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The Assumption: Mary leads us to Heaven
In the Gospel of John we hear that a crowd of vigilantes was about to stone a woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11). Jesus intervened, writing the sins of the crowd in the sand and charging them: "Let the one without sin cast the first stone." According to a Catholic story a pebble then flew through the air, landing near the woman. Jesus turned around and said, "Mother, stop that."
It's a very Catholic joke! While the Feast of the Immaculate Conception recognises Mary's sinlessness from the beginning, the Vigil of the Assumption pays tribute to her sinlessness to the end.
The reward for faithful discipleship is union with Christ and in Mary's case her discipleship was so total that that union with Christ was immediate upon her death.
Her union with Christ was so strong that she uniquely shares in Christ's victory over death; her mortal body is no longer mortal, her perishable flesh is now imperishable.
The death of the body was for Mary swallowed up in Christ's victory (1 Cor 15:54-7).
So it is that the Father makes good His promise at our creation: stick close to Me and you will be with me always. So it is He who makes good His promise at our recreation in Baptism: stick close to My Son and He will be with you always.
But where did we get this Assumption idea? Well, in the middle of the first century AD a woman disappeared.
Her friends said she had not undergone corruption but had entered into eternity with her Son. None dared pretend to have her relics, whereas there were relics galore of all the other saints.
Some alluded to Mary's song the Magnificat, with its talk of God looking upon His lowly handmaid and raising her up so that all generations would call her Blessed (Lk 1:46-55).
Already by the seventh century the Feast of her Dormition, her eternal rest, was commonplace in the mystical East and gradually it caught on in the more cynical West. So by the Middle Ages all the Church, East and West, celebrated this day.
Some people still didn't like the idea. They thought it unscriptural. They thought that to praise the Mother was to demean the Son. They thought it took the bodily life too seriously.
And some thought the whole thing rather old-fashioned. Yet it was in a sense a prophetic teaching, precisely what the late 20th and early 21st centuries need to hear.
When Pope Pius XII definitely proclaimed the dogma in 1950 (Munificentissimus Deus), we were soon to experience the so-called "sexual revolution".
The me-generation use their bodies for recreational sex and take trips out of their bodies through drugs, meditation or virtual reality. Advocates of so-called "marriage equality" claim that the complementarity of male and female bodies and the consequent fertility and family are irrelevant to marriage.
Would-be euthanasiasts want to release people from bodily life by poisoning them.
And reincarnationists imagine souls popping between bodies from life to life. The body today is demeaned in many other ways too.
Such is the confusion of modernity about the body. The Declaration of the Assumption says our bodies are made for more and better than this!
This, then, is the counter-proposal of orthodox Catholicism:
• that the human person and the rest of the material order are good and beautiful because they are made by God and so worthy of reverence not mere exploitation;
• that the body is indispensable to that unity of body and soul that is the human person;
• that the God who is pure spirit created us in His image in our rationality, freedom and love, but also condescended to be created in our image, by taking flesh of a woman;
• that life in the flesh can be lived for God's glory or in more banal ways;
• that in that same flesh Christ redeemed us and represents Himself to us in the Holy Eucharist;
• that by such sacraments He makes our bodies arks of God and Blessed wombs for the Trinity, as He did Mary's (1 Chr 15:3-16:32; Lk 11:28) and that all that is good about us in this life will be restored and assumed into the next life ...
Fifty years ago, the whole Church was being renewed by the Second Vatican Council, a Council that famously inserted the mystery of Mary into the ecclesial mystery at the culmination of its Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium).
In placing Mary in the document on the Church, the Council sought to emphasise her as the model disciple, the best of Christians and the Mother of the Church.
The Gospel shows what this discipleship means and how it was incarnated, so to speak, in Mary: Mary was not just great because she is Theotokos – the God-bearer – and the Ark of the Covenant, but even more so because she heard the Word of God and obeyed it.
Mary's faith and obedience are the models for Christian discipleship.
Each of us might ask ourselves: what is it my heart most desires? What do I want out of life, beyond accumulating more things or getting my own way? To what does my life story bear witness?
In her beautiful Magnificat, Mary sang of her thanksgiving to God, drawing the attention of all who came after her to the great things God has done. She expressed a proper awe before the power and justice of God that ultimately set right the imbalances of this life.
She thrilled at God's preference for the poor over the self-important. She witnessed to God's fidelity to father Abraham and his spiritual children, Jews, Christians, Muslims and all humanity blessed through His grace.
This is the edited text of the homily given by Bishop Anthony Fisher OP in St Patrick's Cathedral, Parramatta, on the Vigil of the Assumption, 2013.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 27 No 7 (August 2014), p. 20
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