With the celebration of the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Aug. 15, it brings to mind a beautiful poem written by William Wordsworth entitled “The Virgin.”
Mother! Whose virgin bosom was uncrost
With the least shade of thought to sin allied.
Woman! Above all women glorified,
Our tainted nature’s solitary boast;
Purer than foam on central ocean tost;
Brighter than eastern skies at daybreak strewn
With fancied roses, than the unblemished moon
Before her wane begins on heaven’s blue coast;
Thy image falls to earth. Yet some, I ween,
Not unforgiven the suppliant knee might bend,
As to a visible Power, in which did blend
All that was mixed and reconciled in thee
Of mother’s love with maiden purity,
Of high with low, celestial with terrene!
Wordsworth was the Poet Laureate of England from 1843 to the time of his death in 1850. “The Virgin” is a selection from his book “Ecclesiastical Sonnets.” Although he was not a Catholic, Wordsworth definitely had a profound sense of the devotion to the Blessed Mother, which is a hallmark of our faith.
Perhaps the most famous of the lines in this piece of poetry is the verse “Woman! Above all women glorified, Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” The words highlight the special dignity and holiness of the Blessed Mother and acclaim her status as the representation of the best of our human nature. In doing so, the sonnet truly captures some of the spirit that is the essence of the Dogma of the Assumption of Mary.
The belief in the Assumption was a long-held tenet of the Tradition of the Church. That the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heaven was acknowledged with liturgical celebrations as early as the fifth century in the East. There are also affirmations in the writings of a number of esteemed theologians, like St. John Damascene and St. Gregory of Tours in the Early Middle Ages. Although there is no specific mention of the Assumption in the Gospels, the belief is consistent and flows logically with the theology of the Sacred Scriptures. The Blessed Virgin Mary is portrayed as completely one with her son in all ways, and it is fitting that she would share his destiny in the Risen Glory of the Kingdom of God.
It was in the year 1946 that Pope Pius XII initiated a global consultation with the bishops of the Church, sending a letter asking what their clergy and people thought about the Assumption and whether, in their judgment, it could be proposed and defined as a Dogma of the Faith. The inquiry received overwhelming support, and it ultimately resulted in the formal declaration, ex cathedra, of the Teaching of the Apostolic Constitution “Munificentissimus Deus” (i.e., The Most Bountiful God) on Nov. 1, 1950.
Many historians have commented upon the significance of the timing of the formal declaration of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is felt that one of the key reasons Pope Pius XII promulgated the teaching was in response to the traumatic and troubling experiences caused by the Second World War. With its epic manifestations of violence, suffering, carnage and desecration of the respect for life, the Holy Father appeared to be searching for some way to counter the massive debasement of human dignity. A reference in “Munificentissimus Deus” (#2) suggests exactly that: “Now, just like the present age, our pontificate is weighed down by ever so many cares, anxieties and troubles, by reason of very severe calamities that have taken place and by reason of the fact that many have strayed away from truth and virtue.”
Pope Pius XII saw in the holiness of the life, death and resurrection of Mary a sacred antidote to the sickness of the times. The definition and proclamation of her Assumption would serve as a healing affirmation of the goodness of the potential of humanity – created in the image of God, redeemed by the salvation of Jesus Christ and destined toward eternity in Heaven. As he wrote in the Apostolic Constitution (#42), “And so we may hope that those who meditate upon the glorious example Mary offers us may be more and more convinced of the value of a human life entirely devoted to carrying out the heavenly Father’s will and to bringing good to others. Thus, while the illusory teachings of materialism and the corruption of morals that follows from these teachings threaten to extinguish the light of virtue and to ruin the lives of men by exciting discord among them, in this magnificent way all may see clearly to what a lofty goal of our bodies and souls are destined. Finally it is our hope that belief in Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven will make our belief in our own resurrection stronger and render it more effective.”
And, it would seem, this sign of hope, this sacred antidote, is still very much needed in our own day and time. While the present conditions we face are not nearly as virulent or malevolent as a World War, there are real indications that human society is coming dangerously close to a precipice, which could send us falling once again to a place of the severe debasement of human dignity. The growing instances of polarization and divisiveness, the indifference and disinterest in the common good, the fixation upon worldly values and neglect of spiritual truths seem to affront and threaten on a daily basis true respect for life.
And, so, may we enter with deeper intensity and even more heart-felt longing into the celebration of the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. May we look with greater devotion and assiduity to the example of “Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” May we join our hearts and souls in unity as we pray in the Preface of the Mass for this Holy Feast, “For today, the Virgin Mother of God was assumed into heaven as the beginning and image of our Church’s coming to perfection and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people.”