Catechesis on the Assumption

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Bishop Hugh Gilbert, OSB, catechesis on the Assumption:


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Aberdeen is a rather sombre place at present: locked-down again, football-less and most of all grieving at what happened on the railway line near Stonehaven, with three lives lost.

So, all the more reason to allow the feast of Mary’s Assumption to cast its radiance over us. It is the patronal feast of our cathedral in Aberdeen, and of our diocese of Aberdeen. It is also the chief patronal feast of Pluscarden Abbey. It is good to be under such protection.

I’d like to offer here some reflective catechesis on the liturgy before us.

Firstly, this is indeed a major feast, a solemnity. In the 9th c. Pope Nicholas I even declared that it should be ranked with Christmas, Easter and Pentecost – that’s as high as it gets. I would certainly suggest that it is the principal feast between the solemnities of Pentecost and Corpus Christi on the one hand and of All Saints and Christ the Universal King on the other, that is, between May / June and November. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came on Mary as wind and fire. In her life as a member of the early Christian community, she would have taken part in the Breaking of Bread and received sacramentally the Body of her risen Son. The Holy Spirit and the Eucharist are the two great gifts of the glorified Lord to his people, gifts for our bodies and souls, and we can say that Mary’s Assumption body and soul into heavenly glory at the end of her life is the working out of those gifts of in her life. It is the Spirit who will raise our mortal bodies, says St Paul, and he who eats the bread that I shall give will live for ever, says Jesus. At the same time, too her Assumption presages the Church’s completion in holiness which we celebrate at All Saints and anticipates the coming of Christ the King to transfigure the universe at the end of time. Such are the “mighty deeds” of God that cluster around our Solemnity.

This is, too, a feast with a long history and a broad geography. There is evidence from 5th c. Jerusalem of a Marian feast – probably originating earlier – on 15th August. It focussed first on her motherhood, but grew to encompass her passing as well. It was taken up into what we now call the Orthodox world, and into that of the Oriental Orthodox, and it passed to the Latin West as well. It is a feast of the Christian oikumene; it has an ecumenical character. Over the centuries, it has acquired several names. It has been called her birthday, her natale, that is, her birth into heaven. It has been called her falling-asleep or dormition, her koimesis in Greek, the presupposition of her Assumption. In the West, it’s that last title that has prevailed. “Assumption” means being “taken up” and “taken to”. It’s the repercussion of the Lord’s Resurrection and Ascension in her. In fact, the Acts of the Apostles speaks of the Lord being “assumed into heaven” (Acts 1:11). The German word for the feast means “journey to heaven”. The Polish word means a “taking up into heaven”. An Irish name for is “the Feast of Mary in Harvest-time”. “Easter in August” is another description. We’re familiar with that formidable complex of buildings in Moscow, the Kremlin. Among much else, it includes four Cathedrals, of which one is the Uspensky Cathedral. It dates to the 15th c., and was the work of an Italian architect. It is the church where Czars were crowned and patriarchs are enthroned. Uspensky comes from the old Russian word uspenie, meaning Dormition. So, in our terms, it’s the Cathedral of the Assumption, and is held to be the mother Church of all the churches of Russia. It’s the patronal feast of all women called Mary and all churches dedicated, without further specification, simply to “St. Mary.” In Armenia, there’s an old tradition: if you’re called Mary, you have to throw a party today!

Liturgies Eastern and Western abound for this feast. Different traditions with a variety of biblical readings and allusions, many prayers, much imagery. There’s a poetic and Scriptural fullness here, attempts to evoke the many splendours of the Queen now seated at the King’s right hand. To honour the twelve stars that crown her in the Apocalypse, let me call out twelve themes from the repertoire of tradition, prefacing each with the evocative liturgical word “today”. So:

Today, Mary is envisaged as falling asleep in the Lord and being wakened to glory. Today, the one conceived without sin at the beginning of her life and a virgin throughout it is taken beyond bodily decay at the end of her life, and so shares fully in her Son’s victory over our double enemy of sin and death.

Today, the one who gave birth to the Lord in this life is now born into his risen and ascended life in heaven.

Today, say some of the old texts, she “migrates” from the Egypt of this world to the Promised Land of the world to come.

As the precious Old Testament Ark of the Covenant held the word of God, the tablets of the Law, so she as Virgin Mother carried the Word of God made flesh, and as the Ark was carried up in procession to rest in the Holy of Holies of the Temple, so today Mary is taken up by the angels and finds rest in the Temple of the Trinity. “Go up, Lord, to the place of your rest; you and the ark of your strength.”

Today, like the beloved in the Song of Songs, she’s taken into the chamber of her Lover and Lord.

In our Gospel, she rises and goes in haste to the hill country; it’s a small pointer to her going up to today, not to Zechariah’s house, but to the house of Father, there to sing her definitive Magnificat.

Today, like Mary of Bethany who was happy to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to him, so she now, the first disciple, finds rest in the presence of her Son.

Today, she’s brought to the fullness of life in Christ, and her resurrected Son full of love and gratitude towards his mother raises her from the dead.

Today, an old prayer says, though she underwent death in time, she couldn’t be held down by the bonds, ties, fetters of death, by our biological liability to it; she could not be locked down or as the Mass Preface says allowed “to see the corruption of the tomb.” It’s a day of liberation.

Today, at the end of her earthy life, she is taken up body and soul into heavenly glory. “And a great sign appeared in heaven appears in heaven, a woman adorned with the sun, standing on the moon and crowned with twelves stars, “a sign of sure hope and comfort to God’s pilgrim people.”

Today, she enters fully into her mission as our companion and sister, mother and friend, and is close to us now, in every place and each generation, in all our entanglements and confusions and hopes and joys.

Does this over-egg the pudding? No, actually. Mary was indeed once just a slip of a girl, as we say, a “wee quine” from Nazareth. She is just a single human being, one leaf on the tree of life. She sings of her “nothingness” in the Magnificat. But the Lord has done great things for her and all generations will call her blessed. So, why shouldn’t we? She’s a small window, if you like, but on a great hope.

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Because Mary’s Assumption was defined by Pope Pius XIII as a dogma of faith only on 1st November 1950, we might think this belief a mere decorative add-on, an optional extra, Catholic icing on the core Christian cake. No. It’s a key, a door, a window on the whole mystery of divine revelation.

Let me try to say why. We inhabit a culture which emphasises our autonomy, our capacity for self-determination, the desirability of individual initiative. Maturity means shedding dependence and becoming the agent or protagonist of our own life. Indeed. But for this to be kept wholesome, on the right side, as it were, of solipsism and egoism, there’s a need for a complementary truth: the sense of life as essentially response. The great realities precede us. We waken to them. We don’t invent them; we discover them. And living wisely and well means responding wisely and well to what is given us. This dialectic begins with our mother, and widens to the rest of our family. It widens to the world, the natural world, the country(ies) we belong to, the schools we go to, the studies we undertake, the people we get to know, the profession, the business, the craft I engage in. They are all there first, and I respond to them. Historical events, political and social, convulsions, wars, viruses; good things, bad things, difficult things, painful things. My spouse, my children, my job. I am always responding. The quality of these things and the quality of my response determine the quality of my life. My life is my response. Suppose I am a football enthusiast. I discover this sport; it’s there; it’s all over the world. I become involved. It becomes part of my life – even more! Or take music. It does something for me, let’s say. I “get into” it. It takes me over. It might become my career, my life.

There’s a structure here: a given and a response. And it’s in responding that I live. Children reflect this so clearly – in their spontaneous responding to what comes their way.

Our faith has the same structure. The first half of our faith, as it were, is that God has shown himself, presented himself, come to us and made himself known, addressed us, given himself. Through the whole history of salvation, in the person of Jesus, in the community of the Church, in the promise of more to come, God gives himself to us. The “mystery of faith” is all a given and at some point – through our parents or however – it’s given to us; it comes home to me. God presents himself. And we / I respond. This is the second half, as it were. This is what the Church is: the Bride of Christ, an answer, the corporate response of humanity to the living God. That’s what faith, hope and charity are for each one of us. They name the response which makes our Christian life. The Bible speaks of covenants, two-party agreements. It speaks of a marriage. There’s the repeated refrain in the Bible: “They shall be my people and I will be their God.” Faith means mutuality, reciprocity. Christianity is gift and acceptance. The Fathers of the Church say: God has become man so that man can become God. Thus, the pattern that makes our life is replicated here, but at a higher intensity, and all to the good if we respond well. A saint, I suppose, is precisely someone who responds wholeheartedly, with a full heart and mind and soul, to the presentation God has made of himself. And that is their life. And the more the Lord imparts himself and the more wholeheartedly we respond, the more life we have. The more we feel the life-giving Spirit in ourselves.

If this is how it is and if we then “read” Mary’s life in this light, is not she the great responder? A young Jewish woman, and God’s messenger comes her way: you will be the mother of the Messiah. She responds with her acceptance. Or take today’s Gospel. Mary “sets out”, responding to the need of her cousin; the child in Elizabeth responds to the child in Mary, and Elizabeth recognises Mary’s own response to the message that came to her from the Lord: “Blessed is she who believed”. So, Mary responds to God’s gift with her Magnificat. And so her whole life unfolds: she responds as a mother to her divine child. She responds to the shepherds and Simeon and to the drama of losing and finding her Son. She keeps what comes to her in her heart, reflecting on it. She responds to the suffering and death of her Son just by being there, by suffering with him. She responds to her Son’s promise of the Holy Spirit by joining in prayer with the other disciples waiting for his coming. St Paul says of himself, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” He means, my life is spent in responding to the gift of Christ, and if I die it will only mean more Christ and therefore more life. As Mary came to the end of her life, she could have said the same. The pattern of her life – gift and response – is now coming to its climax. She died of love, says St Francis of Sales. She must have become so simple and light, so unweighed down, so ready to go. Christ comes to her now, in the fullness of his risen reality. He comes with the offer of a full share in his Resurrection. And there were no tangles or entanglements in her to impede a whole-hearted response, a final Fiat. She was open to transformation, unresisting, easily taken; so free of sin that she could not help but be taken beyond death, even bodily. So, the gift that awaits us at the end of time, God’s final “great thing”, great deed, can be realised already in her.

I think Mary helps us grasp and enter into this understanding of life. She takes us out of any locked-in, self-referential “take” on things. She helps us become simple, generous responders to the gifts of God and the gift of God himself.

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Allow me a final coda. Mary isn’t just Mary. Mary is more than herself. She is the great sign, clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet and crowned with stars. The imagery means that she brings the whole universe with her. She brings womanhood. She brings the whole is the Church in person. Her “body and soul” recapitulate all creation. She is all that isn’t God and in her Assumption she is raised to meet him. A poet (Rainer Maria Rilke) once asked, “O earth, what is your intent, what is your task, if not transformation?” In Mary, glorified in body and soul, “earth” is transformed and the hope of transformation is given every living being. Now, beside the new Man stands the new Woman; beside the King a Queen. Heaven and earth have met. Christ and the Church have embraced. There is Giver and Receiver, Revealer and Believer, Speaker and Listener, Teacher and Disciple. We feel drawn in. We have a great sense of homecoming, of all being ultimately well, of nothing good being lost, only evil falling away: Today, we see Mary as the sign of hope and comfort for the pilgrim people of God, our companion and sister, mother and friend.

May she pray for our cathedral and its parish, for our diocese, for everyone, for the three who died in the train and those who mourn them.