The Feast of the Assumption for the Downwardly Mobile

The Feast of the Assumption for the Downwardly Mobile August 14, 2015

I almost always manage to skip Mass on the Feast of the Assumption. Although I would not swear this is the reason, the whole idea of Mary’s being assumed bodily into heaven sticks in my craw. The problem isn’t the thinness of the scriptural evidence for such an event, or the fanciful depictions, like Rubens’ – and, to a lesser extent, Titian’s – that look as though they belong on Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. If any of that bothered me, I’d have become a fundie.

No, the problem is that the Assumption makes me feel like one sorry-assed excuse for a son.

Among people who have made a great deal more money than they ever expected, there is a solid tradition of setting the old folks up in style. When Elvis purchased Graceland, he moved both parents in with him – his father Vernon’s bedroom was eventually fitted out with its own swimming pool. Frank Sinatra bought his parents a house in Ft. Lee, which must have represented an agreeable uptick in tone from Hoboken.

Beyoncé, Taylor Swift — the list of generous offspring goes on. Most of these families began in modest enough circumstances that their children’s gifts of comfort and real estate must have come as somewhat of a surprise. If any joy belongs exclusively to the nouveaux-riches, it’s getting to see the look on the parents’ faces when their labors are paid back with interest. The more modest version, arranging for Mom and Dad to move into a top-drawer retirement community, might even count as an integral motif in the American Dream.

At Nicaea, the bishops decided that Jesus had been both fully human and fully divine. Nowhere, either in Scripture or Apocrypha, do these two natures appear to be working together so frictionlessly as when he dispatches angels to carry his aging blessed mother into her new eternal home. On the divine side, extracting a woman of a certain age from her sickbed and transporting her an incalculable distance without causing a jostle, is a thing no mere mortal could do. Even if, as some theologians believe, the angels arrived after Mary’s physical death and not before, they still executed their mission with inhuman speed and timing.

But I refuse to believe that Jesus didn’t also take a very human satisfaction in showing his Blessed Mother that, at last, he’d made good. Lookit how many rooms, Ma, one pictures him saying. No, I don’t owe any money on it. My Father and I own it free and clear. And you get to be queen of the whole place. Come away from that kitchen right this minute, I mean it. If you want something, I’ll get you something. How about some figs? You love figs. And, please, don’t mention the heating bills. Let Lucifer’s mother worry about his heating bills…

Maybe this sounds like too much braggadocio coming from the Son of Man? Well, encoded in it would have been a much humbler message. See, Ma? Jesus would have been implying. It was all worth it – the mysterious pregnancy, the hasty marriage to a most chaste spouse, the village gossip, the flight into Egypt, losing me in the Temple, seeing me perish on the Cross after remanding you into the care of a juvenile delinquent. In the end, all that self-denial and emotional torment paid a big fat dividend, and here it is.

From her son, my own sainted, long-suffering mother has received far in the way of her just deserts than Celestine Knowles or Dolly Sinatra, never mind the Blessed Mother. Forget mansions in heaven or North Jersey – as one of the downwardly mobile, I can’t even hope to buy her better tchotchkes than the ones she and Bob buy for themselves. Instead, whenever her birthday or Mother’s Day rolls around, I settle for the sentimental and symbolic – a Fed-Exed myrtle plant here, a marked-down necklace from Macy’s there. To these, the adult answers to macaroni collages, I add the boon of visiting New York and imposing on their hospitality only once every few years.

As an early Boomer born in ’44, my mother belongs to the last generation, in Pew’s words, “to exceed the wealth of its cohorts and to secure an adequate retirement.” (Bob, a tail-end Boomer born in ’58, belongs to the first generation of “dumpies” – downwardly mobile, urban, middle-aged people, though he himself represents a happy exception to that rule.) But if the three of us can at least rest assured we won’t end up living out our days in the same cardboard box, downwardly mobile Gen-Xers who have begotten even more hopelessly strapped Millennials might not be so lucky. To them, the Virgin’s retirement cottage hear Efes might start looking plenty palatial in its own right.

Practical solutions to the economic crunch are beyond my ken. But for those less infected than your blogger with postwar, middle-class aspiration, the Assumption can serve as a reminder that we mortals achieve true upward mobility only after we’ve hustled our last here on earth.

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