Saturday, August 14, 2021

The Newer Old Propers for the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Dormition of Virgin, Greece (late 17 - early 18 c.)
Lost in Translation #60

The great feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary falls on a Sunday this year. From what we can tell, the feast has always been kept on August 15; it began in Palestine around the fifth or sixth century, spread throughout the East, and was adopted by Rome in the seventh century. Initially, the Apostolic Churches called the feast the Dormition or “Falling Asleep” of the Virgin, in reference to the belief that Mary’s body suffered death but not decay; later, the West later changed the title to her Assumption to stress her glorious bodily transition to Heaven.

While Protestants tend to reject this doctrine on the grounds that it is not explicitly found in the Scriptures, among Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians the only real question has been not whether the Blessed Virgin was assumed, but how. Was she was taken up to Heaven alive like Elijah? After all, since she was conceived without original sin, she would not be required to suffer death. On the other hand, there is an ancient legend that all of the Apostles except Saint Thomas were present at her death, and that Thomas was then miraculously transported from India on the third day of her burial. Thomas persuaded the other Apostles to open her tomb, and all were surprised to find it empty except for her burial clothes. The Byzantine icon of the Dormition captures most of these details, including a beautiful image of Christ holding in His arms the soul of His mother prior to the reunion of her body and soul and heavenly assumption, the way that she held Him when He was a baby (see above).
Private revelation (which holds no doctrinal weight but is interesting nonetheless) has an intriguing solution to this dilemma. According to the visions of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, Our Lord appeared to His Mother at the end of her life and gave her the option of transitioning to Heaven without experiencing death or experiencing death and then being assumed into Heaven. Our Lady humbly chose death on the grounds that she was not superior to her Lord and Son.
Another option is to maintain a healthy agnosticism. When on November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII infallibly defined the dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption into Heaven in his Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, he alluded several times to the ancient belief that the Mother of God suffered temporal death, but in his solemn definition, he merely stated that the Blessed Virgin, “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” [1] The key point, it would seem, is that her body did not suffer corruption, but joined that of her Son in Heaven. The Pontiff also laid stress on the heavenly glory bestowed on Mary by this privilege, and indeed one of the purposes of defining this dogma, he states, is to increase her glory. [2]
The Holy Father’s proclamation also had a liturgical effect. The day before the promulgation of Munificentissimus Deus, the Sacred Congregation of Rites approved a new Mass for the feast “so that in the sacred liturgy there may also be a memory of this most auspicious event.” [3] Although the new Orations do not explicitly commemorate the solemn definition, they do echo its language. Whereas the Collect from the 1570 Roman Missal makes no mention of the Assumption at all, but merely prays for forgiveness through Our Lady's intercession, the 1951 Collect states:
Omnípotens sempiterne Deus, qui Immaculátam Vírginem Maríam, Fílii tui Genitrícem, córpore et ánima ad caelestem gloriam assumpsisti: concéde, quáesumus; ut ad superna semper intenti, ipsíus gloriae mereámur esse consortes. Per eundem Dóminum nostrum.
Which I translate as:
Almighty and everlasting God, who hast assumed the Immaculate Virgin Mary, Mother of Thy Son, body and soul into heavenly glory: grant, we beseech, that ever intent on the things above, we may deserve to be partakers of her glory. Through the same our Lord.
The new Collect is the first liturgical prayer that explicitly references the assumption of Mary’s “body and soul,” and its use of “immaculate” hearkens to a point made by Pius XII, namely, that the definition of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin by his predecessor Bl. Pius IX helped lay the groundwork and increase desire for doctrinal clarity regarding the Assumption. [4]
The Collect also follows a similar line of thinking to that of the Ascension of Our Lord. When we think of a body rising up to heaven, our imagination naturally starts to think vertically. This verticality, however, should transcend concern with physical altitude and move to an even higher plane, the spiritual realities that are “above” the material. The Mother of God, “who pondered these things in her heart,” certainly qualifies as someone intent on the high in the best possible way. Similarly, the 1951 Secret eloquently pairs the assumption of Mary with the rising flames of our love and a continual longing for God.
Unlike the 1570 orations, the 1951 prayers also strike an eschatological note. Our goal, the 1951 Collect states, is to be partakers of Mary’s heavenly glory, which entails enjoying (at the end of time) a similar reunion of our bodies and souls. This eschatological theme is reinforced by the 1951 Postcommunion Prayer, which prays that the intercession of “Mary, assumed into Heaven,” may lead us to the “glory of resurrection,” that is, the general resurrection of the dead made possible by Our Lord’s Resurrection and presaged by Our Lady’s Assumption.
The one conspicuous change is the omission of the 1570 Secret:
Subveniat, Dómine, plebi tuae Dei Genitrícis oratio: quam etsi pro conditióne carnis migrasse cognóscimus, in caelesti gloria apud te pro nobis intercédere sentiámus.
Which I translate as:
May the prayer of the Mother of God assist Thy people, O Lord: although we know that she passed according to the condition of the flesh, may we nevertheless feel her interceding for us in heavenly glory.
Was this explicit mention of Our Lady’s temporal death out of step with the new caution apparent in the solemn definition? Was the use of “we know” (cognovimus) too presumptuous? Could the phrase “according to the condition of the flesh” be misinterpreted to mean that Mary was not free of the effects of original sin and thus lead to a denial of the rather newly defined doctrine of the Immaculate Conception? On the other hand, variations of this prayer can be traced back to the fifteenth and possibly twelfth century. [5] Is the suppression of this prayer a violation of the principle lex orandi lex credendi, or rather, an attempt to change the Church’s lex credendi by changing her lex orandi?
I await your answers.

[1] Munificentissimus Deus, 44.
[2] Ibid.
[3] ut etiam in sacra liturgia memoria huius faustissimi eventus haberetur. (AAS 42 [1950], p. 795). The following year the Congregation approved a new Office (AAS 43 [1951], pp. 399).
[4] Munificentissimus Deus, 4.
[5] See CCSL, vol. CLX (Brepols, 1992), n. 2723.

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