Happy Feast of the Assumption!  By way of celebration, here’s an ode to one theologian’s understanding of what can be a really confusing dogma, especially for feminists.  I chose to highlight Karl Rahner’s view here because I appreciate what he has to say, but there are certainly other (contrasting) perspectives on all the issues mentioned below which are worth learning about and evaluating.

For most theologians, the dogma of the Assumption is understood to be a teaching about eschatology (the consummation of the world and humanity along with it).  For Rahner specificially, all statements about consummation should be understood in a twofold manner: on the one hand, eschatological assertions really do bear on the future, a ‘not yet’ and does not merely express what is already present; on the other hand, knowledge of the future will reveal itself to be an inner moment of the present.  The future, therefore, will reveal itself as the realization of the possibility established in the beginning of creation, the pre-established future.  The future is salvation, and thus, eschata are the fulfillment of Christology and anthropology.

This has several consequences for his doctrine of the Assumption.  First, because eschatological statements are fulfilled anthropological statements it is critical for Rahner to claim that the Assumption is not a privilege of Mary alone.  In other words, (and you can note that this is an overall guiding principle for Rahner’s Mariology on the whole) if we understand Mary, than we understand something of ourselves.  If she is to be praised as blessed and holy, so are we called to be so.  If she is an intercessor, we too are called to be intercessors out of love for our neighbors.  We are each responsible for the salvation of our fellow brothers and sisters and can and must intercede for them with prayer and sacrifice and aid.  If she was immaculately conceived, this affects us as well.  It reveals that “God loves humanity as such” and God is supremely committed to bringing about the ends of salvation.  We too are enveloped from beginning to end by God’s power, and God’s love and fidelity to us extends even to what is most individual about us.  Rahner writes, “May the blessed Virgin whose first beginning was holy and pure, pray for us, that we too may become what we are.” (Mother of the Lord 52), that is, that we too may come to our fulfillment.   And, if she lived a life full of struggle though she was sinless, so too may the struggles in our lives be sites of blessedness.  A review of Mary’s life should give us the courage to say: “Everything in me after all cannot be so perverse and evil, recalcitrant to the grace of God, as it sometimes seems.  A good deal in our virtues may only be appearance that hides evil; but a lot of what is apparently evil and imperfect on the surface, may only be the appearance that hides what God’s grace in fact has triumphantly accomplished in us.”[i]   In sum, “If God’s grace is doing in us what it did in her, than we too are blessed by grace, and beloved.”[ii]

In the case of the Assumption specifically, Rahner wishes to emphasize that the union of Mary’s body and spirit after death is also the fate of all who die in Christ.  He points to Mt 27:50-52 to argue that Jesus did not rise alone: “But Jesus cried out again in a loud voice and gave up his spirit.  And, behold, the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom.  The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”  Mary’s privilege alone is that no time elapse was present as with other saints who rose at the time of Christ’s resurrection.  Yet, salvation has already advanced so far historically that since the Resurrection it is completely ‘normal’ that there should people in whom sin and death has already has already been overcome.  We don’t know who definitely has overcome death (by the grace of God) but we can say Mary for sure.  Rahner rejects the idea of the intermediate state.  He cannot conceive of a state in which the soul exists separately from the body after death.  “Can the soul lose something with which it is identical, without itself ceasing to exist?” he asks.[iii]  In a closely related way, because eschatological statements are fulfilled Christological statements, it is critical for Rahner to assert that message of assumption is that glory has already begun; the flesh is already saved; Christ’s resurrection is already efficacious for all of us.  As Daniel Pekarske puts it, “The reasonableness of the bodily resurrection rests on Jesus’ irrevocable victory extending to all material reality.”[iv]  Individual death, however, is necessary for participation in this communal resurrection.  The resurrection completes the perfection begun in death.  Therefore, Rahner posits that Mary really did die as a necessary precursor to her resurrection, and we too must experience the radicalness of death in order to experience the glory of the resurrection.

Lest one think that Rahner is something of a feminist hero in the area of Mariology, however, I should say a little about Rahner’s understanding of the special importance of Mary for women.  In his essay, “Mary and the Christian Image of Woman,” Rahner argues rather ambiguously that Mary represents a pure image of women in her relationship God in the same way that Jesus as a man presents that image for men.  Yet, he admits that our understanding of womanhood is biased and upon closer inspection most of Mary’s virtues aren’t particularly or exclusively feminine.  He concludes that if Mary as an image of Woman (with a capital “W”) is to be understood further, Mary must be examined by women theologians.  Some female theologians to check out in this regard: Elizabeth Johnson, Sarah Jane Boss, and Aurelie Hagstrom.  Any others to recommend?

Also, does anyone know about any good and/or creative artistic representations of the Assumption?  I wanted to include an image in this post, but I couldn’t find anything very inspiring.

[i] Mother of the Lord, 81.

[ii] Mother of the Lord, 82.

[iii] Theological Investigations 17:119.

[iv] If you are trying to understand Rahner at all, I very highly recommend Daniel Pekarske’s Abstracts of Karl Rahner’s Theological Investigations.  It is incredibly useful.

8 thoughts

  1. Very cool. I have a couple of questions stemming from my own ignorance in this area. Maybe you know the answers or something I could read?

    (1) “[Rahner] cannot conceive of a state in which the soul exists separately from the body after death.” So what/where/when does he think dead people are right now?

    (2) Does the church teach that Mary was sinless during her whole life, or only free from original sin at the time of her conception? Does being free from original sin preclude one from sinning on their own?

    1. Sonja: 1) Rahner just is trying to argue that it doesn’t make sense to think of an intermediate state after death in which the resurrection of the body is delayed. So, those who die in Christ experience an immediate perfection of the body. To conceive of some kind of intermediate state is to think of the body as accidental to the soul and not a part of the real unity of the human person. If you want to read more about his views on this topic, he has a short essay titled “The Intermediate State” in vol. 17 of Theological Investigations.

      2) It is my impression that (the official teaching is that) Mary was free from sin her entire life. Although I have to admit I’ve never really thought through whether there is a necessary relationship between original sin and later, personal sin in all cases. Here’s a quote from Ineffablis Deus, the apostolic constitution defining the Immaculate Conception as official dogma in 1854 which makes me think that Mary was free from all sin: “Therefore, far above all the angels and all the saints so wondrously did God endow her with the abundance of all heavenly gifts poured from the treasury of his divinity that this mother, ever absolutely free of all stain of sin, all fair and perfect, would possess that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity than which, under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater, and which, outside of God, no mind can succeed in comprehending fully.” Here’s a link to the full text of that document online http://www.newadvent.org/library/docs_pi09id.htm. And, here’s a link to Munificentissimus Deus, the apostolic constitution defining the Assumption in 1950 http://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/P12MUNIF.HTM

  2. As for an image, I’d go with something classic – the Orthodox icon of the event (just google “Assumption of Mary” + icon). The little baby in Jesus’ arms represents Mary in the form of a child – her soul, or glorified body.

  3. I still struggle w/the Doctrine of Assumption which I think was proclaimed c. mid 19th century. What is the evidence, scriptural or otherwise, that Mary assended into Heaven–body and soul? As regards the Immaculate Conception which, I think, was proclaimed at about the same time; if Mary was truly able to comply with or reject God’s request as announced by the Angel Garbriel [?], then she could and might have declined. If she did, wouldn’t she still have been born free or original sin? Sometimes I think we graft way too many nice but unnessessary and scripturally unsupported doctirines onto the core beliefs of Christianity.

  4. I have been teasing at this one all day. Thought of Rahner as a pilot and stumbled upon yr wonderful website. May men join in please? My own take on this is that as we die, as did Christ, so we are received fully into his own resurrected Body. Here we are imperfectly (due to sin) one with him: we come and go. Or as Julian of Norwich has it ‘we fall into ourselves.’ But after death would it not be too glib to say ‘we fall into his Glorious Body as children of the Father through the Loving Power of their mutual Spirit’. Don’t really see how we can all – billions upon billions milling around – be given back our bones, however gloriously ‘risen’. No, the whole message of Christ is that we came from him, the womb of the Father ‘thro all things were made’ and we will return to him, as One Body.
    John Skinner

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