Here in England we have just celebrated the Solemnity of the Assumption, which usually falls on August 15. I fear most people will have missed the significance of the date, but in the rest of Europe it is not so. In Italy the Assumption is a major holiday, coinciding as it does with the mass rush to the mountains and the sea, known as the ferragosto, the annual holiday that takes place in the very hottest days of the year. In the Maltese islands, the air echoes with petards during the day, and fireworks at night, as six parishes celebrate the Assumption as their patronal feast, including the Cathedral of Gozo.
Even in oh so secular France, August 15 is a day of celebration, partly because it is the Assumption, and partly because it is the birthday of Napoleon I: during the years of the Bourbon Restoration, the populace used the feast of the Assumption to mask their celebration of their national hero.
So, looking around Europe, dull old England is not really the place to be at this time of year, and I am resolved to be elsewhere next year – I hope in Gozo: there is something about the sun, the sea, and the taste of the local speciality, pastizzi, that bring out the true significance of this feast for me.
The Germans, with their down to earth language, call the Assumption “Mariä Himmelfahrt” – Mary’s journey to heaven. This reminds us, I think, that the Assumption is a feast about a physical fact – Mary’s body now being assumed into heaven – and that where she has gone, we too all hope to go one day as well. I doubt the fear of Hell grips many people nowadays; but just as belief in Hell has waned, so has a true belief in Heaven. Heaven, as the Assumption illustrates, is in continuity with this life, a life in the body, the glorified body. As I gradually fall apart and feel mortality creep up on me, I am cheered by the thought of a glorified body awaiting me, if I am saved. As summer begins to show the very first signs of fading, I am encouraged by the thought of an eternal summer, that contains within it no hint of its own decay.
Hope is the great message we need to hear. When those dismal killjoys, the so-called reformers, burned the statues of Our Lady at the time of the Henrician Reformation, and after the iconoclasts had done their terrible work of destruction, the people of this country were left without beautiful images, and left without a proper Marian theology, and thus, in large measure, without hope. We need to rediscover our Marian devotion, and we need to cheer up, and look to the future with confidence. These three are all connected; they are in fact one task. The trouble is that once a tradition has been destroyed, how do you revive it again? Unlike Italy, Malta, or even France, England seems to me to be a culturally impoverished place, and religion has been excised from the popular imagination, leaving us all the poorer for it. We are no longer Mary’s Dowry, but we need to become so again. But how?