“Mary set off as quickly as she could”. So begins today’s Gospel. I prefer the more literal translation: “Mary arose and went with haste”. This was the very text chosen to guide the recent World Youth Day in Lisbon. Mary, after all, was young, young and freshly pregnant, and she “arose with haste” to visit her cousin Elizabeth. After the Annunciation, Mary didn’t fold in on herself, as it were. She wanted to share their common joy; she wanted to help an older person. She arose with haste. And on no small journey, some 150 km.
The liturgy is creative in the way it uses Scripture. And so it is today: it takes a passage from the early years of Mary’s life and transposes it to the end of her life. Drawn by the call of her Son, by his visitation of her, by a personal Parousia, it’s now to the hills of heaven that she hastens.
When someone dies, we find ourselves looking back over their whole life. And so today with Mary. And perhaps that simple phrase, “Mary arose and went with haste” gives us a key. Before she was conscious, by virtue of her Immaculate Conception, she was leavened by the presence of the Holy Spirit. When later she heard the angelic call to become the Mother of God, she “rose” to her vocation: “be it done to me according to your word.” She rose to all the challenges of motherhood, not according to some pre-formed plan but responding to occasions: rising in the night, for example, to flee with Joseph and the baby to Egypt. At Cana, she rose to the need of a young couple on the brink of embarrassment: “they have no wine”. There was such alertness there. And she “stood” by the Cross: the posture of the risen. Scripture says nothing of her passing; it says nothing of the passing of the Apostles either, but there’s room for this biblical phrase again. Here was another rising, another response. In the Christian perspective, dying is a coming of the Lord. Why not turn to the Song of Songs? “My beloved speaks, and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away, for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come’” – the heavenly Magnificat. Eastern icons of the Dormition sometimes show Mary on her deathbed and Jesus holding her soul like a little child in his arms. In his commentary on the Visitation, St Ambrose wrote of Mary’s haste: “the Holy Spirit doesn’t deal in delays”. Even our intricate, fragile physical biology can be porous to the Holy Spirit. “I tell you a mystery, says St Paul. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye…For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body put on immortality” (1 Cor 15: 51-52; 53). And so, when the Lord came, Mary rose in a definitive, eschatological way and went with haste in response. For the hope and comfort of the whole Church, she became that great heavenly sign, clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and with a crown of twelve stars on her head. “Go forward, O Virgin, said a saint, from earth to heaven, from corruption to incorruption, from the sorrow of this world to the joy of the Kingdom… Hasten, O Virgin to the heavenly light, to the hymns of the angels, to the glory of the saints from all the ages.”
“Mary arose and went with haste”.
And how is this possible? For Mary and for us? How can we poor human beings, with our worries and hurts, our sinning and dying, be open to such things? Because of Jesus, the first fruits of all who have fallen asleep. In his incarnation, he took us on – we became his cargo – our weakness included. In his Passion he experienced that weakness fully and committed it and us to his Father. In his Resurrection, he was raised in power and in his Ascension took us to the Father. And in the Eucharist all this enters us body and soul. “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him / her up on the last day”. After Pentecost, Mary too fed on the Eucharist. Our weakness has become a door, a way to God. And through it breaks a new horizon, a great hope, and an unstoppable source of resilience. We needn’t surrender to the attempts to diminish us, the reduction of ourselves to mere consumers, to our bodily appetites or our psychology or our salary. Christ has freed and enlarged us, and it’s into that freedom Mary has risen and draws us in her turn. Dante called her the “a living / lively fountain of joy”.
It is the dream of this parish and this cathedral, dedicated to our Lady in her Assumption, that they serve this faith and hope. Mary, assumed into heaven, pray for us. Amen.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 15 August 2023