The Spirit and the Assumption: Deification and Vatican II

The Second Vatican Council only promulgated two dogmatic constitutions: Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) and Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church). Stating this is not meant to downplay the other constitutions and documents of the council. Rather, it is to highlight key opening passages found in a dogmatic context. Certain repeated passages at the start of these dogmatic constitutions beckon the faithful to renew their evangelical pronouncements and catechetical methods by incorporating a recovery of the biblical and patristic understanding of deification (in Greek: theosis) into the New Evangelization.

Byzantine (Greek Catholic and Orthodox) theology, spirituality, and catechetical tradition has always centered on the near-symmetry that "God became man so that man might become God" (cf. CCC#460). The pronouncement balances and encompasses the wider meaning of "salvation" and the purpose of the Incarnation as defended by Saint Athanasius against the Arians. In the East, catechetical reiteration upon "participation in the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4) and "becoming God" by grace was always standard fare. In the West, the symmetry was never lost but the doctrine seemingly waned catechetically from the time of the 14th Century until the 20th Century. Nevertheless, the heart of the matter was always maintained in Western mystical theology, especially in Saint John of the Cross, and known implicitly in Marian devotion and study. Liturgically, at the Offertory, we still hear, "By the mingling of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity."

Certainly a creature can never become equal to God in all respects. Such is a contradiction. God had no beginning and is eternal. No creature can ever overcome the fact that he must receive a beginning. No transformation can change the fact that a creature is forever defined by his need for a beginning. A creature forever remains dependent upon God for life and existence. Human nature is a gift and mercy that allows us to overcome 'non-existence'; it is the foundation of our existence. Nevertheless, once a human begins to exist, God can so elevate the capacities of the spiritual soul to know Him that a human begins to participate in God's very power. When God unites Himself to a creature to enable such knowledge, the human can rightly be said to have "become God" by sharing in this union. Without loss to human identity and nature, the grace of deification (becoming God) enables humans into participation in the Trinity and makes humans real family members with God (cf. Jn 1:12).

This teaching is so intrinsic to the Christian message that the dogmatic constitution, Lumen Gentium, immediately stressed God's purpose in creation as: "His plan…to raise men to a participation of the divine life" (#2). The other dogmatic constitution, Dei Verbum reiterates the same at its opening: "through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature (see Eph. 2:18; 2 Peter 1:4)" (#2). We are called to experience the infinite bliss which God knows, and we are given a share in God's own power to experience Him! On the Feast of the Assumption we should at least briefly reflect upon what deification meant for the Virgin Mary.

Renewing Mariology

 Commenting on the theological movement of popes since the Second Vatican Council, Stratford Caldecott, contributing editor to Communio and director of the Centre for Faith and Culture (Oxford) writes: "In particular, it is the 'rediscovered' doctrine of theosis [deification] or divinization by grace, when combined with other fundamental principles of Catholic theology, that indicates how we can safely attribute to our Lady many of the titles and honors that popular devotion wishes to bestow upon her, without driving a wedge between her and the Church, or between her and ourselves" (Logos 3:3 p.89).

An excellent passage from Saint Basil the Great can serve as one such sturdy launching pad for such a reflection and rediscovery. The passage ties closely together the mystery of one's share in the Holy Spirit and one's becoming a source (mediatrix) of grace for others. In his work, De spiritu sancto, Basil explains:

As souls that bear the Spirit are illumined by the Spirit they become spiritual themselves and send forth grace to others. Thence comes foreknowledge of the future, understanding of mysteries, apprehension of things hidden, distribution of spiritual gifts, citizenship in heaven, the dance with the angels, joy without end, divine distribution, likeness to God, and the summit of our longings, namely, to become God (9:23).

Certainly he is speaking of all Christians sending forth grace to others because of their union with the Holy Spirit. The greater such union, the greater they become relative sources of grace. How much more so this must be true of the Saints in heaven who experience the greatest possible union with the Holy Spirit and watch over us! Jesus pointed to such a share in his mediation when he said, "Whoever believes in me will do the works I do and greater ones than these" (John 14:12).

If those who have been touched by sin and are now in heaven can be mediators of grace in Christ, how much more so can the one "conceived without sin" be a mediatrix of grace! She is the Immaculate Conception, totally united with the Holy Spirit from the moment of her conception and never knowing sin due to the saving power of Christ in her predestination. No one believed more in Jesus than the Virgin Mary, and no one received a greater share in Jesus' Spirit (cf. 2 Kings 2:9) than the Virgin Mary. Christ, the new Adam (cf. 1 Cor 15:45) prepared a new Eve to be the mother to all who are participants in the Spirit. Christ's saving office as new Adam and high-priest did not end in death. Nor did Mary's saving office, bestowed at the Annunciation and prepared in the Immaculate Conception, end in death. She is the first to be fully saved in Christ Jesus.

Queen Assumed into Heaven

Sent to earth to be our true Adam and source of deification, Jesus needed to resurrect from the dead, body and soul, so there could be a renewed humanity in which we could share through the Holy Spirit. "High-priest for all humanity" is an office in which only Jesus can serve and an office on behalf of humanity requires someone still fully-human (body and soul): "He learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, declared by God high priest…" (Heb 5:8-9). As a man, Jesus was given a mission, and that mission was not to end in death. He is now the heavenly man who has become "the Last Adam a life-giving spirit" (1 Cor 15:45).

The superabundant and life-giving relationship Jesus has with the Father became accessible to us because the Word (Jesus) was made flesh and dwelt amongst us (John 1:14). He showed us how to enter into this relationship and empowered us to make gifts of ourselves to God. Jesus gives us a participation in his relationship with the Father when he gives us the Holy Spirit to know and love the Father as He does: "No one knows the Son but the Father and no one knows the Father but the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him" (Matthew 11:27). This share in the Son's relationship with the Father is the beginning of our deification as "sons in the Son", the beginning of eternal life in us. Just as we share in Jesus' relationship with the Father through the Holy Spirit, we also share in Christ's one mediation through the same power of the Holy Spirit according as the gift is distributed.

Given the brief nature of this article, it suffices to say that the angel Gabriel's invitation to Mary to be the mother of the Messiah, included a cooperation (an office) which God willed would not end at Jesus' birth. God bestowed an office upon Mary when she agreed that the Spirit should descend upon her and make her fruitful for the sake of the Messiah and his mission; that her heart should be united with his and also be "pierced" (Luke 2:35). Her whole life is dedicated to Christ and she becomes the Mother of all disciples according to the announcement from the Cross: "Behold your Mother!" (John 19:27). The Mother of the Lord is Queen Mother for the Kingdom. The office is three-times re-affirmed. She was there to nurture Christ as a babe and obtain the new wine at the Wedding Feast of Cana. She continues to be there for those newly born of her Son and she participates with the Spirit in bringing them into union with Christ just as she did at Pentecost (Acts 1:14). From her union with the mission of her Son, the Spirit continues to shower us with graces.

"This mediation flows from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it, and draws all its power from it. It does not hinder in any way the immediate union of the faithful with Christ but on the contrary fosters it" (Lumen Gentium #60).  Since only she can fill the office of Queen Mother to the Kingdom which Jesus finalized at the Cross, and since Jesus desires to foster union of the faithful with himself, Jesus has already raised her body and soul to continue her office on behalf of humanity.

Taken together with the words of Saint Basil from De spiritu sancto, along with the meaning of our deification, Mary's prerogatives are explained by the Second Vatican Council: "Taken up into heaven, she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to procure for us the gifts of eternal salvation…Therefore the blessed Virgin is invoked in the church under the titles of advocate, helper, benefactress, and mediatrix" (Lumen Gentium #62).

"O, Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!"

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