Monday, August 15, 2011

On the Assumption of the Virgin Mary

From a treatise written under the name of Saint Jerome, on the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

Today is the festivity upon which the Virgin Mary, in glory and rejoicing, came to the heavenly bridal chamber, a festivity beyond comparison with all the feasts of the other saints, wondered at even by the powers of Heaven, as the blessed Mary herself is beyond all comparison with other holy Virgins. Wherefore, in the person of the citizens of Heaven, the Holy Spirit wondering at her Assumption sayeth in the Canticles, ‘Who is she that goeth up by the desert, as a pillar of smoke of aromatical spices? ’ And well is she compared to a pillar of smoke, because she is graceful and delicate, being made fine by godly discipline, and burnt within unto a holocaust by the fire of holy love, and the desire of charity. ‘As a pillar of smoke of aromatical spices,’ doubtless because she was filled with many good scents of the virtues; a most sweet scent came forth from her even unto the angelic spirits. The Mother of God ascended from the desert of this world, a rod once risen out of the root of Jesse; but the souls of the elect wondered for their joy, who this might be, that in her virtues outstripped even the dignity of the Angels’ merits. (from chapter 8)

Of her again the Holy Spirit sayeth in the same Canticles, ‘Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array?’ And the Holy Spirit wondereth, because He maketh all to wonder at the ascent of the Virgin, since glowing like the dawn of a new morning, She shines forth in her ascent, surrounded and born up by the many crowds of saints; and therefore it is said, ‘Terrible as an army set in array.’ Terrible indeed hath She become in her virtues, very much like one as an army set in array; hence she is born up by the guards of the holy Angels. ‘Beautiful as the moon’, nay rather, more beautiful than the moon, because she shines forth without fail, made bright by the lights of heaven. ‘Bright as the sun’ by the radiance of her virtues, because the Sun of justice himself chose Her, that he might be born of her. And at her obsequies, (as much it is right to believe this) the Angels served, and all the powers courts of the heavens spoke forth their joy.

* * *
(From chapter 15) Worthily do we believe that on this day she was exalted and glorified, and indeed glorified so much as God can, that in His wisdom, by which He ordained all thing, chose her. And if there are many mansions in the house of the Father, we believe that today the Son gave the most splendid to His Mother, whom He did once make as His dwelling place, resting on seven columns, wherein the wedding feast of the churches of God is made ready, and the heavenly things are bound to those of earth. For in the womb of the Virgin, Her virginity was consecrated to the immortal Spouse, that all might be an exchange with Heaven.

(from chapter 16) And therefore, solemnly celebrate the feast of the Virgin, who hath shown you the life of Heaven upon the earth. Love whom you honor, and honor whom you love; for then you will truly honor and love Her, if you will imitate with all your heart Her that you praise.”

The treatise from which these passages are taken is known from its opening words as “Cogitis me – You compel me.” It purports to be a work of Saint Jerome, written to his great friend Paula, and her daughter Eustochium (both of them also honored as saints), in which he expounds his belief in the Assumption of the Virgin, and exhorts them to imitate Her as a model of consecrated life. In reality, it was written by St. Paschasius Radbertus, a monk of the ninth century, in an age in which “forgeries” of this sort were not looked upon as frauds or acts of deception. Patristic scholar Jaroslav Pelikan notes that Paschasius “under the name of Saint Jerome made a far more substantial contribution to the history of Marian spirituality and devotion than any of the genuine works of Jerome, or for that matter than (his own) other principal work … on the subject of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” (in “The Odyssey of Dionysian Spirituality”, Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, Paulist Press, 1987.)

Prior to the publication of the Breviary of St. Pius V in 1570, virtually every Use of the Roman Rite read passages from this epistle at Matins of the Assumption. In the early 16th century, however, the scholar Erasmus had shown that Cogitis me was certainly not by St. Jerome, although he did not know who the true author was. It was therefore removed from the Roman and other breviaries, replaced by writings of other Church Fathers. The sole exception, to the best of my knowledge, is the Breviary of the diocese of Liège, one of the few churches which chose to revise its own breviary in the Tridentine period, rather than adopt that of Rome; the three passages above were read on the 16th, 18th and 19th of August, at Matins within the Octave of the Assumption. The words of the sixth chapter of the Canticle of Canticles, “Who is she that cometh forth etc.” are read as the Chapter of None in the Use of Liège, and elsewhere in many other Uses; chosen, most likely, by the compilers of medieval breviaries, on the authority of St. Jerome, and the interpretation given them in the epistle attributed to him.

An echo of these same passages is found in an antiphon of the Dominican and Sarum Uses, sung with the Magnificat at First Vespers of the Assumption.
Ascendit Christus super caelos, et praeparavit suae castissimae Matri immortalitatis locum: et haec est illa praeclara festivitas, omnium Sanctorum festivitatibus incomparabilis, in qua gloriosa et felix, mirantibus caelestis curiae ordinibus, ad aethereum pervenit thalamum: quo pia sui memorum immemor nequaquam exsistat.

Christ ascended above the heavens, and prepared for His most chaste Mother the place of immortality; and this is the splendid festivity, beyond comparison with the feasts of all the Saints, in which She in glory and rejoicing, as the orders of the heavely courts beheld in wonder, came to the heavenly bridal chamber; that She in her benevolence may ever be mindful of those that remember her.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: