Feast of the Assumption

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Today we celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven. On this feast day and Holy Day of Obligation read Melissa Musick’s meditation, originally published in Celebration, on how Mary cared for God (and others) and how tradition has it that God in turn cared for Mary:

St. Jerome tells us that Mary was a promised one. Her mother was Anna, her father, Joachim. They were barren. Then an angel came first to the sorrowing Joachim and then to the sorrowing Anna, bringing them glad news.  The angel said,

God has heard your prayers.  Anna will bear a child, a daughter, and you are to name her Mary. She will be filled with the Holy Spirit from her mother’s womb.  She will serve God all her days.

Like most of my female friends, even women who are not Catholic, I feel close to Mary. Our children have grown and left home. We look to Mary for grace in all the leave-takings parenthood demands and for courage as our children set out on lonely, and sometimes, perilous, paths. We learn from Mary what it means, first, to be a mother to a child, and later, to be a sister in Christ to the same child grown.

But these days I wonder about Mary less as Jesus’ mother than as Anna’s daughter. Did Anna grow old in her daughter’s house? Did Mary care for her mother as age robbed Anna of sight and hearing and sense? Did Mary ever wonder at a child gone so soon and a mother lingering so long?

Tradition says that, as Mary lay dying, the apostles gathered at her bedside. They came from all over the world. Those who had died rose up from the grave, a gift from God to the woman who had borne him. The apostles, living and dead, kept vigil and watched as Mary was taken into heaven, the flesh that had cradled the Christ never falling into corruption and decay.

It is as if God understood Mary’s grief at the cross and sought to spare her further sorrow. She would die, but she would not be alone and she would never know the darkness of the grave into which her beloved child was laid.

That was Mary’s death, but what of Anna’s? Who was at her side? Who kept vigil with the mother of the Mother of God? Was this another sorrow to pierce Mary’s flesh, a sorrow unrecorded and so unremembered?

I walked into the memory care unit where my mother lives now. She was shuffling along, gripping the bars of her walker. An aide had her arm around my mother’s narrow shoulders. Before I could call out to her, she looked up and saw me.  Turning to the aide, she said, “That’s my mother.”

Tradition says that, as Mary lay dying, the apostles gathered at her bedside.

Her mother, her comfort, had come.

My mother and I don’t talk much anymore. I rub her shoulders and her back. She is bony and thin. I have to be careful not bruise her skin, skin which lays across her nerves and muscles like a creased and threadbare cotton sheet, so worn from repeated washings that the fabric is translucent and prone to tears.

I rub her head. Since we stopped many of the medications she used to take each day, her curls have returned. Silver tendrils cover her head and I run my fingers through them as I did when I was a child and she let me brush her thick, dark locks. I say,  “Your curls are back!”

She says, “They are?” and touches her hand to her scalp. She smiles. She has forgotten so much, let so much go, but that small vanity remains.

An aide or a visitor walks in to the room, and my mother says, “Look. My curls are back.”

I rub her arms and hands with cream. I rub her legs and feet with lotion. Her legs are swollen from the fluid an exhausted heart can no longer expel from her body. Her feet are blue from lack of blood. Her toenails are thick, yellow plates, impossible to cut or trim without special tools. It is as if the weight and heft of her skin has slid down to her toenails and hardened there, in a mockery of health and strength. I massage it, all of her ruined flesh, and consider as I do that she carried me once and delivered me into the world.

And I think of Mary. Scripture and the tradition are silent about Anna’s last years.  Still, I imagine her anointing her mother’s dying body as she anointed her son’s dead one.  The mother, who became the first and truest daughter of her son, becomes the final, faithful mother of her own. There is a fabric holding the world. It is a sturdy net and a sheltering cloak, woven by love. As Mary cared for God — weaving, weaving — so God in turn cared for Mary. I do not believe Mary’s mother, Anna — or any of our mothers, or any of us — are cast out from its folds and its embrace. And here, again, always, Mary is my model and my companion on the way.

In her poem, “Let Evening Come,” Jane Kenyon writes,

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
Be afraid.  God does not leave us
Comfortless, so let evening come.