Today is a day of uplift.
The Collect has the phrase ‘the things that are above.’ The baffling 1st reading talks of a child ‘taken straight up to God and to his throne’ – a reference to Jesus. St Paul speaks of Christ ‘being raised from the dead’, the same again. In the Gospel, Mary sets off for the hills of Judaea, the uplands, and she sings about the Lord exalting the lowly.
Yes, everything seems to be moving upwards. ‘We have a lift-off’ as the NASA commentator said when Apollo 11 was launched on 16 July 1969. Forgive the comparison! ‘Mary has been taken up into heaven; all the choirs of angels are rejoicing. Alleluia.’
Clearly, the Assumption is not just a private event. It presupposes the resurrection and ascension of our Lord. We celebrate the rising of the Lord when spring is in the air and now, as the harvest comes in, we mark its follow-through in his mother. And we are lifted up as well: what happened to Mary in body and soul happens in our hearts and minds. Mary’s Assumption looks forward to the goal of all who believe and are saved. She’s a sign of ‘sure hope and comfort’ to us on our pilgrim way. And to more than us. There is joy for the angels, and round this woman who shines in the heavens, who is Mary and the Church all at once, the sun, the moon and the stars reconstellate.
From the Old Testament, we’re familiar with the Ark of the Covenant. It was a beautifully wrought portable box. It contained the tablets with the 10 commandments written on them. It carried the Word of God, that means. On the top, at both ends, stood carved cherubim and between them was the mercy-seat, the place where the cloud, symbolising God’s presence, would rest. No wonder then that Christians thought of this ark as a symbol of Mary. She was beautifully made, immaculately conceived, free of sin. She was overshadowed by the presence of the Holy Spirit and carried the Word of God in her womb and her heart. In the Litany of Loreto, one of her titles is ‘Ark of the Covenant.’ And a high-point of Old Testament history was the occasion when King David had the ark carried up to Jerusalem to the place he had prepared for it and where his son Solomon would build the famous Temple. The first reading of the Vigil Mass recounts this, and the earliest sermons on the Assumption that we have from the Fathers of the Church use this as a comparison for Mary’s Assumption. ‘Go up, Lord, to the place of your rest, you and the ark of your strength.’ The Lord ‘went up’ when he was raised from the dead. And now the precious ark follows him into the tent of eternal life. ‘The sanctuary of God in heaven opened and the ark of the covenant could be seen inside it.’ And just as in King David’s day all of us rejoice.
I’ve said it before, but this feast is a reason for saying it again: our faith gives us a bigger and better vision of being human than any other view on the market. It is completely realistic about our limits, our weakness, our capacity for evil, and it’s hopeful – extravagantly hopeful – about our capacity for God, for the glory and joy that await us. I read the other day the good line, ‘a Church without saints is a Church without heaven.’ A world without saints, without Jesus and Mary, is a world without heaven. And without heaven, we’re diminished. We’re two-dimensional. We’re unfinished sentences. We’re deprived of any future except a sham utopia or blank despair. But this feast, this Easter in August, opens us up. It means we can carry heaven within us already, in the form of hope. It means we needn’t be prisoners of any immediate horizon. It means the Lord is Lord of the future, and that his plans are plans of peace and not of disaster. Isn’t it remarkable that in the middle of a century, the 20th, when human beings killed more human beings than ever before, when weapons had been devised capable of vast annihilations of man and nature, that Pope Pius XII should define as a dogma the Assumption of Mary body and soul into the glory of heaven? ‘A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman adorned with the sun, standing on the moon, and with the twelve stars on her head for a crown’: creation redeemed.
And here’s another comfort. Humanly speaking, historically speaking, Mary was a nobody. She was one of the little people of the earth. Poor and lowly, the Bible would say. She never had a position. She never had a high-powered job. She never wrote a book. She just had a child and a pure heart and a virginal body and the spirit of prayer. She was the wife of a carpenter. She was a disciple of Jesus. She treasured his words in her heart. She stood beside him when he was crucified. She suffered. She befriended the apostles. She disappeared into silence, humanly speaking. She waited and prayed. And it’s her, this wee creature, who’s taken up into heaven, exalted far above the cherubim and seraphim. And it’s she who is close to us. It’s she, as Pope Francis says, who ‘cares with maternal affection and pain for this wounded world…[who] grieves for the sufferings of the crucified poor and for the creatures of this world laid waste by human power’ (Laudato Si’, 241). And ‘all creatures sing of her fairness’.
Yes, ‘we have a lift-off’. We have hope. Thanks to this feast, we can be more.