'Go up Lord, to the place of your rest, you and the ark of your strength.' This phrase, from the psalm set for the vigil Mass of this solemnity, is crucial to understanding the doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Dominican St Albert the Great, with no hesitation, states that it prophesies the Assumption of Our Lady. She is the ark of God's strength, the vessel of devotion who bore the one who fulfilled all Israel's hopes, her priest, king and prophet. So when Christ goes up to the place of his rest, at the right hand of God the Father, the ark of the new and eternal covenant follows him in a wonderful and gracious reciprocity.
Mary received Christ in her womb, body and soul, with love beyond all telling, and nurtured and nourished him, and was his greatest disciple; now her son and her God receives her, body and soul, into the eternal dwellings, and crowns her with grace and glory: 'On your right stands the Queen in gold of Ophir.'
This equation of the ark of the covenant with Our Lady also has great significance for the doctrine of her perpetual virginity. In the Bible we read that when the ark was being transported in a cart, the oxen stumble and the ark moves too. A Levite named Uzza puts out his arm instinctively, to stop it falling. He is immediately struck dead. From the story we know that Uzza is not a wicked man, but that the ark is so holy no-one can survive direct contact with it. Now, St Joseph, being a holy man, who would have known the story of Uzza, and believing Mary to be the new ark of the eternal covenant; would he not treat her and her virginal state not only with respect, but awe?
St Joseph would also have known that that the doctrine of the virgin mother of the divine Messiah was a very old one. In the Mass for the day we have the great vision of the woman giving birth,
'God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple.'
This vision, like most of the book of the Apocalypse, probably belongs to a time even before the birth of Jesus. Many devout Jews prayed and hoped for the advent of the divine messiah, and believed his birth would be miraculous and of a virgin. In fact, the whole liturgy of the Temple in Jerusalem was geared towards this.
Afterwards, the prophecies were retained in collections because they were seen to have been fulfilled in the real lives of Jesus and Mary. A vision of the Messiah's birth may be one of the things that Moses was shown on the mountain. Otherwise, it is difficult to explain why St John, who knew Our Lord and Our Lady, would talk in such a mythic and impersonal way, after the event. What he has done is preserve these great visions because he knows they are now fulfilled by the Virgin from Nazareth and the boy she cherished both inside and outside her womb. The boy's death is also prophesied in Apocalypse 11:8. That may be one of the texts that Anna had in mind when she spoke to Mary of her coming sorrow (cf. Lk. 2).
So, far from being an imposition on the Church, the Assumption of Our Lady, declared as de fide in 1950, is part of the bedrock of the Christian faith; it is also profoundly biblical. It was the faith of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the eye-witness of the apostles, the faith of the Church, the preaching of the saints, the devotion of the faithful, long before it was ever declared and defined. When St Albert was in choir chanting, or in his cell reading, when he was engaged by Psalm 131 he assumed the Assumption; it would be churlish of us to do otherwise.
We must also remember the great pastoral care shown by pope Pius XII when he declared the doctrine. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, and the cumulative horrors of the 20th century, when so many unspeakable things had been done to human bodies by the children of the Enlightenment, it was precisely the value and integrity of Christ's and Our Lady's bodies that was being affirmed.
And being united to them by humanity and grace, by extension, our bodies also are affirmed. We too, can hope to follow Christ up to his rest, to be with him and Our Lady, the ark of his strength.