Father Peter Stannard’s homily for the Assumption of Mary that was celebrated on 13th August
Cast your mind back to your school days and I’m sure that like me you can remember the subjects you loved and those you hated. Me, I loved English and hated Maths , for you it may have been the complete opposite. Years later the same rule applied to theological college. Others took to learning New Testament Greek like ducks to water; for me it was a real pain. It was all the more painful because I knew how important it was to be able to read the scriptures in their original languages and to gain important insights as a result.
Take the Greek word Kalos meaning “Good”. It is used in John 10 where Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd. The word is significant in more than one way. I find the most delightful is that good means handsome or beautiful. The good shepherd is the beautiful shepherd. Jesus is utterly beautiful and it is that sheer beauty that makes him compellingly attractive. It is that amazing charisma that causes the first disciples to instantly drop everything and immediately follow him. The hymn writer got it right with those famous words, “Fix your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in his wonderful face. And the cares of the world will grow strangely dim in the light of his wonder and grace.’ That is the business of heaven: the sheer joy of gazing on the transfigured and transfiguring beauty of Jesus in his glory.
So what has this to do with the Assumption of Our Lady? Well I’m sure you know where I’m going. Jesus derives this beauty not just by being very God of very God, the source of all beauty, but also by being his mother’s son. Jesus is utterly beautiful because Mary is utterly beautiful too. They share a beauty to which countless religious artists fail to do justice. Of course Jesus gains his goodness through Mary in other ways too. Goodness is also a moral quality and Mary , by example, raises Jesus to be good This is rather more important than it first appears. Luke tells us that after losing Jesus for three days, Mary and Joseph find him in the Temple listening and asking questions. He then returns to Nazareth with them and , Luke points out , is obedient to them. Long before Jesus was tested in the wilderness , he learned goodness from Mary and Joseph. Through infancy, childhood, youth and beyond, Jesus’ formation - his capacity to choose the good and resist temptation - is down to Mary and Joseph.
Good means beautiful. Good means of high moral standing. Good also means efficient, effective, fit for purpose. And once again this applies to Our Lady. Mary had a unique and vital role in God’s plan for our salvation. She was chosen, predestined, to be united with Jesus in the victory over sin and death. Without her it would have been impossible. That God enabled her to fulfil this role is implied by the Archangel Gabriel’s greeting, ‘Hail Mary full of grace’. It is by his grace that God enables us to accomplish his will. But to understand this more fully we need to go beyond scripture to the Church’s teaching.
Mary could have said no to God. The good lord does not override our free will. But he predisposed her to say yes not just by his grace but by her redemption in anticipation of what Christ would achieve. Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin. Thus equipped for her unique vocation, the sinless Mother cooperates with the sinless Son until at the end of her earthly life, she was taken body and soul into heavenly glory there to take her place as Queen of Heaven. Formerly the son was conformed to his mother in obedience to the Father’s will; at her taking her place in heaven she is conformed to her son as conqueror over sin and death. The assumption of Mary is a singular participation in her son’s resurrection and an anticipation of our own resurrection.
And if that language does for you what New Testament Greek did for me, I’ll risk putting it very bluntly: Heaven couldn’t be heaven without Mary as Queen. Christ in all his glory couldn’t bear to be without her. And let me put it more bluntly still with a simple story. Some years ago I took part in a sponsored walk for Christian Aid. We followed what is called St. Cuthbert’s Way from the Scottish borders down to Holy Island on the Northumbrian coast. Even with training (which I wasn’t very good at) it was a killer of a pilgrimage. Finally, finally, finally, we got to the last stretch for the finishing post only to be cheered along by a happy crowd of people waiting eagerly for us to join them, waiting for every last one of us to reach our goal.
Simple enough. But it offers a glimpse of what the Christian pilgrimage and the prospect of heaven are all about. Having gone before us through trial and difficulty, Mary our mother in union with Jesus waits for us in heaven, helping us on our way, cheering us on to completion and joy.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth said,
“Of all women you are the most blessed
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (Luke 1:42)
In ancient times the month May was dedicated to springtime celebrations of nature, agriculture, and in many ways of motherhood… to this day several countries around the world keep Mother’s Day in May. Many different cultures, from the Romans to the Celts, associated May with fertility and with life as well. And with the advent of Christianity, the Church claimed these celebrations (Christened them, in a sense) in honour of the Virgin Mary. Out went the yearly May queens and the goddesses of the pagans, and Mary became the new queen of this month, as one old hymn sung,
O Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May.
But how did we get here? Mary is certainly not a goddess – we venerate her, but we do not worship her; she is our sister in our humanity, and her physical motherhood generated only one child. Then, so to speak, what is the fuss about? The Virgin Mary is the Mother of God, her only child is the Lord Jesus, and as such she is Mother of the One who has come into the world so that we ‘may have life, and have it to the full’ (John 10:10). Through her we have the Saviour; through her we encounter Jesus who is our life, and this is why today, this month, every day we celebrate her and we seek her prayers, remembering what the gospel says of her, “all generations will call her blessed” (Cf. Luke 1:48).
But amidst our celebrations we ought to remember that sadly too many Christians still see Mary as the reason for unhappy divisions, as “the thing” that separates believers one from the other. But Mary is not a thing, and most definitely she is not some kind of theological wedge driven in to separate brothers and sisters in Christ. Rather, as the Mother of the Lord Jesus she is also the Mother of all Christians – of all believers of every denomination. And what quarrelling siblings would truly think their own loving mother, a mother who bids them to make peace, as the reason behind their estrangement?
Let us meditate on the today’s gospel, and particularly on the words of St Elizabeth, ‘Of all women you are the most blessed and blessed is the fruit of your womb’. Mary cannot a cause of division; rather, as we are able to find unity in the blessed fruit of her womb as Christians, so we could find unity in Mary’s own very self too… if only we were humble enough to admit that we have used her as an excuse to mask our self-serving divisions.
But let me give you an example of the unity we already find in Mary. Earlier this month five bishops from the Church of England took part in the centenary celebrations of the first apparition of the Virgin Mary to a group of children near Fatima, in Portugal. The very presence of a number of our bishops at such an event would have been truly unimaginable hundred years ago, when Anglicans and Roman Catholics were bitterly divided, but such is the powerful influence and intercession of the Virgin Mary.
So, as we mark our May Devotions today, as we prepare for our procession and our singing in honour of the Blessed Virgin, let us ask Mary to pray for the Church, for the unity of all her children, and that everyone may experience life to its full in Jesus, the blessed fruit of her womb. Amen.
This morning we continue our Lenten journey through the Ten Commandments, and because today we also keep Mothering Sunday, we take a step back to look at the fourth commandment (or the fifth in the Anglican numeration)
‘Honour your father and your mother,
as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long
and that it may go well with you...’ (Deuteronomy 5:16)
This commandment opens what it traditionally considered the second table or tablet of the law; that group of instructions God sets out concerning our attitude towards others. This is because in most scenarios the very first neighbours we meet are the members of our own family, and within this “molecule of social life”, this mini representation of society, we learn to interact with and to love others. And within the family nucleus our parents hold a distinguished place as the ones who gave us life, nurtured us (in most cases), and looked after us from our conception. Therefore God, who ultimately gave us life through our parents, commands us to honour them, yes, and also to love and respect them, to care for them in their old age, and to cultivate a sense of gratitude towards them. In turn this obligation also expands like concentric circles to include siblings and relatives, the elders, and the leaders and fellow members of the Church.
However, it is reasonable to say that many families are not exactly straightforward, and the fourth commandment acknowledges this by expressing what we have to do in the ‘positive terms of duties to be fulfilled’ (CCC 2198). In other words, this is not a prohibition such as ‘You shall not’ murder’ (Deut. 5:17) and then leave it at that. No, this is an exhortation to go a step further, and to do good regardless of circumstances.
Indeed, the Scriptures remind us time and time again about the importance of our duties towards both parents and the elders. The book of proverbs is particularly good on this topic; for example, there we read,
‘Listen to your father who gave you life,
and do not despise your mother when she is old’ (Prov. 23:22).
In the book of Ecclesiasticus we read,
‘My child, help your father and mother in their old age,
and do not grieve them as long as they live;
even if their mind fails, be patient with them;
because you have all your faculties do not despise them.’ (Cf. Ecclus. 3:12-14).
But the ultimate teaching about this comes from Jesus when he condemns those who willingly withdraw their material support from their parents (Matt 15:1-9).
But as well as duties, in this commandment we also read about a promise;
‘Honour your father and your mother
...that it may go well with you’ (Deuteronomy 5:16)
St Paul points this out writing to the Ephesians (Cf. 6:2), and the promise attached to the commandment relates to our welfare as a society. So, showing true charity – that is care, honour, and devotion – to our parents has its own benefits, or its rewards, but not in the sense of immediate personal gains. Instead, for the commandment what we do and choices we make within our families have a wider impact, and have the potential of changing the world for the better, one family at a time. And by fulfilling our duty as sons and daughters, and by contributing positively to family life, we will promote harmony, concord, and peace in the wider society.
Finally, let us turn for a few moments to the Gospel reading for Mothering Sunday, [and let us look at the scene represented here on the chancel screen]. This is the moment in which Jesus entrusts the community of believers, represented by Saint John, to the maternal care of his Mother – who from that moment becomes our mother as well. Yet, here Jesus provides us also with clear example about following the fourth commandment. Hanging from the Cross, the Lord spends the last moments of his earthly life in honouring his Mother. He ensures that Mary may find the security and stability often denied by ancient society to childless widows by giving her a new son, John, his beloved disciple. Thus, indirectly the gospel asks us, if Jesus could care for his Mother whilst suffering on the cross and close to death, what would prevent us from honouring our parents?