I find that there are three themes that I keep harping on to the point that I’m almost sick of hearing myself harp on them. But, for better of for worse, all three of them are present in this feast again today.
The first is that we can learn a lot about what the Church is trying to convey in a feast by studying the readings, prayers and antiphons of the Liturgy itself, and it may not be what it looks like on the surface. I’ve chosen to use and preach on the readings that the Church chooses for the Vigil Mass for this feast of the Assumption which I would hazard to say rarely anyone gets to hear proclaimed because so few places celebrate a Vigil Mass for the Solemnity of the Annunciation. The first reading was from 1 Chronicles from which we get this marvelous image of the Ark of the Covenant. (Hence, the beautiful antiphon in our own Liturgy of the Hours, “Come, let us worship and bow down before the Ark of the Lord.) I am sure that I have already told you about the time I was standing in front of a plaque dedicated to Mary as the Ark of the Covenant at the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth trying to explain this to my friend the Jewish rabbi, why we would dare borrow that sacred image. The second reading, though, is a strange one: suddenly we’re not talking about Mary at all––we’re listening to Paul talk about death. Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death is your sting? But the most surprising choice of all, for this Mass or for any Mass for a Marian feast (and yet the Church offers it regularly) is that gospel, the startling passage from Luke: No, blessed is not just my mother; blessed is anyone who hears the word of God and keeps it! Mary is first disciple, then mother. This doesn’t diminish Mary; but it does elevate and challenge us. And now we look back and realize that we, too, are and are meant to be Arks of the Covenant, by the word planted in our hearts, and that we too are meant to share in Jesus and Mary’s victory over death.
That leads right to the second theme that I keep chewing on until it sinks into my own stony heart: it’s not enough for this to be about Jesus or about Mary; we have got to realize that this is all a promise about us. And if I need further corroboration of that, I need not look any farther than the proper prayers for the feast: the Collect at the Vigil Mass prays that “as [Mary] was crowned this day with surpassing glory . . . may we merit to be exalted by you on high”; and the Collect at the Mass during the day prays that “we may merit to be sharers in her glory”; and the prayer after Communion has us pray that “through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom you assumed into heaven, we may be brought to the glory of the resurrection.” We remember that so that we may share in it.
The third theme flows right from that: the great mystery of the relationship between God and material reality including, especially, our bodies and the great mystery of death. I spent a lot of time with the thought of Fr. Bede Griffiths’, as you know, especially this idea that he got from studying the Yoga tradition of India of how the flesh itself, our bodies, can possibly share in the transformation promised by the spiritual journey. We know that most bodies, as they are, decay and go back to the ground. That should never make us despise the flesh, obviously, but we go one step further and believe in the resurrection of the dead! Fr. Bede explained it this way: that matter and consciousness in us––that is, our body and our soul––, are evolving towards divine life and consciousness, so that matter and consciousness are not annihilated but are fulfilled in some marvelous way. This is the end (the telos) of Christian life promised by scripture, because this is what we believe has already taken place in the resurrection of Jesus. Even the matter of his being was transformed so as to become a spiritual body, a vessel of divine life that was no longer limited by space and time. And by contact with this body of Christ, especially through the sacramental life of the Church, we have within us the seed of divine life. That’s why Saint Paul says in the Letter to the Romans, We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for the redemption of our bodies. “And this ‘groaning’ is part of the travail of all nature, which waits to be delivered from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. Fr. Bede calls this “the great cosmic drama.” The Church must think of it this way too because she offers us the great battle in the Book of Revelation as a reading for this feast too, the woman clothed with the sun defeating the dragon. The great cosmic drama is really this transformation of nature, of matter and the body, “so as to become the outward form of the divine Spirit, the body of the Lord.” The great enemy, the dragon is death and decay. And this transformation of our nature, our matter, is already taking place in our own bodies, too. Listen for this at the end of the first Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation. For most of us, Fr. Bede says, this process remains incomplete and, “The matter of our being never gets fully assimilated by Spirit, and at death all the matter of our being that is still unassimilated by the Spirit goes back to the earth.” But in the body of Jesus, we see that the total transformation of matter by the Spirit took place, hence the resurrection and the ascension.
And the body of the Virgin Mary is said to have been transformed in the same way! That’s what we are celebrating on this feast of Mary’s Assumption in heaven. And the Church would have us believe that this is the destiny of us and all things at the end of time, so that God will be all in all. So what we are witnessing in Mary and celebrating today is part of the great cosmic drama of all creation returning to God. And our life and our death too are part of this great cosmic drama of matter, of creation, being assumed by Spirit. So that as God was all in all in Jesus, all in all in Mary, so, we hope, God will be all in all in us and in all creation…
. . . that we may merit to be exalted by God on high,
that we may merit to be sharers in Mary’s glory,
that we may be brought to the glory of the resurrection, AMEN.