How death is defeated

Frances writes : It must be thought odd at first sight that we choose to celebrate the Assumption of Mary into heaven, her death, with two readings about pregnancy and birth. It is left to our reading from 1 Corinthians (15:20-27) – Paul’s thoughts on the significance of the death and then the resurrection of Christ – to put the death and resurrection of every other mortal into context. We must try therefore to pick out some points from our readings that give, if not explanation, at least some context for this choice, thereby enabling us to enter into the doctrine of the Church which we celebrate on Sunday 16th August this year.

We notice first of all from our reading from the Apocalypse (11:19.12:1-6, 10.) that the woman spoken of here appears to be a divine, or heavenly figure, one to whom sun, moon and stars owe obedience, for they are simply part of her panoply, her dress; or almost a sign of her power, suggesting that she is in control of the cosmos or at very least, totally at one with it and in command of its powers. And yet this ‘woman’, whatever she represents, is, for all her awesome stature, vulnerable for she is pregnant and in labour, crying out in pain. At this supreme moment of fragility, whilst her child is born she is confronted by a  ‘huge red dragon’, the destroyer of stars and one who threatens the instant demise of her precious child and by implication the entire created order. But we are told that the dragon is thwarted, God’s plan prevails, and this child who is to have universal dominion is taken up to God whilst his mother is whisked off to a ‘place of safety’ already prepared. The extraordinary thing is that this place is described as the ‘desert’, not the normally comfortable or even safe sort of place one might put anyone, let alone one as significant as this woman. Are we meant to compare this ‘desert’ existence with that of Israel during its exodus years, a time of growth in the knowledge of God; or is it a testing time, such as happened to Jesus after his baptism and certainly his chosen place of prayer to the Father? Or is it something to do with the ministry of the Baptist and the austere life he led there? I imagine that the dragon, with its repeated emphasis on the number seven must also relate to the letters to the seven churches in the Roman Province of Asia which the author addresses so vividly and scathingly, for they were all important Greco-Roman cities and places of great power and influence. If so then they are all firmly put in their place during the course of the letters. Earthly power it appears holds no sway in this scene.

Clearly there are links with our Gospel (Luke 1:39-56). Once again we see the situation of pregnant women. Mary, now pregnant by the Holy Spirit has gone to visit Elizabeth, an older woman, formerly barren and therefore especially vulnerable. We have to remember the colossal wastage pregnancy and childbirth brought to the ancient world to appreciate the fragility and stress both to Elizabeth and Mary. One might have expected Mary to cosset herself at this time, filled as she was with the awesome message of God’s trust in her; but no, she is compelled to go on this perilous journey, some distance, to see her cousin and stays some three months, and it is possible she even stayed for the birth of John.  Perhaps there are links with the woman of the Apocalypse here, in her travelling, her risk taking and the divine protection she received, for already we feel she is living out her life totally consecrated to God and his plans.

The conversation between Elizabeth and Mary, our Magnificat, stresses precisely how God’s power is accomplished through the small and the weak and not the rich and the powerful. As we know that St Luke had quite a penchant for ridiculing the great and exulting the lowly, (shepherds, not magi visit the infant Jesus; a fondness for despised foreigners in sharp contrast to the powerful in Jerusalem  with the story of the Good Samaritan and so on) we can be almost certain that his view of God’s great redemptive act in Jesus would be one which stressed the humility of his lifestyle and associates in sharp contrast to those ultimately responsible for his death in Jerusalem.

It appears that worldly and even demonic power is being compared unfavourably with God’s use of his own power. God’s power, it seems is used not for self glorification, (the problem of the Greco-Romans and ourselves) but entirely in fulfilment of his plan for the salvation of the human race, and it is this stunning act which Paul expounds so  confidently in 1 Corinthians 15. We tend to read such passages at funerals and see them merely as vague comforters. Yet the authority and confidence of Paul in this passage is truly awe inspiring. There he was, in Corinth, that bastion of Roman power and superiority, a new city, built near the ruins of its former Greek namesake that the Romans had destroyed in 146BC. It was prosperous, pushy, knowing its masters the rulers of an immense empire at its absolute height who lived in the happy expectation of its continuance. Paul’s promise that the ‘end’ will lie totally in God when Christ will have ”Done away with every sovereignty, authority and power”, and where he will rule supreme until all his enemies are destroyed along with death itself, would have been very surprising not to say threatening to such people. We begin to appreciate just how radical the Christian faith was – and is. Christianity through the death and resurrection of Christ has conquered death, has defeated what even the might of Rome could not touch; for even its emperors died and crumbled to dust and none of their pagan religions could offer any comparable understanding of eternal life – to everyone – as did the Christian life. We are all promised that we shall somehow triumph over our mortality and live in and with God forever. Mary, whose assumption we celebrate today, stands as God’s great promise to us all, that in Christ death, that final enemy is defeated and the stories we tell about her show us a feisty, confident woman, the fitting choice of the divine, and our great role model.

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