Canonical Rulings on the Assumption and Liturgical Exegesis of Revelation 12

Yesterday was, of course, the Feast of the Assumption, the only other Holy Day other than Christmas Day not to have been shifted to a Sunday here in Oz. We have a reasonable number gathered at my local parish for the Feast Day Mass – about twice the usual daily mass crowd. But compare that to the fact that on the average Sunday we have four masses, all attended by more than turned up yesterday for the Assumption, and you get the rather shocking fact that 80% or more of the practicing (forget, for the moment, the non-practicing) Catholics in the parish did not keep this Holy Day of Obligation. Now, it wasn’t as if there was a difficulty with the time. It was a Saturday, not a working day, with mass at 9am. Not hard to get to.

But, here is a possibility, what if most of the practicing Catholics in the parish – folk who fairly diligently keep the Sunday Mass obligation – decided to kill two birds with one stone, and get in BOTH obligations (for the Holy Day and for the Sunday) by attending the Vigil Mass last night?

Well, I took the opportunity over Friday night drinks at work (not our usual First Friday Social Novena, but a farewell to a co-worker – any excuse will do) to be a little cheeky towards one who holds a high degree of authority in giving canonical rulings for the Archdiocese. “Can you tell me if I can fulfil both obligations by attending the Vigil mass tomorrow night? What does the law say?” This wise pastor (whom I will not name so as not to offend his modesty) replied “That is a question which displays a deplorable lack of generosity toward our Lord.” Touche. Actually, as he pointed out afterward, the Ordo quite clearly requires that the mass on Saturday night (last night) be fore the Sunday and not for the Feast, so the general rule of thumb is that you fulfill each obligation by attending a mass for the particular feast or Sunday.

Now, another interesting thing, while we are on the topic of the Assumption. As I was listening to the first reading yesterday at Mass, Rev 11:19; 12:1-6, 10. Here is how the passage reads in our lectionary (which uses the Jerusalem Bible and is not always edited happily):

The sanctuary of God in heaven opened, and the ark of the covenant could be seen inside it. [Unfortunately, at this point, the lectionary leaves the rest of 11:19 which reads “and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail” – it is a bit like leaving out the drum roll before the climax of a great feat].

Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman, adorned with the sun, standing on the moon, and with the twelve stars on her head for a crown. She was pregnant, and in labour, crying aloud in the pangs of childbirth. Then a second sign appeared in the sky, a huge red dragon which had seven heads and ten horns, and each of the seven heads crowned with a coronet. Its tail dragged a third of the stars from the sky and dropped them to the earth, and the dragon stopped in front of the woman as she was having the child, so that he could eat it as soon as it was born from its mother. The woman brought a male child into the world, the son who was to rule all the nations with an iron sceptre, and the child was taken straight up to God and to his throne, while the woman escaped into the desert, where God had made a place of safety ready. Then I heard a voice shout from heaven, ‘Victory and power and empire for ever have been won by our God, and all authority for his Christ.’

The important thing to consider is this. Almost all Protestant commentators – and too many Catholic ones – on the book of Revelation are very quick to point out that this “woman” is NOT Mary. For instance, here is one of my favourite American Evangelical commentators, Ben Witherington III (ain’t that a great moniker? Only an American could get away with it):

The conjecture still favored by most Roman Catholic scholars [I think he is a bit optimistic here] is that [this woman] is Mary. This is not impossible [this is a surprising concession for one writing from his tradition], but two factors are usually thought to counter this conclusion. (1) At vs. 17 we hear about “the rest of her offspring” (semeia – seed here). This is surely unlikely to be a reference to Jesus’ other physical kin. It is more likely to refer to believers, perhaps in particular persecuted believers or those about to be persecuted. (2) The parallels to our text in Isa. 66.6-9 strongly suggest mother Zion is in view or, as Paul would put it, the New Jerusalem, which is our mother (Gal. 4.26). In short here is the community of God’s people, and there is a certain continuity between the OT and the NT people of God. Jesus was born a Jew into the Jewish believing community. Gentiles are the community of God’s other children. Jesus is in a sense a special child of God, as we shall see.

Now, the surprising thing here is that Witherington (and others arguing the same line) could take the fact that the Woman also has “other children” (he is right to say this cannot refer to other physical children, but that point just argues in our favour) or that the Woman seems to also be an image of Zion as arguments AGAINST the Woman being Mary. It shows a surprising lack of understanding of the Church’s teaching on Mary, that she is the Mother of all the faithful (Jewish as well as Gentile, BTW), and that she is also an image of the Church, that is, of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

In fact, given the plain and obvious description of this Woman as the Mother of the Messiah (12:55 “And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” – a reference to the Messianic Psalm 2), the refusal to recognise Mary in this description can only be compared to the refusal to see Jesus’ reference to “eating his flesh and drinking his blood” in John 6 as being about the Eucharist (a refusal that is also common in Protestant exegesis).

But the thing to note is that just about ALL commentators (Catholic as well as Protestant) routinely see Rev 12:1 as the beginning of a new scene, separate to that of the visions of the seven trumpets that is taken to end with Rev 11:19.

Structural analysis is everything in the interpretation of the book of Revelation, and the first thing we must do is scuttle the traditional chapter arrangements. They are not helpful. They are least helpful here. In my favourite commentary on the Apocalypse (The Message of Revelation: I saw heaven opened, 1975) – also written by a Protestant – Michael Wilcock is quite adamant that the scene actually begins in 11:19. He bases this on the fact that “openings” always form the start of a new scene in the Apocalypse (compare to 4:1, 15:5, and 19:11). The “rumblings of thunder” etc. underline this. It is like the drum roll at the opening of the curtain on a new act in a play. So the scene with the visions of the seven trumpets ends in 11:18 and 11:19 should be read together with 12:1, the scene with the Woman and the Dragon.

And so you see that Wilcock’s structural analysis agrees with the Roman Lectionary for the Feast of the Assumption. Unaware of the fact, Wilcock is actually supporting the Catholic Church’s exegesis of this scene as a reference to Our Lady’s presence in heaven.

But there is another fact that compounds this reading. Rev 11:19 says that when “God’s temple in heaven was opened”, “the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple”. But in 12:1, we are told “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.” Again, the reference to Mary can only be missed by those who are ignorant of the full Catholic teaching about Mary. John is not seeing two different things here. The “ark of the covenant” and “the woman clothed with the sun” are both “in heaven”. They are both in the same field of John’s vision. In fact, he is doing what he does often elsewhere, juxtaposing two images for the same thing. For instance, in Chapter 5 he is told of “the Lion of Judah” but when he looks he sees “a Lamb standing as if it were slain”. The Lion and the Lamb are not two different things – they are both Jesus. Here too, the Ark and the Woman are not two different things, they are both Mary.

Catholic typological exegesis has always seen the Ark of the Covenant as a “type” of the Mother of the Lord (cf. CCC p.697 and 2676). This article explains the issue in more depth than I have time to go into here, but the readings for the Feast of the Assumption underscore the fact by using the Gospel of the Visitation (including the Magnificat, Luke 1:39-56 ). It is now fairly clear to exegetes that Luke is purposely telling his account of the Visitation to bring to mind the story of the sojourn of the Ark in 1 Samuel 5-6.

Using the Gospel for the Visitation together with the reading from Apocalypse 11:19 following for the feast of the Assumption therefore underscores and give “lex orandi” authority to the Catholic exegesis of the Woman in the Book of Revelation as none other than the Virgin Mary herself. In addition, all the other things this “Woman” symbolises – Ark, Zion, Mother of the Redeemed – are added to Mary.

AND therefore, Revelation 11:19ff stands out as the scriptural basis for the doctrine of the Assumption – something Protestants have long insisted does not exist. It DOES exist, but of course will not be seen if you assume apriori that the Woman in Revelation is NOT Mary. It should not surprise us that such evidence is to be found in the latest writing of the New Testament, and is totally absent in the earlier books. The martyrdom of Peter and Paul is absent in the Book of Acts – because it had not yet taken place when that book was written. Does this mean it didn’t happen? Of course not. Just as the early Church knew Peter and Paul had been martyred in Rome, so they knew – it was an article of their faith – that Mary was in Heaven with God. That reference to this should be made in a late NT writing, associated with the apostle John who was given the care of Mary by Jesus himself and with Ephesus where both John and Mary are, by tradition, said to have lived for some time, should be totally expected.

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27 responses to “Canonical Rulings on the Assumption and Liturgical Exegesis of Revelation 12

  1. Matthias

    Two explanations I have heard about this passage:
    1/ Refers to the Herodical massacre of the Children,with Satan of course influencing Herod THE “GREAT”,and the woman being Mary.

    2/ Richard Bewes,successor of John Stott at All Souls Church Langham Place,in his book THE LAMB WINS believes that the woman was originally israel ,but is now the Church (ie the people of God)

    • Yeah, but she is Israel and the Church BECAUSE she is Mary, the Mother of the Lord. That’s the connection the protties fail to make.

  2. A good argument, David!

    Do you know the book “The Mother of Jesus in the New Testament” by John McHugh (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1975)? I found it a very scholarly and Catholic reading.

    BTW, I was interested to note the readings for the Assumption (or Dormition) in the Byzantine Rite are (NB no OT reading):

    Philippians ii, 5-11

    St Luke x, 38-42 & xi, 27-28

    (The Epistle tells us to have the same mind as Christ, Who through His exinanition or kenosis was exalted by His Father – presumably applying this to the Blessed Virgin, and then to all Saints and us Christians; the Gospel combines the vignette about Mary and Martha with the woman in the crowd praising Christ’s Mother, presumably seeing Mary, sister of Lazarus, in the first part as standing for Mary, who supereminently “held all these things in her heart”, while reading the second half as commending Our Lady more for her faith than even for her Motherhood of God, as the Fathers said.)

    Until 1950 (and still today in the traditional Dominican Rite), the Roman Rite readings were:

    Ecclesiasticus xxiv, 11b-20

    St Luke x, 38-42

    (The passage for the Epistle is often applied to the Blessed Virgin, while the Gospel is the same as the first part of the passage used in the Byzantine Rite – and authors claim that anciently the Roman pericope also included the second part, too.)

    • Interesting. Just goes to show that there is something very deliberate about the choice of the two readings we have in today’s lectionary. I rather suspect though that the opinion of the easterners and the traddies would be that we have mucked up on the “lex orandi” doctrine of the dormition/assumption by messing around with the lectionary for this feast.

  3. As another aside, before Vatican II Cardinal Bea prepared a somewhat augmented version of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was prayed by very many congregations of religious women instead of the full Breviary (after the Council, they were encouraged to adopt the new Office or at least Lauds and Vespers – but, like priests, it seems that many fell away even from that), and for Christmastide, this was the third lesson at Matins:

    Lectio III (Apoc. xii, 1. 5a)

    Signum magnum apparuit in caelo: mulier amicta sole, et luna sub pedibus ejus, et in capite ejus corona stellarum duodecim. Et peperit filium masculum, qui recturus erat omnes gentes in virga ferrea.

    In other words, this passage is easily read as a more theological account of the Nativity of Christ. Reading the rest of the verses reveals how Christ came into the world to overcome the Devil.

  4. An Liaig

    It is always a worry when people try to limit the meaning of a symbol in scripture. It is clear that the woman in revelation references Mary and is indeed clear support for the traditional understanding of the assumption. It is also clear that this woman is the Church AND Israel. All of this and more. The book of revelation is mystical poetry but many people treat it like a code book. I think it is a pity that, since they do not use it in their liturgy, the Byzantines have never explored the link between this woman and Sophia. Hmmm…There could be a thesis in that.

    • Well, now there is an interesting point that I have not previously been aware of. When you say they “do not use it in their liturgy”, do you mean only the lectionary? Surely they have incorporated some of the hymnic passages into their liturgy, as indeed we have? And consider: if they do not use the Revelation in their liturgy, do they consider it truly canonical? (Is the omission a reflection of the suspicion that the Book received in early times?)

  5. An Liaig

    David,

    The above was not meant as a criticism of you. I agree with your comments completely. I just find the approach of some exergetes frustrating: the claim that since this woman is code for the Church, she therefor has nothing to do with Mary. Arrgh…It doesn’t work that way!

  6. Matthias

    That is interesting An liang seeing as Vladimir Soloviev,attributed with being one of the founders of Russian Catholic church, and thus a Byzantine Catholic church ,had visions of Sophia ,in Moscow,in the British library and in the Egyptian desert.
    The Book of revelation is mystical poetry but it is also prophetic. The trouble is that many have used it as an Old Moores Almanac. When the writer says “Then I saw heaven opened and behold a white horse and He Who sat upon it is called Faithful and True”.Poetry,mystical but Porphetic as the Blessed writer was seeing Christ as Conquering King .

    • Again, the case of the white rider is another case in point about many commentators wanting it to be “either/or”. The question is: Is the white Rider Christ? This seems to be the case definitively in 19:11, since he is called “faithful and true”, just as Jesus is in the first chapter. But is this the case in 6:2, where the white rider is the first horseman of the apocalypse? Many say not. Yet the similarity of vision is so strong…

  7. Salvatore

    “…the Ordo quite clearly requires that the mass on Saturday night (last night) be fore the Sunday and not for the Feast, so the general rule of thumb is that you fulfil each obligation by attending a mass for the particular feast or Sunday.”

    Actually all the Code requires is assisting at Mass “celebrated … in a Catholic rite,” but imposes no requirement that the Mass should be of the Feast. Any Mass – for example a Requiem or Nuptial Mass – will satisfy the obligation; as would Mass in a non-Roman (but Catholic) rite which uses a different calendar entirely. Consequently a Mass on Saturday evening celebrated as a vigil of the Sunday could certainly be used to satisfy the Saturday obligation. Of course one would still have to attend Mass again the following day to satisfy the Sunday obligation – your source is correct that killing two birds requires the deployment of two stones.

    And since when does wishing to understand & obey the precepts of the Church and avoid Mortal Sin indicate “deplorable lack of generosity toward our Lord?” Some people are so quick to judge! 🙂

  8. Louis Brighton’s Revelation Commentary from CPH specifically identifies the woman as Mary. That Revelation states that Mary in soul and body has been taken to heaven, I still am not seeing. She is certainly the Ark; she is certainly the Woman (and so personifying both Israel and Church, she being the nexus of both). But the text says nothing about her being bodily raised into heaven following her death.

    • P.S. Not that I am in the least disputing the possibility that she may have been; I actually think it rather likely. But I see nothing in this passage or in any other place in Scripture that would warrant dogmatically asserting that it has happened and must be believed by all the faithful.

      • But Pastor! Where is it that John says he sees her?

        • There is no dispute that she is in heaven; but the question is is she body and soul in heaven? Obviously God does that. Enoch, Elijah. No reason to deny that He could very well have done that for his Mother as well. But the Scriptures do not clearly state that He has done so in her case; nor, as you point out, is the chronology clear from our standpoint in Revelation.

  9. P.S. An interesting feature is, if Rome grants that this is Mary, how do you understand her crying out in labor and how does this fit with virgo in partu?

    • Ah! Clever, Pastor! Many images are being placed together here – and chronology is not what is important in the Revelation.

      Let us say, “the Ark” is in heaven. Then the ark is identified with the woman who is described as standing and crowned.

      Then the narrative of the action begins – a sort of introduction of the characters – a “story so far”. The woman fleeing into the wilderness does not necessarily happen “after” the woman is crowned in heaven. The images, not the chronology, matters.

      As for the “crying out”, this need not be referring to the natural birth pangs of labour (we are clearly using mythic imagery here), but the crying out of anticipation!

  10. PW, She does cry out during the Passion…

    • Indeed, and the birth pangs may have reference to that. Also the creation groans in labor until now as the new creation is being given birth.

      • Kiran

        Pastor, it seems that this points also to the fact that Mary is Mother of the Church. It is not just Jesus that she is giving birth to in that passage of the Revelations. What say you?

        • I’d agree; though perhaps I’d phrase it more like this:

          In Revelation 12 we encounter Israel/Mary/Church and see that the Mother of God is the nexus between the old and new people of God. She literally IS old Israel giving birth to new Israel. Blessed Johann Gerhard, whose day we commemorate today in our Synod, used to say that Mary is a type of the Church in that she sustains the three relationships of Mother, Bride, and Virgin simultaneously.

  11. PW,

    SO nice to see you here again!

    Does your church celebrate the 15th of August – as what, and with what readings?

    Do tell somewhat of your beliefs on this matter.

    • Joshua,

      I’m always here, even when not seen. I read along in my blog reader, but I don’t always have something to say. 🙂

      August 15th is appointed in our Synod as St. Mary’s Day. It is typically observed with a Divine Service, however, only if it falls upon a Sunday (which bodes well for next year). The assigned readings for the day are: Isaiah 61:7-11; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 1:39-55. The collect of the day is: Almighty God, You chose the virgin Mary to be the mother of Your only Son. Grant that we, who are redeemed by His blood, may share with her in the glory of Your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ… The gradual is from Psalm 45:13-14 – “All glorious is the princess in her chamber…”

      Luther preached upon the occasion in 1522 in which he observed that Scripture doesn’t reveal anything about the how of Mary’s being taken to heaven, and so we should rest to content with knowing that she, together with all the saints, live with Christ; and leave the how of it to God. I think most Lutherans would still take that position: they are agnostic about whether Mary was taken in her body to heaven, though they would not deny this possibility, but are adamantly opposed to making a dogma of that which cannot clearly be shown from the Sacred Scriptures. Still, a great day to remember the Holy Mother’s homecoming, when she who made a home for the Eternal Word in her flesh and blood was welcomed into the home the Eternal Word prepared for all her flesh and blood by HIS flesh and blood. Our hymn of the day for the feast includes:

      O Higher than the Cherubim,
      More glorious than the Seraphim,
      Lead their praises, alleluia,
      Thou, Bearer of the Eternal Word,
      Most gracious, magnify the Lord.
      Alleluia…

      Hope that helps.

  12. PW, and David,

    I think PW raises a very interesting point in a post of his:

    http://weedon.blogspot.com/2009/08/new-lutheran-quote-of-day_14.html

    “The Scriptures have their purpose in providing the content for church worship. — David Scaer, *Discourses in Matthew* p. 105”

    This I think is very profound – perhaps a good topic to discuss here on SCE, hint, hint?

    • Righto. I agree with this. It follows from the fact that the Scriptures are a liturgical book. The Bible had its origin – as a collection – in the liturgy (both Jewish and Christian).

      I would add that Pastor W asks where the teaching of the Assumption is “clearly” taught in scripture (a question which implies the assumptions of sola scriptura and the perspicuity of scripture). In fact, if the scriptures are foremost a liturgical book, then we should expect to find the “content of the deposit of faith” celebrated and reflected in, rather than established in, the Scriptures.

  13. An Liaig

    David,

    I meant that the Byzantine Church does not use the book of Revelation in their lectionary. Since their church has avery strong liturgical emphasis, this means that many of their priest’s are not familiar with it. Yoy are right in suggesting that it has inspired various Troparia and other hymns – but then so has the Proto-evangelion of James. I do think there is a traditional suspicion of this book in the Byzantine Tradition but you really need someone from that tradition to confirm that. I will talk to our mutual friend and get back to you.