Sunday, 15 August 2010

Feast of the Assumption

Once there was only one feast day for Mary – New Years Day- The Day for Peace in acknowledgement of the arrival of the Prince of Peace. In the Roman Catholic Church today, Mary the Mother of God has 19 Feast Days, the month of May, October dedicated to the Rosary and all the Saturdays in the year for Marian devotion.

No wonder that Catholics are considered as much Marian as they are Christian.

What is it about Mary?

The Assumption is one of Mary’s great feasts and celebrates the love and continuing faith of the family that she was asked to care for. Because, despite the glorious imagination of the Renaissance artists there were no eyewitnesses to the Assumption; no sightings of angels, no rolling clouds of white or trumpets of gold - there was no proof.

It is the apostolic tradition that tells us what happened; in fact we have the tardy and still doubtful Thomas to thank. Tradition tells that the Holy Spirit had gathered the apostles together for Mary’s burial but that, somehow, Thomas was late; three days late; and insisted on opening the tomb to give his respects. And when the stone was rolled away….

Through prayer the Early Church decided that Mary, a woman they had known as mother, disciple and friend, had been taken to her place in Heaven – a place that had been promised to us all.

Assumption is not the same as resurrection, Mary did not return to life on earth. But her mortal death had become more of a ‘falling asleep’ that lifted the veil and allowed her to continue her journey to heaven. (a phrase that is still used for the death of the faithful – in fact a guide at the catacombs in Rome told me that the Christians changed the name of the places where people were buried from necropolis - ‘city of the dead’ to cemetery - ‘place of sleeping’ in sure and certain hope that it was not the end). The Eastern Church has followed this understanding since early times and names it ‘The Dormition’, early imagery showing Mary wrapped in her burial clothes whilst the apostles stand in prayer.

So it was believed – by the family of God that Mary loved, that this had happened; that Mary, having lived her full, faithful and natural life had gone immediately into the arms of her son. And even without the various decrees by the various Popes; the depth of faith that this happened is all the Church has ever needed for it to be true.

Truth, without proof, why not? After all, a faith you have to prove isn’t faith, it’s a theory.

Of course, if Mary had truly been ‘just another woman’ the tomb would have remained closed; we would be none the wiser. If Mary was simply put on this earth to provide the means to incubate God into his human form – if it was all preordained then how can we support such a devotion. How does one feast day turn into so many? Because she was not, is not, just an incubator. Try saying that to any mother.

Some people believe that devotion to Mary replaces that lack of a feminine sense of God in our culture. I have no doubts that God has a distinctly feminine side, I usually experience her in the instinctive and impulsive will of the Holy Spirit, just as she was described in the Wisdom Scripture of the Old Testament. There’s one thing you can say about God – God is big - and God the Mother can be as awesomely unfathomable as God the Father; and sometimes we may need someone who’s just one of us. I was reminded just last week how I would flatly refuse to say prayers to Mary because she wasn’t God. Amazing how sound the theology of a five year old can be. And in fact that has always been my issue with Mary’s reputation – that not only is she not God – but that it is incredibly important how ordinarily human she is.

As a young, young girl, it was the nice ‘Mary’ things that I remember, the May processions, singing ‘Flowers of the rarest’ and scattering rose petals. Important in its own way when even the most ungainly and cockeyed girl (of which I was one) became an angel under the eyes of God’s own mother. But she was a bit ‘up there’ enthroned as she usually was in the Gothic marble and gold of the Mary chapel.

I was about 10 or 11 when I first realised that there was something more to her.

At the weekend I would go to my nan’s – a whole two streets away! She worked like a Trojan and made sure I did too – there were jobs for each day and if I had nothing to do I would be sent to Mrs so and so’s to see if she needed anything.

Except now and again she would reach the end of her tether and go - just gone. I discovered that she went to church. In those days church was a 24 hours a day, sanctuary for many and there she was sitting in candlelight in the Mary chapel, her rosary running through her fingers like a cat’s cradle. I sidled in next to her and sat quietly. This was a totally different atmosphere to what I was used to. And Mary was different; instead of the regal Queen of Heaven she seemed to be reaching down; her own rosary in her hand, to share in whatever was bothering my nan. And we sat there, the three of us, until the air had cleared and my nan stood up, fastened her coat, lit a candle and we set off home. My nan, who had never studied scripture or biblical history, knew Mary as a mother like herself, as someone who had not had an easy life; who knew the pain of having a family as well as the joy and who knew the sacrifices that came from love.

Some of this I have come to appreciate in hindsight; but what I did realise at the time was that Mary was not a plaster saint. And that mothers are very complex creatures.

They say that you never really understand someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes. I think that counts for saints as well. I have lots of saints that I count as friends now and all of them have come from the experience of some shared encounter.

With Mary, it was growing up and realising that I was not in control.

Because there was a time when I believed I was. I imagined my life was all about my choices and decisions; even when they weren’t I could find some way of reconciling them into my own grand plan or hiding them in that dark place that we all have for things we don’t want to deal with.

I hadn’t given up on God, although He was also ‘by appointment only’. The Mass was just an hour out of my week. My faith was still aged about 10, it had never grown up. I knew I needed to develop the relationship; I needed to renew contact. So I started to use meditation, to pray and began to study scripture. And I started far away from God – I didn’t want to catch his eye just yet… I wanted to be prepared – to be in control.

I learnt about the girl who agreed to be the Mother of God. The cultural consequences of Mary’s ‘yes’ in the society she lived in;

the humility that allowed her to put herself, her whole self in God’s hands –

the letting go of control – ‘Your will be done’.

The courage to face the unknown;

the wisdom that it is not all about her.

‘The Almighty has done great things for me….. He has come to the help of Israel his servant’ – that she knows that her ‘prize’ is for us.

This is what we like to imagine we would do, knowing that we would probably be the ‘yes, but’ instead. This surrender is what earns Mary her place in people’s hearts. The surrender, the strength and, I imagine, the stubborn will, of this lowly handmaid that has supported my Nan became an inspiration to me.

And so, I sit with Mary and I pray. And she sits wil me and just allows the prayers to go straight through her to where they were meant to be. I have a wonderful, loving relationship with God now and in many ways it is thanks to Mary.

How many times do we do that? Rely on mothers to be the go-between, to be that space between the awkward moments; the shameful sorry’s; the regretted challenges? And as I have become a mother and a grandmother, what better friend in faith could I have than this little, old Palestinian lady who nursed the Church, until her own deathbed.

I think a lot of people can get to this point of understanding Mary and why she is honoured. How many of us would say ‘yes’ and bear the consequences with such surrender? How many would be prepared to be treated as ‘just another woman’ even by her own son and yet to have been the person who brought him up; walked beside him in everything he did; who was his mother. His humanity reflects the courage and humility that was hers.

And is where I had got to and this, a few weeks ago is where I would stop. But the Gospel changes every time you read it and after being asked to talk about it this time I painted a set of Russian Dolls with the aspects of Mary with Jesus being the last little figure within her. And I thought, cleverly to myself – through Mary to Jesus. But then one morning at St Michaels in the morning chapel – where the statue of Mary points towards Jesus, still thinking I had ‘it’. And I caught Jesus’ eye and realised that it isn’t just about him – it’s even bigger than that – because where does Jesus always point to?

The Christian message tells us to follow Christ to his Father; to be guided by the Holy Spirit. Our God is Trinity, the Trinity show God’s need to be in a interactive, interdependent, loving relationship; Mary is the one who proves that we are included in that relationship.

This immense, all mighty and all powerful God; beyond our imagining; beyond our comprehension is only interested in one thing – Love.

When God says; I will be your God and you will be my people; it sounds like an order, a command but it isn’t – it’s a desire.

How many of us have ever suffered from unrequited love? The pain where every atom of your soul loves every atom of theirs; where you live in constant anticipation of catching their eye and yet they don’t even notice you, or worse, think of you ‘as a friend’. That’s how God loves us, millions of times over and thousands of years long.

And you can’t say that God hasn’t tried.

He made covenants and we made excuses.
He dressed Jerusalem like a bride and covered her in jewels but she still turns away –
even God had to accept that you cannot make anyone love you.
Nevertheless since our exile from the Garden; it has been in God’s mind to redeem us – to get us back. But for us to be God’s people, the family that Christ spoke of - is our choice.

And he only needed one person to say ‘yes’.

The image of Jesus, as a tiny helpless baby in the arms of a human woman is astonishing but one we have become to understand as part of the Incarnation. How else could God become fully God, fully Man. That’s a big thing, we think, for God to do that.

But there is even more to it than that.

When the question was asked of Mary – it wasn’t just the offering of a part of God to humanity. It was all of God – God had nothing left to bargain with except himself.

Let me love you so much that I would give you my Son.

The Almighty Father bowed his Will, the Spirit held back her influences and the Word held his breath for this was not his word to speak – and waited.

God surrendered all that he was; all that they are, and Mary said ‘yes’ and she meant it; she will live and die it; there will be no turning back; no yes but.

The lowly handmaid says ‘yes’ and humanity rejoins the dance; she becomes the first step into our promise of redemption, that Christ will come and reconcile us to the Father; she is the first but by no means the last.

It has always be so important to me that she was so ordinary, so herself. Important that she made mistakes; that she didn’t always get it; that she grew; that she grew old; that she died and went to Heaven. The fact that she did it, means that so can I, so can you, so can we all. God wills that all will be saved.

God bless the human being who made it possible.


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