I love the Feast of the Assumption. The readings for today include a dragon ready to devour the son of the sun-clothed Queen of Heaven. And then there is the magnificat, the Virgin Mary’s hymn of thanksgiving and praise: “My soul doth magnify the Lord; and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my savior.”
OK, that’s not precisely what Catholics hear at Mass today. The New American Bible gives us more straightforward translation: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Here as in so many other places, the translators cut a thread in the larger verbal fabric of inherited piety, in this case the “magnify” that gives the magnificat its traditional name.
But Mary’s wonderful words soar nonetheless. The hair on the back of my neck always stands on end when I hear about how, through the child in the Blessed Virgin’s womb, the Lord will scatter the proud in their conceit, cast down the mighty from their thrones, lift up the lowly, and fill the hungry with good things. Mighty is the Lord, and righteous are his ways!
It’s not just the magnificat that makes the feast of the Assumption special, however. The feast honors one of the most fundamental and important truths proclaimed by Christianity: being human is in no way inconsistent with full participation in God’s sanctity. As Job puts it in his confession of faith: “In my flesh I will see God.”
This conviction is the basis of the Marian dogmas affirmed by the Catholic Church in the modern era. In 1854, Pius IX issued a papal bull defining the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception: Mary, the mother of God, was from the moment of conception without the stain (macula, and thus immaculate) of original sin. She was a sinless vessel for the sinless savior.
When affirming the Blessed Virgin’s immaculate conception, a Catholic is not in any way denying Mary’s humanity, nor is he covertly turning her into a goddess of some sort. Instead, the dogma simply applies the saving merits of Christ to Mary at the moment of her conception. She is, as it were, “born again” before she is born, and for that reason never under dominion of sin.
Needless to say, the Bible does not say anything about all this, but the doctrine follows from some simple reasoning about what the Bible does say. The most important is Mary’s whole-hearted assent when the angel of the Lord announces that she will bear the Son of God: “Let it be done with me according to your word.” How could she overcome the power of original sin so as to fully accept God’s saving word, unless, somehow, she was already given the grace of Christ’s merits? And that of course is the gist of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Strictly speaking, the immaculate conception of Mary is no more “miraculous” than the baptism of an infant, adolescent, or adult. Sinning may be a painful part of what we actually experience about being human, but it’s not intrinsic. If we were to deny our powers of reason, we would deny our humanity. If we hated our bodies, we would hate our humanity. That’s not true of the dominion of sin, both the stain of original sin, and our actual sins.
Because we often forget that sin is not in fact natural, we’re pessimistic that anyone can actually be a saint. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is important to affirm, because it’s such a direct contradiction of that pessimism. Mary, a child conceived in the normal and natural way that all children are conceived, is without sin. This bold affirmation puts paid our usual (and often conveniently excusing) inner doubts that sinlessness and humanness can ever go together.
Original sin is more than a stain; it puts us under the power of corruption and death. Here the doctrine of the Assumption makes the same theological affirmation as the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception: corruption and death are in no way necessary or integral parts of what it means to be human. God really can draw us to himself without in some way altering our created natures. We see exactly that the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. She is taken into heaven, body and soul, just as Job’s faith promises.
Once again, this dogmatic affirmation works against our native pessimism about our own humanity. We may have a faith that our souls can somehow be purified, eventually. But we tend to think that the usual war of the flesh against holiness is inevitable and unwinnable. But the doctrine of the Assumption insists otherwise. The Blessed Virgin did not suffer corruption. Her body was in no way at war with her spiritual destiny.
Since the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church has insisted on the real possibility of sanctification for all of us. That’s what’s at stake in the doctrine of purgatory, and in the Marian doctrines as well. It’s what John Paul II was saying when he reminded us that the call of Christ is a universal call to holiness. Yes, we live in a fallen world that makes any progress in holiness difficult. But it’s possible, because being human—being conceived by flesh, having a body with all sorts of instinctual desires and a trajectory toward decay and death—is not incompatible with participating the perfection of God.
As the Blessed Virgin Mary sings, God lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things. Born under the shadow of Adam’s fault, we are indeed lowly. With bodies that age and fail, we are starved for eternity. But God is gracious. He lifts and fills us. And as the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption make clear, we should never turn away from that grace with excuses about how sin is inevitable, and our bodies somehow alien to our spiritual aspirations.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here. A version of this column appeared in this space on April 20, 2012.