Heaven Is the Common Denominator
Today is Feast of the Assumption, to commemorate the Virgin Mary’s leave-taking: the day she went to holy sleep, with no earthly pain, according to Catholic tradition, and her body was assumed into heaven. And she is standing at the right hand of the altar, in a painting on the sanctuary wall of Our Lady of Sorrows church in Homewood, Alabama. Her strap-sandaled feet are firm on an unstable surface: her left foot on a round blue orb she dwarfs, her right foot on the back of a snake-bodied dragon with a pointy crocodile mouth whose teeth are piercing an apple. The shadow of the dragon’s neck on the orb makes a dark diagonal to what looks like the end of a crescent moon behind Mary’s heels.
The clouds in the painting are J.M.W.-Turneresque, but there’s no landscape except a crag with no mountain in sight. Two mischievous-faced cherubim peek out from the drapery folds of Mary’s blue, white and gold robes. She holds her hands as if she’s playing a harp. Above the stars circling her head is a hovering dove: its feet drawn in, close to its body—the better to fly with; its beak pointed towards Mary, whose eyes are are downturned towards the fern plant and the rose resting on the crag of the unseen world below.
The painting is an image of John’s vision of a lady in Revelation: “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head” (Rev. 12:1). And of a dragon, whose “tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth,” who “stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born.” And the child, a ruler-to-be, was born and rescued, “snatched up to God and to his throne” (Rev. 12: 4-6).
We don’t know if the woman in the Revelation reading for today is Mary, the priest at Our Lady of Sorrows said in his sermon. But we do know that there are two glorified bodies in heaven—Jesus and his mother, I assume him to mean. The rest of us are waiting for our souls to be joined to our bodies, waiting to become glorified, in the resurrection of the dead. And our spiritual bodies won’t suffer pain like our natural bodies, the good news some read into Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “Listen, I tell you a mystery…we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet…the dead will be raised imperishable” (1 Cor. 51-52).
We celebrate the Feast of the Assumption as we celebrate the Eucharist—death and resurrection in one fell swoop. “Heaven is the common denominator,” the priest told us. When Mary died, Jesus joined her soul to her body, and brought them into heaven, because he didn’t want his mother to suffer physical decay.
I’ve seen two bodies beginning to decay: My Aunt Judy, in Alabama, and my Aunt Elene, in Egypt. Judy’s veins showing through the powder a mortician caked on her face. The make-up didn’t quite match Judy’s dead skin tone. And it couldn’t conceal the blackening blue of the veins in her nose, the agitation of the oxygen tubes that kept her barely alive with ovarian cancer—until my mother heard her breaths getting further and further apart, then stop.
On the way to the hospital, perhaps at the moments Judy was dying that day, I saw a sky I’d never seen before. I was driving down the highway, noticing how iron-dark smoke pumps out from sloss furnaces, when the sun jolted me: long spokes out of thick clouds, lines out of ether, yellow-white out of blue-white, light blaring through. Like the image on the cover of The Book in contemporary Christian stores, like the white light people describe from near-death experiences. It was almost too trite to be true. But the sky that day was too striking to dismiss. I couldn’t see the circle-shape of the sun, just the light, breaking through the clouds in lines—not a diffuse brightness, but stark, blinding rays, breaking me open to something. I couldn’t look right at it, and I couldn’t look away.
Is that what the priest means when he says heaven is open to us? Is that what we mean when we say, in the Nicene Creed, “We look for the resurrection of the dead”?
I saw Aunt Elene’s body in a back room of the intensive care unit in a hospital in Alexandria, a few hours after she died in a coma. Elene, who used to pray through the Virgin Mary for healing for my father and, to his exasperation, for repair for the dishwasher. Elene, who died, I like to think, much like Mary: She fell asleep and went to heaven.
And we got to say goodbye. “Maesalaama” my uncle said, go in peace, in Arabic. “Hanshoofik fiy’l sama’,” we’ll see you in heaven.
“Au revoir,” I said to Elene—French was our common denominator of language. “Chez le Bon Dieu,” at God’s home, the way she would say heaven. I said goodbye to her mouth, agape like a fish, goodbye to the last sign of life on her body: the blood crusting over the cracks in her lips, her mouth healing from the agitation of the respirator.
I saw Elene’s body again in her casket. Her hands were drawn like the feet of a dead sparrow I’d seen, her mouth sealed shut as its beak. Traces of the crusted blood that hadn’t come off the corners of her mouth in the washing of the body. And the red-blackening edges of the petals of the roses, already darkening, in her casket. I dropped in a faded picture of the Virgin Mary I’d found on her bedside table, for the life of the world to come.
And we said goodbye again. “Maesalaama…Hanshoofik fiy’l sama’…Au revoir, chez le Bon Dieu,” Goodbye, until we see you in heaven.
If heaven is the highest common denominator among Christians, then I’ll tolerate all I cannot stomach about the church. I’ll keep looking up to the sky or the ceiling, keep saying the parts of the creed I believe, to make them come true: We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.