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Part 14: The Bible Unfolds the Truth About the Assumption
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Sep 21, 2015)
The following is the fourteenth part of our Mary 101 series.
Our Protestant Evangelical brothers and sisters claim that there is no mention of the Assumption of Mary in Scripture. Catholic Bible scholars such as Scott Hahn, however argue that there is indeed an allusion to the mystery of the Assumption right in the very place we would most expect to find it if the doctrine were true: namely, in the writings of the Apostle St. John, the one into whose care our Lord placed his Mother at the hour of his death on the Cross (Jn 19:25-27). Moreover, it occurs in what may be the last of the New Testament books to be written, a book almost certainly written after Mary's earthly life was over: the Book of Revelation.
Before looking at this passage from Revelation, however, we need to consider some important background information from the Gospel according to St. Luke. In his work Hail Holy Queen, Dr. Hahn shows conclusively that the story of the visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth in St. Luke's gospel, chapter one, bears numerous and remarkable similarities to the account in the Old Testament of King David bringing the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6:
Down through the centuries scholars have marveled at the way Luke's gospel subtly parallels key texts of the Old Testament. One of the early examples in his narrative is the story of Mary's visitation to Elizabeth. Luke's language seems to echo the account, in the second book of Samuel, of David's travels as he brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. The story begins as David "arose and went" (2 Sam 6:2). Luke's account of the visitation begins with the same words: Mary "arose and went" (1:39). In their journeys, then, both Mary and David proceeded to the Hill country of Judah. David acknowledges his unworthiness with the words "How can the ark of the Lord come to me?" (2 Sam 6:9) — words we find echoed as Mary approaches her kinswoman Elizabeth: 'Why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Lk 1:43). Note here that the sentence is almost verbatim except that "ark" is replaced by "mother." We read further that David "danced" for joy in the presence of the ark (2 Sam 6:14, 16), and we find a similar expression used to describe the leaping of the child within Elizabeth's womb as Mary approached (Lk 1:44). Finally, the ark remained in the hill country for three months (2 Sam 6:11), the same amount of time Mary spent with Elizabeth. (Hail, Holy Queen, pp. 63-64)
In fact, the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible adds another point of similarity between Luke 1 and the Old Testament stories the Ark of the Covenant:
[Luke] brings into his story a highly significant expression once connected with the Ark. The term shows up in Lk 1:42, where Elizabeth bursts out with an exuberant cry at the arrival of Mary and her Child. Although the Greek verb translated as "exclaimed" [in the RSV] seems ordinary enough, it is hardly ever used in the Bible. In fact, it is found only here in the New Testament. Its presence in the Greek Old Testament is likewise sparse, appearing only five times. Why is this important? Because every time the expression is used in the Old Testament, it forms part of stories surrounding the Ark of the Covenant. In particular, it refers to the melodic sounds made by the Levitical singers and musicians when they glorify the Lord in song. It thus describes the "exulting" voice of the instruments that were played before the Ark as David carried it in procession to Jerusalem (I Chron 15:28; 16:4-5), and as Solomon transferred the Ark to its final resting place in the Temple (2 Chron 5:13). Alluding to these episodes, Luke connects this same expression with the melodic cry of another Levitical descendent, the aged Elizabeth (Lk 1:5). She too lifts up her voice in liturgical praise, not before the golden chest, but before Mary. Luke's remarkable familiarity with these ancient stories enables him to select even a single word that will whisper to his readers that this young Mother of the Messiah is the new Ark of the Covenant. (Ignatius Study Bible, p. 107)
In short, the connections are too many to be accidental: Saint Luke means to tell us, in his own characteristic way, that Mary herself is the new Ark of the Covenant. Just as the Ark in ancient Israel contained the tables of the Law, the priestly rod of Aaron, and some of the manna-bread from heaven — signs of the Old Covenant — so Mary's womb contained the signs of the New Covenant: the true Teacher of God's Law, the true High Priest, and the true Bread of Life, Jesus Christ the Savior. Thus, it was already a belief of the apostolic Church that Mary was the new Ark of the Covenant.
The old Ark of the Covenant had been lost for many centuries, and none of the Jews knew where it could be found (indeed, it remains missing to this very day). With that in mind, now let's look at what we find at the end of chapter 11 of the Book of Revelation:
Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of His covenant was seen within His temple, and there were flashes of lightening, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake and heavy hail.
Wow, what an audio-visual spectacular! The Ark had been found! But look what the Revelation tells us next (and remember: the chapter and verse divisions of the Bible are not part of the original texts: they were inserted centuries later by monks to help us locate Scripture verses more easily, so the following sentence from the start of chapter 12 came directly after the one at the end of chapter 11 in the original manuscripts):
And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child. ... She brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. (12:1, 5)
Clearly, what St. John was shown in his vision, recorded here in the Book of Revelation, is that the Ark of the Covenant is now in heaven as a "Woman clothed with the sun" whose child is the Messiah (the one who will rule with a "rod of iron;" see Ps 2:9). That this woman is bodily present in heaven is also clear from the fact that she is said to have the moon 'under her feet" and "on her head a crown of twelve stars" (12:1). This is in stark contrast to the way the departed are normally referred to in the New Testament, which elsewhere speaks of "the souls who had been slain" (Rev 6:9) and "the spirits of just men made perfect" (Heb 12:23).
Indeed, several of the early Church Fathers saw this passage in the Book of Revelation as a reference to Mary, the Mother of our Savior, including St. Ephrem of Syria, St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine. The other two main characters in Revelation 12 (the dragon and the child) clearly represent individuals (namely, Satan and Jesus) so it is likely that the woman also represents an historical individual, namely Mary, the Mother of the Messiah (Rev 12:5) and Ark of the New Covenant.
At the same time, many of the ancient church Fathers saw the "Woman" as a symbol of Israel, and of the Church, the New Israel. There are certainly indications that this is also what the "Woman" symbolizes here (e.g., she has a crown of 12 stars on her head, symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles). Her birth pangs may allude to the sufferings of the Daughter of Zion, the faithful Jewish people, in the run-up to coming of the Messiah (see Is 26:17; 66:7-8). Moreover, when the "Woman" flees into the desert, and is protected and nourished by God after the Messiah has been enthroned in heaven (Rev 12:13-16), this probably alludes to how God looks after His people after the coming of Christ.
So which interpretation of Revelation 12 is correct?
All three can be correct, and the ancient Fathers saw no contradiction between them. It was not uncommon in ancient Jewish literature to use a multiple-symbol: an historical individual used to symbolize a whole group of people. For example, it is quite likely that the famous passage in Isaiah 53 about the sufferings of the Messiah ("He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief," etc.) is also meant to symbolize the vocation of suffering of the whole people of Israel. In Psalm 44:4 "Jacob" stands for all of Israel, and in Rom 5:19 "Adam" represents all of humanity.
In a similar way, Mary, the Mother of the Church, is used in the book of Revelation to symbolize the fulfillment of the vocation of Israel in the new People of God, who are to bear Christ into the world. As Catholic Bible scholar Edward Sri once wrote: "Mary is just the right person to embody both the Old and New Covenant People, since she herself stands at the hinge between the Old and the New. If there was one woman in history who could represent both Old Covenant Israel and the beginning of the New Covenant People of God, it would be Mary." (Edward Sri, "Decoding the Woman of the Apocalypse," Lay Witness magazine, March-April 2008, p.11)
Pope Benedict XVI summed it up for us in his meditations on "John, the Seer of Patmos" (General Audience, August 23, 2006):
The woman represents Mary the Mother of the Redeemer, but at the same time she also represents the whole Church, the people of God of all times, the Church which in all ages, with great suffering, brings forth Christ ever anew. And she is always threatened by the dragon's power.
It is no wonder that when the Church began to put together liturgical texts for the Feast of the Assumption, she made a connection (first made by several of the ancient Fathers), between Psalm 132:8 and the mystery of the heavenly woman-ark: "Arise, O Lord, and go to Thy resting place, Thou and the ark of Thy might." The early Christians definitely believed that Psalm 132 was a psalm that prophesied the coming of the Messiah (e.g. see Acts 2:30). It only stands to reason, therefore, that 132:8 came to be understood by the early Fathers to mean that after the Lord "arose" from the dead, He took with Him into heavenly glory the true "ark" of the New Covenant, the body of His mother Mary. In fact, the ancient Israelites believed that the original ark was made from incorruptible wood, so this passage also foreshadows the bodily incorruption given to Mary by Her Risen Son.
If we want further corroboration that the "Woman, clothed with the sun" of Revelation 12 was meant to be a symbol of Mary, and her body and soul in heavenly glory, we need only look at the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, given miraculously by the Blessed Virgin Mary to St. Juan Diego in the 16th century, and compare it with the description in the book of Revelation. Catholics can be confident that Our Lady of Guadalupe and the "Woman" of Revelation 12 are one and the same person.
Evangelical Protestant writers sometimes point to John 3:13 as a decisive biblical text against the doctrine of Mary's Assumption. Jesus said: "No one has ascended into heaven, but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man." But this passage really does not apply to Mary's case at all. First, Jesus spoke these words while he was still alive — probably decades before Mary was taken into heaven. Besides, as Tim staples pointed out:
The key word here would be the word ascended. Mary did not ascend; she was assumed. Jesus ascended by his own divine power as he prophesied he would in John 2:19-21.... Mary was powerless to raise herself; she had to be assumed into heaven. (Behold Your Mother, p. 212)
In his proclamation of the doctrine of the Assumption in 1950, Pope Pius XII noted how the book of Genesis foreshadows Mary as intimately sharing in the same total victory of her Son over Satan: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed" (Gen 3:15). Dr. Mark Miravalle explains:
According to St. Paul (cf. Rom 5-8; Heb 2), the consequences of Satan's seed, evil, are twofold: sin and death (which specifically refers to bodily corruption). Therefore the Mother of Jesus, who shared in her son's victory over Satan and his seed, would also have to be saved from the two consequences of sin and death (bodily corruption). She did triumph over sin in her Immaculate Conception, and triumphed over death (corruption of the body) in her glorious Assumption at the end of her earthly life. (Introduction to Mary, p. 74)
In fact, implicit references to the bodily assumption of great "saints" of the Old Testament such as Moses, Elijah, and Enoch, can be found elsewhere in the Bible (2 Kgs 2: 10-12; Mt 27:52-53; Mk 9:2-6; Heb 11:5-6). Although none of these assumptions has ever been explicitly defined by the Church as an article of faith, still, the possibility of bodily triumph over death in general, and the reality of the bodily Assumption of Mary in particular, are completely in accord with Holy Scripture.
Follow the entire Mary 101 series.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.