Webster defines hope as, “a desire accompanied by expectation of, or belief in fulfillment.” In a far more profound expression, the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” teaches that “hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” (#1817)
Regardless of how it’s defined, hope is a much-needed virtue in our time, precisely because it points to the future. We live in an age that is comforted by, and even demands, instant gratification in all our endeavors. And sometimes we are overwhelmed by the problems of the present moment, losing all sense of perspective, believing that our times are surely the worst of times. I’ve met people, as I’m sure you have, who radiate nothing but doom and gloom, always critical, always negative. It’s depressing to be around them. In this setting it’s possible for anyone to get anxious or depressed!
Hope is the antidote to this culture of doom. It is the virtue that gives us patience, that allow us to keep the present in perspective; it lifts us up and reminds us of the wonderful future we have in Christ. Hope assures us that tomorrow can be better than today, regardless of what today is like. And no mystery of our faith speaks to us more eloquently about hope than the Assumption of Mary into heaven, the great and glorious feast we celebrate on August 15.
What do Catholics believe about the Assumption of Mary? The Church teaches that at the end of her earthly life, Mary “was taken up, body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things.” (Catechism, #996) The doctrine of the Assumption was solemnly defined only in recent times, in 1950, but it has been a consistent belief of the Church from the very beginning. As Pius XII wrote in proclaiming the Doctrine of the Assumption:
In their homilies and sermons on this feast, the holy fathers and great doctors spoke of the assumption of the Mother of God as something already familiar and accepted by the faithful. They gave it greater clarity in their preaching and used more profound arguments in setting out its nature and meaning.
We believe that the Assumption, like all the special favors granted to Mary – for example, her Immaculate Conception and perpetual virginity – was a particular privilege bestowed upon her because she had been chosen to be the Mother of God’s Only-Begotten Son. Everything else we believe about Mary begins with that starting point of faith.
The Assumption means that Mary was taken to the glory of heaven at the end of her earthly life. But note that the Church hasn’t taught definitely whether or not Mary experienced natural death. The Scriptures are silent on that point, and throughout the history of the Church it has been a point of legitimate debate among theologians and scholars.
But in a talk about Mary, Pope John Paul said that there is ample reason to believe that Mary did indeed experience biological death. “Having experienced death herself, she is an understanding mother to all those approaching the hour of their own departure from this earthly life…The Mother is not superior to the Son, who assumed death,” the Pope explained.
Theological considerations aside, the Assumption of Mary also contains practical and personal meaning for us. The Assumption is a lasting source and sign of hope, a promise of future glory for the entire Church, of which Mary is the pre-eminent member. Mary’s Assumption is a participation in the Resurrection of her Son, Jesus. All of us who are disciples of Jesus, as well as companions of Mary in our journey of faith, share that destiny – the glory of His Resurrection and her Assumption. As the preface of the Assumption Mass declares: “Today the virgin Mother of God was taken up into heaven to be the beginning and the pattern of the Church in its perfection, and a sign of hope and comfort for your people on their pilgrim way.”
This glimpse of future glory should stir-up within us a profound sense of comfort and hope. It is, after all, very easy to become discouraged by the suffering of the world, the imperfection of the Church, our own struggles and crises. But in those trying times we turn to Mary and there find hope. Whatever your personal struggle might be – a serious illness, the death of a loved one, a marriage problem, financial fears about the future, a personal moral struggle – Mary is with you, understanding, supporting, loving. And the example of her Assumption allows the light of Christ to shine in your heart, even on the darkest of days!
The approaching end of summer is the time of bountiful harvest. The seed has grown, the fruit is ripe, and we gather into our homes and barns the finest produce of the season. How appropriate that the Assumption of Mary is celebrated in this season. Mary is the finest of God’s spiritual harvest and now God calls her home, to be with Him in glory.
August 15 is the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. It is a day on which we proclaim one of the most beautiful truths of our Catholic Faith; a day on which we pause to honor Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church; and a day that restores in us, God’s people, the gift of hope. May we always “desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness.”
(This article was previously published in “The Catholic Exponent.”)