Aberdeen is a rather sombre place at present: still in lockdown, football-less, and most of all mourning the sad event on the train line north of Stonehaven, and the loss of three lives.
So it’s good to have this feast to keep. It lifts the heart. It is the main Marian feast of the year. It is the patronal feast of this Cathedral and of the diocese, and the principal patronal feast of Pluscarden Abbey too.
It is arguably the oldest feast of Mary. It is common to East and West. It has many titles: Mary’s birthday, i.e. her birth into the risen life; her falling-asleep or dormition; her Assumption which means taking-up and taking-to. The German word for the day means “journey to heaven”; the Polish word means, “taking-up to heaven”. “Our Lady of the harvest” is an old Irish name for today. “Easter in August” it has been called. The content is clear. As an old prayer has it: “Mary underwent death in time, but could not be held-down by the bonds of death”. She was “not allowed to see corruption”. Our biological liability – the logic of dust to dust – was overcome by the power of the risen Christ and so, as Pope Pius XII expressed it, at the end of her earthly life she was taken up, body and soul, into heavenly glory – in a manner known only to God.
We are in the presence of a great divine action – for “he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name”.
It would be a mistake to consider this feast as something merely decorative, or even merely personal to Mary. Or to think of it as a Catholic add-on, icing on a core Christian cake. No. It is a door into the heart of the Gospel. Apparently distant, it’s actually central.
Napoleon Bonaparte, who did much damage to Christianity in his day, happened to have the 15 August as his birthday. In fact, his mother was at Mass when her contractions began. As he and his ego became more powerful, he became increasingly resentful at having to share his day with Mary. People were keener to go to church than to hail his birthday. So, I’ve heard, he went as far as to suppress the feast in some parts of France, to refocus the day on himself. He also didn’t care for Mary’s Magnificat, especially the lines: “He has cast the mighty from their thrones and raised up the lowly”. Well, we know what happened: in the retreat from Moscow, on the field at Waterloo, as a prisoner on an island, he was cast down from his throne. Thus the feast that keeps the raising up of the lowly – this feast of the Gospel beatitudes, of the heart of the Gospel message – regained its day. And, incidentally, Bonaparte began his last will with the words, “I die in the Apostolic Roman religion, in the bosom of which I was born more than fifty years since”. Note the “born” – game, set and match to Mary!
This feast takes us to heart of our faith. When we’re younger, all our energy goes in trying to achieve, to get somewhere, to be someone, do something. But our perspective can shift when we move the other side of 40 or 50. We realise that the art of life is acceptance. Or, to put it another way, we begin to realise that life, at its best and its deepest, is about receiving what has been given us – gifts sometimes not immediately obvious as such, but things that were there before us and are bigger than us. We can think of the natural world, of our family, our work, the things that have befallen us, our country, our history and if we are believers, our faith. And we begin to see that life, personal life, is about responding to what is given, however demanding. Life is about digging our way to gratitude. And so with our faith, so with the Church, so with Jesus. Mary is the great pattern here. She understood. Think of the shape of the Annunciation: gift and response. Think of Elizabeth’s words to her: “Blessed is she who believed”, that is, who accepted, received, responded, and burst into her song of thanksgiving which the Church has sung ever since, the song Mary, as it were, takes into heaven today. And what was her Assumption if not more of the same? At the end of her life, branded by the birth and death and resurrection of her Son, she must have been so simple, so light, so ready to go, so unresisting, so unentangled, so ripe with gratitude. And when her Son came with outstretched arm and mighty hand to raise her to heaven, she had only to put her hand in his – death scurrying away into the shadows. Mary takes us to heart of our faith.
“And so a great sign appears in heaven”, a Woman – who all at once is Mary, mother of the Messiah, who is Woman as such, who is the new Eve, and Israel and the Church and the people of God in person, who is dressed with the universe, creation in person. The transformation the earth longs for is achieved in her, the groaning of creation turns into the joy of the angels, and every believer, every human being, every living being is given, in the struggles of life, this sure sign of comfort and hope. The horizon of the Resurrection expands before us, and we can go on.
Nine years ago, I was ordained bishop in this cathedral on this feast. On that occasion, I entrusted my ministry to Mary. I do that again now, and I ask her – and ask you to ask her – to pray for this Cathedral parish, for our diocese, for me, for all of us: to pray that her Son, conqueror of sin and death, may be real, ever more real to us, the reallest thing that is.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. Amen.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 16 August 2020)