It was a hard and lonely thing to be a Catholic in England of the 16th and 17th centuries. The persecution under Queen Elizabeth I and King James was sharp and effective. Yet Catholic life continued, mostly behind closed doors and in secret.
The beauty of the faith even managed to shine through, as it does in the great music of William Byrd and as it does in a hymn written by his fellow Catholic recusant, Sir John Beaumont, for the feast of Mary's Assumption, which we celebrated August 15.
Who is she ascends so high,
Next the heavenly King,
Round about whom angels fly
And her praises sing,
This is she in whose pure womb
Heaven's Prince remained;
Therefore in no earthly tomb
Can she be contained.
Like many Catholics in those difficult times, Beaumont thought longingly of heaven. How different is our situation. We are free, we are largely autonomous, and we have a surfeit of material comforts. It is hard for us to turn our minds to heaven.
Yet our world of today seems, if anything, less happy than those more austere times of 16th and 17th century England. Look at contemporary art, which shows so little beauty or truth, which is so confused, often so ugly. What a relief it is to hear the music of William Byrd. Theater and literature give us generally a depressing picture of ourselves and the human condition.
Could it be that a world that no longer takes God seriously, a world that no longer looks to heaven, a world that does not fear the loss of heaven is of all places most miserable?
Pope Benedict XVI suggests so. He says: "Those who talk us out of our belief in heaven have not given us the earth in exchange but have made it desolate and empty, have covered it with darkness. We must," says the Pope, "find once more the courage to believe in eternal life with all our hearts." A life that is truly free, a life that is adequate to our best aspirations is one in which we hope for heaven.
If the feast of Mary's Assumption means anything it is an assertion of faith that there is a heaven which is the culmination of the salvation won for us by Jesus Christ, which is the goal of human life. It is not a theory, not wishful thinking, but a fact realized bodily in the Virgin Mary. That is what the Church asserted in proclaiming her Assumption as a dogma of faith. "The Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of Lords and conqueror of sin and death."
In one of his sermons, St. Augustine pointed to Mary taken up bodily into heaven and exclaimed: "Behold, there is the symbol of our resurrection."
In his resurrection and ascension, Jesus has definitively brought human nature into the glory of God. Humanity which Jesus caused to rise from the dead and has taken into heaven has, in Him, been transfigured, made capably of eternity. That is the ultimate vocation of every human being — to have eternal life in the kingdom of heaven.
Only one person, Mary, conceived without sin, has been able, at her death, to enter into the life of heaven, body and soul. The human flesh that Jesus received from Mary was a part of his risen body. Mary's body, taken into heaven is the same flesh as that she had given her Son. In this shared human flesh of Christ and his Mother, there is solidarity, a continuation of the union between Son and Mother. It had to be that, at death, Mary joined her Son in the life of heaven.
What about us sinners? We too belong to Christ, by adoption. By faith and baptism, our sins are forgiven and we begin to share in the life of Christ by grace. So the life of heaven already begins to permeate our life here. A Russian theologian puts it this way: "High in heaven by glory stands the Virgin Mother of the human race. She has sanctified the whole world of nature and in her and through her all things shall be gloriously transformed."
Every man, woman, and child who, in the Church, becomes a follower of Jesus begins, with Mary, to share in his risen ascended life which is the life of heaven. Mary had already entered body and soul into the fullness of that life; we shall begin to experience the joy and glory of it only when we pass through death; we shall experience it in completeness when, at the end of time, our body is reunited with our soul, is glorified.
Heaven is our future. Because Jesus, our risen and ascended Lord, is already with us in the Mass, in the sacraments, in the life of the Church, because Mary in heaven is Mother of the Church, the life of heaven, like a seed buried in the earth, has already begun in us. As those who belong to Christ, we have already one foot in heaven; as those who acknowledge Mary to be our Mother, we can find our way, through her, on the path that will bring us to be with her Son forever.
When we look to Mary in her Assumption, we can recognize the heavenly state that is implicit in all creation, that is begun in us more profoundly by grace, that for all creation and for us is the destiny God wills us to have, provided we accept it.
Bishop Basil Meeking is the retired bishop of Christchurch, New Zealand.