Editor’s Note: here is published an excerpt from the unparalleled liturgical commentary of the great Dom Prosper Guéranger. The full English text of his commentary can be found here online or purchased here in print.
By Dom Prosper Guéranger (1805-1875)
“Today the Virgin Mary ascended to heaven; rejoice, for she reigns with Christ forever.” The Church will close her chants on this glorious day with this sweet antiphon which resumes the object of the feast and the spirit in which it should be celebrated.
No other solemnity breathes, like this one, at once triumph and peace; none better answers to the enthusiasm of the many and the serenity of souls consummated in love. Assuredly that was as great a triumph when our Lord, rising by his own power from the tomb, cast hell into dismay; but to our souls, so abruptly drawn from the abyss of sorrows on Golgotha, the suddenness of the victory caused a sort of stupor to mingle with the joy of that greatest of days. In presence of the prostrate Angels, the hesitating Apostles, the women seized with fear and trembling, one felt that the divine isolation of the Conqueror of death was perceptible even to his most intimate friends, and kept them, like Magdalene, at a distance.
Mary’s death, however, leaves no impression but peace; that death had no other cause than love. Being a mere creature, she could not deliver herself from that claim of the old enemy; but leaving her tomb filled with flowers, she mounts up to heaven, flowing with delights, leaning upon her Beloved. Amid the acclamations of the daughters of Sion, who will henceforth never cease to call her blessed, she ascends surrounded by choirs of heavenly spirits joyfully praising the Son of God. Nevermore will shadows veil, as they did on earth, the glory of the most beautiful daughter of Eve. Beyond the immovable Thrones, beyond the dazzling Cherubim, beyond the flaming Seraphim, onward she passes, delighting the heavenly city with her sweet perfumes. She stays not till she reaches the very confines of the Divinity; close to the throne of honor where her Son, the King of ages, reigns in justice and in power; there she is proclaimed Queen, there she will reign for evermore in mercy and in goodness…
The same freshness breathes from the facts of Bible history wherein the interpreters of the sacred Books see the figure of Mary’s triumph. As long as this world lasts a severe law protects the entrance to the eternal palace; no one, without having first laid aside the garb of flesh, is admitted to contemplate the King of heaven. There is one, however, of our lowly rare, whom the terrible decree does not touch; the true Esther, in her incredible beauty, advances without hindrance through all the doors. Full of grace, she is worthy of the love of the true Assuerus; but on the way which leads to the awful throne of the King of kings, she walks not alone; two handmaids, one supporting her steps, the other holding up the long folds of her royal robe, accompany her; they are the angelic nature and the human, both equally proud to hail her as their mistress and lady, and both sharing in her glory…
“As Christ is the Lord,” says Arnold of Bonneval, the friend of St. Bernard, “Mary is Lady and sovereign. He who bends the knee before the Son, kneels before the Mother. At the sound of her name the devils tremble, men rejoice, the Angels glorify God.”
…Let us echo the heaven’s joy, and with our solemn Introit as a triumphal march, usher Mary into the true Jerusalem. The Verse is taken from the forty-fourth Psalm, the Epithalamium, thus linking the chants of the Holy Sacrifice with last night’s Lessons from the sacred Canticle.
Let us all rejoice in the Lord, celebrating a festival day in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for those whose Assumption the Angels rejoice and give praise to the Son of God.
Ps. My heart hath uttered a good word: I speak my works to the King. ℣. Glory, &c. Let us all.
The following Prayer asks for the pardon and salvation through the intercession of the Mother of God. Its apparent want of harmony with the mystery of the feast might surprise us, did we not remember that it is only the second Collect for the day, in the Sacramentary; the first, which we have given above, and which was said over the faithful at the beginning of the assembly, expressly declares that Mary could not be held by the bonds of death.
Pardon, we beseech thee, O Lord, the sins of thy servants; that we, who are not able to please thee by our deeds, may be saved by the intercessions of the Mother of thy Son. Who lives, &c.
Lesson from the Book of Wisdom.
In all things I sought rest, and I shall abide in the inheritance of the Lord. Then the creator of all things commanded, and said to me: and he that made me, rested in my tabernacle, And he said to me: Let thy dwelling be in Jacob, and thy inheritance in Israel, and take root in my elect. From the beginning, and before the world, was I created, and unto the world to come I shall not cease to be, and in the holy dwelling place I have ministered before him. And so was I established in Sion, and in the holy city likewise I rested, and my power was in Jerusalem. And I took root in an honourable people, and in the portion of my God his inheritance, and my abode is in the full assembly of saints. I was exalted like a cedar in Libanus, and as a cypress tree on mount Sion. I was exalted like a palm tree in Cades, and as a rose plant in Jericho: As a fair olive tree in the plains, and as a plane tree by the water in the streets, was I exalted. I gave a sweet smell like cinnamon. and aromatical balm: I yielded a sweet odour like the best myrrh.
The Epistle we have just read is closely connected with the Gospel that is to follow. The rest that Mary sought is the better part, the repose of the soul in the presence of the Peaceful King; and when a soul is thus full of peace, she forms the choicest part of her Lord’s inheritance. No creature has attained so nearly as our Lady to the eternal, unchangeable peace of the ever-tranquil Trinity; hence no other has merited to become, in the same degree, the resting place of God.
A soul occupied by active works cannot attain the perfection or the fruitfulness of one in whom our Lord takes his rest, because she is at rest in him; for this is the nuptial rest. As the Psalm says: “When the Lord shall give sleep to his beloved, then shall their fruit be seen.”
Let us, then, who became Mary’s children on the day the Lord first rested in her tabernacle, understand these magnificent expressions of Eternal Wisdom; for they reveal to us the glory of her triumph. The branch that sprang from the stock of Jesse bears the divine Flower on which rests the fullness of the Holy Ghost; but it has taken root also in the elect, into whose branches it passes the heavenly sap, which transforms them and divinizes their fruit. These fruits of Jacob and of Israel, i.e., the works of the ordinary Christian life or of the life of perfection, belongs therefore to our Blessed Mother. Rightly then does Mary enter today upon her unending rest in the eternal Sion—the true holy city and glorified people—the Lord’s inheritance. Her power will be established in Jerusalem and the Saints will forever acknowledge that they owe to her the fullness of their perfection.
But the plenitude of Mary’s personal merits far surpasses that of all the Saints together. As the cedar of Libanus towers above the flowers of the field, far more does our Lad’s sanctity, next to that of her divine Son, surpass the sanctity of every other creature. In a homily for this Feast, the Angelic Doctor says: “The trees to which the Blessed Virgin is compared in this Epistle may be taken to represent the different orders of the blessed. This passage therefore means: that Mary has been exalted above the Angels, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, Confessors, Virgins, and all the Saints, because she possesses all their merits united in her single person.”
The Gradual is taken, as was the Verse of the Introit, from the 44th Psalm. In it we sing those perfections of the Bride that have caused the King of kings to call her to himself. The Alleluia Verse tells us how the angelic army hailed the entrance of its Queen.
Because of truth, and meekness, and justice, and thy right hand shall conduct thee wonderfully.
℣. Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline thy ear: for the King hath greatly desired thy beauty.
℣. Mary is assumed into heaven: the host of Angels rejoiceth. Alleluia.
Sequel of the holy Gospel according to Luke.
At that time: Jesus entered into a certain town; and a certain woman named Martha, received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sitting also at the Lord’ s feet, heard his word. But Martha was busy about much serving. Who stood and said: Lord, hast thou no care that my sister hath left me alone to serve? speak to her therefore, that she help me. And the Lord answering, said to her: Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things: But one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her.
To this Gospel the Roman Liturgy formerly added, as the Greek and the Mozarabic still add, the following verses from another chapter of St. Luke: As he spoke these things, a certain woman from the crowd lifting up her voice said to him: Blessed is the womb that bore thee, and the paps that gave thee suck. But he said: Yea, rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God, and keep it.
The words thus added turned the people’s thoughts towards our Lady; still the episode of Martha and Mary in the Gospel of the day remained unexplained. We will use the words of St. Bruno of Asti to express the reason tradition gives for the choice of this Gospel. “These two women,” he says, “are the leaders of the army of the Church, and all the faithful follow them. Some walk in Martha’s footsteps, others in Mary’s; but no one can reach our heavenly fatherland unless he follows one or the other. Rightly then have our fathers ordained that this Gospel should be read on the principal feast of our Lady, for she is signified by these two sisters. For no other creature combined the privileges of both lives, active and contemplative, as did the Blessed Virgin. Like Martha she received Christ—yea, she did more than Martha, for she received him not only into her house, but into her womb. She conceived him, gave him birth, carried him in her arms, and ministered to him more frequently than did Martha. On the other hand, she listened, like Mary, to his words, and kept them for our sake, pondering them in her heart. She contemplated his Humanity and penetrated more deeply than all others into his Divinity. She chose the better part, which shall not be taken away from her.”
“He,” continues St. Bernard, “whom she received at his entrance into this poor world, receives her today at the gate of the holy City. No spot on earth so worthy of the Son of God as the Virgin’s womb: no throne in heaven so lofty as that whereon the Son of Mary places her in return. What a reception each gave to the other! It is beyond the power of expression, because beyond the reach of our thought. Who shall declare the generation of the son, and the Assumption of the Mother?”
In honor of both Mother and Son, let us put this Lesson of the Gospel into practice in our lives. When our soul is troubled, like Martha, or distracted with many anxieties, let us always remember, as Mary did, that there is but one thing necessary. Our Lord alone, either in himself or in his members, should be the one object of our thoughts.
Every human thing is of more or less importance in proportion to its relation to God’s glory; we should value everything in this proportion, and then the grace of God which surpasseth all understanding will keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Today the Church on earth, represented by Martha, complains that she has been left alone to struggle and labor; but our Lord defends Mary, and confirms her in her choice of the better part. The Angels are keeping a great feast in heaven; the Offertory once more tells of their joy.
Mary is assumed into heaven, the Angels rejoice, praising together they bless the Lord. Alleluia.
We must not allow anything like regret or envy to cast a shadow over our hearts. Mary has finished her pilgrimage and left our earth; but now that she has entered into her glory, she still prays for us. So says the Secret.
May the prayer of the Mother of God assist thy people, O Lord; though we know her to have passed out of this world, may we experience her intercession for us with thee in the glory of heaven. Through the same Lord, &c.
If you loved me, said our Lord to his disciples when about to leave them, you would indeed be glad because I go to the Father. Let us, who love our Lady, be glad because she goes to her Son, and, as we sing in the Communion Anthem, the better part is hers forever.
Mary hath chosen for herself the best part: which shall not be taken from her for ever.
The sacred Bread, for which we are indebted to Mary, remains always with us. May It, through her intercession, preserve us from all evils!
Having been made partakers of a heavenly banquet, we implore thy mercy, O Lord our God: that we who celebrate the Assumption of the Mother of God, may by her intercession be delivered from all threatening evils. Through the same Lord, etc.
Thou didst taste death, O Mary! But that death, like the sleep of Adam at the world’s beginning, was but an ecstasy leading the Bride into the Bridegroom’s presence. As the sleep of the new Adam on the great day of salvation, it called for the awakening of resurrection. In Jesus Christ our entire nature, soul and body, was already reigning in heaven; but as in the first paradise, so in the presence of the Holy Trinity, it was not good for man to be alone. To-day at the right hand of Jesus appears the new Eve, in all things like to her Divine Head, in His vesture of glorified flesh: henceforth nothing is wanting in the eternal paradise.
O Mary, who according to the expression of thy devout servant John Damascene, has made death blessed and happy, detach us from this world, where nothing ought now to have a hold on us. We have nothing ought now to have a hold on us. We have accompanied thee in desire; we have followed thee with the eyes of our soul, as far as the limits of our mortality allowed; and now, can we ever again turn our eyes upon this world of darkness? O Blessed Virgin, in order to sanctify our exile and help us to rejoin thee, bring to our aid the virtues whereby, as on wings, thou didst soar to so sublime a height. In us, too, the must reign; in us, they must crush the head of the wicked serpent, that one day they may triumph in us. O day of days, when we shall behold not only our Redeemer, but also the Queen who stands so close to the Sun of Justice as even to be clothed therewith, eclipsing with her brightness all the splendours of the saints!
The Church, it is true, remains to you, O Mary, the Church, who is also our Mother, and who continues thy struggle against the dragon with its seven hateful heads. But she, too, sighs for the time when the wings of an eagle will be given her, and she will be permitted to rise like thee from the desert and to reach her Spouse. Look upon her passing, like the moon, at thy feet, through her laborious phases; hear the supplications she addresses to thee as Mediatrix with the divine Sun; through thee may she receive light; through thee may she find favour with Him who loved thee, and clothed thee with glory and crowned thee with beauty.
Photo credit: Assumption of the Virgin (1476) by Francesco Botticini via Wikipedia Commons.