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A reasonable assumption

You'd have to be mad to believe in a dodgy dogma invented in 1950. Christopher Howse takes a rationally long view of it

16 August 2003

12:00 AM

16 August 2003

12:00 AM

Anglicans in the United States believe it is a good idea for bishops to express their homosexual preferences genitally with long-stay companions. Some people will believe anything. Others find it hard to believe in the event commemorated each 15 August, the Assumption into Heaven of the Virgin Mary. I can’t myself see it is any harder to believe than the substantial presence of Jesus Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity, in the Eucharist. But I think I know the reason people find the Assumption a credal crux.

It is because they suppose the dogma was invented on 1 November 1950, when Good Pope Pius XII declared that ‘the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory’. To make matters apparently worse, this was the sole addition to the creed made under the terms of papal infallibility declared in 1870. You only have to say ‘infallible’ and it sets people scratching their organs of doubt. But deny this dogma and you fry. In kindly Pope Pius’s words, you will ‘incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul’. Blimey! The wrath of Almighty God I am used to, but those Blessed Apostles sound heavy.

In fact, the doctrine of the Assumption was already ancient when it was represented with great beauty by El Greco and suchlike Old Masters. It was long held among Catholics to be ‘impious and blasphemous’ to deny the Virgin’s Assumption.

If she’s not in Heaven, where’s the body? Try the Sepulchre of the Virgin Mary in the Kedron valley, down a flight of steps where a rock-hewn chamber dating from the 5th century houses the ‘glorious tomb of the Mother of God’, a house-shaped structure eight feet high. According to St Gregory of Tours, St Sophronius the Patriarch of Jerusalem and our own St Bede, it was a popular pilgrimage destination. The difference from most saints’ tombs is that even then it was empty.

An empty tomb proves nothing, as in a different context the first worshippers of Jesus found. And indeed the doctrine does not require a belief that Mary did not die. Still, assumption ‘body and soul’ sounds a bit too solid to swallow as a ‘spiritual’ kind of teaching. If meant literally, isn’t the belief so irrational as to entitle the believer to a season ticket to whatever bin has survived the policy of care in the community?

I don’t see why. Most attempts to make belief more believable are counterproductive. If you say that Jesus only looked like he was walking on water because there was a sandbank below the surface, or that the 5,000 were fed because Jesus persuaded them to share their packed lunches, where does that leave you when you are expected to believe that Jesus rose again body and soul from the dead?

To approach the Assumption rationally I’d start with the Resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was God, otherwise the reconciliation he achieved between mankind and God would not have been effective. But he was man too, and in his human body ate breakfast on the beach of the Sea of Galilee after the Resurrection, not as a ghost. And Jesus ascended into Heaven, body and soul. Even the US Episcopalians believe that, in principle.


So where is Jesus’s body now? In Heaven. Doesn’t that make Heaven, sort of, well …a physical place? Seems so.

People often like to talk garbage about us entering ‘eternity’ when we die, as if we merged with God (who, as Pure Act, has all his being at once and is not limited by the passing of time). But we humans are not God, and we won’t acquire God’s almighty powers when we’re dead. Indeed, the immediate outlook for a dead soul is not encouraging.

Human beings have bodies, and are lost without them. The soul is the informing principle of the body. Bunny rabbits and daffodils have wee souls too; rabbits have animal souls and uncut flowers have vegetable souls. I’m not making this up. These corporeal souls are the forms of the creatures they animate. In the Aristotelian hylomorphic theory, the form of a creature makes it what it is, distinguishing it from some lump of matter formed in a different way.

Cut the daffodil or smother the rabbit in a delicious Dijon mustard sauce and you snuff out their souls. They’re dead meat. The only reason human souls survive death is that men are intellectual beings; there is an immaterial element in their make-up that cannot decay like the material parts.

At the same time, all our knowledge comes to us through our senses. Shut yourself in a cupboard like Descartes and you know sweet Fanny Adams. Our knowledge of ‘the other’, whether our mother, lover, the world or the non-world, is derived from sight, hearing, touch, smell and so on.

So if you die – when you die – you’re in trouble. You cannot see or hear. You have nothing to perform the grosser kind of thinking with. Since the brain keeps the imaginative memory going, post mortem you’ll get an almighty Alzheimer’s attack. You couldn’t know what was going on.

The only impact made on our poor disembodied souls will be God’s. If you have the happy fortune of going to Heaven, then you will know God and it will be very enjoyable. We have a natural affinity with God, and through his gift of grace we are elevated to share his searing furnace of love and wisdom. I speak metaphorically.

We Christians look forward to the resurrection of the body. It’s in the creed that churchgoers say every Sunday. When our bodies rise again, though not through any crude reassembly of previously owned atoms (many of which will have been re-used by subsequent generations), they will be as like our present bodies only as much as the grown wheat is like the seed.

What we do know is that the man Jesus Christ has gone there already. His glorified body lived on earth, ascended into Heaven and lives there now. As for the Virgin Mary, her biography is full of God’s interventions. She did not sin. By virtue of the merits of her son, she did not even suffer the stain of original sin, which is only too evident in your life, reader, if you ask me. She remained a virgin yet gave birth to the Son of God.

Where Jesus, the head of the Church, went, his mystical body of believers can follow. It seems very suitable that his remarkably engraced mother should be the first to benefit bodily from the opening of Heaven. ‘It was fitting that God’s Mother should possess what belongs to her Son,’ wrote John of Damascus (born in 676), a Church Father who represented both Eastern and Western traditions. It fulfils those words in the Gospel according to Luke: ‘Hail, full of grace.’

Anyway, Christians do not just come to believe things on a whim. They belong to a Church which teaches them. If everyone had to work it all out from scratch like Pythagoras’ theorem, few would get far. The Church, East and West, has always believed implicitly in the Assumption. Pius XII wrote to all the bishops in 1946 asking if they, the clergy and the people believed in it. Yup, they said. So he got out his dogma-defining kit.

It is not just a case of God being able to do anything. The Assumption fits into a pattern. And it is a very cheering belief for those of us who have bodies.

Christopher Howse is assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph.


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