Sunday, August 15, 2021

The Gospel of the Assumption: A Medieval Allegory

Shortly after Pope Pius XII made the formal dogmatic definition of the Assumption in 1950, he promulgated a new Office and Mass for the feast. The Gospel of the new Mass, known from its Introit as Signum Magnum, is St Luke 1, 41-50, the words of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, to the Virgin at the time of the Visitation, and the first part of the Magnificat. Before the promulgation of this new Mass, the Gospel had been for many centuries that of Mary and Martha, Luke 10, 38-42.

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, by Henryk Semiradzki, 1886
At that time, Jesus entered into a certain town, and a certain woman named Martha received Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sitting also at the Lord’s feet, heard his word. But Martha was busy about much serving; who stood and said, “Lord, hast thou no care that my sister hath left me alone to serve? speak to her therefore, that she help me.” And the Lord answering, said to her, “Martha, Martha, thou art full of care, and art troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

This Gospel was received, like the feast of the Assumption itself, from the Byzantine tradition, in which it is read on various feasts of the Blessed Virgin, with two verses from the following chapter appended to it, Luke 11, 27-28. In the traditional lectionary of the Roman Rite, these two verses are separated from the previous Gospel, and read on the Vigil of the Assumption.

And it came to pass, as He spoke these things, a certain woman from the crowd, lifting up her voice, said to Him, “Blessed is the womb that bore thee, and the paps that gave thee suck.” But He said, “Yea rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God, and keep it.”

The Church Fathers traditionally explained Mary and Martha as symbols of the contemplative and active life respectively, as is seen already in St Ambrose’s Exposition of the Gospel according to Luke, although he does not use the terms “active” and “contemplative”.

“One of them listened to the Word, the other was busy about serving, and stood and said, ‘Lord, hast thou no care etc.’ Therefore, the one applied herself more to attention, the other to the service of action: nevertheless, there was in both equally zeal for both forms of virtue. For indeed, if Martha did not hear the Word, she would not have undertaken her service, the doing of which indicates her intention; and Mary took such great grace (as she had) from the perfection of both virtues. (1.9)

Nor is Martha rebuked in her good ministry, but Mary is set before her, because she chose for herself the better part; for Jesus abounds in many things, and gives many things. Therefore, she is judged the wiser, because she perceived and chose what is first (or ‘most important’), as indeed the Apostles deemed it was not the best thing to leave the word of God and serve tables (Acts 6, 2). (7.86)”

Ss Ambrose and Augustine, by Fra Filippo Lippi, ca. 1437
This is stated even more clearly by St Augustine, in the homily which was traditionally read in the Office on the feast of the Assumption.

“In these two women are figured two lives, the present and the future, one full of labor, the other restful, one full of trouble, the other blessed, one in time, the other eternal. … Therefore, there remained in that house which received the Lord two lives (represented) in the two women; both innocent, both praiseworthy; one full of labor, the other at rest; neither sinful, neither idle… In that house, there were these two lives, and the fountain of life itself. In Martha was the image of the things that are present, in Mary of those that will be. What Martha was doing, there are we; what Mary was doing, this do we hope for; let us do the former well, that we may have the latter in full.” (Sermon 104, alias 27)

In the middle of the 9th century, Amalarius of Metz, in his treatise On the Offices of the Church, uses the terms “active” and “contemplative” life, although not specifically in reference to the feast of the Assumption, which he does not mention.

“Thus there are in our Church today two kinds of the elect who are baptized. One kind is in the active life, the other in the contemplative, and these two kinds are signified by Martha and her sister Mary. The better part was allotted to Mary by the Lord, but that of Martha was not reproved, for it is good.” (4.27)

By the middle of the 12th century, this tradition is fully well-established. In the Rationale Divinorum Officiorum, John Beleth explains that some Gospels are chosen as historical narrations of the events which the liturgy celebrates, such as that of the Epiphany, while others are chosen as allegories.

“According to an allegory (is) one such as that which is customarily read on the Assumption of the Blessed Mary, concerning Mary Magdalene and her sister Martha ... since in Mary is signified the contemplative life, and through Martha, who was serving (the Lord), the active life. By this Gospel it is taught that in the Blessed Virgin Mary was the perfection of both lives...” (29 de Evangelio)

Commenting on the feast itself, he writes: “That fact that a Gospel (of the allegorical sort) is read, indicates that both lives, the contemplative and the active, were in the Virgin Mary. For she was Magdalene, that is, the one who was taken up with the contemplative life. She was Martha, that is, the one who was wholly occupied with the active life ... For these words declare sufficiently that She was constantly taken up with the contemplative life, ‘But Mary kept all these words in her heart. (Luke 2, 52)’ ” (146 de Assumptione)

The Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin Mary, by Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci; from the Gradual of Santa Maria degli Angeli, ca. 1370, now in the British Library.
At the end of the same century, Sicard of Cremona adds an allegorical explanation of the “town” which the Gospel mentions as the place where Mary and Martha lived, since the Latin word for it, “castellum”, also means “a little castle.”

“In the Mass is read the Gospel of Martha and Mary Magdalene, according to an allegory; for the blessed Virgin was the little castle, because She secured herself well against the devil. She was Martha, for there was none better in action; she was Mary, for there was none better in contemplation, of which it is said, ‘But Mary kept all these words in her heart.’ ” (Mitrale 9. 40)

William Durandus’ commentary on the liturgy, also called Rationale Divinorum Officiorum, stands in relation to the earlier commentaries as St Thomas’ Summa theologica does to earlier Summae, bringing together all of the threads of the tradition with great thoroughness and clarity. He writes thus on the traditional Gospel of the Assumption.

“The Gospel is read about Martha and Mary, which at first sight appears to have no relevance, and yet it is indeed relevant, according to an allegory. For Jesus entered into a certain ‘small castle’, that is, into the Virgin Mary, who is called a castle since She is terrible to demons, and armed Herself well against the devil and against vices. But She is called ‘a small castle’ in the diminutive (castellum) because of her humility, and because of Her unique condition, since ‘neither before nor henceforth hath there been or shall be another such as Her.’ (quoting the 2nd antiphon of Lauds on Christmas day.) And Martha, that is, the active life, received Him. For She most diligently reared Her Child, and brought him into Egypt, and showed her goodness in the active life, by going to Elizabeth, and serving her, and just as She was (like) Martha in the active life, so also she was (like) Mary Magdalene in the contemplative life. Whence in another Gospel is read, “Mary kept all these words in her heart.” (Luke 2, 50) Now these two sisters signify the active life and the contemplative life, which were clearly in the Blessed Virgin Mary, and through them she exaltedly, honorably, and with great delight, received Christ in Herself.” (7.24)

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