Our Lady's Death ---- Question Mark ???

In recent days a journalist whom I greatly respect, in referring to Our Lady's Assumption into heaven, used the phrase "After her death"; for the first time as I can best remember that phrase urged me to become more conscious of what the Church actually teaches about Our Lady's human nature and to seek out some of the many references to the Virgin Mary's death and assumption into heaven-----references found in the works of such incomparable authorities as St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Alphonsus Liguori. Such authorities as these instil massively modest hesitations in the limited understanding of those who might wish to comment or conjecture on whether or not Our Lady actually experienced death in any possible form; these hesitations are particularly troublesome when such as Aquinas and St. Alphonsus clearly assert that she did die before her soul and uncorrupted body were reunited and assumed.

I do not for a second doubt what the Church teaches about Mary's body and soul assumption into heaven but presently I am now more aware of the existence of two schools of thought ---one of which accepts the proposed fact of Mary's death and the other which asserts that Mary did not die and in fact could not die because she was immaculately conceived, redeemed and preserved from the inherited deadly contagion of original sin and lived an earthly life "full of grace" and untouched by any shadow or stain of actual sin. In explaining Adam's original transgression in Eden St. Paul says that "sin came into the world through one man and death through sin." (Romans 5:12). With reference to that "sin" Pope Pius IX infallibly proclaimed in ‘Ineffabilis Deus’ (1854) the dogma of the Immaculate Conception: "The Most Blessed Virgin Mary was from the first moment of her conception .........preserved immune from all stain of original sin." Consequently one might, as others have, reasonably and theologically conclude she was also "preserved immune" from death.

In ‘Munificentissimus Deus’ (1950) Pope Pius XII dogmatically and infallibly states that "the Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory." Moreover, ‘The Catechism of the Catholic Church’ (Revised Edition of 1999), consciously using similar language and imagery, states that "the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory."

It is noteworthy that neither the 1950 declaration nor the ‘Catechism’ (almost fifty years later) explicitly proclaim Mary's death as an established and verifiable fact; and of course there have been for centuries past much theological attention given to this fascinating issue which has been addressed by so many. We might reasonably say that in 1950, in modern times, this question was closely and very visibly scrutinised again. Following on from Pope Pius XII's 1950 declaration we still find continuing forthright assessment and comment on the perennial question as to whether or not Our Lady was confronted with death. For example, in Sheehan's 2001 edition of ‘Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine’ we find the following: "The Pope deliberately left open the question of whether or not our Lady died before her Assumption."

This conclusion has been widely acknowledged to emphasise clearly that Our Lady was assumed body and soul into heaven when she had "completed the course of her earthly life" but it does not at all suggest that she died before her assumption occurred. Nevertheless, although the question has been "left open" , it also has to be acknowledged that there is among the faithful almost a universally presumed and accepted belief that she did briefly pass through death in some form before her soul and uncorrupted body were reunited and assumed into God's immediate presence.

In contrast to this general understanding of the Assumption there is, as was indicated above, another school of thought with perhaps fewer advocates who legitimately assert on a sound, logical theological and orthodox basis that the Virgin Mary, being immaculately conceived, could not possibly be vulnerable to the inherited contamination of the original sin which inflicted death on all of humankind; and they also maintain that not only was Mary luminously sinless and thus preserved from death but she was preserved also from the physical forces and effects of ageing which dictate the gradual degeneration of the body until body and soul are separated and death inevitably occurs.

In the light of the above considerations, and with the question of Mary's death consciously left open, it is therefore acceptably orthodox to say that Catholics are not bound to believe in her mortality as a matter of dogma. It might well be accurate to surmise and conjecture, as some do, that when Our Lady grew into the resplendent prime of her young womanhood,l her incorruptible physical appearance remained in its primal beauty despite the passage of years; the mortal effects of ageing were rendered powerless whilst she waited to complete "the course of her earthly life" when her God would summon her and assume her into His divine presence and her eternal home. Finally, some again might find it interesting and certainly particularly relevant to recall here that in the 4th Century A.D. Timothy of Jerusalem described the Virgin Mary as "immortal". Needless to say, it's only recently that I have been perhaps a little more able to better understand what he meant.

Northern Ireland's Unborn Holy Innocents

They say that wise men met the King;

His lies had them beguiled;

They'd hoped to find with Herod's help

A joyful maid with child.

The King dismissed them; then decreed,

“The infant has to die.

This Court states he’s unwanted – 'just

By choice'.  Don’t question why!

Pro-Choice now slays him and his kind

In this our Bethlehem.

New legal rights to massacre

Mean none can ‘you’ condemn.

These unborn may be hard to find;

They breathe a hidden life.

And if their mothers give them up -

Conceal the bloodstained knife.

Discard the corpses as you go

As merely soul-less meat

And fit for only dog or crow

Like sweepings from the street.”


Thus Herod sent his knifemen out

To kill the misconceived

And fling them into unmarked graves

Un-prayed for and un-grieved...

Unseen, unheard, unloved, unknown,

Miscalled "mistakes, mis-made" –

Un-dressed, un-blessed, not "laid to rest"

But mindlessly "mis-laid".

And when we name the names of those

Who ruled with bloodstained hand,

Who’ll name the unnamed innocents

They slaughtered through this land?


Calvary, the Altar, the Mass, the Eucharist

And Four Windows


One late afternoon some time ago, with much on my mind that had to be dealt with, I made a rare visit to the church of Christ the King in Limavady. The main door was open and the chapel was empty; I made my way up the middle aisle and in an attempt to pray I knelt in the front row near the altar and tabernacle. Gradually, as some sense of peace and quiet began to descend, I became for the first time conscious of the church's four stained glass windows -- three of which are almost wholly visible from the front rows and the fourth of which is largely hidden behind the organ pipes. As I left the chapel I realised that I had never paid much attention to the images in the windows and I have since discovered that they have not really caught the attention of many of the local parishioners, conscious though some might well be that the images portrayed in the glass do invite some degree of curiosity and perhaps interpretation. 


In recent days, having asked around to find out how the images are to be understood, I repeat here what a number of well informed authorities have offered by way of explanation. Here is how the images appear: the image behind the organ pipes is of a human figure -- a man with angel wings raising up the likeness of a book in his right hand; above the organ is an angel-winged lion; above the sacristy door is an angel- winged ox; above the votive candle rack is an eagle; and all of the four winged "creatures" raise up in a "human" hand what appears to be a tablet or book containing it would seem a proclamation or revelation of startling significance. 


What is immediately significant is that all of the four creatures stained into the glass have "angel" wings; and apparently it has to be understood that the word "angel" is a Greek word meaning "messenger"; that ev-angelium means a "good message"; that the word "gospel" ("god + spel" meaning "good news") is a translation into Old English from the Greek; and that the term "ev-angelist" therefore indicates a divinely inspired messenger, "a bringer of good news". Consequently we can understand that the differing images in the windows are symbolic representations of the four evangelists -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. That being so -- a very obvious question arises. How can it be explained that Matthew is symbolised as an angelic human being, that Mark appears as a lion, Luke as an ox and John as an eagle?


Those who can answer this question explain as follows. Matthew, the bringer of "good news" is symbolised as a winged human because from the very beginning of his gospel this image reflects Jesus's human nature and family lineage.  Matthew's opening words are, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Mt 1:1). A few verses later we again read, "Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way" (Mt 1:18) when Matthew continues to emphasise Jesus's incarnation and the entry into humanity of the God-man.


Mark's gospel begins with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah describing "the voice of one crying in the wilderness" as the voice of a "messenger" sent to "prepare the way of the Lord" (Is 40:3). Mark identifies that "messenger" as John the Baptist (Mk 1:1) who fearlessly condemned the sinfulness he witnessed in the wilderness of depravity surrounding him. For centuries artists and scholars have likened John the Baptist's voice in that wilderness to the powerful, commanding and reprimanding roar of a lion exhorting Christians to remain courageous on the path to truth and salvation. That power and encouragement to action is reflected in the narrative style and immediacy of Mark's gospel; and the winged lion has eventually and appropriately become the symbol representing the evangelist himself. 


The image of an ox raising up what is now understood to be a written gospel symbolises Luke the evangelist whose gospel begins in the Temple where Zechariah is carrying out his duties as a priest by burning incense on the altar of incense which stood in front of the veiled Holy of Holies in the temple's tabernacle. The temple priests of the Old Testament order commonly offered oxen on the Altar of Burnt offerings by way of atonement and reparation for sinful offences committed against "the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel" (IS :30:15). The necessary coals required to burn the incense in the tabernacle had to be formally conveyed by priests from the Altar of Burnt offerings to the Altar of Incense; and the fragrance rising from the burning incense and permeating the tabernacle represented the prayers of repentance and reparation and petition offered up on behalf of those who were not temple priests and were compelled to remain outside of the "courtyard of the priests" and stay gathered in the outer "courtyard of the Israelites" during the ceremony of incensing. Overall, therefore, the image symbolising Luke's gospel prefigures Jesus as both the sacrificial victim and priest who offers up his own life in atonement for our original fall from grace in Eden (Gen 3 :13).


John's gospel is characterised by a high Christology and emphasises Christ's divine nature. Symbolised with eagle's wings John soars and circles in wonder amidst the mysteries of creation which inspire the bold and uncompromising assertion of his opening verse -- "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God (Jn 1:1). Clear sighted and rising higher to consciously hover over the startling truths revealed to him John then proclaims -- "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us....." (Jn 1:14). As John's theological revelations heighten and intensify he records that Jesus, the incarnate God, describes himself thus: "I am the living bread which came down from heaven......and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh" (Jn 6:51). John pointedly and with full intent records that the Jews disputed among themselves as to how a man could give them "his flesh to eat" (Jn 6:52); and when they heard what Jesus continued to declare their response was, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" (Jn 6:60) and "After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went with him" (Jn 6: 66).  By way of contrast with them John's gospel account strikingly anticipates the crucifixion of Jesus as it is reflected in and identified with the "flesh and blood" of the sacrament of the eucharist which is timelessly reactualised in the daily sacrifice of the Mass. 


On the significance of the Mass (as indeed with other tenets of the faith) it is clearly evident that each of the four evangelists, as they are represented and symbolised in the stained glass images, draw particular attention to (and enrich our understanding of) most definite and fundamental aspects of a Catholic's central act of faith and worship. Matthew details Jesus's bloodline ancestors to explain and express the human nature of the God-man. Mark conscious of just such a prodigious actuality -- the divine humanity -- begins his gospel with a resounding appeal to humankind to confess, to repent, to prepare a sinless "way" and "straight" paths for "the Lord" (Mk 1:3), the incarnate divinity on whom the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, descended "like a dove" (Mk1 : 9-11) at his baptism. Luke's gospel begins in the Temple where Zechariah, a priest of the Old Testament Covenant, is fulfilling his duties at the altar of incense; the angel Gabriel appears to him and reveals that he is to be the father of John the Baptist who would prepare for "the Lord" (Lk 1:17) a people ready to seek “forgiveness of their sins" and their "salvation" (Lk 1:17). The "Lord" whose presence is anticipated is of course the promised Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, our infinite High Priest (Heb 4 :14- 16), pascal lamb and sacrificial victim who will give his life on the cross to seal with his blood the New blood Covenant between God and humankind -- pledging forgiveness, redemption and eternal life. John's gospel, the last to be written, recalls and reinforces the startling significance of the words "bread" and "body" and "fruit of the vine" and "blood" as used and detailed in the three historically earlier gospel accounts of The Last Supper -- accounts found in Matthew (26: 26-29), in Mark (14: 22-24) and in Luke (22: 19-20).


Subsequently we may readily enough understand and appreciate that given their different perspectives and thematic interests (as symbolised in their stained glass images) all four evangelists distinctly recognise and proclaim one outstanding element of the truth that their witnessing accentuates -- that the flesh and blood of the incarnate God offered for us on the altar of the cross on Calvary is resurrected and alive and prevails on our altars in the consecrated, transubstantiated "sacramental bread of the presence" of Jesus Christ amongst us -- a presence "hidden beneath the appearances of a white host" as The Little Flower, St Therese of Lisieux, faithfully and joyfully affirms whilst expressing her gratitude for “the unspeakable mystery of His Eucharist.”



One Sunday morning many years ago as the priest ascended the altar steps to say Mass, my six year old daughter whispered in my ear, “Why does Fr. Brady wear coloured clothes like that?” I quietly told her that they were not ‘clothes’ but ‘vestments’ and she then whispered “What are vestments?” I suddenly realised that I had never paid much attention to what vestments the priest wore on the altar and the child’s question embarrassed me into confronting my own ignorance and into doing a little research. As it turned out, my daughter was right to simply describe ‘vestments’ as ‘clothes’ for that is exactly what they were in the very early church. ‘Vestments’ worn for liturgies ‘were the same as clothes in ordinary popular use’. As styles changed in the secular/social clothing of Greek and Roman culture, the early clothes worn in the Church liturgies did not change ‘to match changes in popular styles’. That early clothing became garments which remained noticeably different and distinctive and evolved into being regarded as ‘vestments’ which were worn for their symbolic significance. And that is why priests still continue to wear them at Mass as they continue to preserve and proclaim the symbolism associated with each particular garment. As the priest vests before Mass in the sacristy he has to put on five elements of liturgical attire in this decided order – the amice, alb, cincture, stole and chasuble. The amice (from the Latin which means to ‘wrap around’) was generally worn by people as a covering for the head and shoulders. In the liturgy it became a rectangular piece of cloth thrown over the head on to the shoulders and known as ‘the helmet of salvation’. In putting it on the priest prays, “Place upon me, O Lord, the helmet of salvation that I may overcome the assaults of the devil.” The wearing of the amice is now optional and not compulsory as it once was. The alb is worn over the amice. It is a long-sleeved, spacious garment which falls as far as the celebrant’s feet. It is called ‘alb’ from the Latin words ‘alba’ (vestis) meaning a ‘white’ (garment). Originally it was similar to the ordinary white tunic worn widely by Romans and Greeks but before long it became adopted and adapted by the early Church for what it meaningfully symbolised. It quickly became associated with the rite of Baptism when men and women, rising from baptism by immersion, having put their former way of life behind them, were clothed in a white garment symbolising their new way of life in Christ. This clothing ceremony is still preserved in the present baptismal rite where the priest prays as he places or recognises the white garment or shawl enfolding the newly baptised child. And for the Priest celebrating Mass the pure, white alb is a symbol of that spotless innocence with which the priest should ‘ascend the mountain of the Lord to stand in the holy place where even the heavenly spirits tremble.’ As the celebrant puts on the Alb in the sacristy, he says the following prayer: “Make me white, O Lord, and cleanse my heart; that being made white in the blood of the Lamb, I may deserve an eternal reward.”

When the priest, vesting for Mass, first puts on the amice it is not really visible afterwards in that it is covered by the white alb – around which the priest ties the cincture. In the early days of the Church’s life that long, skirt-like tunic reaching to the ankles was commonly worn; labourers, or warriors or pilgrims, amongst many others, were wont to gather up and secure that loose, wide garment by a rope of fine cords fixed around the waist to leave them freer in their movements and better prepared for labour, battle or travel. Called to action of any kind they ‘girded up their loins’ (Luke 12:35). That ‘girding’ (derived from a Latin word meaning to ‘fasten around’) is called the cincture which the priest (called to Calvary in the person of Christ) ties around the spotless white alb of his life and priestly office – aware that he is (as is each one in the congregation present) a labourer in God’s vineyard, in active service for Christ Jesus in the battle against evil and a pilgrim on a journey through life on earth. The priest, as we all are, is subject to human distractions and weaknesses and temptations which have to be recognised, confronted, controlled and tightly bound. As he vests on his way to the altar he must ‘have the loins of [his] mind girt up’ (1 Peter:1,13) which is what the wearing of the cincture boldly symbolises. As he ties it round the alb of his priestly life with ordained hands he says the following prayer: “Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity and quench in my heart the fire of concupiscence, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in me.”

(Based on – GIRM, Fr.J O’Kane, Fr. Gihr, Fr. Schuster)

Hear the unborn speak

Dear Mammy will you keep me safe?

Please Mammy keep me warm.

I’m growing here beneath your heart;

Protect me from the storm.

I hear your heart. Do you hear mine?

My birthday gift will be

Two bright-blue eyes that shine with joy

On worlds I long to see.

I’m looking forward now to life –

Sea-shells,  and ships with sails;

I’ll feel the sun, I’ll count the stars,

You’ll tell me fairy tales.

Already I’ve got arms and legs.

Look close! You’ll see my nose.

And on the things that you call legs

Are things I’ll call my toes.

Dear Mammy you’re not listening!

Please! Can’t you hear? It’s me!

And Mammy you’re not smiling now

What can this ‘CLINIC’ be?

They’ve given you a bed with wheels –

Those people dressed in green.

Don’t let them hurt you Mammy dear.

Just let them try – I’ll scream!

Dear Mammy, what is happening?

I’m paralysed with fear.

Quick! Rise and run – I’m just begun –

Please save us Mammy dear.

They’re killing me dear Mammy.

They’ve pulled my limbs apart,

Dismembering my arms and legs.

They’ve stilled my beating heart.

And though I’ll never see the sky

With eyes of shining blue,

I know that you’d have loved me dear –

And I’d have loved you too.

Daniel Holmes,