On this day the Church celebrates, in honor of Mary, two solemn festivals; the first is that of her happy passage from this world; the second, that of her glorious Assumption into Heaven.
In the present discourse we shall speak of her happy passage from this world; and in the next of her glorious Assumption.
How precious was the death of Mary !
1. On account of the special graces that attended it.
2. On account of the manner in which it took place.
Death being the punishment of sin, it would seem that the Divine Mother all holy, and exempt as she was from its slightest stain should also have been exempt from death, and from encountering the misfortunes to which the children of Adam, infected by the poison of sin, are subject. But God was pleased that Mary should in all things resemble Jesus; and as the Son died, it was becoming that the Mother should also die; because, moreover, He wished to give the just an example of the precious death prepared for them, He willed that even the most Blessed Virgin should die, but by a sweet and happy death. Let us, therefore, now consider how precious was Mary's death: first, on account of the special favors by which it was accompanied; secondly, on account of the manner in which it took place.
First point. There are three things which render death bitter: attachment to the world, remorse for sins, and the uncertainty of salvation. The death of Mary was entirely free from these causes of bitterness, and was accompanied by three special graces, which rendered it precious and joyful. She died as she had lived, entirely detached from the things of the world; she died in the most perfect peace; she died in the certainty of eternal glory.
And in the first place, there can be no doubt that attachment to earthly things renders the death of the worldly bitter and miserable, as the Holy Ghost says: "O death, how bitter is the remembrance of thee to a man who hath peace in his possessions!'' But because the Saints die detached from the things of the world, their death is not bitter, but sweet, lovely, and precious; that is to say, as Saint Bernard remarks, worth purchasing at any price, however great. " Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord." Who are they who, being already dead, die? They are those happy souls who pass into eternity already detached, and, so to say, dead to all affection for terrestrial things; and who, like Saint Francis of Assisi, found in God alone all their happiness, and with him could say, ' My God and my all.' But what soul was ever more detached from earthly goods, and more united to God, than the beautiful soul of Mary? She was detached from her parents; for at the age of three years, when children are most attached to them, and stand in the greatest need of their assistance, Mary, with the greatest intrepidity, left them, and went to shut herself up in the temple to attend to God alone. She was detached from riches, contenting herself to be always poor, and supporting herself with the labor of her own hands. She was detached from honors, loving an humble and abject life, though the honors due to a queen were hers, as she was descended from the kings of Israel. The Blessed Virgin herself revealed to Saint Elizabeth of' Hungary, that when her parents left her in the temple, she resolved in her heart to have no father, and to love no other good than God.
Saint John saw Mary represented in that woman, clothed with the sun, who held the moon under her feet. "And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet." Interpreters explain the moon to signify the goods of this world, which, like her, are uncertain and changeable. Mary never had these goods in her heart, but always despised them and trampled them under her feet; living in this world as a solitary turtle-dove in a desert, never allowing, her affection to center itself on any earthly thing; so that of her it was said: "The voice of the turtle is heard in our land." And elsewhere: "Who is she that goeth up by the desert?" Whence the Abbot Rupert says,' Thus didst thou go up by the desert; that is, having a solitary soul' Mary, then, having lived always and in all things detached from the earth, and united to God alone, death was not bitter, but, on the contrary, very sweet and dear to her; since it united her more closely to God in heaven, by an eternal bond.
Secondly. Peace of mind renders the death of the just precious. Sins committed during life are the worms which so cruelly torment and gnaw the hearts of poor dying, sinners, who, about to appear before the Divine tribunal, see themselves at that moment surrounded by their sins, which terrify them, and cry out, according to Saint Bernard, 'We are thy works; we will not abandon thee.' Mary certainly could not be tormented at death by any remorse of conscience, for she was always pure, and always free from the least shade of actual or original sin; so much so, that of her it was said: "Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in thee." From the moment that she had the use of reason, that is, from the first moment of her Immaculate Conception in the womb of Saint Anne, she began to love God with all her strength, and continued to do so, always advancing more and more throughout her whole life in love and perfection.
All her thoughts, desires, and affections were of and for God alone; she never uttered a word, made a movement, cast a glance, or breathed, but for God and His glory; and never departed a step or detached herself for a single moment from the Divine love. Ah, how did all the lovely virtues she had practiced during life surround her blessed bed in the happy hour of her death! That faith so constant; that loving confidence in God; that unconquerable patience in the midst of so many sufferings; that humility in the midst of so many privileges; that modesty; that meekness; that tender compassion for souls; that insatiable zeal for the glory of God; and, above all, that most perfect love towards Him, with that entire uniformity to the Divine will: all, in a word, surrounded her, and consoling her, said: 'We are thy works; we will not abandon thee.' Our Lady and Mother, we are all daughters of thy beautiful heart; now that thou art leaving this miserable life, we will not leave thee, we also will go, and be thy eternal accompaniment and honor in Paradise, where, by our means, thou wilt reign as Queen of all men and of all angels.
In the third place, the certainty of eternal salvation renders death sweet. Death is called a passage; for by death we pass from a short to an eternal life. And as the dread of those is indeed great who die in doubt of their salvation, and who approach the solemn moment with well-grounded fear of passing into eternal death; thus, on the other hand, the joy of the Saints is indeed great at the close of life, holding with some security to go and possess God in heaven. A nun of the order of Saint Teresa, when the doctor announced to her her approaching death, was so filled with joy that she exclaimed, ' O, how is it, sir, that you announce to me such welcome news, and demand no fee?' Saint Lawrence Justinian, being at the point of death, and perceiving his servants weeping round him, said: 'Away, away with your tears; this is no time to mourn.' Go elsewhere to weep; if you would remain with me, rejoice, as I rejoice, in seeing the gates of heaven open to me, that I may be united to my God.
Thus also a Saint Peter of Alcantara, a Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, and so many other Saints, on hearing that death was at hand, burst forth into exclamations of joy and gladness. And yet they were not certain of being in possession of Divine grace, nor were they secure of their own sanctity, as Mary was. But what joy must the Divine Mother have felt in receiving the news of her approaching death! she who had the fullest certainty of the possession of Divine grace, especially after the Angel Gabriel had assured her that she was full of it, and that she already possessed God. "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee . . . thou hast found grace." And well did she herself know that her heart was continually burning with Divine love; so that, as Bernardine de Bustis says, 'Mary, by a singular privilege granted to no other Saint, loved, and was always actually loving God, in every moment of her life, with such ardor, that Saint Bernard declares, it required a continued miracle to preserve her life in the midst of such flames.
Of Mary it had already been asked in the sacred Canticles, "Who is she that goeth up by the desert, as a pillar of smoke, of aromatical spices, of myrrh, and frankincense, and all the powders of the perfumer?" Her entire mortification typified by the myrrh, her fervent prayers signified by the incense, and all her holy virtues, united to her perfect love for God, kindled in her a flame so great that her beautiful soul, wholly devoted to and consumed by Divine love, arose continually to God as a pillar of smoke, breathing forth on every side a most sweet odor. 'Such smoke, nay even such a pillar of smoke,' says the Abbot Rupert, 'hast thou, 0 Blessed Mary, breathed forth a sweet odor to the Most High.' Eustachius expresses it in still stronger terms: 'A pillar of smoke, because burning interiorly as a holocaust with the flame of Divine love, she sent forth a most sweet odor.' As the loving Virgin lived, so did she die. As Divine love gave her life, so did it cause her death; for the Doctors and holy Fathers of the Church generally say she died of no other infirmity than pure love; Saint Ildephonsus says that Mary either ought not to die, or only die of love.
Second Point. But now let us see how her blessed death took place. After the ascension of Jesus Christ, Mary remained on earth to attend to the propagation of the faith. Hence the disciples of our Lord had recourse to her, and she solved their doubts, comforted them in their persecutions, and encouraged them to labor for the Divine glory and the salvation of redeemed souls. She willingly remained on earth, knowing that such was the will of God, for the good of the Church; but she could not but feel the pain of being far from the presence and sight of her beloved Son, who had ascended to heaven. "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also," said the Redeemer.
Where anyone believes his treasure and his happiness to be, there he always holds the love and desires of his heart fixed. If Mary, then, loved no other good than Jesus, He being in heaven, all her desires were in heaven. Taulerus says, that 'Heaven was the cell of the heavenly and most Blessed Virgin Mary; for, being there with all her desires and affections, she made it her continual abode. Her school was eternity for she was always detached and free from temporal possessions. Her teacher was Divine truth; for her whole life was guided by this alone. Her book was the purity of her own conscience, in which she always found occasion to rejoice in the Lord. Her mirror was the Divinity; for she never admitted any representations into her soul but such as were transformed into and clothed with God, that so she might always conform herself to His will. Her ornament was devotion for she attended solely to her interior sanctification, and was always ready to fulfil the Divine commands. Her repose was union with God; for He alone was her treasure and the resting-place of her heart.'
The most holy Virgin consoled her loving heart during this painful separation by visiting, as it is related, the holy places of Palestine, where her Son had been during His life. She frequently visited at one time the stable at Bethlehem, where her Son was born; at another the workshop of Nazareth, where her Son had lived so many years poor and despised; now the Garden of Gethsemani, where her Son commenced His Passion; then the Praetorium of Pilate, where He was scourged, and the spot on which He was crowned with thorns; but she visited most frequently the Mount of Calvary, where her Son expired; and the Holy Sepulchre, in which she had finally left Him: thus did the most loving Mother soothe the pains of her cruel exile. But this could not be enough to satisfy her heart, which was unable to find perfect repose in this world.
Hence she was continually sending up sighs to her Lord, exclaiming with David: "Who will give me wings like a dove, and I will fly and be at rest?" Who will give me wings like a dove, that I may fly to my God, and there find my repose?" As the hart panteth after the fountains of water: so my soul panteth after Thee, my God." As the wounded stag pants for the fountain, so does my soul, wounded by Thy love, O my God, desire and sigh after Thee. Yes, indeed, the sighs of this holy turtle-dove could not but deeply penetrate the heart of her God, who indeed so tenderly loved her. "The voice of the turtle is heard in our land." Wherefore being unwilling to defer any longer the so-much-desired consolation of His beloved, behold, He graciously hears her desire, and calls her to His kingdom.
Cedrenus, Nicephorus, and Metaphrastes, relate that, some days before her death, our Lord sent her the Archangel Gabriel, the same who announced to her that she was that blessed woman chosen to be the Mother of God: ' My Lady and Queen,' said the angel, 'God has already graciously heard thy holy desires, and has sent me to tell thee to prepare thyself to leave the earth; for He wills thee in heaven. Come, then, to take possession of thy kingdom; for I and all its holy inhabitants await and desire thee.' On this happy annunciation, what else could our most humble and most holy Virgin do, but, with the most profound humility, reply in the same words in which she had answered Saint Gabriel when he announced to her that she was to become the Mother of God: " Behold the handmaid of the Lord." Behold, she answered again, the slave of the Lord. He in His pure goodness chose me and made me His Mother; He now calls me to Paradise. I did not deserve that honor, neither do I deserve this. But since He is pleased to show in my person His infinite liberality, behold, I am ready to go where He pleases. " Behold the handmaid of the Lord." May the will of my God and Lord be ever accomplished in me!
After receiving this welcome intelligence she imparted it to Saint John: we may well imagine with what grief and tender feelings he heard the news; he who for so many years had attended upon her as a son, and had enjoyed the heavenly conversation of this most holy Mother. She then once more visited the holy places of Jerusalem, tenderly taking leave of them, and especially of Mount Calvary, where her beloved Son had died. She then retired into her poor cottage, there to prepare for death. During this time the angels did not cease their visits to their beloved Queen, consoling themselves with the thought that they would soon see her crowned in heaven. Many authors asserted that, before her death, the Apostles, and also many disciples who were scattered in different parts of the world, were miraculously assembled in Mary's room, and that when she saw all these her dear children in her presence, she thus addressed them:
'My beloved children, through love for you and to help you my Son left me on this earth. The holy Faith is now spread throughout the world, already the fruit of the Divine seed is grown up; hence my Lord, seeing that my assistance on earth is no longer necessary, and compassionating my grief in being separated from Him, has graciously listened to my desire, to quit this life and to go and see Him in heaven. Do you remain, then, to labor for His glory. If I leave you, my heart remains with you; the great love I bear you I shall carry with me and always preserve. I go to Paradise to pray for you.' Who can form an idea of the tears and lamentations of the holy disciples at this sad announcement, and at the thought that soon they were to be separated from their Mother? All then, weeping, exclaimed, ' Then, O Mary, thou art already about to leave us. It is true that this world is not a place worthy of or fit for thee; and as for us, we are unworthy to enjoy the society of a Mother of God; but, remember, thou art our Mother; hitherto thou hast enlightened us in our doubts; thou hast consoled us in our afflictions; thou hast been our strength in persecutions; and now, how canst thou abandon us, leaving us alone in the midst of so many enemies and so many conflicts, deprived of thy consolation?
We have already lost on earth Jesus, our Master and Father, who has ascended into heaven; until now we have found consolation in thee, our Mother; and now, how canst thou also leave us orphans without father or mother, Our own sweet Lady, either remain with us, or take us with thee.' Thus Saint John Damascene writes: 'No, my children' (thus sweetly the loving Queen began to speak), 'this is not according to the will of God; be satisfied to do that which He has decreed for me and for you. To you it yet remains to labor on earth for the glory of your Redeemer, and to make up your eternal crown. I do not leave you to abandon you, but to help you still more in heaven by my intercession with God. Be satisfied. I commend the holy Church to you; I commend redeemed souls to you; let this be my last farewell, and the only remembrance I leave you: execute it if you love me, labor for the good of souls and for the glory of my Son; for one day we shall meet again in Paradise, never more for all eternity to be separated.'
She then begged them to give burial to her body after death; blessed them, and desired Saint John, as Saint John Damascene relates, to give after her death two of her gowns to two virgins who had served her for some time. She then decently composed herself on her poor little bed, where she laid herself to await death, and with it the meeting with the Divine Spouse, who shortly was to come and take her with Him to the kingdom of the blessed. Behold, she already feels in her heart a great joy, the forerunner of the coming of the Bridegroom, which inundates her with an unaccustomed and novel sweetness. The holy Apostles seeing that Mary was already on the point of leaving this world, renewing their tears, all threw themselves on their knees around her bed; some kissed her holy feet, some sought a special blessing from her, some recommended a particular want, and all wept bitterly; for their hearts were pierced with grief at being obliged to separate themselves for the rest of their lives from their beloved Lady.
And she, the most loving Mother, compassionated all, and consoled each one; to some promising her patronage, blessing others with particular affection, and encouraging others to the work of the conversion of the world; especially she called Saint Peter to her, and as head of the Church and Vicar of her Son, recommended to him in a particular manner the propagation of the Faith, promising him at the same time her especial protection in heaven. But more particularly did she call Saint John to her, who more than any other was grieved at this moment when he had to part with his holy Mother; and the most gracious Lady, remembering the affection and attention with which this holy disciple had served her during all the years she had remained on earth since the death of her Son, said: 'My own John' (speaking with the greatest tenderness) 'my own John, I thank thee for all the assistance thou hast afforded me; my son, be assured of it, I shall not be ungrateful. If I now leave thee, I go to pray for thee. Remain in peace in this life until we meet again in heaven, where I await thee. Never forget me. In all thy wants call me to thy aid; for I will never forget thee, my beloved son. Son, I bless thee. I leave thee my blessing. Remain in peace. Farewell!'
But already the death of Mary is at hand; divine love, with its vehement and blessed flames, had already almost entirely consumed the vital spirits; the heavenly phoenix is already losing her life in the midst of this fire. Then the host of angels come in choirs to meet her, as if to be ready for the great triumph with which they were to accompany her to Paradise. Mary was indeed consoled at the sight of these holy spirits, but was not fully consoled; for she did not yet see her beloved Jesus, who was the whole love of her heart. Hence she often repeated to the angels who descended to salute her: " I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my Beloved, that you tell Him that I languish with love." Holy angels, O fair citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, you come in choirs kindly to console me; and you all console me with your sweet presence. I thank you; but you do not fully satisfy me, for as yet I do not see my Son coming to console me: go, if you love me, return to Paradise, and on my part tell my Beloved that "I languish with love." Tell Him to come, and to come quickly, for I am dying with the vehemence of my desire to see Him.
But, behold, Jesus is now come to take His Mother to the kingdom of the blessed. It was revealed to Saint Elizabeth that her Son appeared to Mary before she expired with His cross in His hands, to show the special glory He had obtained by the redemption; having, by His death, made acquisition of that great creature, who for all eternity was to honor Him more than all men and angels. Saint John Damascene relates that our Lord Himself gave her the viaticum, saying with tender love, 'Receive, O My Mother, from My hands that same body which thou gavest to Me.' And the Mother, having received with the greatest love that last communion, with her last breath said, 'My Son, into Thy hands do I commend my spirit. I commend to Thee this soul, which from the beginning Thou didst create rich in so many graces, and by a singular privilege didst preserve from the stain of original sin. I commend to Thee my body, from which Thou didst deign to take Thy flesh and blood. I also commend to Thee these my beloved children (speaking of the holy disciples, who surrounded her); they are grieved at my departure. Do Thou, who lovest them more than I do, console them; bless them, and give them strength to do great things for Thy glory.'
The life of Mary being now at its close, the most delicious music, as Saint Jerome relates, was heard in the apartment where she lay; and, according to a revelation of Saint Bridget, the room was also filled with a brilliant light. This sweet music, and the unaccustomed splendor, warned the holy Apostles that Mary was then departing. This caused them again to burst forth in tears and prayers; and raising their hands, with one voice they exclaimed, 'O, Mother, thou already goest to heaven; thou leavest us; give us thy last blessing, and never forget us miserable creatures.' Mary, turning her eyes around upon all, as if to bid them a last farewell, said, 'Adieu, my children; I bless you; fear not, I will never forget you.' And now death came; not indeed clothed in mourning and grief, as it does to others, but adorned with light and gladness. But what do we say? Why speak of death? Let us rather say that Divine love came, and cut the thread of that noble life. And as a light, before going out, gives a last and brighter flash than ever, so did this beautiful creature, on hearing her Son's invitation to follow Him, wrapped in the flames of love, and in the midst of her amorous sighs, give a last sigh of still more ardent love, and breathing forth her soul, expired. Thus was that great soul, that beautiful dove of the Lord, loosened from the bands of this life; thus did she enter into the glory of the blessed, where she is now seated, and will be seated, Queen of Paradise, for all eternity.
Mary, then, has left this world; she is now in heaven. Thence does this compassionate Mother look down upon us who are still in this valley of tears. She pities us, and, if we wish it, promises to help us. Let us always beseech her, by the merits of her blessed death, to obtain us a happy death; and should such be the good pleasure of God, let us beg her to obtain us the grace to die on a Saturday, which is a day dedicated in her honor, or on a day of a novena, or within the octave of one of her feasts; for this she has obtained for so many of her clients, and especially for Saint Stanislaus Kostka, for whom she obtained that he should lie on the feast of her Assumption, as Father Bartoli relates in his life.
During his lifetime this holy youth, who was wholly dedicated to the love of Mary, happened, on the first of August, to hear a sermon preached by Father Peter Canisius, in which, exhorting the novices of the society, he urged them all, with the greatest fervor, to live each day as if it was the last of their lives, and the one on which they were to be presented before God's tribunal. After the sermon Saint Stanislaus told his companions that that advice had been for him, in an especial manner, the voice of God; for that he was to die in the course of that very month. It is evident, from what followed, that he said this either because (loaf had expressly revealed it to him, or at least because He gave him a certain internal presentiment of it. Four days afterwards the blessed youth went with Father Emanuel to Saint Mary Major's. The conversation fell on the approaching feast of the Assumption, and the Saint said, ' Father, I believe that on that day a now Paradise is seen in Paradise, as the glory of the Mother of God, crowned Queen of heaven, and seated so near to our Lord, above all the choirs of angels, is seen. And if as I firmly believe it to be this festival is renewed every year, I hope to see the next.' The glorious martyr St. Lawrence had fallen by lot to Saint Stanislaus as his patron for that month, it being customary in the society thus to draw them.
It is said that he wrote a letter to his Mother Mary, in which he begged her to obtain him the favor to be present at her next festival in heaven. On the feast of Saint Lawrence he received the holy Communion, and afterwards entreated the Saint to present his letter to the Divine Mother, and to support his petition with his intercession, that the most Blessed Virgin might graciously accept and grant it. Towards the close of that very day he was seized with fever; and though the attack was slight, he considered that certainly he had obtained the favor asked for. This indeed he joyfully expressed, and with a smiling countenance, on going to bed, said, 'From this bed I shall never rise again.'
And speaking to Father Claudius Aquaviva, he added, 'Father, I believe that Saint Lawrence has already obtained me the favor from Mary to be in heaven on the feast of her Assumption.' No one, however, took much notice of his words. On the vigil of the feast his illness still seemed of little consequence, but the Saint assured a brother that he should die that night. 'O brother,' the other answered, 'it would be a greater miracle to die of so slight an illness than to be cured.' Nevertheless in the afternoon he fell into a deathlike swoon; a cold sweat came over him, and he lost all his strength. The Superior hastened to him, and Stanislaus entreated him to have him laid on the bare floor, that he might die as a penitent. To satisfy him, this was granted: he was laid on a thin mattress on the ground. He then made his confession, and in the midst of the tears of all present received the Viaticum:
I say, of the tears of all present, for when the Divine Sacrament was brought into the room his eyes brightened up with celestial joy, and his whole countenance was inflamed with holy love, so that he seemed like a seraph He also received extreme unction, and in the mean while did nothing but constantly raise his eyes to heaven and lovingly press to his heart an image of Mary. A father asked him to what purpose he kept a rosary in his hand, since he could not use it. He replied, 'It is a consolation to me, for it is something belonging to my Mother.' 'O, how much greater will your consolation be,' added the father, 'when you shortly see her and kiss her hands in heaven!' On hearing this, the Saint, with his countenance all on fire, raised his hands to express his desire soon to be in her presence. His dear Mother then appeared to him, as he himself told those who surrounded him; and shortly afterwards, at the dawn of day on the fifteenth of August, with his eyes fixed on heaven, he expired like a saint, without the slightest struggle; so much so, that it was only on presenting him the image of the Blessed Virgin, and seeing that made no movement towards it, that it was perceived that he was already gone to kiss the feet of his beloved Queen in Paradise.
O most sweet Lady and our Mother, thou hast already left the earth and reached thy kingdom, where, as Queen, thou art enthroned above all the choirs of angels, as the Church sings: "She is exalted above the choirs of angels in the celestial kingdom' We well know that we sinners are not worthy to possess thee in this valley of darkness; but we also know that thou, in thy greatness, hast never forgotten us miserable creatures, and that by being exalted to such great glory thou hast never lost compassion for us poor children of Adam; nay, even that it is increased in thee. From the high throne, then, to which thou art exalted, turn, O Mary, thy compassionate eyes upon us, and pity us. Remember, also, that in leaving this world thou didst promise not to forget us. Look at us and succor us. See in the midst of what tempests and dangers we constantly are, and shall be until the end of our lives. By the merits of thy happy death obtain us holy perseverance in the Divine friendship, that we may finally quit this life in God's grace; and thus we also shall one day come to kiss thy feet in Paradise, and unite with the blessed spirits in praising thee and singing thy glories as thou deserves". Amen.
-Saint Alphonsus Liguori, Sermon for the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.