Homily on Mary & Death

For us Christians, the day someone dies is also the day when we meet God face to face. As St Paul says “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” 1 Cor 13:12) That’s why we sometimes call the day of death our heavenly birthday. For me, the 12th June is a date I cannot forget, because it is the day my mother died over 40 years ago. I hope and pray that she is now with God in heaven, as I remember the words of St Paul from our 2nd Reading today (1 Cor 15:20-26) “Just as all die in Adam, so all will be brought to life in Christ” Notice that! We Christians do NOT believe that people pass automatically to heaven. Eternal life with God is a gift given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. God dies to defeat death, and so bring us to eternal life with him.

 I’m reminding you of all this standard teaching on the faith, because from the very earliest times Christians have celebrated death of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as her entrance into heaven. And just as I can remember the date of the passing of my earthly mother, so they remembered, and have passed on to us, the date – the 15th of August – of the passing of the mother that Jesus gave to us all as he died on the cross. As Mary stood at the foot of the cross, Jesus said to his dear friend John, the only disciple brave enough to stand with her “This is your mother”

 Now we might say “Yes OK.”, and leave it at that. But the Church tells us that Mary is more important than that, and that we need to think and pray regularly about her part in bringing Jesus to the world, if we are to understand more clearly what it is that God offers us through Jesus. A famous Dominican writer, Fr Timothy Radcliffe, points out that when someone asks us home to meet their mother, we’re actually being offered an even closer friendship with them. This may well have happened to you? Think how in this situation, the Mother tells us stories, sometimes embarrassing ones, about her son or daughter from when he or she was younger; and thus we learn things about them that we never knew before.

 Some of the stories of Jesus in the Bible, including our Gospel today (Luke 1:39-56) are clearly one’s that do not come from Jesus, but from Mary : stories she must have told the first Christians, so that they could learn more about how God works through Jesus to bring us to eternal life with him.

 The three most famous stories are told at length in the Bible, and so are clearly very important. They are first the story of the Angel coming to Mary, then Mary’s Visit to Elizabeth (our Gospel today) and then finally the birth of Jesus and the few stories we have of his childhood. Mary’s part in all this reminds us that even the most ordinary human beings, like you and me, can be filled with the Holy Spirit and used by God in wonderful ways. They remind us also how God chooses to become fully human, in Jesus, to be a baby in the womb and a child in his mother’s arms. This is the most remarkable thing about the Christian Gospel that we easily take for granted.  God choosing to work in a special way in one of us, Mary, in order that he might be born as one of us, Jesus.

 Thus we are taught two things. First, that God does not work in us just in a spiritual way, but that he uses our flesh and blood humanity to bring his love and glory to the world – just as he worked in Mary. Second, that, although we are called to a personal faith in Jesus, who died for us, part of the way we are linked to him is by being living members of his family. Remember what Jesus says to us. “I no longer call you servants… I call you friends.” (John 15:15) and in another place Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:35). That is what we are called to be ,with Mary our mother, a family supporting and loving one another, and together bringing his message of love and salvation to those around us and to world.

 Finally, of course, the message for today is that when we die, we do not die alone. We are drawn through the love of God fully into the family of God that we have been part of whilst on earth. We cannot really ever understand what life after death is like, but we can know that somehow the best things about being human, loving and caring for one another, are something we will experience with God for ever after we die. Before Christianity, life after death, if believed in at all, was an entry into a shadowy ghostly world to be feared more than welcomed. Death for Mary, and for all the family of Jesus is quite different, an enter into life and love and glory. That is what we celebrate today.

Enfolded in God

Frances writes on the Readings for the Feast of the Assumption:- In one way we expect the Feast of the Assumption to be all about Mary, as we celebrate the significance of her unique contribution to the salvation of the world in the incarnation. It is therefore about her triumph. In another, it reflects on her humility, as one insignificant peasant woman responds to her God. Yet in another sense, the Assumption is not really about Mary at all, but rather about God and his action in her and through her. It is precisely in and through Mary that our whole understanding of God shifts from traditional expectations of any gods or God, and in our case takes our faith origins in Judaism way beyond the understanding of so many of its people. Yet ,as we shall see, this understanding that we inherit, of God revealed in Jesus the Son of Mary, was there all the way through Jewish history, just waiting to be unveiled. The Assumption is also primarily about the Church, the culmination of Mary’s gift to the world of Christ. Mary’s story and ours as Christians are irrevocably entwined, and each of us is enfolded in God.

 

It will be easiest to begin with the Gospel. (Luke 1:39-56) Immediately after the visit of the angel, Mary goes off to visit her cousin Elizabeth to rejoice at the pregnancy of this formerly barren woman. In a passage heavily plagiarised from Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2, we find Mary voicing her joy at the divine action in the vision of a deity whose power and majesty will be demonstrated, not amongst the great, the rich or powerful, but rather in the humble, the hungry and the downtrodden. In short, God manifests himself both to Hannah and centuries later to Mary in ways which overthrow normal understandings of the divine. That this great manifestation should be rooted in that most significant thing for any nation’s thriving – the birth of children – and also to those believed barren and therefore despised, since they were unable to fulfil their most fundamental role in society, is significant. God has touched and made fecund the core of his creation. It will be the story of Israel’s, and our, continual refashioning. It is about the victory of God.

 

This too is what is celebrated in our Reading from 1 Corinthians (15:20-27). For those without belief in Christ, either in the ancient world or even today, physical death represents a stunning and bleak end, the wiping out of a human existence. Ancient paganism had no sense of what we call ‘eternal life’. The very best one could hope for was for some shadowy existence in Hades, some lingering sense of the person, but no more. Even in first century Judaism, ‘resurrection’ would all have been tied up with the eagerly awaited eschaton, the full reign of God on earth, when Israel gained supremacy over all the nations and ruled the roost. The Christian claim that through the bodily resurrection of Jesus after his death, we all have life with and in God himself, living as divine creatures, was and is something quite other. It means that the dark oblivion which threatens every creature is swept away and that believers are party to the life and eternally creative energy which is the being and nature of God himself. For the citizens of Corinth, living in a vibrant lively city with two ports and a myriad of peoples and ideas, few things would have been more stark and sobering than to walk outside the city walls to its roadside cemeteries. For hundreds of them, death was an ever present threat, annihilation literally at a bend in the road. Paul’s magnificent promise that Christ had overcome death itself, and that he is more powerful than any earthly king, and that he can with utter certainty subdue all that gets in the way of our ultimate union with the Father, would have had immense appeal for the Christian community, and been a powerful propaganda tool. They too, like Mary Christ’s mother, have the promise of life in God.

 

Our Reading from The Apocalypse (11:19; 12:1-6.10) needs to be understood in its context. John, its writer, wrote to Christian communities in south-western Turkey to reinvigorate their faith at a period when they might have been flagging under persecution, or even becoming complacent. ‘The woman’ he speaks of here is the Church, in a sense the offspring of Mary. It is a Church under threat of annihilation from the Roman authorities with their many gods – the ‘huge red dragon which had seven heads and ten horns’ – a representation of the city and its empire stretched out to control the Mediterranean. John has taken well known stories or myths of battles between true princes and usurpers and used them in his own ‘myth’ making of the battle between good (Christianity) and evil (Rome). He wants his readers to understand that our God will triumph in the end. His message for the beleaguered churches lies in the dramatic story of God’s rescue of the male child and his mother. They may appear very small and vulnerable, as indeed they are; but Israel’s story, from which Christianity emerged, is that it is precisely the humble, lowly and insignificant who God chooses to work through, and in whom he will triumph.  It has always been the Christian story, and in our day when we feel threatened by acts of terrorism or other forms of oppression and hatred, it is good to remember that this great feast celebrates precisely these moments, and our origins in Mary Mother of the Church. “There is no need to be afraid; it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)

Mary points us to the heart of God’s love

Was Holy Mary, the mother of Jesus, present at the last Supper, the supper on which we base our celebration of Mass? The answer must be a resounding Yes, because we know she was in Jerusalem the following day, the Friday when Jesus was crucified. We know that, because St John tells us that he stood at the foot of the cross with her.(John 19:25-27) I suspect that the reason her presence is not mentioned on the night before, is probably that anyone reading it in those days would have taken it for granted that she and the other women would be present. Minds at that time, and until quite recently would have thought “Who else would have cooked the food and laid the table?” But further, if any of you have been to a Jewish Sabbath meal or Passover meal, or seen it on the TV, you would know that the mother of the house has a specific role in the ceremonies, and not just in the cooking.

Our Gospel today (Luke 1:39-56) however takes us right back to before the birth of Jesus, when a pregnant Mary visits Elizabeth, and clearly proclaims that in some way her son Jesus is going to defeat the evil powers of the world. “He has routed the proud of heart. …pulled down princes from their thrones” etc. – and “princes” here means evil powers, not Prince William or Harry! Knowing this, Mary will not want Jesus to avoid the coming confrontation that she, like he, knows must happen. But she can also remember the words spoken when she presented her baby in the Temple (Luke 2:29-35) “This child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel …..   (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also.)” So, unlike the disciples, Mary knows that her son’s defeat of evil will come through suffering and sacrifice, and that she will have to watch and suffer alongside him, before a greater glory appears beyond his death.

So when at the Last Supper, Jesus says “This is my body.. broken for you… this is my Blood.. shed for you”, Mary is more aware than anyone else there what that must mean. Yet there is no sign of her trying to stop him, only a deep faith that somehow, as she watches her son go forward into suffering, God will be at work; only a realisation that, as she suffers agonies as she watches her beloved one die, somehow that death will defeat all the evil that oppresses the human world. As St Paul says in our 2nd Reading (1 Cor 15:20-26) “Just as all die in Adam, so all will be brought to life in Christ.”

This is why one of the most important things we must realise about the Mass is, that it is the way above all ways in which we, like Mary, are drawn into the sacrifice of Christ. The Mass is the way in which we can become one with that suffering that, though so dreadful, defeats all the evil we human beings either suffer ourselves, or inflict on others, through our own greed, and anger and stupidity.

The Church therefore often refers to the Mass as a sacrifice, but we must be careful about the use of this term, as it is one of the misunderstandings that led to the Protestants splitting from the Church at the Reformation. The Mass is a sacrifice not in its own right, like the sacrifices the priests used to offer in the old days; but because it is the bringing into the present of the one perfect sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  As we hear in the Letter to the Hebrews (7:26-27) “We have.. a high priest, (Jesus) holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens.  He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily…. he did this once for all when he offered up himself.” (on the cross)

So the priest at Mass prays to God on our behalf,  “Look upon the oblation (which means the offering) of your Church (that’s us) and, recognising the sacrificial Victim (that’s Jesus on the cross)… we may become one Body, one Spirit in Christ.” In other words we ask that we may be drawn into his sacrifice, that like Mary at the foot of the cross, we might be certain, despite the tragedy which pierces our soul, that this will ultimately lead to glory. But the Prayer at Mass makes this even more explicit, for the Priest says a few seconds later “May this Sacrifice of our reconciliation,,, advance the peace and salvation of all the world.”  In other words, what we celebrate at Mass, which includes our own offering, our own little sacrifices of love and service (more on that next week) is not just for us, it is celebrated for the whole world.

This is why Mass is so important. It’s not a ceremony put on for us to make us feel better or more holy. The Mass exists to draw us into the love of God himself, shown to us most of all by that suffering on the Cross, and shown to us too by the image of Our Lady of Sorrows watching her son suffer and die, and yet believing that this was not the end. We are being called into love, so that we may learn to love like that, every day. No wonder those who come wanting to be entertained at Mass get nothing out of it! They have missed the point!

Today, we celebrate the glory of Mary drawn into the glory of heaven just as we will be, not by our own efforts however worthy they may be, but by the mystery of God’s sacrificial love. We celebrate the dragon– that is the evil of this world – defeated – the dragon we heard of in our 1st Reading (Rev 11:19.12:1-10)  But note where that defeat takes us….for the woman there is not just Mary but us the Church and we are taken, not immediately into the glory of heaven, but into the desert. Like Jesus after his baptism choosing to go into the desert, so we choose to follow him into that world of struggle and service that we are called to as members of the Church. Holy Mary, Mother of the Church, you know what suffering means, pray for us now and at the hour of our death. Amen

 

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.