(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
By Father Diego Galanzino SMMS
Revelation/Apocalypse 11:19,12:1-6,10 - Psalm 44(45):10-12,16
‘On your right stands the Queen in gold of Ophir.’ Psalm 44(45):10
If we opened our Bibles and searched through their many pages we would not find a straightforward description of what we celebrate today; the Scriptures do not give us an account of how the Mother of God was taken up body and soul into heaven.. What we would find instead are scattered clues, glimpses, and prophecies about the Assumption; clues, glimpses, and prophecies which have lead the Church to affirm that at the end of her earthly life Mary was assumed into heaven (and so was preserved from the decay of the tomb) to be with her Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and to be crowned a Queen of all creation.
But it is not all plain sailing. Even though the Assumption has been celebrated by since the 4th or 5th century, it has caused many debates among Christians; and that, which should be the cause of rejoicing for each and every Christian, has often ended up being as a serious bone of contention. Having said this, I don’t think that either Mary in herself, or the belief that she was taken up to heaven are the true reasons for debates and divisions. She who is mother of all believers cannot be the source of quarrelling among her children. Rather, I think that opposition the Assumption of Mary springs from two deeply-engrained misunderstandings many Christians have about faith.
The first misunderstanding is essentially a corruption of the traditional belief that the Scriptures contain everything that is necessary to Salvation. It says that Christians should sign up, as it were, only to those matters of faith that are readily and explicitly proposed in the Bible – those things which are plainly laid out in the Scriptures and nothing else. The Assumption of Mary is not in any book, so it cannot possibly be a matter of faith – indeed, for a few Christians, it cannot possibly be real, period. Yet, we believe that the Lord Jesus promised to his Church that the Holy Spirit would lead us in understanding all truth (Cf. John 16:13) – “all truth”, even those things which the Scriptures reveal only through clues, glimpses, and prophecies; those things and that need some prayerful reasoning to be understood.
So it is with the Assumption. It is the Holy Spirit who speaks to interpret the Scriptures. It is him who leads believers in piecing together clues, glimpses, and prophecies to understand the mystery… For example, let us look at today’s readings. It is the Holy Spirit who tells us that, when Psalm 45 describes the coronation procession of an Old Testament princess, it is really pointing forward to the entrance of Mary into heaven and to her coronation as Queen of all creation. It is the Holy Spirit who tells us that in our first reading the ‘ark of the covenant’ found in the heavenly sanctuary (Rev/Ap. 11:19), and the ‘woman clothed with the Sun’ (Rev/Ap. 12:1) are both images of the true ark of the New Covenant, the Mother of God in heavenly glory. And, again, it is the Holy Spirit who tells us that Mary’s words, ‘from this day forward all generations will call me blessed’ (Cf. Luke 1:48), are completely fulfilled the moment she set foot in heaven, the true home of the blessed.
The second misconception is rather more insidious than the first, and certainly more difficult to eradicate. It concerns the person of Mary as a woman, and with her, perhaps every leading woman in the Scriptures. Let me explain. If we opened our Bibles we would see that, actually, ascending or being taken up to heaven is not something completely unheard of. Three examples come to mind. Early in the Biblical narrative, Adam and Eve’s great-great-great-great-great-(I think!)grandson, Enoch, is assumed into heaven because of his spotless way of life. Angels pick him up and take him to be with God (Gen. 5:24) – in a few medieval illustrations Enoch is dragged upward by his hair… This event was so astounding that it is recounted even in the New Testament; the Letter to the Hebrews says ‘By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and “he was found no more because God had taken him’ (Heb.11:5). Later on, in the second book of Kings, it is the turn of the great prophet Elijah to be assumed into heaven in style; he rides upwards towards paradise carried on a chariot of fire (Cf. 2Kings 2:11) provided by God. Finally, Jesus ascends to heaven after his Resurrection. He is not carried there; he goes to the Father out of his own divine power, taking with him our human nature and opening the way for all believers to be with him at the heart of God (Cf. Luke 24:50-53). Let us consider for a moment these examples in which human beings have ascended or were taken up to heaven before Mary. Enoch, Elijah, the Lord Jesus. Heaven is starting to look like an old boys club. I jest, I know, but these examples illustrate very well a male-dominated misunderstanding whereby a few Christians believe that God acts through, exalts, and rewards only men.
Belief in the Assumption of Our Lady shatters this misinterpretation. The Assumption shows us that God acts through, exalts, and rewards everyone whom he freely chooses – regardless of whom they are. Mary cooperated with God’s new creation like no other human before her (‘let it be so’ she said to the Angel Luke 1:38); she brought God’s Son into the world; she emotionally suffered with him on Calvary; she stood by him even as her soul was pierced by a sword; and she gathered the disciples around her in prayerful anticipation of Pentecost. It is only right that a woman who, through the grace of God, participated so closely in the work of redemption, should be the first to experience the fruits of redemption – the life of heaven.
So, if we let go of our misconceptions in order to embrace true faith, what would the Assumption of Our Lady have to say to us? It is a token of our future. It is a sign of hope for all who believe is Christ, a cause of joy for all who struggle through life, a sign of consolation when we encounter sorrows. Our blessed mother is in heaven, free from the corruption of the grave, and from there she helps us with her prayers, guides us with her love, and cheer us on as we too journey home.
Virgin Mother, Mary blessed,
raised on high and crowned with grace,
May your Son, the world's redeemer,
grant us all to see his face. Amen.
There is one Body, one Spirit, just as you were all called into one and the same hope. (Eph. 4:4)
Over the last Sundays we have been reading the Letter to the Ephesians which speaks to us about God’s desire to restore and gather up all things in Christ. It is in the context of this divine plan that we are able to discover our true identity as adopted sons of the Father, who sees each believer in that ‘one new single New Man’ (Eph. 2:15) the Lord Jesus creates within himself. In other words, Ephesians tells us that we are one with Christ, and, because of this, we are worthy of the same incredible love the Father lavishes on his only-begotten Son.
Today St Paul continues on the theme of oneness by articulating how our sense of unity in the Lord Jesus should influence the way we relate to other Christians. Oneness with Christ and oneness with other believers are indissolubly linked due to the simple fact that we are all members of the same body. This is a recurring concept in Paul’s letters. To the Galatians he writes, ‘there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3:28); to the Corinthians he says, ‘we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free’ (1Cor. 12:13)… and, when talking about Holy Communion, he also adds, ‘The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? [Therefore] Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’ (1Cor. 10:16-17).
Oneness in Jesus destroys all barriers among believers and unites us together into the ‘one single New Man’, the one body of Christ. In this sense, oneness means that, as Christians, we all belong to one another, regardless of our quarrels, schisms, and theological differences. If we understand this, then, a deep sense of wonder should pervade the way we look at each-other as Christians – and particularly so when we look across denominational divides. Yes, we are different. Yes, oftentimes we can agree on very little. Yet, in the words ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism’ (Eph. 4:5) we are one. So it should not come to us as a surprise (or a historical fluke) that each Sunday we still say in the Creed, ‘We believe in one… Church’. We do not say, “We believe in a church that sometimes gets things horribly wrong”; we do not say, “We believe in the Church of England”; and we do not say, “We believe in a church founded by Henry VIII or Elizabeth I”. To say ‘We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church’ is an act of faith in as much as we believe that the body of Christ transcends denominations; it is an act of hope as we look forward to a time when the full and visible unity of the Church will be restored; and it is an act of humility in as much as we affirm that, as Christians, we all of equal value as members of the same body.
‘There is one Body, one Spirit’, says Paul. Then, how are we to act in response to this belief that we are all one in the Lord Jesus? How are we to express oneness in the face of so many centuries of Christian divisions?
Paul’ advice to us may seem a little vague but it is rather practical. He says, ‘bear with one another charitably, in complete selflessness, gentleness and patience’ (Eph. 4:2). This means that we should accept and welcome other Christians through love – but not just any type of love; “charitably”, meaning through perfect love. Easier said than done, I admit that, especially when we live in a society where people are often expected to assert individuality and independence over, against, and even at the expense of others. But my guess is that Paul is also aware of this difficulty al well. By saying ‘bear with one another’, keep the peace, and ‘preserve the unity of the Spirit’ (Eph. 4:3) the apostle starts from the bare minimum. Paul encourages us to at least be aware of the Christ’s presence in the other when we meet with other believers and to acknowledge this presence through actions and attitudes inspire by love.
The bottom line is quite simple. The Father loves us in seeing Jesus in us, so we too must love others by endeavouring to see Christ in them.
1Timothy 6:6-11, 17-19
Christians ‘are to do good, and be rich in good works
…generous, and willing to share.’ (1Tim 6:18)
This week, I spent some time with a group of students from All Saints’ Academy helping them to compose a prayer for the whole school. In our conversation we discussed the nature of hope because it features quite prominently in the school vision. We also looked at how hope differs from wishful thinking; and, in the end, we reached the conclusion that hope must relate somehow to the way we live in order to be different from simple wishful thinking.
In the Christians sense hope is a virtue; it is something that we must put in practice, not an abstract concept. Hope has to inform what we do, so that we can dedicate our efforts into realising or attaining that which is hoped for. So for example, in the case of our students, if I hope for good GCSE results, I must also work towards getting good results and not just sit there waiting for divine inspiration to hit me during exams. Or, in the case of believers, if I hope in the life of the world to come, then I must work to live here and now some of those things I will fully experience in heaven, such as justice, union with God, and peace…
But as we the students and I talked about this, our attention instinctively turned towards many of the terrible world events that would seem to work against any bright hope for the future; terrorism, hurricanes, and mass shootings to name a few. Where does practicing hope fit in all this? And can we even dare to pray for those affected by such tragedies when so many people say that our “thoughts and prayers” are just meaningless words? These are old questions, really. But, as the students were, so some of you might also be aware of the debate which flared up again this week, particularly on social media, about those who pledge their thoughts and prayers when something terrible happens. We see and hear this continually as natural disasters are followed by acts of terrorism, or other downright evil events like the mass shooting in Las Vegas last week. “Thoughts and prayers”, or “Pray for this city”, “pray for that place”; these are the the refrains many people use in such situations, but once the heat of the moment has passed they move on with their lives as if nothing actually happened. And this is really what can puzzles non-believers and turn them away from religion altogether. But, like hope, if prayer is not followed by action, then it risks remaining a sterile act; a list of proposition and requests to an omnipotent being in the sky. Instead, prayer has to inform what we do. Just as being people of hope, should inspire us to build here and now the future we hope to attain, so it is with prayer. If we pray for an end to conflicts, we should be people of peace – peacemakers, even; if we pray for an end to terrorism, we should endeavour to soothe our peoples’ fears; and if we pray for justice, we should in turn campaign for it and begin to act justly ourselves.
But what has this got to do with Harvest? Well, as it is with hope and prayer, so it is with gratitude. This morning we come together to give thanks for the bounty of food and means at our disposal every day; but if all we did today was to just sit here sending up very Anglican, half-asked, “thank yous” to God, I don’t think that would quite be enough. Gratitude, must relate to what we do; it must inform the way we live as Christians. Gratitude must inspire us to show our thankfulness to God in some meaningful, tangible way. So, if we really are grateful for what the Lord provides us, if – as St Paul says in our second reading – we are genuinely content with what we have (cf. 1Tim 6:6) then we ought to show it by offering generous gifts to God out of the plenty we have received from him: gifts that today will provide sustenance to our neighbours in need.
The First Letter to Timothy is quite clear about this. Christians, satisfied by the Lord’s divine providence, should in turn be generous and willing to share. In fact, Paul says, we should do good and be rich in good works funded by the precious gifts we have received from God. So, the food we have brought to church this morning, the food that the families of Thomas Whitehead Academy have offered, all these are our thanksgiving offerings to God, made – I hope – with a willing and generous heart.
Without action hope remains wishful thinking; without action prayer remains a shopping list we present to God; without action gratitude remains a polite nod to God for something we thought was rightfully ours anyway.
Yours, Lord, is the greatness, the power,
the glory, the splendour, and the majesty;
for everything in heaven and on earth is yours.
All things come from you,
and of your own do we give you. (cf. 1Chronicle 29)