocalyptic literature in the Old Testament, such as the book of Daniel, as well as in works that were circulating in the centuries before Jesus’ life and ministry. These writings emerged as the Jewish people experienced suffering and oppression at the hands of greater powers, from the Babylonians to the Greeks and finally, the Romans.
The book of Revelation in the New Testament echoes the themes of celestial warfare, suffering, and hope we find in Jewish apocalyptic writings. Scholars are divided as to the time of its composition. It is most commonly dated to the end of the first century during the reign of the Emperor Domitian (A.D. 81–96), but various ancient sources and a growing body of scholarly opinion today date it during the reign of Nero (A.D. 54–68). One of the reasons for a reconsideration of the dating is that Domitian did not actually systematically persecute Christians, while Nero did, and suffering under intense persecution is the constant background for the book of Revelation.
The author of Revelation identifies himself from the very beginning and repeatedly throughout as “John.” Again, the identity of this John is disputed and has been for centuries. Is he the apostle John, the evangelist John (presuming they are not the same person), or another “John of Patmos” who is neither of these?
No one really knows. What we do know is that the author of this book was deeply committed to Christ and was a leader of the Christian community with enough authority to be able to write this book as a letter to the “seven churches” of Asia Minor, which he seems to have overseen.
The content of the book of Revelation is too complex to summarize here, but we have to say something in order to set the passage that refers to Mary in context. What precedes these verses are eleven chapters in which we see heaven, the Lamb enthroned, and a scroll with seven seals, each of which are opened with great and difficult consequences for life on earth. And then, in chapter 12, we meet a woman:
A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days. . . .
[A battle ensues between Michael and the dragon. The dragon is defeated and thrown to earth.]
So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.
Then the dragon took his stand on the sand of the seashore. (Revelation 12:1-6, 13-18)
The one temptation we must avoid in interpreting any passage from Revelation, including this one, is to approach it linearly, with a single dimension of symbolism, thinking, “Well, this means that, and nothing else, and leads to the next set of events.”
Revelation isn’t like that. There are layers of symbolism here, and the writing has what someone has called a “plasticity.” Like life, each detail carries a number of meanings—any number of meanings.
The woman’s appearance in the midst of earth’s turmoil tells us she is associated with Israel and the cosmos God has made. She is clothed with the sun, as God is described in Psalm 104:2 as “wrapped in light.” Her crown of twelve stars reminds us of the twelve tribes of Israel, as well as Joseph’s dream of the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowing down to him (see Genesis 37:9).
The woman’s cries are not just cries of physical pain, they are the “cries” to God that Israel has uttered for generations (Psalm 22:5), yearning for God’s saving presence. The male child who will rule calls to mind the expectations voiced by the prophets, the eagle calls to mind the protection of God, described as “eagles’ wings” (Isaiah 40:31), and the desert calls to mind the role that the desert has played in Israel’s history as a place of refuge and stability.
Of course, the dragon’s pursuit of the woman cannot help but remind us of Eve: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)
Finally, who could contemplate this vision of an evil entity pursuing a mother and her child—who is “snatched up” and taken to God’s throne—and then pursuing the woman’s “children,” and not think of Mary, her son, and the Church?
The Assumption of Mary
The assumption of Mary is simply the teaching that Mary has been “assumed” or “taken” into heaven, body and soul. She enjoys now what all disciples hope for—the resurrection of the body, life eternal in the presence of God.
Although the assumption was not formally defined as Catholic doctrine until 1950 by Pope Pius XII, it was widely believed since ancient times. We find the original articulation of this belief in the Eastern Church. This isn’t surprising because the East is where Christianity began and, for the first few centuries, where most theological conversations were taking place. In addition, from early on, Eastern Christians nurtured a strong devotion to Mary, in which her status in heaven reflects the Eastern understanding of salvation as a sharing in the life of God. The Eastern celebration of this event is called the “Dormition” or “falling asleep.” Eastern Christians believe that Mary did die and that Jesus took her body to heaven, leaving an empty tomb.
Western thinking about the assumption developed and flowered over the course of centuries. The feast was celebrated in Rome by the early eighth century. The formal definition of the ancient belief was articulated by Pius XII:
“The Immaculate Virgin . . . when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory.” What is left open in this definition is the question of whether Mary actually experienced death. Theologians debated that question, and still do, since death is one of the curses humanity experiences as the result of the fall. Theologians consider whether Mary, freed from original sin, would have experienced the consequence of death. Pope John Paul II, however, articulates the predominant view when he says, “To share in Christ’s Resurrection, Mary had first to share in his death.” In the end, what the assumption means is that Christ’s victory over death can be seen in Mary. What she enjoys now, in the presence of the Lord, awaits us as well.
So the woman of Revelation 12 is really all of these: she is Israel, Eve, the Church, and Mary. Catholic interpretation of this passage has reflected this depth for hundreds of years, as theologians and spiritual writers have interpreted it in light of the understanding, so clear in Jesus’ words to Mary and the beloved disciple at the cross, that Mary and the Church are intimately identified with each other. In birthing the body of Christ, Mary births the Church, a church that she watches in its suffering and with which she suffers.
The image of Mary as a woman “clothed in the sun” certainly has power and has a place in Christian iconography. It is also important in Catholic and Orthodox understandings of Mary’s place in heaven. But the image is also so complex that it serves to enrich our understanding even beyond this identification to help us see God’s gift of Mary as the Mother of the Church—as our mother.
As we’ve seen throughout this book, Mary is a powerful presence in our lives as individuals and as a Christian community because in her we see the promise God holds out to all of us. We see that our yes—our fiat—matters. God moves and redeems in the midst of the most fundamental human mysteries of pregnancy and childbirth, using creation to re-create, to save.
In our presence to one another, we bear and welcome Christ. Our love of God and neighbor is part of the cosmic course of history. In welcoming the light of Christ, in celebrating his justice and passionate love, we are part of something astonishing and miraculous because it is God’s work in the world, through us. The heart of discipleship is seeking Christ and, once we find him, listening and following his word. Suffering happens, and in the suffering of every person is Christ, to whom we are called to be quietly, lovingly present.
This is Mary’s life. It is our life as well, lived, not alone, but under the care of a most loving mother, the gift of a most loving and understanding God.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
Excerpted from Mary and the Christian Life by Amy Welborn (The Word Among Us Press, 2008).