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.
‘Make your home in me, as I make mine in you.’ John 15:4
A couple of years ago, when it was revealed by the press that Justin Welby’s biological father was not the man who raised him, the Archbishop was asked how did this make him feel, how did it impact on his sense of identity. He replied, ‘There is no existential crisis, and no resentment against anyone. My identity is founded in who I am in Christ.’
We might think of this response as very pious and archbishop-like but, of course, Justin Welby’s reply does not apply to him alone. Our family relationships and situations may be completely fine and within traditional parameters, but they could also be happily unconventional or sometimes even down right problematic to say the least, but like the archbishop pointed out, our identity should not be determined by where we come from, our birth certificate, how we were raised, or what society thinks of us. Our individual identities are founded in who we are in Christ. And from this point of view we are able to see ourselves as children of God, sons and daughters of the eternal Father, regardless of our background or social history. Only a couple of weeks ago we read a passage from 1John which said,‘See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!’ 1John 3:1a.
If we are in Christ the words of Scripture are fulfilled in us when they say,
‘Even if my father and mother forsake me,
the Lord will take me up’ (Ps 27:10).
‘Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you’ says the Lord (Isaiah 49:15).
Our individual identities are founded in who we are in Christ. And today’s gospel reading gives us a surprising picture of what it means to have our identity in Christ, as Jesus likens himself to a vine and each of us to its branches. This comparison might sound slighly odd to us, or a bit farfetched; “In what sense is Christ like a vine?”, but it comes from an image which would have been very familiar to the first disciples. In the Old Testament the vine was a symbol for the people of Israel, of all God’s chosen people;
You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade… (Ps 80:8-10)
And today we here the Lord saying that he himself is the true vine; and so, like in times of old, God’s people are part of him, the new vine. We are the branches; by Baptism we have become part of the true vine which is Christ. We were grafted into Christ through the wounds that were cut into his body on the Cross. We receive nourishment from Jesus through the Eucharist, the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, which is gifted to us by the Lord as the sap we need to thrive. And finally, as branches we are ‘pruned’ (John 15:4) by the words of the gospel; that is, we are directed in what to do, and trained in order to bear fruit.
Issues around personal identity are particularly strong in our society; maybe even more so than what they were in the past. And a lot of people, particularly young people, seem to be burdened by anxiety and social pressures stemming from simple questions such as “Who am I?” “What is unique about me?” “What is my sense of self-worth?” “How do I fit in or stand out?” “Where can I find home and acceptance?” To all these questions, Jesus simply and calmly replies, “I love you. Make your home in me, and let me make my home in you.”
Our sense of who we are is founded in who we are in Christ, and this means being inextricably part of him and to grow in him; it means being one in Jesus as children of God, one in him and God’s people, one in him as the beloved of the Father.
Homily preached by Father Richard Peers SMMS at All Saints'.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us …”
It is, supposedly, the most famous opening to any book in the English language. Well, I have spent most of life as a teacher so I will ask you a question: can anyone name the book?
Yes, of course, Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. “The best of times, the worst of times” seems to describe today’s readings. The account of the Transfiguration, the disciples see Jesus in glory, flanked by the Law and the prophets, represented by Moses and Elijah. The best of times. And the worst of times: Abraham taking his son out to the mountain top to offer him as a burnt sacrifice.
I must admit to a great deal of fondness for Isaac, and not a little sympathy. I can just imagine the safeguarding forms that would need to be filled in now if a child came into school and described how his dad had taken him for a walk, gathered a fire, raised a knife over his head – and then sacrificed a handy goat instead! But safeguarding aside, imagine the trauma: your father is willing to offer you as a sacrifice, and not just offer, you but do the job himself, knife in hand, at the ready. Well, I suspect the account was never meant to be read quite so literally. But Isaac doesn’t interest me simply because of this bizarre incident in his childhood. Three other elements of this person who lived so long ago draw me to him. First of all, his name, Isaac. In Hebrew, literally ‘He who laughs’. I will come back to that later. Secondly, his faithfulness to his wife Rebecca. Isaac is the only one of the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not to have multiple wives. He lives a life much closer to Christian marriage than is common in the Hebrew Scriptures. I like that. In a time like ours that can seem to be the worst of times, when Christian marriage can appear to be threatened on every side and so many marriages end in divorce this is an important witness.
Finally, there is one verse in Genesis 24:63 that makes Isaac significant for me.
The translation is somewhat disputed but in the translation I like it reads:
“And Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening.”
What a wonderful image. This man, who has experienced the trauma of near-sacrifice at the hands of his father, whose name means to laugh, who is faithfully married to Rebecca: walking among his fields in the cool warmth of the evening, meditating. It is an image that reminds me of the first of the Psalms. Psalm 1 paints a picture of what makes for happiness:
“Happy indeed is the man…
Whose delight is in the law of the Lord
And who ponders his law day and night.
He is like a tree that is planted
Beside the flowing waters,
That yields its fruition due season
and whose leaves shall never fade.”
I hope that Isaac, who experienced that trauma, has found happiness, that as he walks in fields and meditates, he has deep joy and contentment. We all want to be happy. We want the people we love to be happy. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is even built into the American constitution. But whatever happiness and contentment Isaac felt as he strolled in that field so many centuries ago, would be complex.
Whether it is meditating as you walk in the evening, sitting in the lotus position, reflecting, on the law of the Lord, or practising mindfulness of breathing; I am a huge fan of meditation. Spending time in silence is essential, I believe to a healthy life, to good mental health. When we meditate, when we still our minds, our inner states, as the inner waters clear all sorts of things float to the surface. In my experience and in the experience of most meditators there are two overwhelming sensations in this state. One meditation teacher (Chogyam Trungpa) calls it “the genuine heart of sadness”. We touch within ourselves a great tenderness. Not just in the sense of compassion but of sensitivities, our heart, our inner being is tender meat. It begins with ourselves, tenderness for and because of all that we have experienced, all the griefs and losses of every life. But soon we find our hearts expanding, tenderness for everyone that is alive because they too have experienced loss and grief. And in that knowledge, that we are all fellow-sufferers we can find forgiveness. We can forgive those who have hurt or damaged us because we can feel tenderness for them, our heart is big enough, open enough to do so. The only alternative to feeling sadness is not to feel, to harden our hearts, to narrow our hearts.
Lent is a time for repentance and forgiveness. To turn away from sin. All repentance involves grief. The loss of something, the regret at things said or done, or unsaid and not done. All grief involves repentance. And all grief is permanent. All of us who have experienced profound grief at the loss of one close to us know that it has seared our souls, we move on, but it never leaves us.
As Isaac walked in the field I hope that he felt that genuine heart of sadness, not paralysing grief but the positive sadness that is necessary for life and for forgiveness but also the others experience that is common to those who meditate: great and profound joy, a sense of belovedness, I hope that Isaac knew that Abraham had loved him and that he was beloved of God. That he heard, too the voice of the Lord. Just as on the mountain Abraham had heard it and on the mountain the disciples hear it.
With God on our side who can be against us? St. Paul reminds us in the second reading. That sense of sadness and joy, which are inseparable is what can make us fearless, setting us free from anything that traps us and narrows our hearts. Our hearts are open, they are enlarged and tender when we are fearless, and we are fearless when we are in touch with sadness and joy. The spiritual writer Chogyam Trungpa writes:
“this experience of sad and tender heart is what gives birth to fearlessness. .. Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. It comes from letting the world tickle your heart, your raw and beautiful heart. You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world. You are willing to share your heart with others.”
My prayer, dear friends, this Lent, is that each of us will open our hearts. That we meditate, like Isaac, and remember our griefs and touch our genuine heart of sadness in repentance and forgiveness, and that we will also touch the place of deep joy, of Transfiguration where each one of us, you and me, every one of us, will hear the voice of the Lord saying “You are my Beloved.”
The best of times, the worst of times. To live a happy life is to hold those two things and not despair. This is the meaning of the cross, the fearlessness that Jesus has won for us because the crucified one is also the transfigured one. To know, as Jesus did on the mount of Transfiguration, that he was to die and suffer and be betrayed by the very people he loved, and still to stand. It is to be, like Isaac, the one who laughs, freely and fearlessly.