Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Flesh of Mary in Transitus: serving as bridge between Christ and humanity

Amid the various stories of the Transitus of the Virgin Mary, we find a number of discontinuities and sometime even discrepancies in the accounts of what actual transpired in the moment of Mary’s Assumption into heaven. Some very important details such as the location of the events of the Assumption for example, which could serve to legitimize the truth of the accounts, are scattered and even contradictory depending on the account. Rather, the variations that arise from this accounts have given cause for dismissal or at least high skepticism of the events surrounding Mary’s passing. Still, however, it seems to me that focusing on the moments of discontinuity can often lure us away from any truth (whether historical or theological) that can be derived from these accounts. I do not wish to down play the value of consistent and dependable evidence, especially in the case of a ‘historical’ event such as claimed by these accounts. I simply wish to understand these accounts of the Virgin Mary’s Transitus as they might function within the context of the development of faith and devotion despite their misaligned details. Thus, again, though these accounts do vary, the concerns operative in these accounts is the point of continuity I find valuable to consider and evaluate.

Looking to the accounts we have discussed in class, I find two points regarding the Church’s considerations of Mary is key.  First, as discussed, the flesh of Mary which is shared by the divine Son of God, Jesus, is centrally important. As we previously saw in looking at the understanding of Mary as the “Theotokos,” the humanity of Christ is intertwined and perhaps even dependent on the flesh of the Virgin who bore him into the world. As human, the redemptive works of Christ have currency for the salvation of humanity. We can go so far as to say that Mary herself, on this level, is then responsible for our redemption. Therefore, it would seem absurd to think that the flesh which was not only shared with Christ but gave human substance to Christ would not get some serious special treatment.  Secondly, Mary is slowly transformed into the human example, meaning that she, in her passing, becomes an example for all human beings as we should and will be in our own moment of passing and resurrection. Hence, there are two veins of consideration I would like to make in regard to these points. Mary, as the Mother of God, can be considered in her own right; she is unique in all that shares with Christ. At the same time, she is like all of humanity in how she is human (and only human).  Through her flesh/humanity she becomes a point of intersection between Christ and human beings. She is both mold and model; clay and pot.( Here, I think it is easy to see how these levels of relation slowly transition Mary into the bridge between realm of the divine and human often referred to present day Marian cults.) I find these points of continuity to be quite candidly carried through in the narratives. The two veins of consideration can be broken down in the text by looking at these two sets of relations: Christ and Mary; Mary and humanity.

Considering the relationship between Christ and Mary, the ‘sharing’ between Mary and Christ is quite apparent throughout. Many parallels are drawn between the passing of Mary and the death of Christ. Whereas, only John was present at the foot of the cross, consistently in most of the accounts of Mary’s passing all twelve apostles are present. By some mode of transportation whether by cloud and smoke, foot, or translocation, they all arrive to send off the Virgin. Consistent also is the formal presence of John in all the accounts since it was Christ who entrusts Mary to his care.  In Joseph of Arimathea’s account, after Mary is informed that she is to leave this world, she asks the disciples to watch and pray with her just as Christ asked his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane (section 10). In the Gospels, Peter runs to the disciples and tells them that he has seen the Lord and Thomas disbelieves but here Thomas provides proof of what the other apostles are unable to see and believe, namely the raising of Mary’s body into Heaven (section 19).

Though the Transitus of Mary mirrors the death of Christ, many of the accounts refer to the same details in an effort to legitimize their claims to the validity of this connection between Mary and Christ and affirm the special status of Mary. In every account we read it is Christ himself who takes Mary into Heaven whether her body, soul, or both. The narratives seek in this way to establish the specific investment Christ has in the Virgin. Also, in most of the earliest accounts we read, either the Jews or Satan himself plan to burn the body of Mary after her soul is lifted. This is quite an interesting detail that stays pretty consistent throughout the narratives. Eventhough this may be a response to an accusation made regarding the absence of Mary’s body, it may serve a purpose beyond this. What would be consequence of burning the body of Mary? Burning the body of Mary has serious implications for the flesh and perhaps the humanity of Christ. For the same reason Mary is not left to decay in the tomb, the flesh of Mary is unique and cannot, or perhaps more appropriately, will not be corrupted. In fact, in the accounts of both John the Evangelist and Pseudo-Melito, Mary’s body exudes beautiful fragrance as it lies in the bier and tomb.

In class, we discussed quite a bit about the separation of Mary’s soul and body and the assumption of both. In many of the narratives, Mary’s soul is taken up first; her body is taken up later after some time. It strikes me as interesting to note the special features Mary’s body, once separated from its soul, takes on in the narratives. As mentioned above, it is only after her soul departs that temptations to burn it arise and sweet fragrances begin to exude from it. There is a quality to Mary’s flesh as flesh alone that is, I think worth noting here. As flesh alone, it would seem that Mary is Christ’s alone. Perhaps, this is why in many of the narratives Christ is the one to call the body of Mary into heaven/paradise.

Mary’s relationship with Christ is a moment of model for humanity as well. Again, in most of the narratives, Mary’s expressed desire for Christ directly sets into motion the steps of her Transitus. Despite her special relationship with Christ as mother, she also refers to him her Lord and is often portrayed as falling prostrate before him when he appears to her (Daley, 701). In addition, the joyful passing of Mary, as discussed in class, serves as a model of our own future glory. The first part of most of the descriptions of Mary’s passing, for all intents and purposes, look quite similar to the death we often observe. Though we do not typically see multitudes of angels, our soul is said to depart our bodies. Later, in what Christians hope to be the final judgment, the body and soul are expected to unite and glorified must like what Mary experiences in the narrative.  Her relationship with Christ and Transitus are thus in many ways exemplary. 

By following the points of continuity and consistency in the narratives of the Transitus, we are able to trace the moments where Mary begins to take shape as the bridge by way of her flesh between Christ and humanity.


  1. FL: You have made a very nice argument here. Your exposition of the readings–especially, but not limited to the Christ-Mary, Mary-humanity linkage–is convincing. I also think that you are right about the necessity of Mary’s flesh. It seems to me that Proclus makes that case emphatically. But, of course, as you mention, just as the combination of God and man require adjustments to how the early Christians think and write about Christ, the paradoxes of Mary’s relationship both as mother to Jesus and subject of God is on display in her behavior in his presence in the narratives.

    I understand your approach of taking the “pulp” of the different accounts and extracting consistent “truth” (Christians do the same with the accounts of Saul’s encounter with the Lord on the road to Damascus). Do you (or does anyone else) have any suggestions about what is to be done with the elements that are narrative “outliers?”


  2. I agree: lovely argument! I think you have gotten it exactly right when you say Mary is both mold and model, clay and pot (lovely metaphors!). On the one hand, her body is absolutely unique, for it was the unique source of the unique Incarnation, as unique as Christ himself. But on the other, she is wholly human and therefore shares with all of us (human beings) a human ending (and hope). I particularly liked the way you developed our understanding of her relationship with Christ both as uniquely his ("Christ's alone") and as a model for his relationship with our humanity.