Mater Dei

Victory over sin and death is not a theme of consuming interest to my contemporaries, so far as I can see. (There are individual exceptions.)

“That the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory,” has lost something of its dogmatic edginess, since Pius XII proclaimed it in 1950. Rejected then as an outrage by many of our separated brethren in the Protestant folds, I should think it would be greeted by their grandchildren today with bored incomprehension. And by the grandchildren of the Catholics, too, I am grievously sorry to add.

And yet in still, quiet places — within the Church, within her churches — this mysterious Feast of the Assumption (of Mary into Heaven) continues to be celebrated, as it has been for sixteen centuries at least.

You can’t even argue about these things any more. It has been decades since we had our last dust-up with the Orangemen, and quite frankly, the average surviving “traditionalist” Catholic misses them, and remembers them with affection. But the Orange Parades are gone, replaced in the evolution of far-western society by Gay Pride Parades. (And a day may come when we miss them, too, and chafe about what has replaced them.)

I remember (happily) from childhood a very stiff proper uptight Protestant lady (from the United Church, now almost extinct), condemning the dogma of the Assumption of Mary as an example of Catholic eccentricity. It seemed, from what she was saying, that no rational person could entertain nonsense like this for a moment. The Catholics, she did not say but rather strongly implied, were all titched.

Later, I was surprised to discover that while, indeed, many Protestants might think that way, they were a tiny minority within Christendom, and had always been. There was no problem with this teaching, not only in the Roman lands, but anywhere in the East. Monophysite Copts, strange wandering Syriacs, and even the anathematized Nestorians (who resisted the title “Mother of God”), had no trouble with the Dormition of this Theotokos, as the Greeks call the very same thing the Romans call the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

(Theotokos means, “birth-giver of God.” Mater Dei is a Latin translation. Her perpetual virginity is affirmed both East and West.)

Reading, recently, Gregory of Tours (sixth century), I found the controversial 1950 dogma taken serenely for granted. Ditto in many other “pre-mediaeval” sources. It may not have been spelt out in a dogmatic formula until much later — centuries and centuries later — but what Pius XII was spelling, was hardly something new. Rather it was an affirmation of something old; a defence of it against very recent assertions to the contrary. For that is the central function of the Pope: to stand guard for us against deviations from, and compromise of the true, unchanging Faith.

The early Church knew of the fate of Mary, not from the Bible but from an earlier source: that of the Apostles themselves. A lot of things were known like that, well before the Canon of Scripture was established within the same Apostolic Tradition. It was among many things not directly mentioned in the Bible: probably because it did not need to be mentioned. Doctrinally, too, it was dead obvious, it was self-evident: that a woman not conceived in sin, not subject to the corruption of Adam, cannot “die” in the conventional way.

For Death is the wages of sin, and were it not for sin, Death would have no dominion.

“They” (really, we) tried to kill sinless Christ, after all — and the Paschal Victim simply rose from the dead. For Death had no purchase on Him; and likewise, no purchase on Mary. What might look complicated, seems so only because it is too simple for men to understand: that Death is merely an artefact of corrupted biological nature.

Hence, the curious attitude of true Christians, faced with the worst that could come to them today. “You can try to kill us, but it won’t work.”

Not, as our martyrs to the Daesh must have observed, among the legitimate children of the Virgin Mary — of Our Lady, Mother, as it were, to Allah; who points for salvation only to her Son; and was there, at His side, as His own Cross was carried; and is at our side when the Evildoers come; whispering words which have filled the Cosmos: then, now, and always,

“I am here.”

We might quote the earliest known papyrus fragment of a Christian prayer, to some special effect on this Feast today. The fragment is in the Rylands Library at Manchester now, if I am not mistaken. The prayer it records had long been assumed a late mediaeval flourish. But no, like much else attributed to the Middle Ages, it turned out to be a lot older; a lot, lot older; and then a lot older than that:

We fly to thy protection, O Mother of God, despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us from all danger, O ever glorious and blessed Virgin.