As a physicist and a priest, I am sometimes asked how I can accept what the Church teaches about miracles, or revealed doctrines such as the Assumption of Our Lady. My response is always along the lines of “Why not?” Physics is about what happens for the most part to fairly simple systems in nature. But physics has nothing to say about divine actions that exceed the productive power of nature, to use St Thomas Aquinas’s definition of a miracle (Summa Contra Gentiles 3.103; Summa Theologica 1.110, art. 4).
If I catch a falling apple, I interrupt the ordinary course of the laws of physics, so there is no reason to suppose that the omnipotent God cannot also intervene and work a miracle. Contemporary physics has stretched our imaginations dramatically as to what is possible even without special divine intervention. For example, many things can and do co-exist with us without any effect on us, such as the 100 trillion neutrinos travelling through each of us every second. That demonstrates how entire worlds could be close to us even if they are ordinarily inaccessible and unnoticed. So not only are miracles not excluded by physics, but the training and experiences of physicists have acclimatised us to the extraordinary.
What about metaphysics, traditionally understood as those matters left over after the study of physics and other particular subjects? From this perspective, the main inference (Psalm 15(16):10), which also applies to the physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:27), is that it is unfitting for that which is utterly without evil to decay. Since Mary was not only sinless but full of grace (Luke 1:28) and carried God Himself in her womb, it has long been felt as repugnant that her body should decay in the ordinary way.
Our theology teaches, however, that the Assumption is not merely about the preservation of Mary’s body, but that God has raised her body and soul into heaven. In Munificentissimus Deus on November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII declared that “… the immaculate Mother of God, Mary ever virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven”. The Holy Father drew on millennia of arguments, the witness of churches and liturgies dedicated to the Assumption, and the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of Mary in the Old Testament, which is described as taken up into heaven (Ps 131:8; Rev 11:19-12:1). Although Catholicism still regards as open the question of whether or not Mary actually died, some older Catholic practices as well as the Orthodox Churches refer to the Assumption as the “Dormition of the Mother of God.” This gentle term, “Falling Asleep”, underlines that Mary was preserved from the pains of death.
Why, then, does this doctrine matter for us? If by the Ascension, Jesus Christ has become a bridge linking earth and heaven, then the Assumption teaches us that one created human person has already crossed that bridge, body and soul, as a pledge of the future general resurrection. In addition, Mary’s Assumption reinforces a lesson of the Ascension, namely that the saints are not intended to remain as disembodied souls but to be resurrected into a place, not a mere state, of eternal joy.
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