Wednesday August 15, 2001 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Feast of the Assumption
Reading I (Revelation 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab)
Reading II (1 Corinthians 15:20-27)
Gospel (St. Luke 1:39-56)
Today, we celebrate the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is very different from the Ascension of Our Lord: Our Lord ascended, body and soul, into Heaven by His own power. Assumption means "by someone else's power." And so what we celebrate today is that our Lady was "taken" up to Heaven by the power of God, body and soul. She is not the first person to be taken body and soul from this earth; but, next to Our Lord, she is the first one to enter the fullness of Heaven. We read the Book of Genesis and we see that Enoch was taken up to Heaven, body and soul. It says simply: "He walked with God." Then, we see the prophet Elijah being taken up into Heaven in a whirlwind with a fiery chariot. Elijah and Enoch will come again, and they still have to die.
Our Lady, on the other hand, has gone to eternity. She has entered into the fullness of the glory of God and she beholds God face to face, both body and soul, in Heaven. That is the glory that we celebrate today. We can ask ourselves, "Why has God taken her and not everyone else?" Well, on one level, it is the first fulfillment of His promise.
We read, for instance, in the second reading today that the last enemy to be destroyed is death. And so what we are really celebrating today is the victory over death. Now, we could look at the Resurrection of Our Lord on Easter Sunday and His Ascension into Heaven and see the victory over death. We see the devil's head crushed. Yet, it would be easy for us to look at that and say, "But He is God. Of course, He can rise from the dead. Of course, He is going to go back to Heaven - He is God. What about the rest of us? He has made these promises, but how do we know that they are really going to be fulfilled?"
Today we see the promise fulfilled in one like us. Our Blessed Lady is not God. She is a human woman like any human woman who is here today. She is like us in every single way except sin. That is the only difference: We have sinned and she did not. Otherwise, she is a human person; Jesus is a divine Person. Mary, then, taken up to Heaven body and soul so that the fullness of her humanity is there, already shares in the grace of the Resurrection, which all of us will be able to share in on the last day of this world. All our bodies will rise from the dead and be reunited with our souls - either in Heaven or in hell, as the case may be. Our bodies and souls will be reunited for all eternity. Our Lady already shares in that and so she is the firstfruits, she is the first fulfillment of the promises of Our Lord; and she is, for us, the foreshadowing of what it is that will happen to us.
Still, we can ask ourselves about this feast. Why has the Church chosen the readings that She chose? We read from the Book of Revelation about the Ark of the Covenant being seen in the Holy of Holies, in the temple of God. You will recall that the Ark of the Covenant, for the Jewish people, was the most holy object that they possessed. For us as Christians, Jesus is the holiest of all people; however, Our Lady is the holiest of all human persons. Of all humanity, she is the holiest one and we look to her. She is the pinnacle of all God's creation.
We see what God has done in His Holy of Holies in the human-made temple (the temple in Jerusalem). Remember that the Ark of the Covenant was behind the curtain; it was in the Holy of Holies and nobody could see it. The Ark of the Covenant was considered the mercy seat of God; it was where God Himself sat as He had mercy in the judgment against His people. Inside of the Ark of the Covenant, there were three different things: There were the two stone tablets for the Ten Commandments, there was a jar with manna in it, and there was a staff: Aaron's staff that had flowered when it was placed in the meeting tent to show that Aaron alone (and his sons after him) would be the priest for the ancient people of Israel. Those three elements were put into the Ark of the Covenant. They were carried by the priests in the Ark, and the Ark was kept in the Holy of Holies.
We are told in Second Maccabees that the prophet Jeremiah took the Ark of the Covenant and locked it up in a cave on Mount Nebo. It will not be seen again until the day that all the peoples of Israel are gathered once again into one; in other words, on the last day of the world. At the very end, the Ark will be seen again in this world.
The Ark of the Covenant was also taken by the Philistines at one point. It was put into the temple of Dagon. Every morning, the Philistines would come into their temple and the statue of Dagon was lying flat on its face. Finally, they got tired of this because pestilence broke out in Philistia and all these different things happened. So, they finally hitched up some oxen and put the Ark on a wagon and sent it back. The path that the Ark followed as it went back up to Jerusalem is the exact same road that Our Lady would have taken as she went from Nazareth up towards Jerusalem.
But we know, from the Second Book of Samuel and also from First Chronicles, that the Ark started to tip. A young man put out his hand to stop the tipping of the Ark, but it was forbidden for anybody to touch the Ark or they would die immediately. The man touched the Ark and he died. David refused, then, to bring the Ark into the temple because he was afraid of God. And so he put the Ark into the house of a man named Obed-Edom. There it sat for three months. When they saw that God had blessed the house of Obed-Edom, David brought the Ark the rest of the way up to Jerusalem. The house of Obed-Edom was just outside of Jerusalem.
In the Gospel reading, we see Our Lady going with haste up into the hill country. She went to the house of Zechariah, which was in a suburb just outside of Jerusalem, a place called Ein Karem. There she stayed for three months, just like the Ark of the Covenant. She walked the same path that the Ark had taken and inside of Our Blessed Lady, at that time, was: Our Covenant, Jesus Christ; who is our High Priest; and who is the Bread sent from Heaven. So the three elements that were kept within the Ark in the ancient days were now present within Our Blessed Lady. She is the Ark of the New Covenant. And she walked the same path as the Ark of the Old Covenant.
Finally, if we keep reading in Luke's Gospel, we see that the Lord comes to the temple. He takes over the temple. But now, in the Book of Revelation, we see the Ark in the temple of God, the temple Saint Paul talks about: the one not made by human hands, but eternal, made by God in Heaven. And that Ark is kept in Heaven. The Ark is Our Lady, and that is what we see in the first reading: The temple in Heaven was opened - a curtain was opened so the people could see right into the Holy of Holies. Saint John saw the Ark for the first time in over 500 years since a human person had laid eyes upon the Ark of the Covenant. The first question all of the Jewish people would have asked, hearing that the Ark had been seen, is: What does it look like? Saint John went on to explain it: "A woman, clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. And she wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth to a Son." The Ark of the Covenant is the Blessed Virgin Mary. She has been taken, body and soul, into Heaven where she glorifies God at every instant for all eternity.
But the wonderful thing is she is also our mother, and she is our queen. As she glorifies God, she prays for each one of us, her children. When we see these readings today, we recognize that death indeed has been destroyed. We each need to enter into death, but we have the promise of our resurrection. We already see the promise being fulfilled in Our Lady and we ask her intercession that one day we will be able to be with her; that like her, we will behold God face to face, in the resurrected glory and the reunification of our body and soul; and that we will be able to be with her and glorify God for all eternity.
Note: Father Altier does not write his homilies in advance, but relies solely upon the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.