By Fr Billy Swan
Of all the religions of the world, none insists on the dignity of the human person more than Christianity. With our Jewish brothers and sisters, we hold that we bear the imago Dei, the image of our creator. If that claim wasn’t extraordinary enough, Christianity takes it a stage further and says that every baptised person is also a beloved child of God the Father, a temple of the Holy Spirit and co-heir of Christ. This means that we have been adopted in love by the Father and given an inheritance that Paul describes as ‘every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places’ (Eph. 1:3).
In the course of human history, this divinely conferred dignity of the human person has often been reduced or ignored with tragic consequences. There are several examples we could mention including the horrors of the Second World War. In the aftermath of that conflict, the world struggled to come to terms with the barbaric events it had witnessed of man’s inhumanity to man. In response, the United Nations drew up its Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. In the Church, the Dogma of the Assumption of Mary was defined in Rome on 1st November 1950 by Pope Pius XII. To most people at the time, the dogma had only to do with Mary and the confirmation of something that Christians had held for centuries beforehand, namely that Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven at the end of her earthly life. But perhaps without fully realising it, the Church was making an extremely important affirmation not only about the dignity and destiny of Mary but about the dignity and destiny of every human being. Only five short years after World War II had ended, the totality of human existence, its dignity before God and its future was being asserted as a direct consequence of Mary’s Assumption. It was a message the world badly needed to hear then as it does now.
The Assumption of Mary into heaven speaks to the modern world of the innate dignity of every human being, born and unborn, body and soul. It speaks of human dignity being once again ‘lifted up’ after a horrific time of war in the last century when it had been beaten down. God wants us to know that dignity, to cherish it in ourselves and honour it in others. He wants us to know where our dignity comes from and who has conferred it upon us. Mary’s glorification in body and soul is a sign that every aspect of our lives is important to God and is touched by his saving spirit. The salvation Christ won for us is not just about our souls getting to heaven in the future but about our whole existence being sanctified in the present. All aspects of our existence have been redeemed by Christ in the present and will be fulfilled in the future. This is why the events of the holocaust were so horrific where millions of people suffered abuse of their bodies, minds and spirits and where their futures were annihilated on a mass scale. Tragically, it is impossible to deny that a similar annihilation continues with abortion, recently legalised in Ireland.
We are embodied persons of soul, flesh and spirit. When all of these aspects are recognised, held together and respected, God’s saving power makes itself felt. Human dignity is ‘assumed’ and lifted closer towards its future in the company of Mary in whose life the seeds of resurrection have fully blossomed. This is why Mary is a profound symbol of hope and healing for body and soul in a broken world.
In every age and time, dark forces try to reduce the dignity of the human person or convince Christianity that her insistence on the sacredness of human life is too high. The Assumption of Mary holds before us again, the awesome truth of what the Gospel teaches and the awesome dignity to which God has raised humanity.