August 14, 2007

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of the most cheerful feasts in the Church’s calendar. Because it comes in high summer, the Assumption is a harvest festival. Throughout Eastern Europe, peasant girls collect bouquets and bring them to the church for blessings on this day. In Polish villages parishes organize parades, each led by a carefully-vetted “€œvirgin,”€ carrying flowers through the streets to the church. In England, people used to take their medicinal herbs in “€œAssumption bundles”€ to the church for a special blessing”€”the medieval equivalent of getting F.D.A. approval. This marked their belief in a quaint legend”€”that all flowers had lost their scent and herbs their healing powers, at Adam’s fall, only to be restored after Mary’s Assumption, when her tomb was found without her body, but full of flowers. Perhaps in honor of this legend, pious gardeners named hundreds of flowers after Our Lady. Some names, such as Ladyslippers (Our Lady’s Slippers) and Marigolds (Mary’s Gold) still survive in popular usage. Others are kept alive by enthusiasts, such the Mary Gardens movement. Most edible flowers also bear Marian names.

Medieval theologians speculated that since Mary was spared Original Sin, we can see in her fate what would have happened to each of us if man had not fallen: We”€™d have lived out a long, respectable life, then at the end been assumed into heaven”€”without a painful death, ugly decay, and a long prep baking in the divine microwave we call Purgatory. (The other theory, that we would have just kept breeding and not dying until the whole planet was as thickly peopled as Hong Kong does not bear thinking about.)

Although it does not appear in the Bible, we have evidence of belief in the Assumption of Mary dating back to the early Church: liturgies sung to commemorate it, icons depicting it, and most persuasively of all, the fact that there’s no place on earth that even claims to be Mary’s tomb. No relics of Mary’s body, real or spurious, are out there in church altars, museums, or e-bay bid rooms”€”unlike the countless pieces of lesser saints. This tells us something. If anyone, anywhere, had the slightest claim to knowing where Mary was buried, you can bet he would have published it to the skies”€”and set up a souvenir stand right beside it. It would be the most profitable pilgrimage site on earth. This very absence of lucrative tourist business surrounding the burial site of Our Lady is the most decisive argument that she wasn”€™t buried at all.

The Assumption is not something invented by Pope Pius XII in 1950, the year when he infallibly declared it a dogma of the Catholic Church. Nor was he introducing some pious innovation to the core of the Catholic faith, indulging the excessive piety of Marian Catholics, or even”€”as C.G. Jung suggested”€””€œrestoring the feminine principle to the Godhead.”€ No, the pope was doing something much more important: He was beating the Russians into space.  (When Yuri Gegarin, the first cosmonaut in space, returned to earth, Soviet journalists were quick to ask him if he had seen Heaven or any evidence of God. His answer in the negative was widely used in Soviet anti-religious propaganda.)

Think about it. Communism was not then the quaintly rusting (if blood-stained) hulk that collapsed in 1989. Ruling more than half the world”€”thanks to its victory in China”€”and commanding the sympathies of intellectuals throughout the West, the Communist regime in the Soviet Union possessed a new arsenal of nuclear weapons, a vast technical and research apparatus, and a widely accepted claim to being the most rational political philosophy. The slogan used throughout the Soviet Union for its practice of Marxist theory was “€œscientific Communism.”€ Millions really believed that Communism, for all its flaws, marked the final liberation of man from all the superstitions and structures that had oppressed him”€”the crowning glory of the Western progressive tradition. As if to dramatize this superiority, the Soviet leaders were determined to lead the West in aerospace technology”€”to place the first satellites, and then the first men, into space.  By 1950, the technical apparatus was already in place for the Soviet’s stunning 1957 Sputnik launch, which terrified Americans with the thought that Russian scientists and engineers were more advanced”€”and that weapons could not be far behind.

By contrast, the Church in 1950 was seen as a bulwark of reactionary politics, bizarre beliefs and backward practices, headed for the “€œdustbin of history.”€ The Church appeared as an enemy of science, a negative force holding back the progress of man towards self-development and fulfillment. (Something to do with Galileo.)

Pius XII was no idiot. In fact, he was an almost obsessive student of science. Whenever a group of beekeepers, opticians, or gynecologists held their convention in Rome”€”and swung by the Vatican to get an eyeful of art and a blessing”€”Pius wouldn”€™t let them out until he”€™d given them a learned talk about the divine significance of pollen, glaucoma, or spermacides. So Pius knew his astronomy.

He could see the progress of Soviet technology, and the preliminary steps towards space exploration. It is our considered opinion”€”and we”€™re breaking new theological ground here, so hold your breath”€”that Pius XII saw the Assumption as the Vatican space program.

What better way to trump the scientific pretensions of atheistic Communism than to demonstrate that the Vatican possessed a superior technology, a simpler and more elegant way to enter the heavens”€”and that its first pioneer in space had ventured there 1900 years before?

This interpretation of the mystery was inspired by meditation upon an image of the Assumption drawn by some well-meaning nun in the 1950s, and which appeared in an encyclopedia of kitsch: It depicted a streamlined, aerodynamic Mary shooting up from the ground, leaving vapor trails as she passed. No doubt, the art critic dryly observed, this work was an attempt to make this curious ancient doctrine understandable by connecting it to the contemporary interest in space exploration. We think that nun was onto something. And Pius XII was way ahead of his time; he beat the Sputnik program by seven years!

CELEBRATE: To mark this new way of seeing the mystery of Mary’s Assumption, we suggest you throw a NASA-themed party on the feast day. Combine some of the traditional trappings and treats of this summer holiday with the sleek, freeze-dried nutriments created by American scientists to feed our pioneers in space. Hang the house with flowers, yes, and pictures of Mary”€”but also with images of the various Apollo missions, space shuttles, and astronauts. See The Space Store for a wide array of party favors and foods eminently suited to celebrating the Feast of the Assumption:

“€¢ Space Candles: An astronaut, stars, space shuttle and planet, each 1.5 to 2 inches tall
“€¢ NASA flags and decals to post around the house, beside images of the Blessed Mother
“€¢ Astronaut Balloon: A three-foot long inflatable spaceman. (If only there were helium-filled images of Our Lady”€”but give us time….)
“€¢ Party cups, napkins, and plates adorned with the Space Shuttle
“€¢ Space Party Invitations, which read: “€œIt’s going to be an out-of-this-world celebration! For: Star-Date: Earth-Time: Where: (Planet Earth).”€ Just add a few words about the Assumption, so your guests make the connection
“€¢ Party Horns shaped like the shuttle.

Add to the mix whatever movie posters and icons you have collected from Star Trek, Star Wars, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as many small, glow-in-the-dark statues of Mary as you can find. Plug in a few black light bulbs, and the effect is genuinely stunning… (my pastor was stunned).

John Zmirak is author of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living.

Recipes by Denise Matychowiak

NASA’s Own Freeze-Dried Kosher Tomato Basil Soup. Make your first course easy”€”and ethnically appropriate”€”by serving up the soup that NASA concocted under strict rabbinical supervision.
Rocket (Arugula) ala Virgin, The spicy vegetable sautéed in ever-virgin olive oil. What could be more appropriate to the feast? Serve on NASA plates.
Yiouvetsi Lamb with Orzo Pasta A savory, garlicky Greek dish which has been served for centuries on this feast day. 
Simnel Cake. (See Recipe.) This rich cake was traditionally made for medieval Mothers”€™ Day.
NASA Ice Cream Sandwiches, Freeze Dried Strawberries, and Freeze Dried Apple Wedges. Makes dessert easy”€”and thematic.

Assumption Tang Punch, best served with a small, aerodynamic plastic statue of Mary floating, as if in a splash-down capsule.

Simnel Cake
This cake was traditionally made for “€œMothering Sunday,”€ a holiday in mid-Lent when servants would be sent home to visit their families”€”bringing along this rich, satisfying dessert. It’s perfect for any Marian holiday.

6 ounces sliced almonds
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons almond extract
4 large eggs
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup flour

Pulse almonds and sugar in food processor until they form a fine powder. Add almond extract. Add 1egg, process until smooth.
Add butter in small pieces until completely mixed. Add remaining eggs, one at a time. Add flour. Process until just combined.

1/2 cup mixed, diced, candied fruits
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons cognac
5 large eggs
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup sifted flour
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

2 ounces rum
1 cup orange juice
1/3 cup powdered sugar

Combine candied fruit, raisins, lemon rind, vanilla and cognac in bowl. Allow to sit 20 minutes. Butter and flour an 8″€ spring form pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Beat eggs with sugar in bowl. Set eggs and sugar over pot of warm water”€”not boiling”€”until mixture is slightly warmer than room temperature.
Whip egg mixture in mixer until cool and tripled in volume (the eggs will be at ribbon stage). Fold in flour in four additions, being careful not to deflate eggs. Gently fold in melted butter and fruit.
Pour three quarters of frangipane into spring form pan. Top with cake mixture. Cook for 20 minutes, then add remaining frangipane. Cook 45 minutes, then check to see if cake has browned. If so, cover with foil. Cook an additional 15-30 minutes, until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Cool completely and remove from pan. Combine sauce ingredients, brush on cake. Serve garnished with fresh flowers.


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