Sunday, August 13, 2017

Domus Dei et Porta Caeli

Solemnity of the Assumption 2017

During the formative years as Seminarians, one of our regular pastoral assignments was to engage in corporal works of mercy at the Holy Family Home for the Aged at Batu Lanchang, Penang, which is administered by the Little Sisters of the Poor. Many of us looked forward to this particular assignment, not because of the ignoble work of having to bathe, feed and attend to the daily needs of the elderly, but for a less altruistic reason. The Sisters served one hell of a breakfast and lunch! Apart from this culinary feast as motivation, the highlight of the day’s work was to assist at the Sunday mass celebrated in the quaint Art-Deco inspired chapel. Prominently placed above the arch of the main western door of the chapel is this Latin inscription: “Domus Dei et Porta Caeli”, House of God and Gate of Heaven. To anyone unfamiliar with the titles accorded to Our Lady, these words seem to be obvious titles for a Church, offering consolation to both the elderly residents and nuns who cross the threshold as they enter into this house of prayer.  However, these titles are not just meant for the Church, but titles most suitably assigned to Our Lady.

So why and how is Mary the “Gate of Heaven”? First, Our Lady is the Gate of Heaven because Our Lord Jesus chose to come to us through her. Blessed John Henry Newman tells us that “it was through her that our Lord passed from heaven to earth.” Blessed Newman saw our Lady as the fulfilment of the prophecy of Ezekiel, “the gate shall be closed it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it, since the Lord God of Israel has entered through it—and it shall be closed for the Prince, the Prince Himself shall sit in it.” Christ, is the long awaited Prince and the closed gates must now yield to Him. Eve’s decision in the Garden of Eden closed the door to an earthly paradise. That gate is forever barred. But now the barrier between heaven and earth has been breached when Christ Himself chose to come into the world through the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and His death and resurrection renewed the promise of salvation. It was Mary’s fiat, her total, complete willingness to act as the handmaid of the Lord, which provided the means through which the gates to a Heavenly Paradise would be reopened.

But Mary is not just the gate that Our Lord chose to pass through to get to us, she is also the gate by which we must enter to go to Him. Therefore, it is no exaggeration for St. Bonaventure to say that, “Mary is called gate of heaven because no one can enter that blessed kingdom without passing through her.” Furthermore, St. Bernardine of Siena says the following, “As every mandate of grace that is sent by a king passes through the palace gates, so does every grace that comes from heaven to the world passes through the hands of Mary the Gate of Heaven.”

It can be difficult to understand just how Mary acts as a means to our redemption.  She is not God, nor did she die in reparation for our sins.  But here’s the thing; Mary’s fiat, her unconditional ‘Yes,’ it is absolute perfection, the embodiment of God’s plan for the human race, had necessarily provided the occasion for God to breach the gap, overcome the barrier, and heal the wound of sin separating us from Him. It is the surrender to God’s will by this woman that brought forth the Saviour of mankind.

Since Our Lady’s holy submission to God’s will had reopened the gates of heaven, it is only logical and reasonable that she should be the first of our race to directly imitate the mystery of Christ’s resurrection and Ascension into heaven in her Assumption, and enter through that very same gate. Neither the tomb, nor death, could hold her body or soul. And so, the Church declared in the dogma of the Assumption that at the end of her earthly pilgrimage, Our Lady was assumed body and soul to heaven without knowing corruption.

Though the Bible provides no explicit account of Our Lady’s Assumption, we do, however, have tradition. According to Catholic tradition, Our Lady lived at Ephesus after the death of her Son, although her tomb was thought to be in Jerusalem. It is said that the Angel Gabriel, just like at the Annunciation, was sent to warn the Blessed Lady that in three days she would die and be reunited with her Son in heaven. The archangel gave her a palm, symbol of her victory over sin and death, and instructed her to carry it with her into her coffin. Upon learning of her approaching death, Mary prayed that the Apostles would come so that she might see them one last time. According to the ancient apocryphal text Transitus Mariae, the Apostles were miraculously transported from their various mission lands to Mary’s bedside on clouds. Then on the day of her death the Lord Jesus appeared and bore away His mother’s soul, and He returned three days later, when the angels took her body up into the Kingdom of Heaven.  Later, when her tomb was opened, it was found empty.

To the skeptics who are doubtful of tradition John Henry Newman pointedly asks, “If her body was not taken into heaven, where is it? Why are not pilgrimages made to it? Why are not relics producible of her, as of the saints in general? Plainly because that sacred body is in heaven, not on earth.” Further, it stands to reason that the Blessed Virgin Mary would follow her Son in His victory over death by Resurrection and be brought body and soul “to the highest glory of heaven, to shine as Queen at the right hand of that same Son, the immortal King of Ages.”

At the prospect of death many often recoil in horror. We fear that when we finally appear before the Gates of Heaven, our passage beyond the threshold would be barred. But today, we are reassured by the Church once again, that death does not mean the end, but merely a transition to another life, and that there is one who has passed through those gates. And she now stands beside her Divine Son to intercede on our behalf. Our certainty in her intercession is to be found in the beautiful words of that ancient and scripturally inspired prayer to Our Lady, the Hail Mary. The Church teaches us to call upon Mary – now, the present moment, which is in our power, and “at the hour of our death,” which is beyond our power, so that with the help of Our Lady, we may be given the chance to enter Heaven.

Mary is the archetype of the Church and our Mother. The Preface captures well this intimate connexion: Our Lady’s Assumption marks “the beginning and image of your Church’s coming to perfection and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people.” In the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the Fathers of the Council in a very beautiful way described Mary’s assumption into glory: “Just as the mother of Jesus, glorified in body and soul in heaven, is the image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected in the world to come, so too does she shine forth on earth until the day of the Lord shall come as a sure sign of hope and solace to the people of God during their journey on Earth.” Our Lady now lives where each one of her children will live one day in our own resurrected body. When Christ returns in glory, He will command our mortal bodies to rise from the dead. Then our body and soul will be reunited, never more to suffer or die. Mary’s assumption is given to us to contemplate because it speaks to us of our glorious future if we remain faithful to God. Let us ask Our Blessed Mother, the Porta Caeli, who opens her arms, to her often wayward children, to intercede for us as we continue our journey towards heaven.

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