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.