When Michelangelo’s Pieta was first unveiled, wags found two errors. The Virgin, holding her dead son, is larger than he is. By three feet, if they both stood up. The artist answered that this distortion was done in the service of beauty. The body of a fully grown man would look ungainly in Mary’s lap. The second criticism was the Madonna’s face. It’s that of an adolescent, perhaps the Virgin who conceived but certainly not the Mother who received her dead son’s body. Responding to the criticism, Michelangelo quipped, “Chastity enjoys eternal youth.” There’s some truth to his retort, and it lies at the heart of the feast of the Assumption. It also has something important to say about our earth, about our care for her ecology.
Like the Feast of the Ascension, the mystery of the Assumption is not about relocation in space. Mary didn’t “go up” into space any more than Jesus did. Both entered into the fullness of divine life, what we call heaven. The spatial metaphor is imposed by our impoverished imaginations.
The mystery, which our faith confesses, has to do with our natural world, our place within it, and the effect of sin upon both. And that’s why the Assumption has an ecological implication. Because what is at stake in Mary’s flesh plays out in the world as well, though with a different result.
At the center of this feast stands the mystery of the human person, who is a unity of spirit and matter. Like the angels, we are spirits, intelligences created to serve God. But we are also animals, material creatures, which emerge from the world and are sustained by it.
Sin affects the totality of the human person and our enveloping world as well. It corrupts both. Consider, for example, the human face. Some of the lines upon our faces are due to nature itself. Sun and age will have their way. But some elements of the face, its grimace, the tightness of the jaw, are the result of sin, or, at the least, the result of the cares and concerns, which sin has unleashed upon us.
The same is true of the enveloping world that surrounds and sustains us. It has less energy today than when it was created, because it was designed to wind down into entropy. It also has less fossil fuels today than it did, say, a century ago. That’s a human effect. Not of itself sinful, and yet, as we’ve accomplished it, sinful indeed. Our wastefulness and our rapaciousness have removed fuels from the earth differently than we would have, and at a faster pace, than if sin had never entered our world. The very idea that the world is simply ours to exploit as we see fit is itself a notion quite infected with sin. And so the face of our mother the earth looks quite different than God intended. It’s soiled, marred, clouded, heated, ravished and depleted. Ecology has an ethical dimension; ethics can’t eschew ecology.
Because she never knew sin, Mary’s lived her life very differently than we do ours. Like Christ, she probably bore the marks of sin in her flesh: lines of worry, or the marks of the chronically underfed. But she was free from personal sin, so there was no incised scowl, no shoulders weighted with resentment.
And because she never knew sin, Mary’s life closed in a way very differently than ours do. She didn’t enter the end—should one even use the word “death?”—as we do. She went as the creator intended, like one falling peacefully asleep at the end of the day.
On this side of the grave, we can’t see the faces of Christ or his mother. The claims we make about the beauty of their flesh are the converse of our own disfigurement. It’s a bit different with the earth. One need not look far to see what sin has done to her. In many spots, it’s difficult even to imagine her original, unsullied splendor.
Fortunately, we are given the grace to imagine a much improved ecology, one in which the effects of sin are slowed, and even, to some extent, reversed. The future face of our mother the earth might yet look more like the creator intended. Whether or not Michelangelo was right about chastity enjoying eternal youth, the creator has given our mother the earth the ability to renew herself, if only we were more chaste in her regard.