Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Assumption of Mary - The Divine Female

Assumption of the Virgin by Titian
High Altar - Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
(Venice, Italy) The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, August 15, is one of my favorite holidays here in Italy. It is when Mary ascended into Heaven, body and soul. I went to Mass at the Basilica this morning in the company of a German woman whose father is Catholic and mother is Lutheran. She remarked that the Catholic religion is one of the few where female divinity is worshipped along with the male image of God.

I've written about this feast day before, three years ago, back in 2008 in this post:

Mary Ascends to Heaven and Pala D'Oro, The Golden Cloth - Venice

Yesterday, I found myself in a miraculous position -- alone, on my knees, on the high altar of the Basilica in front of the tomb of Saint Mark, the brilliant gold of the Pala D'Oro shimmering in the background.

August 15th is Ferragosto here in Italy, and also Assumption Day, the day that Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, was assumed into Heaven. It is an ancient pagan festival combined with a Catholic holiday.

 Click HERE to read the entire post. 

Looking back on what I was actually living at that point in time, it is a miracle that I had the presence of mind to write that post. The week before, I had been subjected to one of the most terrifying episodes of my life. In fact, at the time of the writing, unbeknownst to me, two of my ribs were broken -- something I would discover the day after I wrote the post. I was in a lot of physical, emotional and mental pain. That the post is so optimistic proves what power faith can have. Knowing what I do now, I am more grateful than ever for the privilege of praying in front of the Wall of Gold. 

This year, again I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to kneel in front of the Pala D'Oro, the Golden Altarpiece. It's like having a direct line to Heaven; you can feel the energy beaming in and out of your palms. I had a special request to make at the Pala D'Oro yet again: my Uncle Bob recently told me that my cousin, Stanley, had died suddenly at age fifty, which was a shock. I am the oldest cousin out of fourteen, so to have one die before me felt unnatural. Cousin Stanley had the same name as our grandfather, who was a great fan of St. Francis of Assisi, since that was his middle name.

Photo credit: Brando
One of the wonderful things about the Catholic religion is it contains lots of "white magic" -- incense, holy water, candles, sacred oil, miracles, saints, visions, icons, rites and rituals, etc. You can summon up particular saints for help with particular challenges; the one you are named after is especially powerful; I was baptized with the name of Catherine. In fact, some Italians celebrate their saint's day as well as their own birthday, even if they are not particularly religious. Italy is a predominately Catholic country, and reminders of that are everywhere, in the art, in the church bells, in the symbol of the cross. Here in Venice, we have Mark, one of the evangelists himself as our patron, and the winged lion of San Marco is part of the scenery. And it just so happens that St. Catherine of Sienna is the patron saint of Italy, along with St. Francis of Assisi! 

Also inside the Basilica is the Byzantine icon, Madonna Nicopeia, who marched at the head of the Roman Imperial Army. She performs miracles, and I lit a candle for Cousin Stanley before the church service began. So, I had lots of spiritual help around me when I said some words in front of the Pala D'Oro for Stanley, who still lives on earth, my uncle tells me, in the form of a tangerine tree that was planted in his name. 

The influence of the divine female energy upon Italy -- Venice in particular -- cannot be underestimated. Before Venice came into power, another island in the lagoon, the island of Torcello, was settled first. 

Interior Santa Maria Assunta,
After the fall of the western Roman Empire, a wondrous city grew up on Torcello, which was a distant outpost of the Byzantine Empire, trading with Constantinople. One of the most important things to know about Venice is that it did not exist when the empire was based in Rome. It came into existence when the Roman empire was based in Constantinople and called the Byzantium Empire. We can imagine that some clever, enlightened people, free from the direct rule of an empire, built up Torcello before the emperor in Constantinople figured out what was going on. About the same time, the story goes, authorities from Padua founded Venice proper at Rialto on Friday, March 25, 421 at twelve-o'clock noon. Eventually these islands in the Venetian lagoon would become what we now know as Venice. 

Torcello - Santa Maria Assunta
There are all sorts of stories and myths about how Venice was created. I like to believe that she -- because everyone agrees that Venice is female -- was born from divine female energy, just as a divine Mary gave birth to the Son of God. To this day on the island of Torcello, there is a church called the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, or the Cathedral of the Assumption of St. Mary that was first founded in 639. Instead of Christ over the altar, we have Mary. The late Pope John Paul came from Venice and startled the world when he proclaimed that "He (God) is our father; even more, he is our mother." This celebration of divine female energy is something else that sets the European culture apart.  

Here is what we heard yesterday in Venice inside the Basilica, which, by the way, was surprisingly full with worshippers:

First Reading

Apocalypse 11:19,12:1-6,10

The sanctuary of God in heaven opened, and the ark of the covenant could be seen inside it. 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 forever have been won by our God, and all authority for his Christ."

RESPONSORIAL PSALM                         Psalm 44
On your right stands the queen, 
in garments of gold.

The daughters of kings are among your loved ones.
On your right stands the queen in gold of Ophir.
Listen, O daughter, give ear to my words:
forget your own people and your father’s house. +

So will the king desire your beauty:
He is your Lord, pay homage to him.
They are escorted amid gladness and joy:
they pass within the palace of the king.  

Second Reading
1 Corinthians 15:20-26

Christ has been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep. Death came through one man and in the same way the resurrection of the dead has come through one man. Just as all men die in Adam, so all men will be brought to life in Christ; but all of them in their proper order:

Christ as the first-fruits and then, after the coming of Christ, those who belong to him. 

After that will come the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, having done away with every sovereignty, authority and power. 

For he must be king until he has put all his enemies under his feet and the last of the enemies to be destroyed is death, for everything is to be put under his feet. 

I was curious to see if the Church of England was following the same text for Assumption Day, which they celebrated as part of a regular Sunday service on August 14, not a special holiday that fell this year on a Monday. The first reading from the Apocalypse was the same. But the second reading was different. Here is what the Anglican Church presented on Sunday for the second reading:

Galatians 4:4-7

But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law,
to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.
And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying, "Abba, Father."
Therefore thou art no more a servant but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.

That's a very different message. In some versions, I found the word "servant" translated as "slave" and also "bond-servant," which, I suppose is a polite way of saying "slave." 

The Orthodox and Eastern Catholics celebrate the feast, but they call it the Dormition of the Theotokos. From Wikipedia:
Dormition of the Theotokos is celebrated on August 15 the same calendar day as the Roman Catholic Feast of the Assumption of Mary. The Dormition and the Assumption are different names for the same event, Mary's departure from the earth, although the beliefs are not entirely the same.
The Orthodox Church teaches that Mary died a natural death, like any human being; that her soul was received by Christ upon death; and that her body was resurrected on the third day after her repose, at which time she was taken up, bodily only, into heaven. Her tomb was found empty on the third day.
Roman Catholic teaching holds that Mary was "assumed" into heaven in bodily form. Some Catholics agree with the Orthodox that this happened after Mary's death, while some hold that she did not experience death.
So, whether you believe that Mary first died a normal death, resurrected after three days, then went straight up to Heaven, or whether you think she just went straight up off the Earth, or whether you think Mary never existed, we can agree that this is a very particular holy day that gets an enormous amount of attention in certain parts of the planet, while many other cultures -- including Christian cultures -- don't think about it at all. Here in Italy it is a national holiday, as in many other countries in Europe.  

Meanwhile, back at the Basilica, the Gospel:

Visitation by Jacques Daret
Luke 1:39-56

Mary set out at that time and went as quickly as she could to a town in the hill country of Judah. She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. 

Now as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She gave a loud cry and said, "Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord? For the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy. Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled."

And Mary said: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit exults in God my saviour; because he has looked upon his lowly handmaid. Yes, from this day forward all generations will call me blessed, for the Almighty has done great things for me.

Holy is his name, and his mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear him.
Russian icon
Nativity of St. John the Baptist
He has shown the power of his arm,
he has routed the proud of heart.
He has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich sent empty away.
He has come to the help of Israel his servant, mindful of his mercy – according to the promise he made to our ancestors – of his mercy to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months and then went back home.
The Gospel at the Anglican Church was the same except they left out the beginning when Elizabeth asked why she should be honored with a visit from the mother of the Lord. Instead it starts with "Mary said:" and leaves out the last sentence, because, in the Anglican version we don't know that Mary is having a conversation with Elizabeth. Elizabeth, of course, was the wife of St. Zacharias, and the child inside her womb was none other than John the Baptist. (The body of John the Baptist's father, Zacharias, is said to be here in Venice inside the Church of San Zaccaria.) Both Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, are also revered by Muslims. 

The Gospel that was read on Assumption Day takes on special significance if we think that these two women were both aware that they were pregnant with two very important male babies at the time they were having that conversation. When Elizabeth tells Mary that she felt her baby jump for joy, well, that is John the Baptist meeting Jesus Christ for the first time, womb to womb.

Later that evening there was a special service at the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello.

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog


  1. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, August 15, is one of my favorite holidays here in Italy. It is when Mary ascended into Heaven, body and soul. I went to Mass at the Basilica this morning in the company of a German woman whose father is Catholic and mother is Lutheran. She remarked that the Catholic religion is one of the few where female divinity is worshipped along with the male image of God.

  2. The Frari church is one of my favourites in all of Venice and perhaps even in Italy. I love the Canova tomb and the works by Titian. It was a beautiful experience to explore this gorgeous church and witness the Assumption in person.

    The Wanderfull Traveler