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Why the Assumption made perfect sense to Newman, and what it meant for him

BLESSED JOHN HENRY NEWMAN
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The great convert to the faith understood how it could be that Mary is so powerful ... and so beloved.

Even as a Protestant, Blessed John Henry Newman had a high view of the Lord’s Mother. He knew the Scriptures inside out, and the Church Fathers as well. That made the Assumption a “Well, duh” matter for him when he became a Catholic, even though it wasn’t yet a defined dogma. The great thing about him in this case is that he shows how the dogma fits everything else. It’s not a devotional add-on to the Faith, but part of God’s great story.

Newman had been one of the stars of the Church of England, and he gave that up to become a Catholic. He entered the Church in 1845, at the age of 44. Pope Benedict XVI beatified him in 2010. He’s the consensus greatest theologian to write in English.

The biblical story points to the Assumption

As Newman says often in his writings, God’s revelation is a whole, a complete thing, with all the parts related to all the others. The Scriptures don’t mention the Assumption, but lots of things in the biblical story point to it.

He saw something of this as a Protestant minister. “Who can estimate the holiness and perfection of her, who was chosen to be the Mother of Christ?” he said in a sermon delivered in 1835. The implied answer is that none of us can estimate it, because it’s so great. We’re not holy enough to have any idea how holy was the woman God prepared to be the Mother of His Son. But we know from the Gospel story that she will be supremely holy.

Not everyone gets this. One of Newman’s and my fellow Anglicans (a minister, in fact) once said to me that Mary was only “the delivery system” by which Christ became incarnate. After his birth, he said, she didn’t matter anymore. He would have said the Assumption was complete nonsense, had I asked, but I wisely didn’t. Strange but true.

But Newman got it, because he knew the Scriptures so well. Even as an Anglican, he saw that because “the Creator Spirit condescended to overshadow [Mary] with His miraculous presence,” she would have a “transcendent purity.” Then he asked: “What must have been her gifts, who was chosen to be the only near earthly relative of the Son of God, the only one whom He was bound by nature to revere and look up to; the one appointed to train and educate Him, to instruct Him day by day, as He grew in wisdom and stature?” He doesn’t answer the question, because he thinks the answer’s obvious: Her gifts were huge, great, vast.

The matter goes even deeper, he adds. What, he asks, “was the sanctified state of that human nature, of which God formed His sinless Son”? He quotes God speaking in Job, saying “nothing can bring a clean thing out of an unclean.” In other words, to bear the perfect sinless Son of God, Mary must be sinless herself — as Catholics would say, immaculately conceived.

The Assumption

You can see why when Newman became a Catholic, the Assumption made perfect sense to him. He saw that Mary, being the Mother of God, would get everything Her Son had to give. In particular, that she’d get everything he’d given others.

You can find much of his writing on Mary in his wonderful book Meditations and Devotions. You can find more of his reflections in a modern collection called The Mystical Rose.

This is one of the ways God gave Mary what he gave others. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that at the Resurrection many of the saints rose from the dead and walked into Jerusalem. “The holy Prophets, Priests, and Kings of former times rose again in anticipation of the last day,” Newman writes. Then he says: “Can we suppose that Abraham, or David, or Isaias, or Ezechias, should have been thus favoured, and not God’s own Mother?” Obviously no.

Had she not a claim on the love of her Son to have what any others had? Was she not nearer to Him than the greatest of the Saints before her? And is it conceivable that the law of the grave should admit of relaxation in their case, and not in hers? Therefore we confidently say that our Lord, having preserved her from sin and the consequences of sin by His Passion, lost no time in pouring out the full merits of that Passion upon her body as well as her soul.

He saw other reasons to believe in the Assumption from Scripture alone. For one, God had created Adam and Eve without sin. They would not have “crumbled into dust” if they hadn’t sinned. Having never sinned, Mary “retained the gift which Eve by sinning lost.” To put it simply: If Mary is the New Eve, she would be assumed into Heaven.

In other words, if you believe what all Christians believe, even if you’re not Catholic, you should believe that as Pope Pius XII declared in 1950: “The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”

What the Assumption meant to him

But what did the Assumption mean to Newman? What was the point? He didn’t write anything directly devotional or personal about it, but we get hints from his other writings.

Here’s one in which he talks about the power of prayer to change this world. “This is why the Blessed Virgin is called Powerful — nay, sometimes, All-powerful, because she has, more than anyone else, more than all Angels and Saints, this great, prevailing gift of prayer,” he says.

No one has access to the Almighty as His Mother has; none has merit such as hers. Her Son will deny her nothing that she asks; and herein lies her power. While she defends the Church, neither height nor depth, neither men nor evil spirits, neither great monarchs, nor craft of man, nor popular violence, can avail to harm us; for human life is short, but Mary reigns above, a Queen for ever.

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