A triumph over the blind forces of history

VJ Day and the Feast of the Assumption may seem to sit oddly together, writes Duncan Macpherson, but their coincidence gives grounds for a more lasting optimism.
The day of 15 August 1945 marked the defeat of Japan and the final Allied victory of the Second World War. 15 August is also the date on which Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary; the sharing of the mother of Jesus over sin and death. While it would be fanciful to attach too much significance to the fact that the war ended on an important feast-day of the church calendar, the coincidence of dates offers some interesting possibilities for reflection.

There is little immediate connection between the end of a devastating world war and a feast celebrating a highly speculative doctrine rooted in devotion rather than upon historical evidence, and based upon logic and deductive theology rather than the Bible. Indeed, although the doctrine was celebrated for hundreds of years, it only attained the status of a doctrine of the faith for Roman Catholics in 1950, when Pius XII defined it as a belief "necessary for salvation" that "Mary having completed her human life was in body and soul assumed into heaven".

The attitude of reformed Christians is best summed up in the description given by my Irish Protestant church history tutor, who referred to it as "that Roman Catholic doctrine so rightly called the Assumption".

In defining the Assumption, however, Pius XII did not see himself as pulling a revealed doctrine out of the hat, but was keen to emphasise the teachings of the early Church Fathers back as far as the second century, when Mary was first characterised as "the Second Eve" having a symbolic value as the mother of all those living in Christ parallel to Eve's role as mother of humanity as a whole. In the words of the definition,

In the last resort the Fathers base their conclusions on the Bible which has given us the picture of the Lord's Mother as inseparably attached to her divine son and constantly sharing his lot.

Nevertheless it is a long way from the Bible and the typology of the early Christian writers to the uncompromising language of infallible doctrine, and today many Roman Catholic theologians, sensitive to ecumenical questions, often prefer not to mention the Assumption at all. If pressed they quote the second Vatican Council, that there is a "hierarchy of revealed truths", and teaching suggests that this particular truth may figure fairly low down in such a hierarchy. Others may draw attention to the fact that nowhere does Pius XII assert that only Mary experienced whatever is meant by the Assumption. Mary is a model for the whole community of believers and her triumph is not so much unique as typical.

Seen in this light the Assumption can be interpreted as having relevance to the most mundane and secular aspects of modern history, challenging received ideas about the value of the human person and the dignity of the human body; the more so in the context of total war, where the killing of civilians is seen as justified as a means to the good of military victory.

The victims of Nagasaki destroyed by an atomic bomb on 9 August included large numbers of Catholics. The city was not only the centre of the Japanese shipbuilding industry, it also included the highest concentration of Christians in Japan. Those who survived until 15 August will have been preoccupied not with the remote idea of the bodily Assumption of Mary, but with the immediate bodily disfigurement of burnt human flesh and the reduction to dust of as many as 70,000 human beings they had known and loved.

Nevertheless, the doctrine of the Assumption represents the triumph of Christian hope over 20th-century experience; asserting, as it does, the triumphant value of the human person over the blind forces of history, and of the human body over the ravages of war.

In the face of so much evidence that human beings are murderous and beyond redemption, and that the human body is ultimately reducible to so much disposable radioactive dust, Pius XII's definition poses an alternative and optimistic vision of human beings as loved, body and soul, by God and as destined to share fully in the victory of Christ. Such a vision offers a triumph of more lasting significance than the victory over Japan; it also supplies the strongest humanistic basis for the reconstruction of human community, continually undermined by war and injustice from the Second World War until today.