The middle of August symbolizes the beginning of the end of summer to most persons in culturally Protestant America. Children are returning to school; adults are returning to work. Summer vacation is coming to an end.
It s a slightly different story in much of Europe, where August—the entire month—is still devoted to vacation.
August 15, the very middle of this most languid of summer months (the one that takes its name from a legendary Roman emperor) has significant additional religious resonance.
In Greek it is known as the Panagia, the All-Holy Mary’s day, a religious holiday second in significance only to Easter. In Italian it is called Ferragosto, the August Festival. It is the feast of the assumption of a woman who is still remembered somewhat ironically as “the Virgin.”
Of all the trappings of medieval Christendom with which the Protestant Reformers dispensed, none were erased in more thoroughgoing fashion than the celebration of the emphatically bodily femininity of Jesus’ mother.
The Most Intense Kind of Poetry
Just as she was deemed to be a human being like no other, and thereby worthy of bearing the body of God, so too Mary is believed to have died like none other. That is why the Catholic and Eastern churches refer to her Assumption (or else to her sleeping, the so-called Dormition), not her death. Mary, it is believed, was “assumed body and soul into heaven,” in the words of this week’s holiday meditation in L’Osservatore Romano, dated August 11.
The way the Catholic hierarchy describes this miracle is really rather moving, speaking as it does to the profound intimacy between a Mother and her Son, a female intimacy that is more movingly and emphatically described than any other female relation of this single Savior.
Using the surprisingly familial language of orthodox Christian theology, the idea in play here is that God the Father cared as deeply for the Mother as for the Son; if Jesus’ body was “not allow[ed]… to undergo corruption,” then Mary’s would not be either. Both were assumed directly into heaven, body and soul. “To penetrate into this mystery,” the meditation suggests, “we have need of a divine revelation and the most intense kind of poetry.”
This, they are quick to add, is just what we find in the Christian scriptures. Not just revelation, but intense poetry. Everything of importance this week comes in allegory. So Mary’s body when carrying the Christ to term (“pregnant with the Word,” as they put it) is a form of the Ark of the Covenant before which David danced the fool for joy. Mary’s body, when assumed directly into heaven, “is the image of the future God intends for us” all. And the Mother Church? Well, Mary just is her image, lovely and enduring. The newspaper goes on to perform a surprising mini-lesson in art history, analyzing two famous images of the Assumption, one by Matteo di Giovanni (1474) and another by Raphael of Urbino (1502-1504), as well as one modern icon of the Dormition, by Theophanes (1932).
That, it would seem, is the key to this sacro-secular women’s holiday: images, and poetry.
A Piece of Counter-Reformation
To read the scriptures merely as a history lesson, or as a treatise on godly governance, would be to miss the better half of their power to illuminate. The artistry is all. And thus to fail to supplement such textual treasures with visual ones would be to hamstring the processes of spiritual insight and care.
This may all seem very foreign to the vaguely aniconic and sometimes unpoetic culture of Protestantism. The contemporary Catholic Church seems to place emphatic importance on this distinction; it is as if Mary is an uncorrupted piece of Counter-Reformation.
But there is something else of note in this holiday: it is the elevation of the divine feminine to a position, not just of importance, but of absolute prominence. It is this stunning presence of shimmering femininity, body and soul conjoined, that makes the exclusive maleness of the priesthood hardest for many Protestants to understand. How to embrace and exclude femininity at the same time? As modern feminists have the patience to show, that paradox (or rather, deep cultural contradiction) is pervasive, not belonging to a single confession or creed.
It is in this sense that the presence, or the absence, of Mary has many things to say, not just about theology, but about the cultures such theologies produce. Yet the vehicles needed to communicate them are poetic and painterly as much as anything else. The arts are the languages in which such holidays speak.