From The Liturgical Year by Abbot Dom Guéranger, O.S.B.
Today the Virgin Mary ascended to Heaven; rejoice, for she reigns with Christ for ever.' The Church will close her chants on this glorious day with this sweet antiphon, which resumes the object of the feast and the spirit in which it should be celebrated.
No other solemnity breathes, like this one, at once triumph and peace; none better answers to the enthusiasm of the many and the serenity of souls consummated in love. Assuredly that was as great a triumph when our Lord, rising by His own power from the tomb, cast hell into dismay; but to our souls, so abruptly drawn from the abyss of sorrows on Golgotha, the suddenness of the victory caused a sort of stupor to mingle with the joy of that greatest of days. In presence of the prostrate angels, the hesitating apostles, the women seized with fear and trembling, one felt that the divine isolation of the Conqueror of death was perceptible even to His most intimate friends, and kept them, like Magdalen, at a distance.
Mary's death, however, leaves no impression but peace; that death had no other cause than love. Being a mere creature, she could not deliver herself from that claim of the old enemy; but leaving her tomb filled with flowers, she mounts up to Heaven, flowing with delights, leaning upon her Beloved. Amid the acclamations of the daughters of Sion, who will henceforth never cease to call her blessed, she ascends surrounded by choirs of Heavenly spirits joyfully praising the Son of God. Never more will shadows veil, as they did on earth, the glory of the most beautiful daughter of Eve. Beyond the immovable Thrones, beyond the dazzling Cherubim, beyond the flaming Seraphim, onward she passes, delighting the Heavenly city with her sweet perfumes. She stays not till she reaches the very confines of the Divinity; close to the throne of honor where her Son, the King of ages, reigns in justice and in power; there she is proclaimed Queen, there she will reign for ever more in mercy and in goodness.
Here on earth Libanus and Amana, Sanir and Hermon dispute the honor of having seen her rise to Heaven from their summits; and truly the whole world is but the pedestal of her glory, as the moon is her footstool, the sun her vesture, the stars of Heaven her glittering crown. Daughter of Sion, thou art all fair and sweet, 'l cries the Church, as in her rapture she mingles her own tender accents with the songs of triumph: I saw the beautiful one as a dove rising up from the brooks of waters; in her garments was the most exquisite odor; and as in the days of spring, flowers of roses surrounded her and lilies of the valley.'
The same freshness breathes from the facts of Bible history wherein the interpreters of the sacred Books see the figure of Mary's triumph. As long as this world lasts a severe law protects the entrance to the eternal palace; no one, without having first laid aside the garb of flesh, is admitted to contemplate the King of Heaven. There is one, however, of our lowly race, whom the terrible decree does not touch; the true Esther, in her incredible beauty, advances without hindrance through all the doors. Full of grace, she is worthy of the love of the true Assuerus; but on the way which leads to the awful throne of the King of kings, she walks not alone: two handmaids, one supporting her steps, the other holding up the long folds of her royal robe, accompany her; they are the angelic nature and the human, both equally proud to hail her as their mistress and lady, and both sharing in her glory.
If we go back from the time of captivity, when Esther saved her people, to the days of Israel's greatness, we find our Lady's entrance into the city of endless peace represented by the Queen of Saba coming to the earthly Jerusalem. While she contemplates with rapture the magnificence of the mighty prince of Sion, the pomp of her own retinue, the incalculable riches of the treasure she brings, her precious stones and her spices, plunge the whole city into admiration. There was brought no more, says the Scripture, such abundance of spices as these which the Queen of Saba gave to King Solomon!
The reception given by David's son to Bethsabee, his mother, in the third Book of Kings, no less happily expresses the mystery of today, so replete with the filial love of the true Solomon. Then Bethsabee came to King Solomon . . . and the king arose to meet her, and bowed to her, and sat down upon his throne, and a throne was set the king's mother: and she sat on his right hand. O Lady, how exceedingly dost thou surpass all the servants and ministers and friends of God !
On the day when Gabriel came to my lowliness,' are the words St. Ephrem puts into thy mouth, 'from handmaid I became Queen; and I, the slave of Thy Divinity, found myself suddenly the mother of Thy humanity, my Lord and my Son! O Son of the King who hast made me His daughter, O Thou Heavenly One, who thus bringest into Heaven His daughter of earth, by what name shall I call Thee?' The Lord Christ Himself answered; the God made Man revealed to us the only name which fully expresses Him in His twofold nature; He is called THE SON, Son of Man as He is Son of God, on earth He has only a Mother, as in Heaven He has only a Father. In the august Trinity He proceeds from the Father, remaining consubstantial with Him; only distinguished from Him in that He is Son; producing together with Him, as one Principle, the Holy Ghost. In the external mission He fulfills by the Incarnation to the glory of the Blessed Trinity -- communicating to His humanity the manners, so to say, of His Divinity, as far as the diversity of the two natures permits -- He is in no way separated from His Mother, and would have her participate even in the giving of the Holy Ghost to every soul. This ineffable union is the foundation of all Mary's greatnesses, which are crowned by today's triumph. The days within the Octave will give us an opportunity of showing some of the consequences of this principle; today let it suffice to have laid it down.
As Christ is the Lord,' says Arnold of Bonneval, the friend of St. Bernard, Mary is Lady and sovereign. He who bends the knee before the Son kneels before the Mother. At the sound of her name the devils tremble, men rejoice, the angels glorify God. Mary and Christ are one flesh, one mind, and one love. From the day when it was said, The Lord is with thee, the grace was irrevocable, the unity inseparable; and in speaking of the glory of Son and Mother, we must call it not so much a common glory as the selfsame glory .' O Thou, the beauty and the honor of Thy Mother,' adds the great deacon of Edessa, thus hast Thou adorned her in every way; together with others she is Thy sister and Thy bride, but she alone conceived Thee."
Rupert in his turn cries out: Come then, O most beautiful one, thou shalt be crowned in Heaven Queen of saints, on earth Queen of every kingdom. Wherever it shall be said of the Beloved that He is crowned with glory and honor, and set over the works of His Father's hands, everywhere also shall they proclaim of thee, O well beloved, that thou art His Mother, and as such Queen over every domain where His power extends; and, therefore, emperors and kings shall crown thee with their crowns and consecrate their palaces to thee.'
Among the feasts of the saints this is the solemnity of solemnities. 'Let the mind of man,' says St. Peter Damian, be occupied in declaring her magnificence; let his speech reflect her majesty. May the sovereign of the world deign to accept the goodwill of our lips, to aid our insufficiency, to illumine with her own light the sublimity of this day.'
It is no new thing, then, that Mary's triumph fills the hearts of Christians with enthusiasm. Before our times the Church showed by the prescriptions kept in the Corpus juris the pre-eminence she assigned to this glorious anniversary. Thus, under Boniface VIII, she granted to it, as to no other feast, except Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, the privilege of being celebrated with ringing of bells and the customary splendor in countries laid under interdict.
In his instructions to the newly-converted Bulgarians, St. Nicholas I, who occupied the Apostolic See from 858 to 867, had already united these four solemnities when recommending the fasts of Lent, of the Ember days, and of the Vigils of these feasts -- 'Fasts,' he says, ' which the Holy Roman Church has long since received and observed.'
We must refer to the preceding century the composition of the celebrated discourse which, until the time of St. Pius V, furnished the Lessons for the Matins of the feast; while its thoughts, and even its text, are still found in several parts of the Office.' The author, worthy of the greatest ages for style and science, but screening himself under a false name, began thus: 'You wish me, O Paula and Eustochium, to lay aside my usual form of treatises, and strive [a new thing to me] to celebrate in oratorical style the Assumption of tile Blessed Mary ever Virgin.' And the supposed St. Jerome eloquently declared the grandeur of this feast : 'Incomparable as is she who thereon ascended glorious and happy to the sanctuary of Heaven: a solemnity, the admiration of the Heavenly hosts, the happiness of the citizens of our true country, who, not content with giving it one day as we do, celebrate it unceasingly in the eternal continuity of their veneration, of their love, and of their triumphant joy.' Unfortunately a just aversion for the excesses of certain apocryphal writers led the author of this beautiful exposition of the greatness of Mary to hesitate in his belief as to the glorious privilege of her corporal Assumption. This over-discreet prudence was soon exaggerated in the martyrologies of Usuard and of Odo of Vienne.
That such a misconception of the ever-growing tradition should be found in Gaul is truly astonishing, since it was the ancient Gallican liturgy which gave to the West the explicit formula of that complete Assumption, the consequence of a divine and virginal maternity: 'No pain in childbirth, no suffering in death, no dissolution in the grave, for no tomb could retain her whom earth had never sullied.'
When the first Carlovingians abandoned the Gallican liturgy, they bowed to the authority of the false St. Jerome. But the faith of the people could not be suppressed. In the thirteenth century the two princes of theology, St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure, subscribed to the general belief in our Lady's anticipated resurrection. Soon this belief, by reason of its universality, claimed to be the doctrine of the Church herself. In 497 the Sorbonne severely censured all contrary propositions.' In 1870 an earnest desire was expressed to have the doctrine defined; but the Vatican Council was unfortunately suspended too soon to complete our Lady's glorious crown. Yet the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception, of which our times can boast, gives us hope for the future. The corporal Assumption of our Lady follows naturally from that dogma as its necessary result. Mary, having known nothing of original sin, contracted no debt with death, the punishment of that sin; she freely chose to die in order to be conformable to her Divine Son; and, as the Holy One of God, so the holy one of His Christ could not suffer the corruption of the tomb.
If certain ancient calendars give to this feast the title of Sleep or Repose, Dormitio or Pausatio, of the Blessed Virgin, we cannot thence conclude that at the time they were composed the feast had no other object than Mary's holy death; the Greeks, from whom we have the expression, have always included in the solemnity the glorious triumph that followed her death. The same is to be said of the Syrians, Chaldeans, Copts, and Armenians.
Among the last named, according to the custom of arranging their feasts by the day of the week rather than the date of the month, the Assumption is fixed for the Sunday which occurs between August 12 and 18. It is preceded by a week of fasting, and gives its name to the series of Sundays following it, up to the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in September.
At Rome the Assumption or Dormitio of the holy Mother of God appears in the seventh century to have already been celebrated for an indefinite length of time; nor does it seem to have had any other day than August 15. According to Nicephorus Callistus, the same date was assigned to it for Constantinople by the Emperor Maurice at the end of the sixth century .The historian notes, at the same time, the origin of several other solemnities, while of the Dormitio alone, he does not say that it was established by Maurice on such a day; hence learned authors have concluded that the feast itself already existed before the imperial decree was issued, which was thus only intended to put an end to its being celebrated on various days. Merovingian Franks celebrated the glorification of our Lady on January 18, with all the plenitude of doctrine we have mentioned above. However the choice of this day may be accounted for, it is remarkable that to this very time the Copts on the borders of the Nile announce in their synaxaria on the 21st of the month of Tobi, our January 28, the repose of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and the Assumption of her body into Heaven; they, however, repeat the announcement on Mesori 16, or August 21, and on the 1st of this same month of Mesori they begin their Lent of the Mother of God, lasting a fortnight like that of the Greeks.
Some authors think that the Assumption has been kept from apostolic times; but the silence of the primitive liturgical documents is not in favor of the opinion. The hesitation as to the date of its celebration, and the liberty so long allowed with regard to it, point rather to the spontaneous initiative of divers Churches, owing to some fact attracting attention to the mystery or throwing some light upon it. Of this nature we may reckon the account everywhere spread abroad about the year 451, in which Juvenal of Jerusalem related to the Empress St. Pulcheria and her husband Marcian the history of the tomb which was empty of its precious deposit, and which the apostles had prepared for our Lady at the foot of Mount Olivet. The following words of St. Andrew of Crete in the seventh century show how the new solemnity gained ground in consequence of such circumstances. The saint was born at Damascus, became a monk at Jerusalem, was afterwards deacon at Constantinople, and lastly bishop of the celebrated island from which he takes his name; no one then could speak for the East with better authority.' The present solemnity,' he says,' is full of mystery, having for its object to celebrate the day whereon the Mother of God fell asleep; this solemnity is too elevated for any discourse to reach; by some this mystery has not always been celebrated, but now all love and honor it. Silence long preceded speech, but now love divulges the secret. The gift of God must be manifested, not buried; we must show it forth, not as recently discovered, but as having recovered its splendor. Some of those who lived before us knew it but imperfectly: that is no reason for always keeping silence about it; it has not become altogether obscured; let us proclaim it and keep a feast. Today let the inhabitants of Heaven and of earth be united, let the joy of angels and men be one, let every tongue exult and sing Hail to the Mother of God.'
Let us, too, do honor to the gift of God; let us be grateful to the Church for having given us this feast whereon to sing with the angels the glory of Mary . . . In all the churches of France there takes place today the solemn procession which was instituted in memory of the vow whereby Louis XIII dedicated the most Christian Kingdom to the Blessed Virgin. By letters given at Saint-Germain-en-Faye, February 10, 1638, the pious king consecrated to Mary his person, his kingdom, his crown, and his people. Then he continued: ' We command the Archbishop of Paris to make a commemoration every year, on the Feast of the Assumption, of this decree at the High Mass in his cathedral; and after Vespers on the said day let there be a procession in the said church, at which the royal associations and the corporation shall assist, with the same ceremonies as in the most solemn processions.
We wish the same to be done also in all churches, whether parochial or monastic, in the said town and its suburbs, and in all the towns, hamlets, and villages of the said diocese of Paris. Moreover, we exhort and command all the archbishops and bishops of our kingdom to have Mass solemnly celebrated in their cathedrals and in all churches in their dioceses; and we wish the Parliaments and other royal associations and the principal municipal officers to be present at the ceremony. We exhort the said archbishops and bishops to admonish all our people to have a special devotion to the holy Virgin, and on this day to implore her protection, so that our Kingdom may be guarded by so powerful a patroness from all attacks of its enemies, and may enjoy good and lasting peace; and that God may be so well served and honored therein, that both we and our subjects may be enabled happily to attain the end for which we were created; for such is our pleasure!'
Thus was France again proclaimed Mary's kingdom. Within a month after the first celebration of the feast, according to the royal prescriptions, the Queen, after twenty years' barrenness, gave birth on September 5, 1638, to Louis XIV. This prince also consecrated his crown and scepter to Mary. The Assumption, then; will always be the national feast of France, except for those of her sons who celebrate the anniversaries of revolutions and assassinations. [The special prayers said every year, until the fall of the monarchy, in fulfillment of the vow of Louis XIII are below with the concluding prayer.] . . . We must not forget that Hungary was similarly consecrated to the holy Mother of God by its first king, St. Stephen. From that time the Hungarians called the Feast of the Assumption the 'Day of the great Queen,' Our Lady recompensed the piety of the apostolic king by calling him, on August 15, 1038, to exchange his earthly for a Heavenly crown; we shall find his feast in the cycle on September 2.
In the sixteenth century the Lutherans in several places continued to celebrate the Assumption of our Lady, even after they had apostatized, because the people would not give up the feast. Many of the churches of Germany, as we learn from their breviaries and missals, were accustomed to celebrate Mary's triumph for thirty days by canticles and assemblies.
Let us offer to Mary a garland of liturgical pieces on this day of her triumph. We could find nothing better to commence with than these beautiful and fragrant flowers produced by Gaul in early times. They are taken from the Mass of January 16, in which our forefathers celebrated both the Maternity and the triumph of our Lady . . .
Thou didst taste death, O Mary ! But that death, like the sleep of Adam at the world's beginning, was but an ecstasy leading the Bride into the Bridegroom's presence. As the sleep of the new Adam on the great day of salvation, it called for the awakening of resurrection. In Jesus Christ our entire nature, soul and body, was already reigning in Heaven; but as in the first paradise, so in the presence of the Holy Trinity, it was not good for man to be alone. Today at the right hand of Jesus appears the new Eve, in all things like to her Divine Head, in His vesture of glorified flesh: henceforth nothing is wanting in the eternal paradise.
O Mary, who, according to the expression of thy devout servant John Damascene, hast made death blessed and happy, detach us from this world, where nothing ought now to have a hold on us. We have accompanied thee in desire; we have followed thee with the eyes of our soul, as far as the limits of our mortality allowed; and now, can we ever again turn our eyes upon this world of darkness ? O Blessed Virgin, in order to sanctify our exile and help us to rejoin thee, bring to our aid the virtues whereby, as on wings, thou didst soar to so sublime a height. In us, too, they must reign; in us they must crush the head of the wicked serpent, that one day they may triumph in us. O day of days, when we shall behold not only our Redeemer, but also the Queen who stands so close to the Sun of Justice as even to be clothed therewith, eclipsing with her brightness all the splendors of the Saints.
The Church, it is true, remains to us, O Mary, the Church who is also our Mother, and who continues thy struggle against the dragon with its seven hateful heads. But she, too, sighs for the time when the wings of an eagle will be given her, and she will be permitted to rise like thee from the desert and to reach her Spouse. Look upon her passing, like the moon, at thy feet, through her laborious phases; hear the supplications she addresses to thee as Mediatrix with the divine Sun; through thee may she receive light; through thee may she find favor with Him who loved thee, and clothed thee with glory and crowned thee with beauty.