“For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death for ‘he subjected everything under his feet.’”
Even amidst our culture of skepticism about the divine and the afterlife, human beings cannot stop thinking about death. It provides one of the great and allusive questions: Why do we have to die? And what happens when we do?
An interesting and relatively contemporary example of this phenomenon can be find in the final installment of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Rowling’s magical universe contains almost no trace of religion across all of its seven volumes. Rather, its sense of morality seems drawn from a mix of modern dogmas regarding tolerance and acceptance mixed with some good-old-fashioned Pelagianism (the ever ancient yet ever new idea that we can earn salvation through our own efforts), she cannot help but stumble into the metaphysical. Most particularly, when Rowling writes about death and what comes after it, she can’t escape using Scripture when looking for something profound to say about the reality of death. In one of the most moving and climactic passages in the whole series, Harry finally visits his parents’ grave. (In case you’re not familiar with the series, Harry’s parents died protecting him from the series’s arch-villain, and their paternal love continues to exert a kind of force-field effect upon him throughout his adventures and travails.) Upon their tombstone are the words from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that we heard proclaimed today, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
Rowling intuits what the Church teaches through Revelation: Death is an enemy to be defeated. However, the idea of defeating death could take many different forms, especially in the year of our Lord 2019. For simplicity’s sake, I will reduce them to two:
First, and most commonly, we could take the model provided by science and medicine. Many practitioners of modern medicine would have us use all the means possible to sustain human life and thus defeat death. This, however, reaches two points of absurdity. The first is when overly aggressive means of sustaining life are employed that make a person’s last days either miserable or passed in a state of minimal consciousness in which he cannot fulfill his supernatural obligations. The second is when scientists employ technological means to extract cells for potentially life-saving treatments and research from living embryos (that is, living human persons at the very early stages of their lives). This is a point of absurdity because its underlying principle is that human life is so precious that is worth destroying … human life in order to sustain it.
J.K. Rowling’s work and the enduring fascination that it has provoked (500 million copies of the books and over $9 trillion in box office sales) shows that merely prolonging human life is not enough to defeat death. The most compelling answers to the deepest questions of human existence (whether religious or secular), are inevitably supernatural. There must be a deeper sense in which death is defeated than merely the scientific and medical prolonging of life.
The second sense of the defeat of death, then, is the theological one. The Book of Genesis sets out how death was not a part of God’s original plan, or at least not death as we currently know it. Our first human parents enjoyed the gift of immortality. This is not, though, immortality in the way that we normally think about it. Adam and Eve probably would not be alive today even if they hadn’t sinned, but the end of their earthly life would not have been painful. They would have met Death as an old friend, as a necessary step on the pilgrimage by which life is changed, not ended.
Thanks to sin, though, death becomes an enemy to be defeated. Rather than being the necessary and welcome passage to a higher existence at the end of a long and beautiful life, death in the world of sin encapsulates all of the limitedness of human existence. Thus, St. Paul teaches that Christ does not fully reign so long as those who belong to Him are subject to any other power. And so, “when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power,” even death will be subject to Him.
Hopefully you are wondering what Harry Potter and death have to do with our Blessed Mother’s Assumption, but all of this is why Her Assumption matters so much. The fact that, at the end of Her earthly life, Mary was assumed body and soul into Heaven, shows that victory over death is possible not only for Christ, but for human persons as well.
Mary shows us this at the end of Her life. The Fathers of the Church and theologians agree that, just as Her Son suffered bodily death, so too did Mary pass through the temporary separation of body and soul, only with a complete absence of suffering. The Eastern Church calls this Her Dormition. She was then taken immediately, body and soul, into Heaven. She is the first to experience what all the saints will undergo at the end of time: the re-uniting of our souls and bodies. This is what we mean when we profess each Sunday in the Creed that we believe in the Resurrection of the Dead: not only that Christ rose from the dead, but that our bodies too will rise at the end of time, restoring us as whole human beings the way that God created us and desires us to be.
The effects of the Resurrection are not just seen at the end of Mary’s life, but throughout it. The Gospel today takes us back to the beginning of Mary’s story, just after She has become the mother of the Redeemer. She remained sinless throughout Her life, already enjoying here on earth part of the blessedness that we hope to enjoy in Heaven, when the deceptions of the Devil will no longer lead us astray. Even at the beginning of Her journey, though, Mary is already pointing towards the end. “All generations with call me blessed,” She says.
What St. Paul says about victory over death gives us an important insight into our Blessed Mother in another way. “For since death came through man, the resurrection of the dead came also through man,” he tells us. Just as Eve shares in Adam’s fall and even precedes it, Mary shares in Christ’s victory as co-redemptrix, and She even precedes His victory by being born without original sin as a singular grace in anticipation of Her Son’s redemption. Thus St. Paul tells us, “For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order.” Mary is the first to be redeemed in Her Immaculate Conception, so She is also the first to experience the Resurrection today in Her Assumption.
The Blessed Mother’s Assumption is about hope. Not wishes, but hope, which is the expectation of attaining that which is difficult to obtain. In Her Assumption, She conquers not only death, but every suffering and pain and unfulfilled longing present in this life. Mary shows us that the path of hope and trust in the Lord will liberate us from all the trials that we face in this life.
This, then, is why Holy Mother Church directs all Catholics to attend Holy Mass for this feast: So that we might be moved to place our hope in Christ, to trust that He alone (not science, not technology, not magic or ill-gotten wealth or gain) has the power to defeat the greatest enemy of our fallen human nature, because He already has, and because His victory is made visible in the person of our Blessed Mother. The last enemy to be destroyed is death for ‘he subjected everything under his feet.’” By the grace of Mary’s Assumption, may we all be inspired to seek Her Son’s final victory in Heaven.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
In Assumptione B.M.V. A.D. MMXIX