Today’s feast brings to mind an episode in the life of the Apostle Paul. It occurs during his second missionary journey, some twenty years after our Lord’s death and resurrection. Paul has arrived in Athens. ‘Standing in front of the Areopagus’ (Acts 17:22), he speaks for the first time to a non-Jewish audience, to the leading Athenians. The Gospel is crossing a threshold, encountering a quite other mentality from that of its Jewish homeland. St Paul says his say, but when he mentions the raising of Jesus from the dead – the resurrection of Christ – he is met, drowned out perhaps, by laughter. ‘At the mention of rising from the dead, some’ of his listeners, says Acts, ‘burst out laughing’ (Acts 17:32). The idea is ridiculous. So it was to the Greek mind. Perhaps we can say that this ‘laughter’ at the Resurrection runs through the centuries. The notion of bodily resurrection flies in the face of all the evidence. After the experiences of the 20th c., we might feel that particularly. If there is a resurrection that awaits us, it could only be through some form of genetic engineering or artificial intelligence – not what St Paul had in mind.
But there was another reaction among Paul’s listeners. “Others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’” That can be read as a rather beautiful phrase: ‘We will hear you again about this.’ The account then makes clear that at least ‘some’ of those ‘others’ joined Paul and ‘became believers’, Dionysius, Damaris and others (Acts 17:33). ‘We will hear you again about this.’ Perhaps that is a key to this feast. Perhaps that’s precisely what this feast is: it’s a hearing again. It’s a hearing again of the Gospel of Resurrection. ‘Christ has been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep.’ It’s a hearing again of what we heard at Easter, not in front of the Areopagus but beside the empty tomb: ‘he is not here, he has risen as he said.’ ‘Easter in August’ is one description of this feast. Today we hear Christ’s Resurrection echoing in another person, Mary. Every Sunday we say, in the words of the Nicene Creed, ‘I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’, or, from the Apostles’ Creed, ‘I believe…in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.’ And what we recite every Sunday, we hear again today. We hear it in the flesh and blood, the body and soul, of Mary of Nazareth, the woman in whom the Word became flesh, who carried him to Elizabeth, gave birth to him in Bethlehem, held him up to the shepherds and the wise men, offered him in the Temple. We hear the Resurrection echoing, repeating itself, re-sounding in the person of the woman who stood by the Cross, now sharing the glory of her son. We hear and we see it: ‘a great sign appeared in heaven.’
And what do we hear when we hear this again? I think we hear that the Resurrection of Christ is not an isolated event, not a one-off. It’s rather the beginning of a chain-reaction. It’s the release of a new, all-pervading energy. Today we hear and see in a wholly human person, Mary, what we’ve already heard and seen in the human nature of the divine person of the Son of God. Today we realise afresh the dimensions of Easter. It embraces body as well as soul, woman as well as man, mother as well as son, the disciple as well as the Master, fragility as well as strength, the Church as well as its Lord, the whole of creation as well as the Word that sustains it.
‘We would like to hear you again about this.’ “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed”, says St Paul again. That trumpet first sounded, as it were, by the empty tomb. It sounds again at the Assumption of Mary. And it will sound again at the end. ‘The dead will hear, says the Gospel of John, ‘…and all who hear will live’ (Jn 5:25).
In another way too, the age-old doctrine of Mary’s Assumption was heard again in 1950 when Pope Pius XII proclaimed it as a dogma of the Catholic faith, after the destruction of so many souls and bodies in Two World Wars. Doesn’t it need to be heard again now when the tide of hope seems on the ebb and imaginations of the future are so commonly dark and dystopian and talk turns to the demise of Homo Sapiens? Who knows what dragons history has in its womb? But ‘Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of all who have fallen asleep.’ ‘A great sign has appeared in heaven’, above all the turmoil, ‘a woman adorned with the sun, standing on the moon and with the twelve stars on her head for a crown.’ A new horizon has been opened to the human race. We can laugh or believe.
We know what Mary did. ‘Blessed is she who believed’, Elizabeth says of her. ‘Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what the Lord had said to her.’ In the hours after the crucifixion of her son, it was Mary who kept alive for the Church faith in his resurrection. Blessed are we when we keep alive in our minds and hearts faith in that fulfilment. Blessed are we when we keep it alive in the world, for one another, giving each other hope. Blessed are we when we hear it again and again, when our hard hearts soften, when we open ourselves to the grandeur of God’s love: ‘He is risen. He is truly risen.’
Perhaps this is now Mary’s mission, assumed as she is into heaven: to bring the Resurrection home to our hearts. Our Lady of holy hope, pray for us!