A Little Treatise on Mary
by St. John Damascene
3. MARY ASSUMED INTO HEAVEN
Doctor of the Assumption
On November 27, 1950, St. Peter's in Rome Pope Pius XII raised his voice to give the blessing on the occasion that commemorated the twelfth centenary of the death of St. John Damascene, the last of the Greek Fathers, proclaimed a Doctor of the Universal Church by Leo XIII on August 19, 1890.
Just a few weeks before Pope Pius XII had defined the dogma of the Assumption. The tdeclarative eaching of this truth as a dogma was new, but the truth itself was revered and ancient as Tradition itself. Pope Pius' definition only brought it into its final and sharpest focus. In Munificentissimus Deus, defining the dogma of the Assumption, the Pope called St. John Damascene "the interpreter of this Tradition par excellence." He then quoted St. John:
"There was need that the body of her who in childbirth had preserved her virginity intact, be preserved incorrupt after death. There was need that she who had carried her Creator as a babe on her bosom, should linger lovingly in the dwelling of her God. There was need that the bride whom the Father had betrothed to Himself should live in the bridal chamber of Heaven, that she who had looked so closely upon her very own Son on the Cross, and who there felt in her heart the sword-pangs of sorrow which in bearing Him she had been spared, should look upon Him seated with His Father. There was need that God's Mother should enter into her Son's possessions, and as a Mother of God and hand- maid, be reverenced by all creation." [Par. 21]
The words are taken from the second of St. John's three homilies on the Assumption of Mary. From the opening words of the third sermon it seems that all three were preached on the same day at Mary's tomb in Jerusalem. The occasion was the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady-----also called her "Dormition" or "Falling Asleep."
The third sermon opens in this way:
"Lovers are wont to speak of what they love and to let their fancy run on it by day and night. Let no one, therefore, blame me if I add a third tribute to the Mother of God on her triumphant departure. I am not profiting her, but myself and you who are here present . . . She does not need our praise. It is we who need her glory . . . "
St. John Damascene's words about the Blessed Mother overflow with love, humility and gratitude. You can feel the surging emotion and understand that the beautiful words do not satisfy his yearning to say something better and more fitting. "She is greater than all praise." In his "winter of poverty" he wants to "bring garlands to our Queen, and prepare a flower of oratory for the feast of praise." [Sermon 2]
Grateful, humble love can hardly speak more convincingly: "But what is sweeter than the Mother of my God? She has taken my mind captive and held my tongue in bondage. I think of her by day and night. She, the Mother of the Word, supplies my words." [Sermon 3]
St. John addresses Mary's empty tomb and asks:
"Where is the pure gold which apostolic hands confided to you? Where is the inexhaustible treasure? Where the precious receptacle of God? Where is the new book in which the incomprehensible Word of God is written without hands . . . Where is the life-giving fountain? Where is the sweet and loved body of God's Mother?" [Sermon 2]
St. John concludes his third homily with this prayer to Our Lady:
"Accept then my goodwill, which is greater than my capacity, and give us salvation. Heal our passions, cure our diseases, help us out of our difficulties, make our lives peaceful, send us the illumination of the Spirit. Inflame us with the desire of thy Son. Render us pleasing to Him, so that we may enjoy happiness with Him, seeing thee resplendent with thy Son's glory, rejoicing forever, keeping feast in the Church with those who worthily celebrate Him Who worked our salvation through thee: Christ, the Son of God, and our God. To Him be glory and majesty, with the uncreated Father and the all-holy and life-giving Spirit, now and forever, through the endless ages of eternity. Amen.
[Source #1, pp. 241-243]
Mary Assumed into Heaven
The three homilies on the Dormition reveal the exceptional importance of Damascene's teaching for the development of doctrine on the Assumption. John explicitly teaches the truth of Mary's bodily Assumption into Heaven. In confonnity with the teaching of his two famous contemporaries, Germanus of Constantinople and Andrew of Crete, our doctor accepts the thesis that Mary's death is a premise of her imminent glorification:
"O how could the Font of life be led to life through death? O how could she, who in giving birth surpassed the limits of nature, now yield to nature's laws and have her irnrnaculate body undergo death? She had to put aside what was mortal and put on incorruptibility, seeing that even the Lord of nature did not excuse Himself from facing death. He truly died in the flesh to destroy death by means of death; in place of corruption He gave incorruptibility; He made death into a font of resurrection!" [Homily 1 on the Dormition, 10]
Even though she must pass through death before being glorified, nevertheless the personal destiny of the Mother of God had an unusual outcome:
"Even though your most holy and blessed soul was separated from your most happy and immaculate body, according to the usual course of nature, and even though it was carried to a proper burial place, nevertheless it did not remain under the dominion of death, nor was it destroyed by corruption.
"Indeed, just as her virginity remained intact when she gave birth, so her body, even after death, was preserved from decay and transferred to a better and more Divine dwelling place. There it is no longer subject to death but abides for all ages." [Ibid.]
In his second homily on the Dormition, Damascene uses biblical typology to present a whole series of reasons why it was fitting that Mary's body was not consumed by decay in the tomb. In this text, as in the passage cited above, one notes the homilist's tendency to explain the privilege of the Assumption by referring to the mystery of Mary's virginity in giving birth. Although this might seem to be an argument from fittingness, in Damascene's eyes it has the character of most strict necessity, because of the indispensable role played by Mary in the mystery of the Incarnation:
"It was necessary that the body of the one who preserved her virginity intact in giving birth should also be kept incorrupt after death. It was necessary that she, who carried the Creator in her womb when He was a baby, should dwell among the tabernacles of Heaven . . . .
"It was necessary that the Mother of God share what belongs to her Son and that she be celebrated by all creation. An inheritance is normally passed down from parents to children; now, however, to use the expression of a wise man, the sources of the sacred rivers flow back toward their origin, now that the Son has made all created things His Mother's slaves." [Homily 2 on the Dormition, 14]
[Source #2, pp. 403-405]
MARY'S TOMB, PLACE OF GRACE
"Your holy and all-virginal body was consigned to a holy tomb, while the Angels went before it, accompanied it, and followed it; for what would they not do to serve the Mother of their Lord.?
"Meanwhile, the Apostles and the whole assembly of the Church sang Divine hymns and struck the lyre of the Spirit: "We shall be filled with the blessings of Your house; Your temple is holy; wondrous injustice" [Ps 65:4]. And again: 'The Most High has sanctified His dwelling' [Ps 46:5]; 'God's mountain, rich mountain, the mountain in which God has been pleased to dwell' [Ps 68:16-17].
"The assembly of Apostles carried you, the Lord God's true Ark, as once the priests carried the symbolic ark, on their shoulders. They laid you in the tomb, through which, as if through the Jordan, they will conduct you to the promised land, that is to say, the Jerusalem above, mother of all the faithful, whose architect and builder is God. Your soul did not descend to Hades, neither did your flesh see corruption. Your virginal and uncontaminated body was not abandoned in the earth, but you are transferred into the royal dwelling of Heaven, you, the Queen, the sovereign, the Lady, God's Mother, the true God-bearer.
"O, how did Heaven receive her, who surpasses the wideness of the heavens? How is it possible that the tomb should contain the dwelling place of God? And yet it received and held it. For she was not wider than heaven in her bodily dimensions; indeed, how could a body three cubits long, which is always growing thinner, be compared with the breadth and length of the sky? Rather it is through grace that she surpassed the limits of every height and depth. The Divinity does not admit of comparison.
"O holy tomb, awesome, venerable, and adorable! Even now the Angels continue to venerate you, standing by with great respect and fear, while the devils shrink in horror. With faith, men make haste to render you honor, to adore you, to salute you with their eyes, with their lips, and with the affection of their souls, in order to obtain an abundance of blessings.
"A precious ointment, when it is poured out upon the garments or in any place and then taken away, leaves traces of its fragrance even after evaporating. In the same way your body, holy and perfect, impregnated with Divine perfume and abundant spring of grace, this body which had been laid in the tomb, when it was taken out and transferred to a better and more elevated place, did not leave the tomb bereft of honor but left behind a Divine fragrance and grace, making it a wellspring of healing and a source of every blessing for those who approach it with faith."
-----John Damascene, Homily 1 on the Dormition 12-13
[Source #2, pp. 408-409]