The Once and Future King

Frances writes on the readings for the Feast of the Assumption : –

The Church, following the lead of St Luke, has decided for this festival to draw out and explore the Old Testament and ancient historical background of Mary and Jesus. In our gospel (Luke 1:39-56) where we follow the meeting of two women, Mary and Elizabeth and their two sons in the womb we are directed back to incidents in the story of Israel. First, to two women deliverers of their nation with Elizabeth’s Blessed are you, recalling militant deliverer women who killed Israel’s enemy leaders; and then by contrast, with Mary’s near quote from the humble, petitioner Hannah, and her song in thanksgiving for the gift of Samuel to a barren and despised woman. These comparisons and contrasts will be deliberately exploited by our biblical writers to help us reflect on and develop our understanding of the Jesus event in which Mary played so great a part and for which she would be richly rewarded by God. All these incidents point to the growth and development in understanding of the meaning of the redemption ofIsrael and through it of the world.

In our reading from the Apocalypse (11:19; 12:1-6,10) we see the movement of the faith out into the pagan world as John the Divine writes from exile on Patmos. The cities he knew were the pagan cities of Greek Asia, with their many gods and by the 1st century AD these included Apollo, son of Zeus, born on Delos in hiding from destructive monsters and also the female Egyptian goddess Isis whose cult rapidly spread throughout the Greco-Roman world. Both these divine beings used the signs of the moon and the stars as symbols of their power. It would appear then that John quite deliberately harnessed well known stories about these deities in his propaganda for Christ. Just as homilies today attempt to make the biblical material ‘relevant’ to their audience, so here we see John working to hijack previously known ideas in the service of the One, true God. What the stories most have in common again is the triumph of the fragile, humble and persecuted over the power and might of their enemies. In a world in which the might of Rome reigned supreme, it appears that John paints a scenario in which his God will ultimately triumph – as in fact happened. Victory and power and empire for ever have been won by our God and all authority for his Christ. Stability, security, was a longed for state and John’s claim was that it could only be achieved by followers of Christ.

This message would have had immediate appeal for the poor and struggling in the ancient world, who were all too familiar with the rise and might of different nations whose vicious conquests resulted in their oppression, and who in turn were conquered by others even more powerful and aggressive. The Near East, and what is now Turkey, are literally littered with the remains of these Johnny-come-latelies, whose power often hung in the balance, doomed by the death of one powerful ruler, or the invasion of a small number of ships which could bring down a Bronze Age ‘superpower’. John the Divine then wrote both to calm and pacify, promising eternal peace in his God and also to threaten; to encourage belief in the one eternal deity. His was a vigorous even aggressive salesmanship, confident of his product.

Writing from pagan Corinth, St Paul seems to have had a similar message as he developed his theology of Christ. Through all the changes and destruction which continually beset ancient cities, he was all too aware of the fragility of human life and insistently claimed that the Christian God had one supreme advantage – power over the ‘last enemy’, death. Any city dweller would continually have been confronted by death: that of infants in an age of appalling infant mortality; of deaths due to various plagues or infections, where the average life span was about 48 and this quite apart from the risks of child bearing, war and invasion. To all this appalling carnage, paganism had no answer, as anyone entering an ancient city knew as they walked through the cemeteries at all the gates. Paul knew that Jesus own resurrection, his return from the dead, guaranteed new and continuous life to his followers, transcending mortality in a way which no pagan cult ever attempted. In the Christian story it was not human life which was trodden under foot by conquerors, but death itself in the reign of this once and future king who is lord of this present life and of that to come. In vivid contrast to the ‘one-upmanship’ of successive invaders and conquerors of the ancient world, what we celebrate today in the assumption of Mary into eternal glory is solidarity. She prefigures what we shall all become in the faith of Jesus who finally will hand over to the Father the entire creation, every sovereignty, authority and power, destroying death and collapse in a reign completely orientated to God its creator and sustainer who rules not by power but by love and self-gift, one who throws open divinity to each and every one of his followers. Mary’s willing submission to the divine invitation, rewarded in her assumption ‘body and soul’ into God’s life (heaven) is the pathway we are all destined to follow in God’s grace. Now, finally we understand why our various writers did this ‘trawl’ through ancient history; it is the story of our solidarity gradually revealed and evolving under the reign of Christ, the once and future king.

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