By Fr. Anthony Aneke
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians: ‘In giving birth you kept your virginity; in your Dormition you did not leave the world, O Mother of God, but were joined to the source of Life. You conceived the living God and, by your prayers, will deliver our souls from death’” (CCC NO.966).
The Feast of the Assumption gives each of us great hope as we contemplate this one facet of the beautiful woman of faith, our Blessed Mother. Mary moves us by example and prayer to grow in God’s grace, to be receptive to His will, to convert our lives through sacrifice and penance, and seek that everlasting union in the Heavenly Kingdom. “Christ has risen from the dead; we need no further assurance of our faith. Mary assumed into heaven serves rather as a gracious reminder to the Church that our Lord wishes all whom the Father has given Him to be raised with Him. In Mary taken to glory, to union with Christ, the Church sees herself answering the invitation of the heavenly Bridegroom.”
The belief in the resurrection of the body is part of our article of faith as Catholics. We profess this in our creed. Burying and praying for the dead are corporal and spiritual works of mercy. In our Christian Liturgy, we honour the dead through the Rite of Christian burial. We do all of these, and more, because when Jesus Christ took on flesh for the salvation of our souls he also bestowed great dignity on our bodies.
In the book, Hope to Die: The Christian Meaning of Death and the Resurrection of the Body, the significance of death and burial from a Catholic perspective is explored by Scott Hahn in a most exhaustive way. For him, the promise of the bodily resurrection brings into focus the need for the dignified care of our bodies at the hour of death. Unpacking both Scripture and Catholic teaching, the book Hope to Die reminds us that we are destined for glorification on the last day just as the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Our bodies have been made by a God who loves us. Even in death, those bodies point to the mystery of our salvation.
The Contemporary body problem
What immediately captures your interest in Hope to Die is Scott Hahn’s portray of the modern world’s neglect and even contempt for the human body along with the need for a Christian understanding precisely to overcome this disregard and contempt. Scott makes a point that in our contemporary world, we tend to see all matter, including bodily matter, as something to be manipulated in accordance with our own desires, and we tend to regard our desires as independent of and somehow superior to our bodies. It does not occur to us that our desires are just as prone to disorder and disease as our bodies—often in closely related ways—or, conversely, that our bodies themselves play an enormous role in determining our identities as human persons.
As pathetic as it is, the less we cling to our eternal destinies, the more we cling to erroneous ideas of “self” as determined by “desire”, and the more eager we become to “transcend” our bodies. We seek, in effect, to get rid of their constraints, both individually and as a culture which disposes of bodies as quickly as possible. Without faith and trust in God’s plan for us, it would seem that we tend to regard our bodies as instruments for the production of pleasure, to be discarded hastily when they remind us of realities we’d rather not think about.
Hope to Die sets forth the Christian understanding of the body as “the sacrament of the person”, cherished in both the desire to serve God and the hope of resurrection as part of a new heaven and a new earth, glorified, and“at home at last”.
According to Dr. Jeff Mirus, one of the important tasks of the book is to foster a strong Christian understanding of an important mystery—the mystery of
(1) How our real, tangible, material bodies,
(2) which are absolutely essential to and constitutive of our particular identities as human persons here on earth,
(3) are transmuted, despite any imperfections and all the ravages of death and decay, into our glorified, perfect bodies in heaven, and,
(4) remain equally determinative of our identities for all eternity. Perhaps the first conclusion we derive from this mystery is that the Christian understanding of our bodies prohibits any mutilation of them, let alone any rejection of them, here on earth.
the reality that our personal identities are a gift of God through both body and soul—which are mutually determinative of who we are—gives the lie to technocratic travesties by which we may try to change who we are through, for example, a spurious change of gender. Our very selves are received as gifts and we have even been purchased anew at a great price, which is why St. Paul says we are not our own (1 Cor 6:19). That is why we must distinguish in medicine between correcting or curing a bodily malfunction and any attempt to reject God’s gift of ourselves through a willed deformation of the good we have received. Nothing more clearly indicates a psychological and spiritual disorder than a refusal of the incomparable gift of our bodily identity in accordance with the norms of created nature, an identity which with our cooperation will be glorified in Heaven for an eternity of delight with God.
Dr. Jeff Mirus goes further to say that Hope to Die sketches (as much as possible, given the very limited information revealed to us) the glorious manner in which we will be embodied after the final judgment in heaven. It describes how, with far greater powers and access to the mind of God, we will recognize others, know them thoroughly, and become aware of all the ways in which our lives impacted others, and others’ lives impacted us. In other words, we will experience the great symphony of Divine Providence in every detail and with inexpressible delight.
Going through the history of Judeo-Christian burial, Dr. Hahn explains how the Jews, each family of which had its own allotment of land, would bury family members on their own property, thus keeping them close even in death. This is particularly our own African Tradition.
Hahn observed that there is this sort of family burial plot at historically-preserved sites from rural areas or large estates especially in the West. But of course it is absolutely prohibited almost everywhere today and this fact coupled with our unprecedented occupational and domestic mobility has signaled the loss of any sort of “family property”.
Such circumstances deprive us of the particular psychological/spiritual closeness to our deceased loved ones provided by burial—even to the point that a great many people do not know where their recent ancestors are buried, nor do they have reasonable opportunities to pray at their graves. Therefore, in our times, it is likely that we will remember our beloved dead primarily through more abstract means—especially by making a point of acknowledging that they are, hopefully, in purgatory or heaven, and so praying for them and asking their help.
Be that as it may, what is most important here is our recognition of our bodies as constitutive of the persons we are—and how they will be so again at the last trump, only better. This conviction lies at the heart what seem to be simple but amazing deep and is a deceptively simple yet extraordinarily deep and imperative book which makes Dr. Hahn always a pleasure to read and a pleasure to study from.