‘The Almighty has done great things for me’ (Lk 1:49).
It’s good to have this feast. It’s good that it comes as summer comes to its climax and the harvest begins. Christ is the ‘first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep’ (1 Cor 15:20), and now Mary follows him. It is the feast of ‘our Lady in harvest time’. It’s good because it takes us to the heart of the Gospel, which is Easter. This is Mary’s Easter, ‘Easter in August’. It’s Mary’s share in the resurrection of her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, from the dead. It’s good because the Church is having hard times in Scotland, made all too aware of its sins and weaknesses, and Mary ‘is the beginning and image of [the] Church’s coming to perfection’ (Preface of the Mass). She is the Church at her truest and purest. It’s good because it’s the patronal feast of this Cathedral. It’s good most of all because it lifts our hearts to heaven, because ‘the sanctuary of God in heaven is opened’ (Rev 11:19), and we glimpse where God is taking us. We see what we hope for. And we are strengthened and consoled.
‘The Almighty has done great things for me’ – words from Mary’s Magnificat. They’re youthful words. They’re a great cry of joy. They burst from Mary when she was a young woman, probably only in her teens, when she had just conceived the Messiah by the power of the Holy Spirit, and knew she was ‘blessed among women’ (Lk 1:42). And the Liturgy, inspired by the same Holy Spirit, puts them on her lips again today – when she is old. Or better, when her Son is taking her up, body and soul, into the everlasting youthfulness of heaven.
‘The Almighty has done great things for me.’ Indeed he has. From the first moment of her existence, he freed her from the guilt of original sin and filled her with sanctifying grace. When ‘the age for love’ (Ez 16:8) came, he invited her to become the mother of his only-begotten Son and she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. With divine courtesy, he did not allow this to take away her virginity but instead consecrated it (non minuit sed sacravit), and so this mother is a virgin before, during and after childbirth – a combination of opposites only God’s power could work. He entrusted the upbringing of Jesus to her and Joseph. He made her intervention at Cana the occasion of Jesus’ first miracle or sign. By his will, she stood at the foot of the Cross, uniting herself to Christ’s sacrifice and receiving the beloved disciple as her son. When the Holy Spirit was sent at Pentecost, it was her prayers that had helped prepare the space for him.
‘The Almighty has done great things for me.’ It’s the theme-song of her life.
And today she sings it again. Today she is taken up, body and soul, into heaven. It has been discussed among the theologians whether Mary was taken up while still alive or if she first died. The majority view is that she did die. Pope John Paul II certainly endorsed this view. She shared in the death and resurrection of her Son. How could it be otherwise? Having been freed from original sin, dying had no aspect of a punishment for her. Rather, ‘involved in Christ’s redemptive work and associated with his saving sacrifice, Mary was able to share in his suffering and death for the sake of humanity’s redemption’. Her dying shared in the redeeming character of Christ’s. ‘Whatever from the physical point of view was the organic, biological cause of the end of her bodily life’, ‘it is more important to look for the Blessed Virgin’s spiritual attitude at the moment of her departure from this world’ (John Paul II, General Audience, 25 June 1997). St Francis de Sales speaks of her dying ‘in love, from love, and through love’ – so far can the love of Christ take hold of a human being. The Eastern Church speaks of Mary’s ‘dormition’, her falling asleep. So, for all the fire of her love, this was a gentle death, a falling asleep in the Lord. And Pope John Paul added a beautiful thing here. Mary has already shared humanity’s common destiny. She knows it from the inside, therefore. So, she can be our mother then in a very powerful way. Hence our words: ‘pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.’
Sharing in Christ’s death, then, she was ready to share in his Resurrection. ‘The Almighty has done great things for me.’ The Assumption, we can say, is the greatest and the last of all those ‘great things’. By the power of God, the separation of her body and soul is overcome. She is spared the corruption of the tomb’ (Preface). She is filled with the glory of God body and soul. She is taken into the Father’s arms, completely conformed to Christ, her whole being transfused by the Holy Spirit. Words fail here. And since no one is closer to us than God, and Mary very close to him, she can come very close to us, ‘the highest after Christ and the closest to us’ (Paul VI). ‘The clarity in her God-seeing mind enables her to perceive our needs, the charity in her God-fired heart moves her to meet them’ (John Saward). She is ‘the sign of sure hope and comfort to God’s pilgrim people’ (Preface), a mother for all our needs.
‘The Almighty has done great things for me.’ Mary is the type or symbol, the concentration in one person, of the Church. So what the Almighty has done for her, he does for the Church. Mary is the first and most thorough disciple of Christ, the first of a long line in which we want to stand too. What the Almighty does for her in ‘bold’, as it were, what he does for her in ‘high definition’, he does for the Church and for each of us. This is what we’re offered by this feast: a refreshing sense of the power and wisdom and mercy and love of the Father. That he has done and does and will do great things for us. That we too, at our level, in our place, can be a theatre, a focus, a locus, of this same divine action. This is why at Evening Prayer every day, the Divine Office gives us the Magnificat too, to echo Mary. The Father sanctifies us in baptism, as he sanctified her at her conception. The Father makes the Church and each of us bearers of Christ to the world, as he made her. The Father has the Church ‘keep intact faith, firm hope and sincere charity’ (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 64), after the image of Mary ‘ever-virgin’. The Father gives us strength to accept the Cross into our lives, so that our hearts may be enlarged with divine compassion, as hers. The Father gives us the power to call the Holy Spirit down into the world from the heart of the Church, as she did. And the Almighty will lead us through the valley of the shadow of death to the world of life everlasting and resurrection, as, to the joy of the angels, he leads her today.
‘The Almighty has done great things for me.’ So many ‘things’ can conspire to take this song out of our hearts and off our lips. May today, may Mary, bring it to life in us again!