What happens to us after we die? People in every age wonder whether this present life is all there is. Some bury food and favorite items with their deceased, believing that they will need such things in the afterlife. Some hold that people are reincarnated in another life on earth. Christians place their hope in resurrected life, with Christ having already preceded us, then raising all who belong to him, as Paul assures the Corinthians in the second reading.
In subsequent verses of this same chapter, Paul speculates on what kind of body we will have at the resurrection. For Paul and other Jews of his day, there could be no existence without a body. Paul speaks of us having transformed, glorious, spiritual and imperishable bodies, bearing the image of the One who has preceded us in resurrected life.
Today’s feast underscores the importance of bodiliness, declaring that Mary, “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” (Pius XII, “Munificentissimus Deus,” No. 44). For centuries Christians had considered that like other holy figures who had been taken up to heaven— Enoch, Moses and Elijah (Gn 5:24; Jude 9; 2 Kgs 2:1-12)—Mary also would have warranted special attention from God at her death. Many different legends grew up, but it was not until 1950 that Pope Pius XII declared infallibly that the Assumption of Mary was a dogma of the Catholic faith.
In today’s Gospel there is an emphasis on the holiness of the body as a vehicle for the saving life God brings to birth. Both Elizabeth and Mary exemplify an incarnational spirituality, whereby God’s action in this world is known through bodiliness. With the infant in her womb leaping for joy, Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit and she pronounces a blessing on Mary and on the child she carries in her body. Mary, in turn, proclaims God’s greatness with her whole being (the Greek word psyche in verse 46, usually translated “soul,” is not a separate part of the human, as opposed to the body, but rather refers to the whole self in all its vitality). Mary prophesies a new world in which there are no longer hungry or exploited bodies.
In a world in which the emperor claimed the titles “Lord,” “Savior” and “Mighty One,” Mary insists that it is God who saves lowly persons by a liberating power that undoes exploitative imperial systems. In a world in which people were enslaved for revolting against Rome or for debts from excessive taxes, Mary subverts systems of slavery by presenting herself as an empowered person who chooses to serve; she is not a person upon whom servitude is imposed. In a world where the majority struggled to have enough to eat, Mary sings of a time when all who are poor are filled with the good things of God.
In a time when sexual humiliation and exploitation of women were rampant, Mary dreams of God lifting up to dignity all the “lowly.” (The Greek verb tapeinoo, translated as “lowly” in vv. 48 and 52, is used often in the Septuagint to refer to the sexual humiliation of a woman, as in the case of the rape of Dinah [Gn 34:2]; the abuse of the concubine of the Levite [Jgs 19:24; 20:5]; Amnon’s rape of Tamar [2 Kgs 13:12-32]; and the ravishing of the wives in Zion and the maidens in the cities of Judah by the enemy [Lam 5:11].) In the world to come, incipient already in the present time and exemplified by Mary, transformation includes the whole embodied person.