- To understand the biblical foundations of the Dogma of the Assumption.
- To understand the deep Old Testament symbolism and imagery in Revelation 12, and its relation to Catholic beliefs about Mary.
- To appreciate how the biblical portrait of Mary is reflected and interpreted in the Church’s liturgy.
I. Seeing Mary with Catholic Eyes
A. Course Review
In this course, we’ve undertaken a close study of the place of Mary in the Bible.
We’ve seen that although there are few direct references to Mary in the New Testament, she is depicted at each critical juncture in the life and work of Christ – His birth, the beginning of His public ministry, His death and resurrection, and the sending of His Spirit at Pentecost.
We’ve seen also that the New Testament accounts describe Mary in terms of Old Testament scenes and promises – as a new Eve, as Daughter Zion, as the ark of the new covenant, and as Queen Mother of the kingdom of God’s people.
In our last lesson, we discussed how the Church has continued to reflect on the biblical testimony to Mary’s place in salvation history. We considered how this on-going reflection has led to the formulation of doctrines and dogmas concerning Mary’s Immaculate Conception, her status as the “ever-virgin Mother of God,” and her “Assumption” into heaven as “Queen of all things.”
And, as we noted, these doctrines represent the Church’s definitive interpretations of the Scriptures concerning Mary.
B. Modern Marian Dogmas
We focused in that last lesson on the Immaculate Conception, the first Marian doctrine to be proclaimed in the modern era. In this final lesson we will take a close look at the most recent of the Marian dogmas – the Assumption, pronounced by Pope Pius XII in 1950.
That dogma states that, at the end of her time on earth. Mary was taken up – body and soul – to heaven.
Like the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption is not an event recorded in Scripture. Indeed, the last mention of Mary in the biblical narrative is in relation to the life of the early Church in the days between the Ascension and Pentecost (see Acts 1:14).
But in Munificentissimus Deus (“The Most-Bountiful God”), Pius pointed to a long heritage of belief in the Assumption – an ancient tradition expressed in homilies, prayers, the dedication of churches, and the celebration of liturgies.
Underlying this tradition was a rich vein of Scriptural meditation and interpretation.
At the center of this tradition is the mysterious, apocalyptic vision of Revelation 12. As we noted in Lesson 4, the heavenly queen mother depicted in this vision is both a symbol of Mary and at the same time a symbol of the Church.
In this final lesson, we want to look more closely at this vision.
We will examine how it undergirds the Assumption dogma. And, through a close study of the text, we’ll also see how this vision ties together many of the Old Testament images used to describe Mary and her pivotal place in God’s saving plan.
II. The ‘Woman’ of Revelation 12
A. The Ark Returns
The image of the woman in Revelation 12 actually begins in the last verses of Revelation 11- with the fantastic scene of the temple revealed in heaven along with the ark of the covenant.
Keep in mind that the chapter divisions in Revelation, as in all the books of the Bible, are artificial – imposed by scribes in the Middle Ages. There were no chapters in John’s original.
As it was written, John’s vision was this: “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened and the ark of the covenant could be seen in the temple . . . A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars . . . .” (see Revelation 11:19-12:1).
We have already explored the New Testament’s depiction of Mary as the ark of the new covenant (see Lesson Three).
To understand this scene, we have to understand the “back-story” concerning the ark.
The ark had been missing since around 587 B.C., when the prophet Jeremiah hid it in a cave before the Babylonians invaded and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem (see 2 Maccabees 2:4-8).
Jeremiah foretold that the ark would remain hidden until “God gathers His people together again and shows them mercy.”
The ark’s reappearance, then, was tied to the long hoped for restoration of the kingdom to Israel (see Acts 1:6).
The prophets envisioned this restoration as a great in-gathering of Israel’s exiles in a new exodus that would culminate in all nations worshipping in the temple at Jerusalem (see 2 Maccabees 2:18; Isaiah 11:12,15-16; Jeremiah 31:8,10; Ezekiel 36:25; 37:21; 38:8,12).
Jeremiah hearkens to both the first exodus and the kingdom and temple. He promises that the “glory of the Lord” will be seen in a cloud – as it came to the tabernacle in the time of Moses, and as it came to the temple (“the place”) in the time of Solomon (see Exodus 40:34-35; 1 Kings 8:11).
Indeed, the return of the ark was to be a sign of the return of God’s own presence to Israel. It would be a sign of His dwelling among His people – which the ark symbolized from the beginning (see Jeremiah 3:16-17; Ezekiel 37:37; Exodus 29:43-46).
We see all these images and expectations in John’s revelation.
John’s vision of the ark deliberately evokes the great “theophany” or appearance of God to Moses on Mount Sinai (see Exodus 19:16-17).
In the Greek, the words translated in Revelation 11:19 as “flashes of lightning, rumblings” are the same as those translated “peals of thunder and lightning” in Exodus.
The “violent hailstorm” John beholds recalls the “fierce hail” that God rained down upon Pharaoh, which was also accompanied by peals of thunder (see Exodus 9:18,23).
And as Moses heard a “very loud trumpet blast,” John, too, hears trumpeting and loud voices in heaven – using language again similar to that used to describe Moses’ theophany (see Revelation 11:15).
The scene also has echoes the Old Testament story of the fall of Jericho – which marked Israel’s entrance into the promised land, and the end of its exodus in the wilderness.
Bearing the ark, the Israelites marched around Jericho for seven days , circling the city seven times on the seventh day, blowing a trumpet that finally brought the city’s walls down (see Joshua 6:1-20).
In Revelation, the seventh trumpet likewise sounds with an “earthquake,” signaling the beginning of a new world – the everlasting kingdom of Jesus (see Revelation 11:15,19).
John is showing us the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s promise – and the promise of Israel’s exodus. The kingdom has been restored. The ark has been revealed.
And the ark is revealed to be a woman – as we see in the very next verse.
B. The Queen-Bride
Revelation 12 uses Old Testament imagery to describe the “woman” as both the mother of Jesus and as the mother of the Church – which is the new people of God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and the bride of Christ (see Revelation 21:1-3; 9-13; 22-24).
But to understand what it means to say that Mary is the virgin queen mother assumed into heaven, we need to look closely at John’s use of Old Testament ideas and images.
As we noted in Lesson Two, Israel was often portrayed in the Old Testament as a woman, a virgin daughter espoused to God in a covenant relationship compared to a marriage bond.
In Revelation, John presumes this Old Testament idea, and develops the Old Testament’s image of daughter Zion giving birth to the Messiah.
In foretelling Israel’s salvation, the prophet Isaiah said that Israel would be arrayed like a queen-bride – gloriously crowned, radiant with the brightness of the sun and the moon (seeIsaiah 60:19-20; 62:3-5). In the same way, Solomon’s bride is described as a queen radiant as the moon and the sun (see Song of Songs 6:4,10).
John, in using this Old Testament imagery, is showing us the queen-bride, Israel.
The twelve stars of her crown are an obvious symbol of the twelve tribes of Israel. But throughout Revelation, the twelve tribes are also reckoned as signs of the twelve apostles, the representatives of the new Israel, the people of God, the Church (see Revelation 7:4-8;21:12-14).
So the woman in Revelation is Daughter Zion and Mary. But as Daughter Zion was a symbol of whole people of God – Israel- the woman in John is also a symbol of the Church.
Paul, in language similar to that of Revelation, called the Church “the Jerusalem above . . . our mother” (see Galatians 4:26-27; Isaiah 54:1), and spoke of the Church as the bride of Christ (see Ephesians 5:31-32). John referred to the Church as a “Lady” (see 2 John 5).
So it is natural to see that Mary, as presented in Revelation, is the mother of the Church, and is a symbol for the whole Church, which gives birth to a new people of God. Indeed, Mary, as the Mother of the Church, is said to have “offspring” in addition to the one male child she gives birth to. Those children are described as those who believe in Jesus (seeRevelation 12:17).
John’s woman is depicted in a painful childbirth, again evoking Old Testament images of Daughter Zion in travail – suffering in exile, awaiting the birth of her salvation (see Micah 4:10; Isaiah 26:17-19).
Isaiah said that Daughter Zion, amid roaring sounds from the temple, would give birth to a male child and more children (see Isaiah 66:6-10). The scene is very similar in John.
We should note, too, that John’s choice of words in Revelation 12:1-2 seems to deliberately evoke Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah’s birth (see Isaiah 7:10,14). In both, we read of a sign high in the sky, and of a woman with child giving birth to a son.
John is showing us Daughter Zion giving birth to the Messiah.
The son born to the woman is said to be “destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod.” This is a reference to Psalm 2, which depicts God giving His son the nations as an inheritance, and instructing the son to “rule them with an iron rod” (see Revelation 12:5;Psalm 2:7-9).
Elsewhere in the New Testament, this Psalm is interpreted as a prophecy of Jesus (seeActs 13:32; Hebrews 1:5). So in showing us the Messiah’s birth to Daughter Zion, John is, at the same time, showing us that Jesus is that Messiah and Mary is that Daughter Zion.
In John’s vision, the Christ child is taken to heaven and enthroned, as a battle breaks out in between a huge dragon and the heavenly host.
C. The First Gospel
Here we see a dramatic portrayal of the promise made by God in the Garden of Eden – the so-called protoevangelium or “first gospel” (see Genesis 3:15).
Recall that God promised to place “enmity” between the serpent and “the woman,” and between their respective “offspring.” That the woman’s offspring would strike at the serpent’s head with his heal.
Now, examine the scene in Revelation.
We have a “woman,” and an dragon that John clearly identifies as “the ancient serpent,” the Devil who deceived the whole world (see Revelation 12:9). The woman, then, must be the “new Eve” foretold in Genesis.
The serpent is waiting beneath the woman to devour her offspring. And the birth of this son and “the rest of her offspring” is the occasion of moral combat in which the serpent is ultimately defeated.
The final image of the woman in Revelation 12 is that of the woman fleeing into the desert – to a place specially prepared for her by God.
Later in his vision, John sees the woman given eagle’s wings to fly to a place in the desert where she would be nourished by God (see Revelation 12:6,14).
John’s language here recalls Jesus’ words to the apostles – that He was going to the heaven to “prepare a place” for them “so that where I am you also may be” (see John 14:1-3).
The language of preparing a place is often used in the New Testament to describe the destiny that God has planned for His children – He prepares a place for believers at Christ’s right hand (see Matthew 20:23), and prepares the kingdom for those He has blessed (seeMatthew 25:34; see also 1 Peter 1:5; 1 Corinthians 2:9).
John also evokes God’s care for Israel in the wilderness, where He bore the people on eagles’ wings in their time of trial (see Exodus 19:4; Deuteronomy 1:31-33; 32:10-12). And God’s care in the desert included nourishing His people with bread from heaven (seeDeuteronomy 8:2-3,6; Psalm 77:24-25; 104:40; Wisdom 16:20-21,26).
III. From the Bible to the Liturgy
A. Summary of Revelation
What do we learn from about Mary in Revelation 12 – and how is this passage related to Catholic belief in her Assumption?
First, we find in Revelation all of the biblical images of Mary that we have discussed in this course. She is portrayed as the new ark of God’s covenant, the new Eve, the Daughter Zion, and the Queen Mother of God’s kingdom.
She is depicted as a virgin mother, giving birth to the Messiah, and as spiritual mother of all those who keep the commandments and bear witness to Jesus.
She is shown to embody or represent all of God’s people. She experiences God’s protection and nourishment in the wilderness of the world and is flown to a place prepared for her by God.
We see, then, the outlines of the biblical foundation for this great Marian doctrine:
Because Mary is the New Eve, envisioned by God since before the garden of Eden to be the ark of His new covenant, to bear God’s only begotten Son, the Author of Life (see Acts 3:15), Mary was protected from the serpent and taken on eagle’s wings to a place prepared for her by God.
B. The Feast of the Assumption
The Church’s interpretation of these biblical texts can be found in the Mass readings for the Feast of the Assumption and for the Vigil of the Assumption, August 14-15.
The vigil for the feast begins with a reading from the first book of Chronicles (see 1 Chronicles 15:3-4, 15-16; 16:1-2) – about David bringing “the ark of the Lord to the place which he had prepared for it.”
The psalm for the vigil likewise celebrates this event: “Advance, O Lord, to your resting place, you and the ark of your majesty” (see Psalm 132:8).
The epistle gives thanks for the victory over death won for us by Christ (see 1 Corinthians 15:54-57). The gospel celebrates Mary as not only the mother of Christ, but as one who heard God’s word and believed (see Luke 11:27-28).
The Mass for the feast begins with a reading from Revelation – beginning with the vision of the ark in the heavenly temple (see Revelation 11:19-12:1-6, 10). The psalm depicts a queen standing at the king’s right hand (see Psalm 45), while the epistle envisions Christ as the king putting His enemies under His feet – the last enemy being death (see 1 Corinthians 15:20-27).
Finally, the gospel for the feast is Mary’s visitation of Elizabeth (see Luke 1:39-56) which, as we have explored in earlier lessons, depicts Mary as the ark of the covenant.
In the Assumption liturgies, then, we see the Church identifying as the fulfillment of numerous Old Testament figures. Mary is shown to be the ark of the covenant, bearing the Lord’s presence. And we see her described as Daughter Zion, the new Eve, and the Queen of Heaven.
We also see her as a symbol of the whole people of God. As Revelation describes her offspring as keeping God’s commandments and bearing witness to Jesus (see Revelation 12:17), she is hailed by Jesus herself in the liturgy as “blessed” because she heard the work of God and observed it (see Luke 11:27-28).
Portrayed in the Scriptures as the model of believers and the new Eve, it is fitting that the dogma and the worship of the Church associates Mary with Christ’s victory over death, which came into the world through the first Adam and the first Eve (see 1 Corinthians 15:20-27).
IV. Study Questions
- What are the four major Old Testament figures used in the New Testament portrayal of Mary?
- What did Jeremiah do with the ark of the covenant before the destruction of Jerusalem?
- How does the Book of Revelation show us that Mary is the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s promise about the return of the ark?
- How does Revelation 12 show us Mary as the Daughter Zion arrayed as both queen and bride?