Ancient Faith – Contemporary Devotion

For me, ancient faith and contemporary devotion pair beautifully on this upcoming Feast of the Assumption of Mary.

For some, the Assumption of Our Lady is a difficult theological notion to understand. As catechists, it is important for us to be faithful to the doctrine without overwhelming the student. That reminds me of this little story…

The pastor was quizzing the third grade. “Can anyone tell me what the Assumption is?” An enthusiastic little boy raised his hand. Encouraged, Father called on him, “What can you tell us, young man?” The little boy stood and proudly announced, “Mary was Jesus’ Mother and we assume she went to heaven.” Now, as cute and humorous as that is, it doesn’t sufficiently address or define the mystery of the Assumption of Mary.

Among the Marian doctrines, the dogma of the Assumption stands with the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as a kind of contrast of balance and scope of God’s power and goodness in His loving regard for the human condition. By that I mean that in the Immaculate Conception, we see that God has intervened in human history with a miracle that has an essentially spiritual core, that is, sin and the efficaciousness of God’s mercy/grace. Mary is preserved from sin from the moment of her conception “in view of the merits of her Divine Son”, as the definition of the doctrine proclaims. On the other hand, the mystery of the Assumption is a miracle whose core is a physical reality. Her body and soul are the locus of God’s grace and power. Since no one could bear the idea that Mary died, or worse, decayed after death, the commonly held and persistent faith of the people has been that God took the Blessed Mother to Himself whole and entire, body and spirit when, as the solemn definition declared, she had “run the course of her life”. Even though the proclamation of this beautiful dogma is so recent, the belief in the Assumption of Mary is ancient. At the time when it was being considered for solemn definition some argued that there was no need to formally declare it since it was a prevailing and universal belief.

The dogma of the Assumption, promulgated as the wave of Marian devotion was cresting in 1950, stands as an expression of faith and devotion for some and as a stumbling block for reunion and interfaith dialogue for others.   Among our friends in the East, this holy mystery and feast day is expressed and celebrated as the Dormition of Mary, the Mother of God. As a dogma of our faith and as a holy day of obligation, we observe the Feast of the Assumption on August 15th.

HolinessMarian devotion today is fostered and fed by the modern voices of contemporary writers and artists.   Nowhere is this clearer or more powerfully illustrated than in the works of the contemporary artist Janet McKenzie. Most prominent for me is the evocative effect her Marian imagery has had on contemporary women. Her voice is one that speaks what so many would say if only they had the words, the talent. Janet McKenzie’s images of Mary resonant with the faith, spiritual sensibilities and experience of so many of the voiceless and marginalized of our world. This is profoundly evident in two recent works. The first book is Holiness and the Feminine SpiritThe Art of Janet McKenzie (Orbis, 2009). This wonderful book of paintings by Ms. McKenzie is graced with the pithy evocative essays of many contemporary writers, including Sister Wendy Beckett, Sister Joan Chittester, and Sister Helen Prajean. The second is the profoundly inspiring Way of the Cross by Sister Joan Chittester and Janet McKenzie (Orbis, 2013). The power of Sister Joan’s words is perfectly paired with the images of Ms. McKenzie.  It is a real meditation. My personal spirituality is continually stirred by Ms. McKenzie’s images. I recommend them to all who love to pray with images and experience them as channels of grace and meditative dialogue. I can think of no better way to celebrate the Marian Feast of the Assumption of Mary, the Mother of God.

Susan O’Hara teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

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